You shouldn’t be surprised to see Anne Murray’s name pop up on this blog, since it’s a celebration of Canada being written by a Nova Scotian. That being said, it’s extremely likely that I would have been an Anne Murray fan no matter where either of us happened to be born, or whether or not my dad was a huge fan during my childhood. (Spoiler alert: He was. And still is.)
By the time the title track of Anne’s seventh album, Danny’s Song, topped the Canadian singles charts in March 1973 (just before I turned six months old), she had already taken the music world by storm, scoring a Top-Ten hit on both sides of the border with “Snowbird” in 1969 and racking up a whack of American television appearances, most notably on The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour. Anne’s prominence in the early-’70s music scene is arguably best summed up by this single, legendary photo, in which she’s chumming with (left to right) John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz. (Lennon would later tell Anne that her 1974 reworking of “You Won’t See Me” was his favourite Beatles cover of all time.)
So where does “Danny’s Song” – originally a 1971 hit for Loggins and Messina – fit into all of this, and why am I among the many that still love Anne’s version today? Well, apart from the fact that it was one of the first songs that ever nestled into my heart as a child (at the age of six), Anne’s version resonates with such unabashed optimism, not unlike that often found by new parents or young lovers settling down for a life together. There is not a single day, regardless of my mood at the time, that the lyric “Even though we ain’t got money/I’m so in love with you, honey” will not make me smile, especially when it’s delivered by a voice that takes full advantage of its incredible range. The high notes ringing out on the chorus are a wonderful contrast to the depth of Anne’s low notes on verse-lines like “Love the guy who holds the world in a paper cup.” She’s completely in control of both the song and the moment in time it represents, and it’s impossible to ignore.
So it’s no surprise that Anne’s Grammy-nominated recording of “Danny’s Song” has followed her throughout her career and earned millions of new fans along the way. In 2007, U.S. country star Martina McBride joined Anne to re-record the song for the album Duets: Friends and Legends; check out the audience response (and an incredible sing-along) when McBride sang the song solo at an appearance in Hamilton a year later. “Danny’s Song” even cracked the Glee set list in 2014 (that’s Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester on lead, with Jayma Mays as Emma Pillsbury on backing vocals).
But among the many reasons I’m grateful for “Danny’s Song” – and, specifically, Anne Murray’s version (missing two verses of the Loggins and Messina original) – is because it helped me connect with another of my all-time favourite Nova Scotia performers, Leon Dubinsky.
Originally a founding member of the Cape Breton blues-rock outfit Buddy and the Boys, Leon was also the long-time musical director for The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island and The Cape Breton Summertime Revue. (I’ll address all three of these in future blog posts.) Through it all, he wrote several of the East Coast’s most beloved songs, most notably “We Rise Again,” originally led by Raylene Rankin in the 1985 Rise and Follies and made a national hit by The Rankin Family in 1993. Anne Murray even sang the song with the Rankins and Rita MacNeil on her 1993 CBC-TV special Anne Murray In Nova Scotia.
In 2003 I was hosting a weekly songwriters’ concert series called Songs On The Waterfront at Port Hawkesbury’s Creamery building, and I decided to build a “Comedy Night” around Leon – who had peppered the Rise and Follies and the Summertime Review with great political-themed music parodies over the years – as well as two musical friends of mine from Richmond County, fellow L’Ardoise native Russell Webb (a local hero for such inspired nonsense as “The Grass Song,” “The Flu Shot” and “Hit The Road”) and Arichat’s Delores Boudreau, who MC’ed the night as her Acadian alter ego “Josephine.”
As the show was taking place the night after Nova Scotia’s latest provincial election, I was aching to come up with some new material to spoof the election results. And, about 90 minutes before showtime, while eating supper at Port Hawkesbury’s Subway Restaurant, inspiration struck, and I quickly scribbled down parody lyrics to “Danny’s Song” to salute and/or mock Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Danny Graham, who had surprised pundits by defeating the Progressive Conservative government’s sitting Health Minister, Jane Purves, in her Halifax riding.
I was the last person to do a solo set in the first half of the show, following Russell and Leon (who shared such Summertime Revue classics as the Brian Mulroney riff “Gucci Shoes” and the John Buchanan takedown “(It’s Just A Little) Trust Fund”). As I took my seat at the piano, I noticed that, because the Creamery seating was done in a pub-style arrangement, Leon Dubinsky was sitting right in front of me. We had done this show together the year before, and yet I was still nervous to see him so clearly in the audience.
So I took a deep breath and launched into the “Danny’s Song” spoof I had written on a Subway napkin only a couple of hours earlier, got a few chuckles for the first couple of verses, and then hit the second chorus: “Even though I felt so nervous, I did a number on Old Lady Purves…” And Leon Dubinsky leaned back in his seat and let out a huge laugh.
From then on, whatever happened the rest of the night, I knew I would take away one thing from the Songs On The Waterfront Comedy Night: I had just made Leon Dubinsky laugh – all thanks to Anne Murray. (Well, Loggins and Messina, too. But mostly Anne Murray.)
(Footnote: Danny Graham left the Liberal leadership and provincial politics only a few months after being elected as an MLA to tend to the health of his wife, Shelagh, who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She passed away in 2006. In putting his family before politics, it’s arguable that Danny Graham epitomized the ideals of “Danny’s Song” far more than I realized on that night of musical whimsy back in 2003.)