Trooper’s Lead Singer Ra McGuire and Bassist Doni Underhill – Photo by Hope Photography
By Keith Sharp
The announcement on Trooper’s November 8th Facebook post that original band members; vocalist Ra McGuire and lead guitarist Brian Smith have chosen to retire from the band, may have caught many fans by surprise, but the reality is that the ongoing COVID19 pandemic had put them in retirement mode for the past 18 months and the creative pair obviously thought it was time to make their retirement permanent.
Stepping in to fill the void in what is essentially Trooper Mark 2 is top Vancouver session singer David Steele replacing McGuire and equally established lead guitarist Steve Crane who has linked up with remaining members; keyboardist Paul Gogo, bassist Scott Brown and drummer Clayton Hill, their aim is to keep Trooper’s legacy alive while possibly adding fresh material to the band’s impressive catalogue.
When reached by e-mail, McGuire deferred from executing a formal interview, saying there were too many media contacts he would need to appease so he and Smitty chose to make a formal Facebook statement saying the pair were enjoying their enforced retirement and decided after 46 years of constant touring, it was time to pass on their mantle to younger personnel who are committed to keeping the Trooper name active.
As Music Express Magazine celebrates its 45th year since publishing that debut issue in October 1976, it’s hardly surprising that Trooper has played an integral role in our legacy. As this writer, commenced executing interviews for that debut issue of Alberta Music Express (as we were then titled), Polygram/Mercury Record’s regional manager, Ken Graydon, was actively involved in helping me access interviews.
Graydon set me up with Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Randy Bachman who was touring the band’s Four-Wheel Drive album with a concert set for the Calgary Corral but he also mentioned I might be interested in chatting with opening act, Vancouver’s Trooper who had been signed to Bachman’s Legacy label and were touring in support of their second album (both produced by Bachman) `Two For The Show’.
I met McGuire and Smith by the outdoor swimming pool at their Calgary hotel and both proved to be personable individuals. Formed in 1975 after changing their name from Applejack they, along with bassist Harry Kalensky (later to be replaced by Donny Underhill) and drummer Tommy Stewart had enjoyed some initial radio exposure to “General Hand Grenade” and “Baby Woncha Please Come Home“ off their self-titled debut release, and with the inclusion of keyboardist Frank Ludwig was starting to get major traction in Western Canada with their second album, “Two For The Show” which spawned hits for the title track and “Santa Maria”.
I next met up with Trooper on Saturday, June 26th, 1977 when they were there for an outdoor show at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium opening for Alice Cooper with Atlanta Rhythm Section also on the bill. Produced by Chris Dobbins’ Springfield Productions company, this high-profile concert pulled a healthy crowd of about 8,000, turbo-fueled Cooper fans and the show started under perfect sunny conditions with Trooper turning in a solid high-energy set.
But anyone who knows about the geographic location of McMahon Stadium knows it is located in a ravine, surrounded by hills and is prone to experiencing freakish weather conditions. The skies began to turn an ominous black during Atlanta Rhythm Section’s set, which appeared to pass over but then the wind and driving rain kicked in with McMahon’s layout proving to be a natural wind funnel.
I still recall standing backstage and watching the ARS’s drummer watching helplessly as his drum set blew off stage. The band abandoned their set and Cooper himself refused to go on stage. With the masses threatening to become unruly, the driving rain eventually subsided and the promoters, manager Shep Gordon and local police authorities finally cajoled Cooper to perform an abbreviated set, sans any of his special effects to avoid what seemed to be a pending riot.
With the release of their third (`Knock Em Dead Kid’ in 1977) and fourth album (`Thick As Thieves in 1978), Trooper had gained serious traction at national radio and at retail. Following the platinum success of `Two For The Show,’ both albums reached the double-platinum mark, spawning in their wake, hit singles like “We’re Here For A Good Time (Not A Long Time)”, “Oh Pretty Lady,“ “Raise A Little Hell” plus two Frank Ludwig songs; “Round Round” and “The Moment That It Takes” dominating Canadian airwaves.
Such was their impressive domestic sales record, MCA Records (as it was known then), decided to launch a major U.S push by packaging all their hits into one release, titled “Hot Shots”. That record went quadruple platinum in Canada (400,000 sales plus), the first domestic release ever to reach that plateau. However, a dispute over which single to launch the U.S release, resulted in the album not having the desired effect stateside.
According to Ludwig, his “Round Round” was initially ticketed as the first U.S single but he wasn’t the band’s lead vocalist so “Boys In The Bright White Sports Car” was chosen instead and only proved to be a minor U.S hit. They did win their first Juno Award as Top Canadian Group in 1980 but receiving two nominations for Top Album meant they split the vote and Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits album won (for the second straight year!)
A developing conflict between Ludwig and the song-writing team of McGuire and Smith over publishing rights eventually led to Ludwig leaving the band to become the lead vocalist for Randy Bachman’s short-lived Ironhorse project. His last performance was at the Rock Cirkus Concert staged at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium Sunday, August 26th, 1977 in front of 50,000 fans.
Promoted by the Montreal duo of Doug Pringle and Marty Melhuish to help launch Edmonton’s new FM rock station K-97, the lineup featured headliners; Heart, Peter Frampton (who was riding the charts with his Frampton Comes Alive release) and Eddie Money plus a Canadian contingent which included Trooper, Streetheart and the Dixon House Band.
Trooper hit the stage after Frampton and before Heart and turned in an unforgettable high-performance set featuring their hits but also an amazing cover of Eddie Cochrane’s “Summer Time Blues” classic. An emotional point was reached when Ludwig sang his “Round Round” hit for the last time with the band.
MCA Records’ president, Scott Richards presented Trooper with their quad platinum award on stage (since gone 5xplatinum) and the band celebrated backstage after the gig. At this time Ludwig asked my Music Express partner, Conny Kunz if she thought he had made the right decision in leaving Trooper for Bachman’s Ironhorse band. “No, you are a fucking idiot!” she snapped back, not the sort of response he was expecting.
“We only got the gig after The Runaways cancelled but going on after Frampton, it was like he was opening for us,” cracked McGuire recalling the band’s amazing performance. “Our short high-energy set was a rock n roll dream and we were presented with our quadruple-platinum album on stage. It was a great way to end our two and a half years working with Frank.”
Oddly enough, Trooper was never considered a major act in Eastern Canada despite their sales and radio success. I believe their only Maple Leaf Garden appearance was on March 19th, 1979 and by the time Music Express moved to Toronto in February 1980, I only saw them play Ontario Place once plus two nights at Rock N Roll Heaven on September 3 and 4th 1988.
As my wife Karen and I lived within staggering distance of Rock And Roll Heaven (right behind the club on Asquith Avenue), we attended their first concert and went back to Ra and Brian’s hotel room at the Park Plaza for drinks after the gig. Before leaving their suite at some crazy time ( like 5 a.m.), my wife invited them for dinner later that day, not for one minute thinking they would accept. Around noon we are still in bed, seriously hungover when the phone rings. “Hi, this is Ra and Brian, is that invitation to dinner still on?” A mad scramble ensues to tidy up our apartment and for Karen to cook dinner, but all went well and we had a pleasant early evening chatting about home life before they had to depart for their soundcheck for the second show.
Unfortunately, after achieving double platinum sales for their 1980 `Flying Colours’ album, Bachman ended his relationship with the band and their record sales tailed off; their last studio album `Ten’ was released in 1991. Still, Trooper continually toured and McGuire found time to write a book “Here For A Good Time – On The Road With Trooper – Canada’s Legendary Rock Group” (Insomniac Press 2006).
And it was a date at the CNE on August 28th 2012 when I met up with Trooper and they convinced me to re-launch Music Express as a digital platform. I last saw them play at the Rockin’ The Rock concert on Manitoulin Island in August 2019 when they headlined a two-day festival that also featured The Box, Platinum Blonde, Lee Aaron and, Toronto. They were still amazing; the crowd knew every song on their setlist and they even included a tribute to the late Kelly Jay by singing Crowbar’s “Oh What A Feeling”.
Sadly, for all their success and longevity, Trooper has yet to be inducted into Canada’s Music Hall Of Fame. They were the first Canadian band to reach that quad platinum sales figure with `Hot Shots’, (now quad platinum), This Hour Has 22 Minutes tv celebrity Rick Mercer has hailed “Raise A Little Hell” as Canada’s unofficial national anthem, sales-wise they have sold two platinum, two double platinum, one 5x platinum and one gold album, they have won seven SOCAN songwriting awards and in 2012 was honoured by SOCAN with lifetime achievement awards. Even their own record company, Universal lauds them as one of Canada’s top five selling bands.
Yet, at this time of writing, CARAS has chosen NOT to include Trooper in their annual Hall Of Fame inductions. Most of their compatriots from the ’70s are in there. The Guess Who, BTO, Loverboy, Rush, Bryan Adams, Triumph even Chilliwack and April Wine but no Trooper! Hopefully, CARAS will rectify this glaring oversight shortly as Trooper Mark 2 (hopefully) continues the band’s historic legacy.