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Guitar hero

For several decades Georges Hebert played with Canada’s rock legends—but he says he’s still learning every time he plays

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Georges

Georges Hebert remembers well those early days working as a guitar player. He was new to the music scene, having played with bands in his hometown of Moncton and later in downtown Halifax. In the audience this one particular time were Dutch Mason and his band’s guitar and harmonica player, Arthur “Bubsy” Brown.

They watched the 17-year-old Hebert on stage, whispering to each other about the rookie’s skills. The critique racked Hebert’s young nerves, but it turns out it was all good-natured ribbing from some fellow musicians and a camaraderie he’d learn about quickly. People had their eye on Hebert. But that night on stage he was only worried about his speed. “When you’re young you want to be the fastest guitarist in the world,” says Hebert from his home studio in Bedford.

Hebert has had several decades to practice that speed. But during that time he’s managed to work with some of the most legendary Canadian musicians.

Hebert shares those stories with a great dose of nostalgia, humour and pride, as if he were telling them to a group of pals while sitting on a front porch somewhere, probably jamming with guitars. His career spans a few eras of a music industry that no longer exists. He’s played venues and shows whose heydays are long over. Now he wonders how young musicians today could enjoy the fortunes and stories he’s found over the years.

“It’s pretty amazing where I started from and where I ended up,” Hebert says. “Legacy? I never really thought about that. I hope I’ve been an influence on people and I hope I helped them along.”

He started out playing the harmonica first with a group in Moncton called the Bunkhouse Boys. Hebert’s father worked for the local radio station and brought his son to the show where the band played. But playing harmonica was short-lived. “When I discovered the guitar, that was it,” he says. “The harmonica wasn’t cool anymore.”

Hebert played the Moncton circuit with other bands, too. Moncton, back then, was a hot scene for dance hall music and bands. At its peak, 40 bands played the circuit. It was surreal for the kid who, at that point, hadn’t even been to a dance hall as a guest. “Here I was playing with the most popular rock group in town,” he laughs. “I was thinking, ‘People are dancing to this music?’ Why’”

Then came the television shows like Frank’s Bandstand and Singalong Jubilee, which were staples for the music scene. Like many musicians, Hebert eventually headed to Ontario, where he played with a band called Larry Lee and the Leesures. The group did a circuit of shows that lasted a year. Once the circuit was over, they’d play the same club again, in what Hebert calls a “merry-go-round” process.

He returned to Halifax for another stint on Singalong Jubilee. For a time, his roommate was Gene MacLellan, who would write one of Anne Murray’s most well known songs, Snowbird. He stayed with Jubilee for several years, in a three-weeks-on, three weeks-off schedule that saw the bands learn 14 new tunes on a Monday, record a show on Tuesday, with overdubs on Wednesdays with shows airing on the weekends. During his off weeks, he’d record jingles, play local clubs or radio shows. “Those were the great days of variety shows,” he says. “When you think about it, none of that stuff exists anymore.”

When Singalong ended, he got a one-year gig with Anne Murray. A gig with Ian Tyson followed. He added gigs with CBC’s Coming up Country to his repertoire, and continued playing the club scene in Halifax.

In the late 1970s, he made a choice that would shape the rest of his career. Hebert, then thinking about finding some security for himself and his family, had started the process of applying for a job as an audio technician with CBC in Moncton. Then one afternoon, he got a call from Murray’s management. She was then riding high on the success of her song “You Needed Me,” and needed a guitarist to go on tour. Hebert had to make a decision that day. The thought of stable work and a pension was a good one, but he chose the gig in Murray’s band and hit the road. The gig lasted for 30 years.

“It was pretty good times,” Hebert recalls. “Playing with Anne wasn’t really exciting one day and then really quiet the next. It was staying on the line. That’s how she is.”

Ninety-five per cent of the gigs they played together were in the U.S., although the toured in Australia, Germany, England and France. Tours would take up about 100 days per year, a routine that continued for years.

While he says he loved his time on the road and never counted down the days until the tour was over, he didn’t live a rock-star life. “I could walk down the street and no one would know who I was,” Hebert says. “And that’s how I wanted it.” But he regrets not exploring those towns and cities more, saying now he missed out on learning the history and culture of some great places.

Touring with Murray came to an end in 2008 with little notice. After one of their shows ended, Murray told the band to “take care of themselves.” And the run was over. “I always knew when Anne stopped that would be it,” he says. “There would be no comeback tour.”

Besides working Murray, Hebert’s recorded five albums of his own and has helped produce dozens more with others. He’s worked with East Coast greats, like John Allan Cameron, the Rankins and Bruce Guthro, as well as Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, and late jazz great Moe Koffman. He’s performed on the Tonight Show and played Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. It’s an impressive resume.

Singer/songwriter Thom Swift has worked with Hebert on a few projects at his home studio. Swifts says Hebert is “music royalty” who plays the guitar with a “feather touch.” But beyond Hebert’s talent, Swift says he admires his humility and that he uses his music to give back to the community, including playing in the band for the annual IWK Telethon.

“There he is on television and very few people would recognize him,” Swift says. “He’s kind of this silent legend living in Bedford.”

Jazz singer Daniel Matto agrees. The two have worked on fundraisers and various gigs together since Matto moved to the city six years ago. He considers Hebert his “go-to” guy.

“He will talk about it all in passing,” Matto says. “It’s not all me, me, me… He’s so good at what he does and that’s why he’s been so successful all these years.” And as they work together on music, Matto says Hebert has taught him about humility, professionalism and loving what you do. “[Those], I think, are the greatest lessons I learned from him,” he adds.

These days, Hebert spends a lot of time in his own studio. There he composes and records his own music, as well as that of other musicians. While the space includes all the instruments and equipment needed to put together a project, it also houses Hebert’s records and memories of a long career in music. There’s a framed copy of a gold record from Anne Murray. On another wall, he’s displayed photos of bands he’s worked with over the years, including Murray and Ian Tyson. And there are other photos of stars and legends he’s met or performed with during his career, including Snowbird composer Gene MacLellan, Dusty Springfield and a very young Jerry Seinfeld, who worked as the opening act of Murray’s show when the band performed in Las Vegas.

But he hasn’t given up performing, often playing with local musicians at venues like Nectar in downtown Dartmouth or Onyx in Halifax. The pay, Hebert says, is about the same as when he played the club circuit in Halifax and Moncton during his youth.

His playing is different now, he says. Playing fast is not as important now, noting his fingers often ache with arthritis. Sometimes the playing helps; other times it doesn’t.

“I am still learning,” he says. “Mind you, when you get to be my age you don’t worry about speed, but playing intelligently. I just keep going and do what I am doing. I want to do it as long as I can.”

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