By Keith Sharp
Photos: Charles Hope
July 1st Canada Day, Streetheart is performing at Sherwood Park, Alberta in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday yet something is terribly wrong with lead vocalist Kenny Shields
“Kenny seemed to be confused, he was forgetting lyrics and slurring his speech, it was obvious he was in distress,” explained band lead guitarist Jeff Neill. “People were asking me, `Is Kenny drunk’? and I am saying, No, he hasn’t had a drink in 25 years.”
What Shields was suffering from was an attack of hypoxia, a condition where not enough blood and oxygen is reaching the brain. Sensing a serious problem, band members Neill, keyboardist Daryl Gutheil, bassist Jake Jacobs and drummer Tim Sutton made the decision to conclude their tour and quickly dispatch Shields on to a plane back to Winnipeg where he was immediately admitted to St Boniface Hospital.
“The medical staff quickly noticed Kenny’s condition and performed immediate surgery, they were amazing,” noted Neill. “They told me that if he had been at a smaller location and had we not got him into hospital as quickly as we did, they would have lost him right there.”
As it was, Neill posted on the band’s face book July 5th that Shield’s prognosis was not good and on Saturday July 21st at 3 a.m. Shields, surrounded by his wife Elena, daughter Julia and sister Sharlene, peacefully passed away. He was 69 years old.
“Kenny’s heart wasn’t strong enough to carry him through,” Neill noted. “His heart had only 20% pumping function on it’s left side so the right side had to over compensate. This forced fluid into his lungs and created all sorts of problems. In the end, his heart just gave out.”
Even though Shields probably knew his time was up, Neill found him to be in good spirits when he visited the lead vocalist on the Friday before his death. “We had a wonderful conversation. He said `So how are we doing out there’ and I said; `We’re doing fine Kenny, we’re doing fine. I had a sense that he was at peace with himself. He was in wonderful spirit. He seemed to sense he was going on some wonderful journey and he was not afraid. He showed me a lot of courage.”
It was well known that Shields had been suffering from a heart condition for quite some time, and had been forced to cancel dates several times over the past few years. “Going into 2017, Kenny said he wanted to do one more good year, celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary with one more national tour that would allow the band to thank as many fans as possible and go out with some style and on his own terms.”
Launching the Kenny Shields & Streetheart farewell tour February 11th at Edmonton’s Century Casino, the band had played 10 dates before their fateful Sherwood Park concert. “Kenny had some difficult times during the gigs, forgetting lyrics but we were all helping him out,” admitted Neill. “The important thing about saying it is your final tour is that the audience is forgiving and understanding. We told him, ‘So what if you forget some of the lyrics, just point your mic at the crowd. They know the songs; they’ll help you out.”
Shields would have been upset that he couldn’t complete this final tour but Neill feels the legacy Streetheart has left will continue to endure. “When we originally broke up in 1984 we had no idea that we would be here in 2017 still touring,” Neill mused. “There was never a game plan, we just made things up as we went along.”
Neill, a native of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, had lobbied to join Streetheart and earned an audition in 1981 after previous guitarist John Hannah was forced to leave due to personal health reasons. Based on the success of their first four albums with Warner Music, the Winnipeg-based band (which originally featured Loverboy guitarist Paul Dean and drummer Matt Frenette (later replaced by Bob Ego), bassist Kenny (Spider Sinnaeve) and keyboardist Daryl Gutheil) earned their first national headline tour early in 1981.
Fueled by some great original tracks like “Action” “Hollywood” and “Look At Me” and a trio of brilliant cover tracks in “Here Comes The Night”, “Tin Soldier” and a killer cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb”, (which had earned the band a Juno Award that year as “Most Promising Band”), Streetheart seemed set to make a national impression. Unfortunately for them, the band selected as the opening act on that tour was a reformed AC/DC, debuting new vocalist Brian Johnson and a new album, `Back In Black’.
To say the package was a mismatch would be an understatement. By the time, the tour hit Calgary, Streetheart was opening for AC/DC and although this match-up earned Streetheart a sellout gig at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, the band was embittered enough with Warner to pull the plug and switch to Capitol/EMI.
“I joined them right after the AC/DC tour, we recorded the `Streetheart’ album in 1982, I wrote or co-wrote all the songs and it turned out to be their best selling record to date,” Neill revealed.
Yet despite the album containing such radio hits as “What Kind Of Love Is This”, “Miss Plaza Suite”, “Snow White”, “Look In Your Eyes” and “One More Time”, Streetheart still couldn’t command any serious US attention. “You have to blame management,” fumed Neill. “It takes skill, contacts and getting the right people on board to do that. The management team we had didn’t have the ability to make that transition.”
Streetheart laboured on through one more release, `Dancing With Danger’ (1983) before pulling the plug having chalked up four platinum and six gold records. Neill being scooped up by Australia’s Jimmy Barnes to launch a highly successful 11-year career while Shields struggled on with various musicians in his own solo project.
“In 1996, I got together with Kenny, Daryl, Matt and Paul to do a one-off at Rockin The Fields of Minnedosa and I couldn’t help but notice how good Kenny sounded and how polished the band was,” Neill noted. “Then in 2003 I said to Kenny, lets get the band going again but let’s rebrand it.”
From that point the band had been touring consistently, predominantly in Western Canada, never recording another studio record but Shields did release a solo album, titled `Letting Go’ in 2013 which comprised of 10 covers of classic rock tracks like The Stones’ “Angie”, The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and Los Bravos track “Black Is Black”,
In summarizing Streetheart, Neill acknowledges that classic rock in general is the soundtrack of people’s lives.” It’s us, it’s Loverboy, it’s Trooper, it’s Prism, it’s The Box. The reason these bands are so popular is that the fans love us for what we did 30 years ago, we are the caretakers of people’s memories.”
Unfortunately, there’s no unreleased tapes of Streetheart material, “We pretty well used up all our outtakes with `Buried Treasures’ and with tape costing $250 a reel at the time, we tended to record over rejected material.”
Streetheart has released a two-record vinyl set titled `Streetheart 40’ to mark their anniversary, there are a number of “Greatest Hits” compilations available and there is ‘One Night One Take’, a 1993 live recording of the reunited original band.
At the time of publishing this story, funeral arrangements for Shields had not been confirmed but Neill said it would be a private, family-only event to be staged at his hometown of Nokomis Saskatchewan.
Kenny’s fans can pay tribute at either the Winnipeg Classic Rock Fest August 29th which will feature a special dedication to Shields or an event that Neill himself is planning which will feature an all-star cast of Kenny’s friends and associates.