Gene MacLellan, Canadian songwriter extraordinaire, wrote a lot of songs, but ironically he is known for only a few of them: “Snowbird” (which he says he wrote in 20 minutes) was made famous by Anne Murray and also covered by many others *, including Elvis Presley.
Anther important song, and perhaps the most widely known is “Put Your Hand in the Hand“, which was covered by more than 100 artists.
In 2003, Gene was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
In spite of all these successes, Gene lived with chronic pain resulting from injuries sustained in a serious auto accident.
“He was a really talented man who only cared about songs. He didn’t care about the music business, and that makes the industry people frustrated.” –Ron Hynes
February 2, 1938 – January 19, 1995
Gene MacLellan singing ‘Put Your Hand In The Hand‘. He had a giving spirit and performed this at Dorchester Prison in New Brunswick, Canada not too long before his untimely death.
“Thorn In My Shoe”
From the eponymous Nashville 1971 LP. Photos taken in western Canada and an oldie from TAKRL (The Amazing Kornyfone Record Label “TAKRL” was one of the first bootlegging record labels in America. Kornyfone was based in Southern California in the 1970s. Releases were from 1973-78.
Lynn Jones – Same Old Song / 1971 /
Natural Born Friend / 1977 /
From the limited Canadian release (out of print) 1977 “If It’s Alright With You” first song on side two (should have been side one). Recorded at Captain Audio and Toronto Sound, with Don Geppert (eng.), Bob Mann (guitars) Prakash John (bass) Pentti Glen (dr) John Capek, Richard Armin, Bob Lucier, Eugene Amaro. Background vox : Tammy Ambrose, Steve Kennedy, Ken Marco, Ed Wideman.
ECMA 1996 Posthumous Tribute to Gene MacLellan
Marty Reno, Tara MacLean and Lennie Gallant
1970 / “The Call” / CAN Country #15, CAN #91 / Album: Gene MacLellan
1970 / Gene MacLellan / “Thorn In My Shoe” / CAN Country#20 /Album: Gene MacLellan
1971 / “Isle of Saint Jean” / CAN AC #8, CAN #84 /Album: Gene MacLellan
1971 / “Pages Of Time” / CAN Country#26 /Album: Gene MacLellan
1971 / “Death Of The Black Donnellys” /
1972 / “Lonesome River” / CAN Country#16 / singles only
1972 /”I Get Drunk on Monday“/ CAN AC#10 / singles only
1976 / “Canterbury Song” /
1976 / “A Miracle” /
1977 / “Shilo Song” / CAN Country#14 / Album: If It’s Alright With You
Gene MacLellan – “I Just Want To Be Loved By You ”
Gene MacLellan’s contribution to the Canadian songbook is legendary. He penned several top forty hits in the early seventies. Standing in the shadow of those songs was a thoughtful songwriter and reluctant performer, carefully articulating his own pain and loss. A decade after his tragic death, Gene remains an enigmatic character at the fringes of Canadian culture.
As a child he endured the trials of polio and a heart condition, and later, several car accidents left him scarred physically and wounded emotionally. That personal pain gave his songs a credibility that can’t be contrived. Radio broadcaster and friend, Eric MacEwen said, “His heart understood loneliness and lost love, and he had a penchant for melody that was phenomenal.”
Ironically most people who met Gene would describe him as friendly and upbeat. His manager Jack McAndrew put it this way, “Self-effacement is a winsome quality, and endears you to people, and Gene had that. I don’t think he took himself seriously, but he took what he did seriously.”
Gene was born in the northern Quebec mining town of Val d’Or in February, 1938. As a youngster he sang in church choirs and played local events in his hometown in Northern Quebec.
Gene spent his formative years in Toronto where his family lived a typically suburban life, kept a tidy yard and attended church regularly. He fared miserably in music class at school, but took up the guitar when he was 10, quickly becoming adept. His sister remembers “piling into our parents’ bed with Gene on Saturday mornings and singing songs together.” By 13 or 14, Gene would come home from school with songs or poems written on scraps of paper.
In the late fifties, Gene dropped out of high school and started playing with various bands in Toronto’s early rock and roll scene.
The Consuls, led by Bruce Morshead featured Gene on guitar and vocals. [With Morshead resembling actor Edward G. Robinson, this group ultimately become known as Little Caesar and The Consuls.]
Robbie Robertson also joined the Consuls for a short stint before going to work with Ronnie Hawkins.
The Consuls sometimes opened for Ronnie Hawkins, and Gene would later say that Hawkins influenced him more than anyone else.
While most bands in Canada were covering the new sounds coming out of the U.S., Gene and other band members were writing original tunes and adding them to their repertoire. “I wrote a couple of things when I was with the Consuls,” Gene recounted in a later interview. “Bruce was writing then too, we were about the only two guys around then doing any writing. We probably had about five or six songs to our credit.”
Gene left Toronto and roamed about the east coast, working as a busboy in Rhode Island, singing with a traveling evangelist, and eventually harvesting produce on farms in PEI. He may have been gathering material for the song he would later write about a prodigal wanderer, Thorn in My Shoe.
By 1964 Gene had settled down, living with his aunt at Pownal, PEI near Charlottetown, and working as an attendant at the Riverside Psychiatric Hospital. That’s where he started writing songs seriously and sent out a demo tape to some broadcasting outlets, including the Don Messer TV Show in Halifax.
A regular gig on the Don Messer Show, starting in 1966, led to a brief stint touring with Hal ‘Lonepine’ Breau, a country singer and father of the jazz guitarist, Lenny Breau.
The above video (truncated, sorry) is from a very early Singalong Jubilee.
Invited to join the cast of Singalong Jubilee, another CBC TV production, Gene was introduced to a rising talent named Anne Murray and began a professional relationship that would change both of their lives.
Anne remembers Gene fondly, “ He was quiet and very unassuming, but he had a wonderful, wicked sense of humour. He kept us all in stitches on the Singalong set with these little asides here and there.”
Over her career Anne would record a dozen or more of Gene’s compositions, most notably Snowbird, a catchy, singable melody articulating the sorrow of false love. “Gene told me he wrote the song in 20 minutes when he was walking on a beach in P.E.I,” she says. “It’s so appropriate, the mental picture of Gene–this frail little guy on the beach in the middle of winter, seeing these birds and conjuring up this image.”
“Gene was a wonderful poet and a wonderful man and his gift of a song started me on a career that continues to amaze me with each passing year.” -Anne Murray
“Snowbird” was written by Gene in 1969. Though it has been recorded by many performers (including Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley), it is best known through Anne Murray’s 1969 recording, which—after appearing as an album track in mid-1969—was eventually released as a single in the summer of 1970.
It was a No. 2 hit on Canada’s pop chart and went to No. 1 on both the Canadian adult contemporary and country charts.
This is from The Don Messer Show out of Halifax Nova Scotia. Ann was born in Springhill Nova Scotia.
The song reached No. 8 on the U.S. pop singles chart, spent six weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. adult contemporary chart, and became a surprise Top 10 U.S. country hit as well. It was certified as a gold single by the RIAA, the first American Gold record ever awarded to a Canadian solo female artist. The song peaked at No. 23 on the UK Singles Chart.
In 2003 it was an inaugural song inductee of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Anne Murray and Gene MacLellan had met while both were regulars on the CBC television series Singalong Jubilee and Murray recorded two of MacLellan’s compositions, “Snowbird” and “Just Bidin’ My Time“, for her first major label album release, This Way Is My Way, in 1969. Murray would recall: “Gene told me he wrote [“Snowbird”] in twenty minutes while walking on a beach in PEI.”
The theme and approach of “Snowbird” broadly resemble that of the earlier hits “Message to Michael” (a.k.a. “Kentucky Bluebird” in hit versions by Lou Johnson and Adam Faith) and “Yellow Bird” in contrasting the narrator’s being stranded in the place of his/her heartache to the bird’s ability to just up and fly away.
“Snowbird” sold well over a million copies and was recently picked as 19th on the 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version list, a partially populist approach to defining the most influential songs by Canadians.
Elvis Presley / “Snowbird”
Gene MacLellan made his own recording of “Snowbird” on his 1970 album Street Corner Preacher: MacLellan’s version features an additional verse to the song’s standard two verse format.
The success of Anne Murray’s recording of Snowbird in 1970 overshadowed the release of Gene’s self-titled, first album recorded in Nashville that same year. A slightly modified album was released in the U.S. a few months later under the title Street Corner Preacher. He was married that year and at the age of 32, it seemed like things were coming together, at last, for the late blooming songwriter.
“What I start out with is a sound. I get a sound in my head. Writing tunes, to me, is the easiest part,” Gene told music journalist, Larry Leblanc. “I have to be in the frame of mind to write. I just can’t sit down and write any old time.”
Put Your Hand In The Hand
In the early seventies, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar played on Broadway and the Jesus People movement was in full swing. Although he probably didn’t plan it that way, the timing was right for Gene’s gospel song, Put Your Hand in the Hand.
In 1971 a knockoff version of “Put Your Hand…” was recorded by an unknown Canadian band from Toronto called Ocean, resulting in another huge radio hit for him that gave him national attention.
In 1970, MacLellan released his own LP, Gene MacLellan / Capitol ST-6348
This album included these modest hits:
Gene MacLellan – “The Call”
Gene MacLellan – “Thorn In My Shoe”
Gene MacLellan – “Face In The Mirror”
The back cover of Gene’s first LP displays a black and white photo of his face, partially hidden behind the patch that he wore over his left eye. The other half of his face disappears into blackness. That photo expresses well the dark mystery of the songwriter’s life.
1971 / Gene MacLellan / Just Bidin’ My Time / .
Anne Murray / Just Bidin’ My Time /
Hank Snow / Just Bidin’ My Time /
At the peak of his success in 1971, he was playing venues like the CNE, Massey Hall, The Riverboat, and even the Miss Teen Canada Pageant. TV wanted him, concert promoters wanted him, and he wanted out.
“I’m getting awfully tired of the business,” he told journalists. “I’d just like to be by myself for the next few years, but that’s impossible the way things are going.” A year later, his marriage failed and he sold his farm, he tried to give away the rights to his songs and left the spotlight completely for five years.
The Gene MacLellan who returned to the public eye in 1977 had a quiet confidence and renewed sense of purpose. He had an album of new songs, If It’s Alright With You, remarried and started a family. His spiritual journey had taken him full circle, back to the Christian faith he had known as a child.
His second LP, If It’s Alright With You (Capitol ST-11535)
This included ‘Shilo Song,’ a popular duet with Anne Murray
Continuing to write songs, Gene would involve himself in two collaborative recordings before his death — Gene & Marty with Marty Reno and Reunion with Janice Lapointe.
In 1979 a third LP, Gene & Marty (Pilgrim PMC-7005) was released as a collection of gospel songs with Marty Reno.
1970 MacLellan won a Juno award as composer of the year
1987 He received The Performing Rights Organization of Canada’s William Harold Moon Award for international achievement.
2003 He was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
MacLellan was based for a time in Burlington, Ont, and moved to Summerside, PEI in 1992.. An unassuming, compassionate, and spiritual person, MacLellan eschewed the spotlight for more intimate settings.
He performed on occasion during the 1980s and 1990s in churches, penitentiaries, retirement homes, and at benefits. He appeared on gospel broadcasts and PEI cable TV programs, as well as providing counselling to prison inmates.
He made a few formal appearances, such as with Anne Murray at her induction into the Juno Hall of Fame, 1993, and at a SOCAN ceremony the same year at which ‘Snowbird,’ ‘The Call,’ and ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’ were declared Canadian classics. The PEI Songwriters Association made him an honorary life member.
Gene was playing gospel music, performing in churches and prisons. One prison inmate, Harold Shea, often spoke about the different path his life took because of Gene’s involvement. When he attended Gene’s funeral, he said he was able to cry for the first time in many years. “I had lost a man I dearly loved, a man who had led me to deep places in God.”
“Refuge”, a group Gene formed with old musical friends Tom Kelly and Marty Reno performed on CBC Radio in the mid-eighties.
In those later years, fellow East Coast songwriter, Ron Hynes would run into Gene occasionally. “I had the great pleasure of co-hosting a writer’s workshop with him,” Ron remembers. “He literally refused to offer any critique of the work being presented by the participating writers, but rather he said he had ‘enjoyed that song and keep up the good work.’”
Jack McAndrew said, “Gene had embodied deep within his persona that dark side of creativity that has led so many writers and composers to depression.” There is a spiritual yearning, a lonely search for grace that threads its way through his songs.
Gene MacLellan passed away in January 19, 1995, shortly after returning home in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada from a hospital stay, very tragically. He was buried in a churchyard in rural PEI, leaving three children and many friends mourning.
“He was such a gentle presence. He touched a lot of people and he left a string of songs that everyone knows.” -Lennie Gallant
After Gene MacLellan’s death in 1995, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association’s Hall of Honour, received the East Coast Music Association’s (ECMA’s) Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award (1996), and was honoured at the ECMA awards in both 1995 and 1996. John Gracie released the album A Gene MacLellan Tribute (1995, 02 50492 Atlantica Music). Several Gene MacLellan Song Festivals have been held at Victoria, PEI.
His name was given to a drop-in centre for ex-offenders in Nova Scotia. His song, Snowbird, was one of the first inducted into the new Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (Put Your Hand in the Hand joined it in February of the same year).
Perhaps Gene’s greatest legacy is the burgeoning career of his daughter, Catherine MacLellan, a singer/songwriter based in the Maritimes.
“I picked up music in the same way that a carpenter’s son learns the trade. He passed it on,” says Catherine MacLellan.
Growing up, music always played an important part in their family. Whether they were living in Burlington, Ontario, or Summerside, where they moved in 1991, musicians were always knocking at their door.
‘They were always dropping in. Once (her father’s music partner) Marty Reno lived with us for a while. It was just normal stuff to us,’ she says.
s the youngest of MacLellan’s three children, Catherine, now 23, has many musical memories of her father, who died in 1995.
‘I remember hearing Dad downstairs in the mornings whenever I woke up. He’d be sitting around playing Johnny B. Goode or Puerto Vallarta. He was always singing,’ she says.
Although MacLellan encouraged his daughter to sing along and pick up the guitar, at first it didn’t work.
‘He tried to show me some chords. But the first ones were just really frustrating for anybody who is starting to learn,’ says the performer who has since learned the music man’s craft.
Since 1995, she has been writing songs and performing as a solo artist as well as with different musical groups.
Her musical career started shortly after her father’s death when she spent most of the next year in her room playing the guitar.
‘It was such a sad time. I felt like I was in a big cloud, but the music gave me such comfort.
‘I couldn’t play anybody else’s songs because I didn’t know them. So it seemed that immediately I was writing my own songs,’ says MacLellan, who has been busy performing with her band Saddle River.
Gene MacLellan’s songs have been recorded in over 25 countries. ‘Snowbird’ and ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’ remain his most successful songs. The latter, recorded by more than 100 artists, including Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, and Bing Crosby with Count Basie, has become a standard of the gospel repertoire. ‘The Call’ has also been popular with other singers.
* OTHER VERSIONS OF SNOWBIRD
Lynn Anderson – album Rose Garden
Perry Como – album It’s Impossible
Annette Klingenberg (da) (as “Lille Sangfugl”)
Anna-Lena Löfgren (as “Pröva Dina Vingar”)
Loretta Lynn – album Coal Miner’s Daughter
Gene MacLellan – album Gene MacLellan
Lize Marke (as “Zeemeeuw”)
Liv Maessen (No. 13 in Australia)
Jean Shepard – album Here & Now
Andy Williams – album The Andy Williams Show
Slim Whitman – album Guess Who
Chet Atkins – album For the Good Times winner of Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance
Burl Ives – album Time
Daliah Lavi (as “Wie Die Schwalben”) – album Daliah Lavi
Päivi Paunu (as “Lumilintu”) – album Oi niitä aikoja : kootut levytykset 1966-71
Elvis Presley – album Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old)
Hank Snow – album Award Winners
Dottie West – album Careless Hands
Chris Connor – album Sketches
Bing Crosby – album Bing N’ Basie
Billie Jo Spears – album Just Singin’
Wanda Jackson – album When It’s Time to Fall in Love Again
Doc Watson – album Two Days in November
Gerard Cox – (as “Die laaielichter”)
Bles Bridges – album Fight For Love
Birthe Kjaer (as “Sangfugl”) – album Vi Maler Byen Rød
Helinä Ilkka (fi) (as “Lumilintu”) – album Jää vielä aamuun
Rita MacNeil – album Music of a Thousand Nights
Dana Winner – album Unforgettable
Catherine MacLellan – album “Silhouette”