Canada 1973: Keith Hampshire’s Deep Cuts

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He was one of only four Canadian acts to crack the RPM Canadian singles charts in 1973, but somehow Keith Hampshire’s music has managed to follow me around for my entire life – including one car ride I’ll never forget – even though I never truly recognized or appreciated his talent.

Hampshire’s cover of the early Cat Stevens (aka. Yusuf) hit “The First Cut Is The Deepest” topped the Canadian charts in May ’73, joining only Anne Murray’s “Danny’s Song,” Edward Bear’s “Last Song” and Gary and Dave’s “Will You Ever Love Me Again” as homegrown chart-toppers during my second calendar year on the planet.

I’m not sure if it’s my Canadian upbringing and/or our Canadian content regulations that helped me form this opinion, but I consider Hampshire’s recording of “The First Cut Is The Deepest” to be the definitive version. It’s striking to listen to it back-to-back with the Stevens/Yusuf original – both men start with a tender vocal arrangement for the opening verse, but Hampshire lets the gravelly side of his voice take over in the chorus and stay there for the rest of the song, adding the gravitas that this tale of lost love sorely needs.

And there’s absolutely no comparison to Sheryl Crow’s 2003 cover, which hit #14 on the Billboard singles charts and has popped up in numerous movie and TV soundtracks since its release. I feel I can speak to the quality of Crow’s recording because I heard it three times – on three different radio stations – in a single day, shortly after its release. Having wrapped up a recording session for my second album in South Bar, Cape Breton, I made a five-hour drive to Dartmouth’s Alderney Landing for a performance at a multi-act fundraising concert. I don’t think I particularly minded Crow’s somewhat-sanitized version of “The First Cut Is The Deepest” as I drove, but all things being equal, I would have preferred Keith Hampshire’s voice on at least one of those occasions, possibly more.

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Let’s face it, the British-born singer and broadcasting personality knows how to make the most of a moment. That was the case whether he was hosting his 1970’s CBC variety show Keith Hampshire’s Music Machine – welcoming, as you can see in the above photo, guests like fellow Canadian chart-toppers The Stampeders – or belting out hits like the Canadian radio staple “Daytime, Nighttime.” (Bizarre but true: Hampshire re-recorded the 1973 hit in 1988 as a promotional theme for the CBC-TV line-up. Give it a listen; it actually works better than you might expect.)

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However, for millions of Canadians, Hampshire may be best-known as the man behind a beloved musical tribute to the Toronto Blue Jays. In 1983, Hampshire – recording the lead vocals for “Keith Hampshire and The Bat Boys” – unleashed the tribute song “OK Blue Jays” onto an unsuspecting public. It peaked at #47 on the RPM singles chart and, as you can see from the photo above, actually reached gold-record status in Canada, selling 50,000 copies in its first three years. An updated version (without the reference to long-gone Jays pitcher Dave Stieb) is still played during the seventh-inning stretch at the Jays’ home games at Rogers Center, and Hampshire was honoured for his efforts in 2008 by getting an invitation to sing “O Canada” prior to a Toronto home contest against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Even though, like a lot of Canadians, I wasn’t really a Jays fan unless they were winning in the playoffs, I got familiar with “OK Blue Jays” because CTV Atlantic – known during my childhood as ATV – frequently played a shortened video of the song in the mid-’80s to fill airtime not sold to advertisers, particularly during Saturday morning cartoons. Memories of those days came flooding back after the Jays’ first World Series win in ’92, when one of my King’s College classmates – who had lost a bet with a rabid Jays fan – was forced to sing “OK Blue Jays” in the college cafeteria, Prince Hall. (His performance carried roughly the same level of joy and enthusiasm as your average root canal.)

One thing is certain: I have a new favourite Keith Hampshire song, which I stumbled across by accident while preparing this blog post. It’s “Big Time Operator,” another track from Hampshire’s 1973 album The First Cut that reached #5 on the Canadian charts. It’s so relentlessly fun and energetic that I’m shocked that I didn’t find it before now. And it even holds up in latter-day renditions, such as this 2016 live performance

So, after feeling like Keith Hampshire’s music has been following me around for most of my life as a Canadian, here he is, unexpectedly livening up my Friday afternoon.

Well played, Mr. Hampshire. Well played.

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