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The Rediscovery of Stevedore Steve - part 2

In May, 1988, Kevin Nan and I set out from Toronto down the old New Brunswick line to search for Stevedore Steve. When we got to Fredericton we checked out the phone book and found only one Foote, who we phoned, but that didn't click. Next we found ourselves in the middle of old Saint John at Market Square where we used a lot of quarters making telephone calls. There were, in fact, a lot of Footes in the phonebook, but no Stephen J's, so I decided to call every last one of them just to be sure. This is what I wrote in my next editorial for the Mariposa Notes1

"They just keep on churning out more and more new cars, day after day, and just as many head for the wreckers. It's incredible! And what's even more incredible are musicians: you keep hearing more new names on vinyl, CD, cassette or videos every day. Just try choosing who you want for your festival coz for every performer you accept you have to turn ten down. But what happens to the worn out, burnt out musicians of the past? Surely we are not unlike cars, someone's new success comes at the expense of another's. How many people who tried so hard, who put up with so much have been forgotten? It's amazing what we allow ourselves to forget in too few years.
On a recent trip to the Maritimes I thought I'd check out Stevedore Steve, a country/folk musician who saw a few good years in the early seventies. With three albums and a slew of 45s, the man who wrote "Lester The Lobster" just plain disappeared. All I was left with were the cherished memories and the three LPs worth of song.

I knew that he had to be somewhere in Saint John and after phoning every Foote in the book I found his cousin Raymond who told me that The Stevedore had no telephone. Next thing I knew I was at the Stevedore's front door in Old Saint John. I spent that entire day with Steve and Gini Foote, heard their hard luck story which robbed him of his music, a bit of bad planning had stuck him in a financial hole so he quit the business in disgust to settle in Saint John. At 52 he's well and of good mind living off a disability pension. He carves, draws, paints, reads and plays songs for his wife. His manuscripts were damaged by water but they're still readable.

Stevedore Steve is a lucky one - there was more to him than just his music. But how many men and women are demoralized by the music business every year? How many of them do we forget and leave on the third floor of Sam The Record Man? Old cars, used for parts, then crushed up to make room for more new ones."

After 20 minutes of phoning different people with the surname Foote, Kevin grew restless. He admitted then and there that he had taken the liberty, while still in Toronto, of phoning directory assistance and it was then that he learned that there was no Stephen J. Foote in the Saint John telephone directory. "We've only got three more to call," I said. The next one was a Raymond Foote who just happened to be The Stevedore's cousin. He said that Steve and Gini lived in Saint John, near the car wash. "Do you know where that is," he asked? As it was my very first visit to Saint John, I hadn't the foggiest. He said that he'd hop into his car and meet us in front of Market Square. We waited in the drizzle before a statue till Ray honked at us from his brown sedan. (He had already dropped by Steve's place to forewarn him that we were coming.)

"I was sure that it was Connors," Steve confided to us later. "I had a dream just this morning that a visitor would arrive from Ontario. I thought that Connors was playing one of his jokes so I told Ray to bring you guys around."

(The author, Steve Foote and Kevin Nan in the Stevedore's kitchen at 46 Garden Street, May 1988.)

It was so very strange to be meeting the mighty Stevedore like this. His great iron hands and fore-arms were more aged but very much like the photos on his albums. He was much more mature looking after all these years but it was the real slugging rough and tumble, rugged Stevedore Steve. He invited us in and introduced us to Gini who immediately recognized us from somewhere in the space / time continuum. We sat in the kitchen and drank endless cups of instant coffee, pouring Carnation evaporated milk into our mugs and talking about things that went beyond the confines of this planet while cigarette smoke saturated our clothing.

At dinner time we wanted to take them out to eat; Gini was thrilled, Steve was rather cautious but we insisted. They changed clothes and we drove down to a fast food place that Steve had suggested. While we all ordered something decent, Steve decided on a Chicken sandwich. I implored him to order something better than that but his answer was pure Stevedore Steve:

"I always loved chicken sandwiches when I was on the road with Tom."

That night we jammed. He brought out his old guitar that just wouldn't stay in tune. "Sometimes I get so annoyed with it that - believe me - I feel like taking it outside and just wrapping it around a telephone pole." He kept on apologizing for the way that he played; he was rusty alright, but you could see that he still had the skill to really pick. I launched into some of the early songs from his records, like Song of the Stevedore, and we had the grandest time. Steve often ended a song laughing, saying, "Oh my goodness gracious, you fellas amaze me! You know all the words to those songs." We told him that we loved those songs. "Well here, would you like to hear one that I just wrote? It's not very polished and I still need to read the words but I just started writing songs again when my guitar came back." He told us that sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night with a new song in his head and write it down. Sometimes he would write a half a dozen songs in a day.

When we checked out that night our heads were spinning. Wasn't it just that morning that we were feverishly phoning every Foote in Saint John trying to find this man? And to have turned out like this! I couldn't have made it up any better. This started a long personal relationship with Steve and Gini which continues to this day.

With Gerry Taylor nagging him on from one end and Kevin and I from the other, and most likely one or two others closer to home, Steve decided to edge his way back into music. It was a very delicate operation that involved several factions, collectively, although at the time we knew nothing of one another. But we all had the same goal: to bring the Stevedore back from obscurity.

In June of 1988 I began broadcasting a folk-oriented music program on campus/community radio station CIUT-FM emanating from the University of Toronto. It was called Mariposa Radio Folkwaves. (Later renamed The Great North Wind after a song written by Charlie "Chuck" Angus and recorded by his band The Grievous Angels.) In January of the following year I decided to do a special on Stompin' Tom; my guest would be the young man from Cobalt, Chuck Angus, who was originally from Timmins, and a huge Stompin' Tom fan from birth. I decided to call Tom's management to inform him that I would be doing this special and perhaps Tom would like to listen in. Living near Georgetown ON, I knew that he was living within our listening area. Not only did Connors listen to the show but he telephoned the station afterwards to thank us for it. Chuck and I had already left the building when the call came in and Connors had a difficult time convincing the person who'd answered that he was really Stompin' Tom and not some crank. I was eventually informed of this and used it to my advantage a few months later when I planned on doing a special on Stevedore Steve.

Like his pal Stevedore Steve, Stompin' Tom had been out of circulation on the Canadian music scene for about 12 years. I remember telling people that it was my intention to one day get an interview with Stompin' Tom Connors - who was on everybody's wish list at the time - and eyes would roll in heads as if I was a foolish little dreamer with my head in the sky.

Just around that time there was a major media announcement: Stompin' Tom would give his first media interview in 12 years on CBC Radio's Morningside with Peter Gzowski. This would be aired between Christmas and New Years, 1988. Apparently I was beaten to the punch. Nevertheless, I was still on a mission. I phoned Connors' "management" to tell them about my idea for a Stevedore Steve Special and see if they would bite: I was really only hoping for a sound bite, a line or two just to read over the air about Tom's special friend, Stevedore Steve. The intermediary, who called himself Tom's manager, was over-protective and told me there wasn't a hope in hell that Connors would do anything.

Toronto Sun article, April 3, 1989, Jim Slotek

Just ask him will ya?"  He didn't even know who Stevedore Steve was!

I received a call back a couple of days later:

"I don't know who this Stevedore guy is, but you're in luck, Tom will do anything you want short of coming down for an interview."

The "Manager" was quite emphatic: "Tom will only do a 5 minute telephone interview, live to air", and he was very sticky about those five minutes.

The program was scheduled for Monday, April 3, 1989, and the five minute interview turned out to last for 20:

"If you've got another minute or two Steve, I'd like to tell you a little story..." and that's when he went on to tell the tales of Lucky Jim and the pie plates.

The Connors interview couldn't have come at a better time. I was planning on visiting Saint John again in May and would bring a copy of the program to the Stevedore.

The next time I went down to Saint John I did so with Maggie,  Kevin Nan had sent a massive sledge hammer for Steve to autograph. Why a sledge?

"Swing That Hammer" from I've Lived

32 Inches of hickory handle
connected to 16 pounds of steel
Swing that sledge till your teeth near rattle
Swing that sledge till your senses reel
Pounding out a hole in this granite graveyard
Digging on through to the upper strand
The only place on the face of the nation
With 50 acres of man-made sand

I brought a Sony-Pro tape recorder down with me and with Steve's approval recorded our evening jam session. Steve also surprised us with a gift of a freshly recorded tape of new material he had recorded on his boom-box. Something was screwy in the recording mechanism of this inexpensive machine, somehow allowing him the ability to over-dub, which was very convenient. He had constructed what he called a 'Studio on a Stick': a couple of mics on a wooden pole with a peg to hang his headphones on. This would be a valuable tool in restoring "Stevedore Steve" as a recording artist again.

On this trip Maggie and I met with Gerry Taylor in the lunchroom of the Telegraph-Journal. It was a rather long lunch since Gerry is prone to talking a lot but what is amazing about him is that he has endless energy and enthusiasm and an encyclopaedic mind. Together we schemed ideas of how to get the Stevedore back again. In an article he wrote for his column on June 23, 1989:
The Cat Tracks dug in the mountain side
The diesels snarled and their blades ripped wide,
And they clawed the sod till the Mountain cried.

-From Cat Tracks On The Mountain (Stephen J. Foote)
Skinner's Pond Music (B.M.I.)

What a stark protest against the so-called progress that today ravages our world! How could anyone who penned such a poignant verse be forgotten so quickly?

"Whatever became of Stevedore Steve?" is a question I have asked for a dozen years while others were concerned with Stompin' Tom and his disappearance from the Canadian recording scene.

In 1975 Steve Foote of Saint John soared to Number One on the Canadian charts with a song 'Lester The Lobster', scratched off in 15 minutes in a railroad car.

Steve wrote hundreds of songs, many of them published by Crown-Vetch, Skinner's Pond and other houses associated with his recording company, Boot, but only fifty or so were released on his four albums and a bevy of forty-fives that the Dominion and Boot labels issued on vinyl.

He wrote such biting anthmns (sic) on the ecology as Cat Tracks On The Mountain and the Mountain & This Old Man, rollicking children's songs like Lester The Lobster and Salamander Tug, and such tributes to the Canadian worker as Minto Miners and Hard Workin' Men. He was honoured by Minto for his song tribute to the town and its miners. He was also treated royally here in his home town, during an early Loyalist Days and driven through the city in an open horse drawn coach for the annual parade while one of his songs was used as the event's theme and radio and TV interviews and tributes were done.

A publicity picture from Steve's early Boot years showed him beside an eight foot bulletin board entirely covered by press clippings and magazine articles which had been published about him.

How could anyone who had made such an impression have been so completely erased from the Canadian consciousness in so short a time?

When I found out Steve and his wife Gini had been here in Saint John for the last dozen years I wrote an explanation of why he had forsaken the music industry: a misbilling by the income tax, a misunderstanding with Boot over this billing's implications and his subsequent financial difficulties.

Well I was glad a couple of weeks ago to find I had not been alone all those years in my concern. I had a visit from Steve Fruitman, a director of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, and his wife Maggie, one morning.

Foote became Fruitman's inspiration back in 1975 when, as Stevedore Steve, he had his own weekly TV show in Toronto. Steve Fruitman now writes concert reviews and a regular column for the Mariposa Notes, the festival's bi-monthly newsletter and has played in various area bands as well.

Years ago he copywrited Sons of the Stevedore2 as a band name and his Notes column is headed with a free-hand drawn replica of the Stevedore's "I've Lived", album front.

Although offers have been made (for) Foote to perform at various festivals and other events he has so far turned them down, although he has recently written dozens of songs again. He did go to Halifax for a Down Home Show taping however in April, to be shown in the fall, and agreed to perform on the next Valley Jamboree, Thursday, June 29, on the stage of Regional High School at 7:30 pm.3

1. Mariposa Notes June-July 1988, NO. 4, published by the Mariposa Folk Foundation
2. This is not the case. I never copywrited the name "Sons of the Stevedore". Kevin Nan and I referred to ourselves as Sons of the Stevedore and jokingly thought that we should have a band with that name. We never actually did.
3. Gerry Taylor's Folk And Country Music World, Saint John Telegraph-Journal and The Evening Times-Globe, Friday, June 23, 1989.

The Second Musical career of Stevedore Steve, click HERE
© 1999& 2010 by Steve Fruitman for Back To The Sugar Camp ®