With their catchy, easygoing hooks and bright, melodic style — distinguished by the soaring falsetto and tasteful guitar playing of lead singer and principal songwriter Bill Henderson — the Vancouver rock band Chilliwack produced some of the most enduring Canadian songs of the 1970s and early 1980s, including “Lonesome Mary,” “Fly at Night,” and “My Girl (Gone Gone Gone).” In 18 years (1970–88), Chilliwack released11 albums, four of which were certified platinum in Canada, and 19 Canadian singles. The band moved in an increasingly commercial direction through varying styles — from psychedelic, progressive and country rock to adult contemporary and pop rock — and suffered multiple changes in labels and band members before achieving success in the United States.
Early Incarnations: The Classics and The Collectors
Chilliwack began as the C-FUN Classics (1961–66), the house band for Vancouver’s CFUN radio, and changed their name to The Classics when they became the house band on the CBC Television musical/variety program “Let’s Go” (1964–68). Henderson, who had worked as a musician since high school, joined the band in 1966 when they reconstituted themselves as the psychedelic rock band The Collectors (1966–69).
Comprised of Howie Vickers (lead vocals), Henderson (guitar, vocals), Claire Lawrence (saxophone, keyboards), Glenn Miller (bass guitar), and Ross Turney (drums), the Collectors were the first high-profile rock band out of Vancouver, with a string of minor hits in the late 1960s. The band’s first single, “Looking at a Baby” (1967), reached No. 23 on the Canadian singles chart, their self-titled 1968 debut album produced the folky, psychedelic single “Lydia Purple,” and their soundtrack-album for George Ryga's play Grass and Wild Strawberries (1969) yielded “Early Morning.” They also composed and performed the music for the NFB feature Don't Let the Angels Fall (1969),and for the NFB short film The Land (1969), which was presented at the Canadian pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.
When Vickers—who had hosted “Let’s Go” in 1967—left the band in 1969 to work as a broadcaster at Vancouver’s Studio 3, Henderson took over as lead singer. The group renamed itself Chilliwack, after the town in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, because they liked the sound of the word and the way one of its Aboriginal meanings, “valley of many streams,” reflected their musical diversity.
Henderson (lead guitar, vocals), Turney (drums), Miller (bass guitar), and, as of 1973, guitarist Howard Froese, were principal members of the early version of the band, active until 1978. Their first two albums were characterized by the extended, experimental improvisation typical of psychedelic and progressive rock. The band’s big break came in 1973 when “Lonesome Mary”—a single from their second record—broke the top ten in Canada and reached No. 75 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Their fourth album Riding High (1974), which was co-produced by Terry Jacks and released on his label, Goldfish Records, received regular radio rotation with “Come On Over,” “There’s Something I Like About That,” and the top-ten single “Crazy Talk,” which cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.
Dreams, Dreams, Dreams (1977), Chilliwack’s first platinum album, solidified their smooth, dreamy sound and marked the beginning of their most successful period of North American popularity with the hits “Baby Blue,” “California Girl,” and “Fly at Night.” Lights from the Valley (1978), with additional guitarist Brian “Too Loud” MacLeod, went platinum on the strength of their cover (the only non-original song of their career) of Iain Sutherland’s “Arms of Mary,” which reached No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a top 40 hit in Canada.
Miller (bass), Turney (drums), and Froese (guitar) left the band in 1979, replaced by guitarist John Roles, drummer Rick Taylor, and former Prism bassist Ab Bryant. The album that followed, Breakdown in Paradise (1979), produced the minor hit “Communication Breakdown,” but the bankruptcy of their label Mushroom Records left the record’s promotion in limbo. Taylor and Roles departed and McLeod and Bryant started the Headpins as a side project. Henderson and McLeod continued collaborating, and in 1981 the band—now a trio of Henderson, McLeod, and Bryant—achieved major international success with the platinum-selling Wanna Be a Star (1981) and the hit singles “I Believe” and “My Girl (Gone Gone Gone).” The latter reached No. 1 in Canada and No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their following album Opus X (1982) went platinum. The single “Whatcha Gonna Do (When I’m Gone)” was a top 10 hit in Canada, top 40 in the US, and earned Henderson and MacLeod a Juno Award for Producer of the Year.
After touring in support of Opus X, McLeod and Bryant left the band in 1983 to pursue the Headpins full-time. Henderson recorded the LP Look In Look Out (1984) with studio musicians, then toured from 1984–88 with still other players, including original member Lawrence. A greatest hits compilation, Segue (1983), attained gold status.
MacLeod (guitar, keyboard, drums) and Bryant (bass) toured and recorded with the Headpins until disbanding in 1986. Henderson and MacLeod continued to collaborate, co-producing records by the Irish Rovers, Junior Gone Wild, and The Nylons. MacLeod also worked as a producer for several punk and heavy metal bands, including D.O.A., and wrote songs with Bryan Adams, Loverboy, and Chicago. He died from cancer in 1992.
Henderson produced records by Long John Baldry, the Good Brothers, and Toronto. In 1989 he began touring in the contemporary folk trio UHF, completed by Roy Forbes and Shari Ulrich, and in 1990 he won a Genie Award for Best Original Song for “When I Sing,” from the feature film Bye Bye Blues. He was the musical director for the Canadian edition of “Sesame Street” from 1989 to 1995, and also served as director of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences(CARAS), president of the Songwriters Association of Canada(SAC), and president of SOCAN. He reformed Chilliwack in 1998 to tour the summer concert circuit, where the band remains a popular draw.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Producer of the Year (Bill Henderson, Brian McLeod), "Watcha Gonna Do" / "Secret Information," Juno Awards (1983)
Special Achievement Award (Bill Henderson), SOCAN (2014)