John Gracie performed at the first East Coast Music Awards and returns 25 years later
The father of East Coast Music WeekBy Michelle Brunet | Mar 6, 2013
Tags: East Coast Music Week, Rob Cohn
A look back at how Rob Cohn put East Coast musical talent on the map and launched its biggest celebration.
Rob Cohn walks sprightly into a midtown café with a big smile. His youthful energy is perhaps reminiscent of the enthusiasm he had when, 25 years ago, he started the Maritime Music Awards (the precursor to East Coast Music Week).
“It was always about we can do better than this,” says Cohn. By the late 1980s, Halifax clubs were flooded with cover bands. The first awards night was about encouraging regional artists to showcase original music, like Anne Murray, April Wine, Warren Chiasson and other predecessors did. It was also about establishing a scene so musicians didn’t need to move away to succeed, and to show the rest of Canada that the East Coast has talent.
The first Maritime Music Awards event was at Pub Flamingo, located then in Halifax’s Maritime Centre. This was the ideal choice for the lively event, as it was one of the only venues playing original live music in Halifax. For the April 10, 1989 awards, Cohn organized performances by John Gracie, Wayne Nicholson, Blackpool, For the Moment and others. It meant a lot to Cohn when Sarah McLachlan (who ended up giving a spontaneous performance that night) and Kevin McMichael of Cutting Crew came home to show their support.
“Sarah is the nicest person in the world and was so helpful,” Cohn says. “She got what I was doing and did everything, more than anything, she could.” Eleven awards were presented, including a Lifetime Achievement Award to legendary bluesman Dutch Mason. The results for the other awards were decided by the public, who filled out ballots printed in The Daily News. Among the winners were John Gracie, Rita MacNeil, Kevin MacMichael, Matt Minglewood, Haywire, 100 Flowers, ICU and The Flamingo.
The night pleasantly surprised even those of the 250-plus crowd that were initially sceptical. “Rob deserves a massive amount of credit,” says ECMA Honourary Lifetime Director Sheri Jones. “Obviously it was a great idea, because 25 years later we’re still here.”
Cohn’s music experience began much earlier than 1989. When he was 15 or 16, he and his friends at the Waegwoltic Club started a junior entertainment club. “We started earning money to put on dances and then we’d DJ,” says Cohn. “We ended up booking John Alphonse’s band. They were the first band to play the Waeg in several years.”
In his late teens, Cohn became a sports columnist for The Daily News (and later an entertainment columnist), and while attending Saint Mary’s University he was entertainment editor for the school paper. His career has also included working as a manager, producer, promoter or roadie with artists such as B.B. King, Levon Helm, the Rankin Family, Ashley MacIsaac and Matt Minglewood.
Around the time that Cohn started the Maritime Music Awards, he was also working with the Windjammers (Halifax’s World Basketball League team), the Busker Festival and the Atlantic Film Festival. He was a busy man. “Rob Cohn started the Maritime Music Awards on his own,” says Jones. “He quickly realized that to make it as effective as he wanted to, he needed to involve more people.”
Before the 1991 Awards week, Cohn, Jones, Tony Kelly, Mike Barkhouse, Peter Hendrickson, Lee Stanley, Karen Byers, Chico Berardi and Bruce Morel sat around a kitchen table to form the East Coast Music Association (ECMA), adding Newfoundland to the fold. “Lifelong friends you may never meet again,” says Cohn. “What we went through in the early days…We met every Monday night and argued for three hours until everyone understood what we were doing and everybody heard everybody’s input.”
Jones also looks back on those heated discussions fondly. “We were all so passionate about it and we wanted it to be just right” she says. “The Awards completely changed the East Coast music scene. I can’t give Rob enough credit for that.”
It’s been 15 years since Cohn has been involved with the ECMAs. It would be a lie to say that Atlantic Canada’s music scene has turned out exactly how he envisioned. Cohn misses times when East Coast musicians topped the Billboard charts, or had multi-platinum record sales. However, he has hope that the current government is the first to understand the logistics required for a sustainable, thriving music industry.
One thing that has never waned is Cohn’s passion for music. “There are very few things in the world that offer what Bill Graham calls, ‘the complete momentary cessation of all negativity,’” says Cohn. “Something like Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’ a week after September 11 or people alone in their room listening to ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM. Music is so powerful. Raylene Rankin singing ‘Rise Again’ had all of that power and more.”
East Coast Music Week’s 25th Anniversary–March 6 to 10
- More than 20 showcase and songwriter stages across HRM will be shared by more than 100 artists and bands during Eastlink East Coast Music Week. Musicians include David Myles, Rose Cousins, Radio Radio, John Gracie, Jenn Grant, Dwayne Côté & Duane Andrews, Gypsophilia, Jimmy Rankin, Lone Cloud, Thom Swift, Ennis, Les Hay Babies, Matthew Hornell and Ben Caplan.
- There are 31 music, 10 industry and five honorary award categories that will be presented during ECMW. Music nominee leaders include Wintersleep with six nominations and Matt Mays with five.
- ECMW’s Industry Conference features a keynote address from the President of Sire Records, Seymour Stein (who is credited for leading Madonna, Depeche Mode, the Ramones and others to the world stage).
- March 7: The Canadian Red Bull Tour Bus presents a free concert in Grand Parade showcasing Ashley MacIsaac, The Stanfields, Jenn Grant, and Heather Green
- March 9: Rita MacNeil, Lennie Gallant, Cindy Cain, Radio Radio and Ennis will be performing with Symphony Nova Scotia at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.
- March 10: Rose Cousins and David Myles will host this year’s East Coast Music Awards Gala at the Cunard Centre. Performers for the awards show include Natalie McMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, Charlie A’Court, The Barra MacNeils, Mary Jane Lamond, Classified, Jenn Grant, Rich Aucoin, Christina Martin, John Gracie and more.
Visit ecma.com for more details.