Mention the name Bargain At Half The Price to anyone who lived in Surrey during the 1970s and early ’80s and it’s likely to bring back a flood of memories.
Members of the grass-roots Surrey-based folk choral and instrumental group have long since gone on to other things – most famously Charlotte Diamond, who has become a household name and a 1986 Juno award-winner, thanks to her albums and concerts for children.
But at one time, Bargain At Half The Price was Surrey’s answer to Pete Seeger, The Weavers; Peter, Paul and Mary and the New Christy Minstrels – seemingly present at most left-oriented events, peace protests and community fundraisers in the area and even further afield; even, in smaller incarnations, managing trips to Cuba (in 1978) and the Festival of Political Song in Berlin in 1980.
Until recently the best evidence of the energy, flair and talent of the ensemble reposed in a couple of vinyl records and some 17 tapes of various live concerts recorded between 1973 and 1981, most in the collection of the group’s founder and leader, well-known South Surrey singer/guitarist Steve Gidora (The Wheat In The Barley, Jokers and Prophets).
But now, thanks to Gidora and percussionist and recording producer Tony Chamberlist (Tonehenge), a selection of the best of the group’s performances (including many never-before-released live tracks) is available on a two-disc CD, The Almost Complete Bargain Archives, released late last year.
“It was a tricky balancing act to choose the best performances along with the best live recordings, technically speaking, and at the same time be inclusive of the various configurations of personnel over the years,” Gidora said, in notes accompanying the discs.
“Some of the best performances were not recorded or preserved properly.”
What made it onto the double album, however, clearly illustrates the versatility of the ensemble, in both group and solo singing and instrumental numbers. Aside from songs by the likes of Buffy Sainte Marie, Gordon Lightfoot and Pete Seeger, the playlist also included medleys highlighting mandolin, accordion and traditional folk melodies of both North America and Europe.
Among some 302 performances Gidora logged for the group were shows at Surrey Arts Centre in 1974, a B.C. Federation of Labour-sponsored rally in downtown Vancouver, the Stanley Park Be-In in 1975, a cross-Canada tour in 1976, and the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse in 1978.
They also recorded a vinyl album, A New Wind Blowin’, named for a number composed by singer and charter member Linda Chobotuk, and a 45, plus radio jingles for Youth Employment Services.
Even after the group had effectively dwindled from its peak level of some 20 members to a core group of around 10, they managed to pull together full reunion concerts for End The Arms Race (Surrey Arts Centre, 1983) and the World Youth Festival (hosted by Vancouver’s Peretz School in 1985).
“It all started in September of 1973,” Gidora told Peace Arch News.
“The late piano player Bob Wishinski – who played for Charlotte Diamond for many years – and I had been at high school together and had the same background in the Ukrainian cultural association, the AUUC.
“He and I got the idea of starting the Surrey Performing Artists Creative Enterprises or SPACE – we were looking to pull people together to do music stuff and to provide rehearsal space for them,” he said.
“I had in mind that I wanted a performing group, but Bob was more into doing original (stage) musicals. Coming from the tradition of Pete Seeger and The Weavers, I wanted to do something a little more upbeat and entertaining than the New Christy Minstrels, a little more instrumentation, like piano, electric piano and bass guitar.”
A member of a clan with a strong background of community music-making, it was natural for Gidora to involve a number of family members; but new musicians soon came into the fold, he said – not just from Surrey but also Vancouver, New Westminster and Burnaby.
After playing a number of shows for community groups and charities like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Bargain At Half The Price staged its first big concert on June 8, 1974 at Surrey Arts Centre.
“At the first concert we had around 30 singers and two different piano players,” Gidora recalled adding that it was soon recognized that Bargain At Half The Price was in tune with the times, which ultimately led to a national tour of universities.
“During the 1970s, faculty associations and university student councils were very political and their networks recognized our music that was socially aware and supported progressive politics of the day,” he said.
“Various activists took initiatives to promote our message by raising our profile.”
Only naturally for a group of the size, musicians came and went, while some long-time associates, like Tom Hawken, Medderick and Roge Belanger were present at some concerts – and show up on the double-album as guest artists.
By the time A New Wind Blowin’ was recorded, the main singers were Chobotuk, Kim Zander, Anne Walls, Jamie Gidora, Bob Myers, Jan Hakesley (later Iggulden), David Coulson, Mark Reed, Bruce Holliger, Sheila Sangster, Sue Iggulden and Dena Maissonneuve.
Key instrumentalists for much of the group’s history, aside from Gidora (director, singer and guitar), included Wayne Iggulden (accordion, organ and mandolin), Don Dirksen (banjo and guitar), Pat Gidora (bass guitar), Tim Coulson (mouth harp), Julie Atchison (flute) and Wayne Diggins (clarinet and saxophone).
Looking back now, and re-listening to the recordings, Gidora said he is impressed most with the level of talent of the singers and instrumentalists who passed through the group.
“I didn’t realize at the time just how good some of the people were. Like the bass player, my cousin Pat, who was only about 16 or 17 when he joined the group. When you hear the tune Pastures of Plenty, he’s the one who gets it going and keeps it going all the way through,” he said.
Gidora promises that, sometime this year, all of the audio tapes, along with all kinds of memorabilia, will be posted to the Bargain At Half The Price website, www.bahtp.tonehenge.net
And while the album has already paid for itself through orders from former members and fans, he’s still keen to connect with others, he said.
Any former members of the group, or associates, family or fans can text or call Gidora at 604-723-3052.
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter