A large, enthusiastic and appreciative crowd practically filled the upper chamber of Showplace Performance Center on Thursday, February 8th for the triumphant return of Ada Lee – both to her former home base, and to the stage. All who were there for the matinee performance were universal in their assessment that the two-hour concert – featuring the Sean Hully Jazz Group as well as Rob Phillips and Ada’s son George accompanying his mother – equated to a “special moment.”
The fact that the concert happened during Black History Month was all the more compelling for an artist who began her career in the United States against a backdrop of racism and discrimination.
The idea about inviting Ada Lee to return for a special concert was floated in early fall. Once the wheels were put into motion, things snowballed – and with good reason.
Ada Lee was already an established jazz vocalist with a remarkably agile voice in the U.S. by 1960. She had shared stages with the likes of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. Oscar Peterson was “a brother.” In 1961, the ATCO imprint of the Atlantic Records juggernaut released an album of jazz delights – including the song ‘Moanin’ that featured Ada doing a scat vocalization on what became the ‘A’ side of what turned out to be a popular 45 RPM release. Atlantic took notice, and the result was ‘Ada Lee Comes On,’ her debut LP that was well-received by the jazz community. The ‘bible’ of music in North America at the time, Billboard, issued this enthusiastic review: “Ada Lee is a young thrush with a warm and interesting voice, making her debut disking with this release. She comes off mighty well too, due to a good selection of tunes, bright vocal work and attractive arrangements by conductor Dick Hyman. Good wax.”
But Ada didn’t stick around – choosing instead to head north to Canada and specifically, to Peterborough – to raise a family and ingrain herself into the arts, and the life of the ‘Liftlock City’ for the next 50 years. Had she continued her original career trajectory at the time, her name may have equated to that of another artist of a competing genre who was getting noticed as well: Ronnie Hawkins. It was said at the time that when a young Elvis burst onto the scene in the late 1950s, there existed this other young man, rougher around the edges but just as dynamic, talented and destined for fame as Elvis was. When Elvis famously put his burgeoning career on hold for his time in the service (and in so doing refusing to even perform save for small gatherings for field hospital nurses to thank them for their compassion and invaluable service in saving lives) there are those who were saying at the time that Ronnie Hawkins could have swept in and claimed Elvis’ rock ‘n roll mantle for himself. But instead, The Hawk headed north to ‘The Promised Land’ – first to a farm house north of Toronto, and later to ‘Mortgage Manor’ on Buckhorn Lake, and about a half-hour’s drive from where Ada Lee wound up.
For five decades she was among us, founding the ‘Voices for Life Gospel Choir,’ and spearheading as well as supporting countless initiatives as she raised her family in this idyllic area we, as well, call home: this delightful, irascible and dare we say, even cheeky lady who sang in our choirs, at our weddings, and quite simply just walked among us as a favourite daughter, sister, and neighbour.
Ada contributed to a compelling piece of music to mark the World’s Fair that was Expo ’67, the year of our Centennial. She was recognized by the Governor General of Canada. And yet to most of us, she was just our friend, Ada.
And then she was gone, headed west in her ’80s to be closer to her daughter. But Ada returned a few years ago, during Black History Month, for a visit and to accept the Key to the City.
And this past week she was finally home again, for a concert appropriately dubbed ‘Home Again.’ And she said it was good to be home, in between songs and performance that defied her 96 years. Ever sharp, Ada also delighted her appreciative audience with stories of the road, and of her career – like the time when she performed in front of the late Pierre Trudeau, early in his tenure as a bachelor Prime Minister and known at the time as somewhat of a ‘kissing bandit.’ And from the stage, Ada peers out in Trudeau’s direction: “I said, ‘if it’s not going to upset Parliament, you can put it right there,'” she recalled, pointing to her out-turned cheek. “And he said, ‘Parliament’s already shook!’”
Ada Lee was a founding inductee (Class of 1998) into the Peterborough and District Pathway of Fame, and her return to the City served as an opportunity for a fundraiser benefitting the not-for-profit Pathway. How effective was it, and how did Peterborough’s arts faithful respond? Let’s just say this: the concert was originally envisioned as a smaller, more intimate showcase in the lower studio of Showplace – a much smaller space. Once word got out the event was happening, ticket sales quickly dictated the move to the larger space upstairs onto the main stage. And that space was, for all intents and purposes, filled for Ada’s homecoming.
Many people were involved in making this event happen – but special thanks goes to inductee (Class of 2021) and friend of the Pathway David Goyette, for serving as event sponsor and putting alot of the wheels into motion that saw Ada’s homecoming become a reality.
As of this writing, Ada is back in B.C. savouring the memory of her visit, as do we.
Come on back anytime, dear Ada. To your one-time forever home. We’ll keep a light on for ya.