We mourn the loss of one of the great goaltenders in NHL history. But many forget that Johnny Bower was a best-selling recording artist, too.
Chip Young, a CBC producer, had written a short Christmas story about a wild goose that ate so much that he couldn’t swim or fly, but in the end, saves Santa Claus. Encouraged by ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ broadcaster Ed Fitkin, who was also a prolific hockey author, Young turned the story into a song with the help of composer Orville Hoover, then approached Toronto’s coach Punch Imlach to get permission for one of the Maple Leafs to record the song he had written.
Granted permission to try to recruit a singer, Young went out to the Tam O’Shanter rink in Scarborough where the Leafs practised. “He came into the dressing room and wanted to know if anybody on the team would be interested in singing these songs,” recalled Bower. “”I’ve never seen so many guys undress and get into the shower so quickly in my life! I was the only one left sitting there. He said, ‘I guess you’re the only one left,’ and I said, ‘Look sir, I can’t sing.’ I thought he was nuts!”
Bower pointed to the showers and suggested that there were better singers there, noting that Ron Stewart was known for singing in the shower. Young was emphatic. “There’s just something about you that seems right for this. Wouldn’t you at least try it?” Bower finally agreed. “For my money, he’s the friendliest man in Canada; the guy who should sing this (song) regardless of the quality of his pipes,” Young told the Toronto Daily Star.
Johnny arrived home and told his family about the song. They tried singing ‘Honky,’ and his wife, Nancy, smiled. “This is cute,” she admitted. “It’s a nice children’s song.” Then she chuckled and added, “If you only knew how to sing!”
Young was invited over to the Bower home. “He came over with a recorder and the music and the words were all there. He said, ‘Work with this for a few days.’ So, I started to get to know the words to ‘Honky the Christmas Goose.’ My wife told me I used to sing the song in my sleep. I would get up at 2:00AM and sing ‘Honky the Christmas Goose’ in bed!”
Johnny recruited his 11-year-old son, John Jr., as well as five neighbourhood children, to join him for the recording session. For two weeks, they rehearsed until they had the melody and lyrics down cold.
The entourage went into the recording studio on November 9, 1965 to record ‘Honky’ and its b-side, ‘Banjo Mule.’ The session was interrupted by the Northeast Blackout, which left 25 million people in Ontario and down the eastern seaboard of the United States without power for up to twelve hours. “I nearly died,” Johnny told the Toronto Daily Star. “I’m no Sinatra but I didn’t think my voice would wreck the hydro! I was glad to learn that I hadn’t blown all the fuses. We finished by candlelight in a real Christmas atmosphere. It was a lot of fun!”
The group, known as Johnny Bower with Little John and the Rinky Dinks, took just five takes to complete ‘Honky.’ John Jr. received $100 for his effort. “We were supposed to be a group of people who are singing songs because we’re happy,” recalled the netminder. “Nothing professional about it.”
Both ‘Honky the Christmas Goose’ and ‘Banjo Mule’ were mixed and pressed within days, and released in a picture sleeve on the Capitol label. Bower was quite prepared for the teasing that was bound to occur. “If I have a bad night in goal, I can just hear those fans shouting, ‘Why don’t you stick to singing?’”
A CBC-TV show on December 14, 1965 featured the Bower family and helped promote the song. By this time, CHUM Radio, Toronto’s powerful Top 40 station, was playing ‘Honky.’ To help sell the single, Johnny made a few appearances, including one at Eaton’s College Park, in order to sign the picture sleeve. “I was sitting there, selling my records and there was a big pile of Beatles records sitting on the table next to me,” he remembered. “So I took their pile of records and put them underneath the table, and after that, we were selling all of mine!”
‘Honky the Christmas Goose’ reached number 29 on the 1050 CHUM chart and for a couple of weeks in December 1965, knocked The Beatles’ two-sided smash ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work It Out’ out of the most-requested spot. On the strength of Bower’s name, the single sold 40,000 copies. Seeing the ‘golden goose,’ Chip Young was elated and planned for Johnny to record an album. “He tells me he’s got a whole bunch of new songs to go – ‘Jumbo the Elephant,’ ‘Pelican with the Broken Wing,’ another one for a rat. I said, ‘Chip, you’ve got the wrong man.’”
The song has long been unavailable, not through any lack of effort from collectors. Various companies have tried to reissue the recording over the years, with the full blessings of Johnny Bower, but the ownership of the copyright is in dispute, leaving the single a great memory and a much sought-after collectible.