A conversation looking back through the years with the most notorious cannabis crusader.
In the 70s, millions ‘lit up’ as a right of passage while listening to Cheech & Chong vinyl or watching Up in Smoke.
Before Tommy Chong became the rock star stoner comedian, he was an Alberta boy who stormed into the Vancouver underground club scene both as a musician and venue operator. He had a DIY punk attitude wrapped around an R&B persona. That scene on the West Coast in the late 50s through the 60s was vibrant and unpredictable.
EARLY CHINATOWN VANCOUVER
Chinatown is in his blood. “My grandfather was originally hired to work on the railroad during that time. That was the only way the Chinese could migrate to Canada. There was such racism that the Chinese were charged a fee for entering Canada and the fee amounted to the cost of the railroad so not only did they build the railroad they paid for it.”
“He ended up opening a gambling joint instead of doing the labour. When he was very young, my father was a bag guy. He carried the money from the gambling joint to the house. No one would suspect a little kid carrying a brown paper bag. It looked like his lunch. Life was off Keefer and Main within the gates of Chinatown on a street called Canton Alley. The gates kept the drunk white people from attacking the Chinese residents.” Tommy’s father moved to Alberta.
Tommy Chong was born in Edmonton in 1938 and raised in Calgary, the son of Stanley Chong & Lorna Jean Gilchrist. “They got married at a time when they couldn’t walk down certain streets together without racists causing trouble. My father joined the army and fought overseas for Canada in the artillery. I grew up in Calgary outside the building zone in the Lone Pine area, in a small house with no electricity, no plumbing. Water came from a neighbour’s well and we had an outhouse, then in a wartime house at 1490 – 19 Ave. NW. And that’s where I spent my teenage years playing music.” His brother Stan, who also played music, Mom and Pop would ALL be involved in venues down the road.
POOR BOYS SUMMER VACATION
“My First guitar partner was a full-blood Sarcee native boy from Calgary. We met in the army cadets. His name was Dick Byrd. He played guitar. I was playing guitar. I had an accordion for my own personal use. I loved the accordion. We’d go to army camp in Vernon, BC and train for the summer. There were a lot of First Nations kids in the cadets. For us poor kids, that was the only money we had. And it was kind of cool because I went off as a teenager to become a warrior. It was very native. And then you’d get paid for it. We’d come home with $80 and back in 1953 that was a lot of money.”
THE CALGARY SHADES & THE LEGION
Chong remembers music in Calgary as absolutely golden. “We started playing when Elvis came out. Dick was an Elvis impersonator. He went to Western Canada High School and I had to take a bus with my guitar from North Calgary and be his backup guitar player. I ended up playing a Gibson. A junior. My only guitar.”Then came the Shades in 1957, the first real band. “We were the Shades because we were of different colours: rare, medium and well done.” To that Chong references Dick Byrd, & Tommie Melton – a black football hero, and himself. A lineup that would expand, Byrd would quit, and the ‘band’ would become ‘black’ before leaving Calgary for Vancouver.
Chong knew you if you wanted to play, you had to control the venue so he started a ‘teen club’ at the Ninth Avenue Legion. “A lot of friends when I was growing up that had been in trouble and had nowhere to live would stay at my house. We operated a kind of halfway house for people that got out of jail and had nowhere to go. It was something to do if you weren’t in school or even after school.” That was the ‘teen club’. The Shades would play on Saturdays. “The only trouble is that the dance ended at 12 & because of the liquor laws the kids would still be ready to party after the dance ended. They would kind of terrorize Calgary going to parties they were not invited to. Get into fights.” They were ousted from town by the mayor & the Chief of police. “They asked us to take a leave of absence. And leave for the Christmas holidays.”
By this time he’d been given his first joint by bass player Raymond Ma, at the Flat Five, the only after-hours club in Calgary that had live jazz music. “I used to go down every night. If I had my guitar I’d get in free. Raymond and I became friends. He went to LA, came back and handed me a joint and a Lenny Bruce Record. When I needed things they’d appear.”
CHINATOWN AND THE NEW DELHI
Fresh to Vancouver, The Shades stayed at the Astoria, played at an Italian bistro upstairs south side Hastings near Main. Because they were black, they had to eat in the kitchen and not talk to the waitresses. Band mate Sonny Carruthers married one of them. Then came a gig at the New Delhi (544 Main @ Keefer) owned by Leo. “When we went there in the daytime, we couldn’t rehearse because all the tables had plywood beds on them. They turned the tabletops into beds. The people looked like they were from India. The Chinese cook was Chan. One of the first rules of playing is that you make friends with the cook. We got one meal. A lot of days that was our only meal. We were supposed to play there for two weeks. We played there for six months.” It was a tough area. “Frat guys looking for trouble would always find it. Also, Chinatown was an attraction because of the food. You could feed an army on $30.”
The Calgary Shades became Little Daddy and the Bachelors and won a contest once in Vancouver and part of the prize was a recording. ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ on one side and the Chong written ‘Junior’s Jerk’ on the other, released in 1964.
PIMP & HO CULTURE
Chong recalls a place down Main Street near the train station called the Chili Bar. It was “really the place where the pimps and the whores and the dealers and the junkies and everybody hung out. They had the best jukebox. Clydell was from the States. We all hung out there every day and listened to the jukebox and worked at night. The hookers were like junkie hookers and they would go out and make enough money for their dope. Dope was cheap. Five bucks a pop. They’d make 20 bucks and that was enough money. That attracted the pimps and that was the whole culture and that was our crowd when we played at night: the pimps and the hookers.”
DIY: RUN YOUR OWN VENUE
A firm believer in DIY, Chong ran a total of four venues (Blues Palace, T-Cabaret, Elegant Parlour, Shanghai Junk) in Vancouver. He was always involved with his brother Stan and his parents – Mom and Pop – helped out. “That was the only way we (the band) could work. We couldn’t get hired anywhere. It started with renting the Legion Hall. We controlled it. It was just normal that we’d find an empty space and rent it out. That’s the way we got the club.“
In praise of Tommie Melton, Chong describes his band mate as the push behind the band tours. An injury had prevented Melton from a pro-football career. “We toured the interior of BC, places like Merritt and Penticton. He’d go ahead and book these church halls or community halls and then we would hit town and take a bullhorn and drive around the city announcing that we were here. We never made money until we hit Kelowna and played the Regatta for a week. And we packed that community hall every night. It was so crowded they couldn’t even fight.”
They tried to play in LA and ended up checking out Ike and Tina Turner who were playing at Gazzarri’s. They had booked Ike and Tina into the Blues Palace on Broadway and Alma, in Vancouver, which was his first club in Vancouver. Unable to score a gig in LA, San Francisco was the next stop. Big Al’s Supper Club on the strip. “One of the singers was Bobby Taylor. He became very friendly with us. He loved our band. When we went back to work in our club, Floyd Sneed our drummer quit for another band. Floyd was my brother-in-law. I was married to Maxine Sneed my first wife. Floyd would go onto play for Three Dog Night. They phoned Bobby looking for a drummer and Bobby said, ‘I can play drums,’ so Bobby became our drummer. Tommie Melton quit because everyone wanted to hear Bobby sing. Bobby took over and we became “Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.”
THE ELEGANT PARLOUR
By 1964, they had the Blues Palace on Broadway and Alma where Ike & Tina Turner first played, and now The Elegant Parlour, an after-hours joint underneath the Retinal Circus where Celebrities (1022 Davie) is today. Melton had quit since Bobby Taylor joined. They were offered the club upstairs and with it came the marquee. ”We were joking around what should we call ourselves. At the time there was a band from Mississippi called Ten Screaming Niggers. We were laughing at that thing. Bobby always was a comedian – and myself – we were pretty crazy. We said we should call ourselves 4 N**** & A C****. I said, ‘Let’s do it’. We went and put the sign up, ‘Now Appearing: 4 N***** & A C****.’ The press picked up on it. But it backfired on us.
“Instead of packing them in, the club was empty. The first night we had the sign up, this black wrester, Lottie de Vottie, came to the front row. And she’s sitting there. After we played a number she said, ‘Well I see the niggers, but which one is the chink?’ My dad who is Chinese was working the door at the time. My dad, he got offended and said, ‘We don’t put up with that kind of talk in here.’ And she stood up and grabbed my dad and body slammed him to the floor. I jumped off the stage to help my dad and she body slammed me to the floor. All the brothers on the stage were laughing their asses off. My brother Stan showed up and smoothed things over. We changed the sign to ‘4 Coloured Guys and a Chinese Lad.’”
THE SUPREMES MOTOWN HOOKUP
Around 1965-66 “The Supremes Mary (Wilson) and Florence (Ballard) – came to the club and heard us. Berry was dating Diana (Ross) at the time. They phoned Berry Gordy. He came to see us. Heard us. Loved us. When we got signed with Berry Gordy (1967) we never had a name. It was just Bobby Taylor. The contract read ‘Bobby Taylor and the Vancouver Group.’ So that’s how it ended up being Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.” They toured a lot and Chong co-wrote a Billboard #28 hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” The group released their album in 1968.
THE JACKSON 5
Contrary to myth, Jimi Hendrix did not play in Vancouver with the band. He sat in on a show in London. The Jackson 5 story is a longer one. “We were in Chicago in 1968 at the Regal Theatre and we were part of a show with Gerry Butler. The first act was Jackson 5. They won a contest in Gary Indiana and they were appearing. Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers were on the bill and Gerry Butler was headlining. We shared a dressing room with the Jackson 5. When we heard them we knew then we were looking at greatness.
“Michael was the cutest little guy you’ve ever seen in your life. He had to stand on an apple box or an upside-down Coke box to comb his hair. I remember him combing his hair. He had a twinkle in his eye. We did a week with them and it was great. We had the best times. They all looked after each other. So Bobby Taylor told them, ‘Listen why don’t you come and work with Motown. We’ll get you signed up with Motown.’ Of course Joe Jackson was happy with that. Bobby had an apartment in Detroit. They all came and lived with Bobby for a month. Bobby called up Motown. Suzanne De Passe arranged the audition. Barry heard them and he just freaked. Joe Jackson and Bobby brought me the contract to review because I was the only non-black guy that they knew. I was considered the businessman of the group. Joe Jackson said, ‘What do you think?’ It was a seven-year contract and Motown then had a little school where they’d teach the kids how to act on stage, how to dance. They gave them all routines…so that’s what they did.”
THE END OF TOMMY CHONG WITH MOTOWN
“Michael Jackson took over Bobby’s life because he ended up producing their first album. Berry Gordy said, ‘Bobby why don’t you help produce the first album?’ That was Motown. Bobby went on his own; he got Smokey [Robinson] and they wrote some songs for Bobby. As for the Vancouvers, Berry Gordy loved us. He had plans for us to get another thing. In fact, we backed up Chris Clark – another girl Berry was smitten with – then I lost my job as a bandleader. I was trying to get a green card at the same time. I had to leave the gig and go to a green card meeting. The manager Johnny Bristol told me if I left the gig I’d be fired. And so I had to do the meeting. They fired me. When Berry Gordy heard about it he said ‘well of course Tommy you’re not fired’. I told Berry at the time I didn’t see any future cause when I got fired we were right in the middle of a gig. When I went back to the gig, Johnny Bristol said, ‘I told you if you left you were fired’. The band could have saved me. All they had to say is, ‘Well, if he’s not playing we’re not playing.’ I had to stand there and watch every one of them turn their back on me. I put these guys together. I owned the club that they played in. I paid their wages for years and made sure they got paid. It was a blessing in disguise. The universe was saying ‘there are better things for you.’ So that was when I got out of music.”
THE SHANGHAI JUNK
In 1969, Chong set up at The Shanghai Junk on the northeast corner of Pender and Main, owned by Jimmy Yuen, a ‘colourful guy’. Tommy knew his daughter Jeannie and son Fred who actually built the club. “My brother Stan was running it before I got there. I came along and did the lights. We turned the strip club into an improvisational comedy club.“ Instead of firing the strippers he put them into his skits.
“Shanghai Junk was originally Kublai Kahn. So we had the first topless club in there. My job was to improve the show. I was good at writing scenarios. So I wrote the first skit for the strippers. I wanted to see the backstage. I wrote a skit called ‘The Pyjama Party’ where they’d just finish the show and they’d have a little pyjama party. So they’d show up onstage fully dressed and then change into their pyjamas while they are onstage. Then the singer Taps Harris and Jeannie came onstage to entertain. All of a sudden the band would play. The band was behind the curtain. It was like a musical. Taps does his little tap dancing. The show went over, the people loved it. In fact when Taps did his tap dancing he almost got a standing ovation. Because it was so much work, Taps quit that night. It was too much work.
“We called it City Works. After Taps quit, I went to the doorman Dave who was a very funny guy, and I said I need an MC and he said, ‘I will do it if you will do it.’ We starting doing skits I’d learned while watching Second City while on tour with the band. We started doing those skits with the girls. We looked at Playboy magazines to get jokes. Once the girls got naked and talking it was incredible. We had a vaudeville actor straight guy named Rick who worked in theatre and had jokes he would do. He would play the straight guy and Dave and I would play hippies. So we had hippies and cops and the girls. It was a show. We got a lot of press. Rick’s wife made him quit because he ended up on the front page of a major paper with two strippers – one on either side.”
Chong needed talent. Along came Cheech Marin who was working delivering carpets and dodging the Vietnam draft. “Cheech was also writing for an underground magazine called POPPIN. He was always a reviewer, more of a scam so he could get into concerts for free and get free records.“ Chong offered Cheech $5 more per week than his day job. The duo did improv with the troupe at the Shanghai Junk & tried to make it. In hindsight Chong says, “The biggest problem I had was that I was terrible with promoting the show. I neglected it totally. I was just involved in the show. Had I had someone hired to do the proper publicity and make sure that everybody knew what was going down the show would have lasted. We ended up changing the crowd from a hard-drinking, hard-spending biker crowd to a wine-sipping, no-spending dinner crowd. We would pack the place but never make any money. We eliminated the band, we weren’t doing very well, we had to go down…” Cheech & Chong went to LA, got discovered by Lou Adler and the rest is history.
Fast-forward more than 30 years and in the fever of the post-9/11 War on Terror, the feds declared a War on Drugs. The US Department of Justice ran a $12M sting operation called Operation Pipe Dreams with a bull’s eye on the celebrity Chong. He copped a plea to prevent his wife Shelby and son Paris from being prosecuted for ‘selling bongs’. They sentenced him on September 11, 2003. “I got busted for bongs. It was a bogus political stunt by the Bush administration. They were looking for some kind of diversion so people would take their minds off the Iraqi war. It was a pre-emptive strike on the hippies so we couldn’t protest the war and bring attention to the fact of how illegal and how much bullshit it was. So they put me away for nine months.“ Josh Gilbert’s documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong fleshes out the whole thing in detail.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
In jail, Chong met Jordan Belfort. “While I was there about three months into my sentence I ended up meeting Jordan Belfort. He ended up in my cubicle. I was writing my book.” Belfort stated in the Hollywood Reporter that Chong inspired him to write The Wolf of Wall Street. Chong’s response: “He was on a healing path when I met him. Coming off of Quaalude addiction. And then he met me. He’s a very brilliant guy. He’s one of the best standup comedians I’ve ever met that never got onstage. He can tell a story better than Will Rogers. All I did was remind him who he was. ‘You can make more money being yourself than having to steal other people’s money.’ I helped him on that line. He saw how devoted I was to the writing craft and he liked that. I steered him in that direction.”
TOMMY CHONG TODAY
A pro-pot activist, Chong is known for speaking out publicly: “We are coming into the age of enlightenment. And I think thanks to the computer you can’t lie anymore without people getting on their phones or going to their computers and checking facts. That’s one of the reasons pot is legal now. Everybody has the ability to check out facts themselves.”
He has been using hemp oil to treat his cancer. “It helped me. I’ve got a funny theory. When you do pot, the cancer cells get so stoned, they forget why they’re there and they just disappear.” As for BC bud, his answer comes as no surprise, “THE BEST…EVER.”
Chong lives in LA with his wife Shelby. Cheech & Chong just released the beta version of a new video game called Cheech and Chong Bud Farm.
**This revised story was originally published in BeatRoute in April 2014. Band promo photos supplied by Rob Firth at Neptoon Records