1984 saw the launch of two major contributors to the pop-culture sensibilities of Generation-X Canadians, a 24-hour music channel and a daily music-video series on the nation’s public broadcaster. As with most aspects of Canadian pop culture of the day, however, your likelihood of having seen both was probably low if you lived in one of the many parts of Canada without basic cable or a satellite dish.
That was the case for me and most of my family and friends in rural Cape Breton, so while our big-city cousins sampled the early stages of The Nation’s Music Station, MuchMusic, the rest of us got our first regular diet of music videos through one of three CBC-TV offerings – the 90-minute weekly regional youth series Switchback, the hour-long, late-Friday-night music-fest Good Rockin’ Tonite, or the brand-spanking-new half-hour weekday-afternoon showcase Video Hits.
The latter show actually began its life in early 1984 as Coming Attractions, which presented all manner of entertainment news and features but garnered its highest ratings from the weekly episode dedicated to music videos. CBC die-hards like myself might recall that the first 30 seconds of Kenny Loggins’ title track to the original movie version of Footloose served as Coming Attractions’ opening theme song.
By the time September 1984 rolled around, however, CBC had re-titled the series as Video Hits, ditched Loggins’ ode to cuttin’ loose in favour of the opening bars to Van Halen’s “Jump,” and replaced Coming Attractions’ hosting duo of Bob Karstens and Patricia White with a young Toronto woman who had already become a veteran on the city’s radio scene, Samantha “Sam” Taylor.
While I didn’t realize it at the time, Sam Taylor had already accumulated an impressive pop-rock pedigree by the time she showed up at the CBC to introduce the latest clips from such instantly-compatible acts as Helix, Madonna and Julian Lennon. During the first half of her twenties, she spent four years at Toronto’s Q107-FM, rising through the ranks to become the station’s music director and also hosting the Metro Music show that ran on Toronto’s CFMT, now Omni Television.
This could all explain why Sam had such a comfortable on-air presence and provided a smooth, no-nonsense transition between videos that proved a sharp contrast to the no-holds-barred, occasionally-sloppy style of MuchMusic and MTV hosts of the ’80s and early ’90s. (Exhibit A: Erica Ehm. Exhibit B: Steve Anthony. Exhibit MTV: Kennedy.)
However, it wasn’t an all-business, introduce-the-songs-and-disappear approach on Video Hits; I vividly recall Sam’s lengthy commentary, in early 1985, about the backlash surrounding the sparse wardrobe on 90 per cent of the participants in David Lee Roth’s video for his cover of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” It was the first time I had ever seen a TV host stop to suggest to their viewers that we should give some thought to what we were seeing instead of mindlessly consuming it. No, Sam Taylor was not the second coming of Marshall McLuhan, but I appreciated her willingness to hit the pause button and serve up some truth.
Given her years at Q107, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Sam was also a crackerjack interviewer. For some of the proof, check out these YouTube links to a pair of Video Hits chats with Canadian chart-topper Corey Hart in 1985 (at the height of his fame with the release of the Boy In The Box album) and 1987 (as he toured with the follow-up album Fields Of Fire). And here’s a Video Hits interview with one of my favourite late-’80s Canadian bands, The Jitters, in which the band members talk a bit about the Q107 history they shared with Sam.
Even though I was still getting regular exposure to music videos on weekly shows like Good Rockin’ Tonite and Switchback during my Video Hits viewership years, I credit Sam Taylor and company for promoting a significant cross-section of Canadian pop-rock talent in the ’80s. Video Hits is responsible for my first genuine exposure to the likes of Gowan, Kim Mitchell, Honeymoon Suite, Frozen Ghost, The Box, Platinum Blonde, Boulevard, Chalk Circle, Sass Jordan, Luba, Sheree, One To One, Tu, and BAMFF. (Click each name for my favourite ’80s video from each artist; prepare to be entertained, and in a few cases, completely baffled.)
By its third season, Video Hits – which was now using Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” as its theme song – had become a regular daily fixture in the Cooke home in St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia. My younger sister and I kept the VCR running to record our favourite songs as soon as they popped up. (The concept of using a computer – or, for that matter, a phone – to search for and play these songs at any time of the day or night, decades later, would have blown our minds.) We feverishly participated in the show’s contests and even picked up a copy of The Video Hits Album (here’s a promo), which remains the only cassette in my collection containing songs by Loverboy, Platinum Blonde, The Arrows, Paul Young and Janet Jackson.
Now, if you’ve been following this blog (you poor souls), you might remember that I had made several positive connections by sending fan mail to various CBC folks (including the network president) during my preteen and teenage years. With this in mind, I thought I’d try my luck with Video Hits and maybe even give them a few requests for their hour-long Friday request show. Imagine the surprise and delight in my 13-year-old, eighth-grade heart in the spring of 1986 when I received a handwritten postcard from Samantha herself, thanking me for my suggestions for Video Hits features (“In fact, I’m working on incorporating some of them into the show right now!”) and responding to several of my queries (“P.S. No, I’m not married – not yet!”).
To put this in perspective, I should stress that my correspondence with Sam Taylor had all the subtlety you would expect from a red-blooded heterosexual Canadian adolescent. I think my first fan letter was reasonably respectful, but I’m surprised that Sam would still consider writing to me after getting a late-1986 video-request letter which opened with the claim that my Christmas would be perfect if I found Sam under my tree “in a skin-tight swimsuit.” (I suspect I would have had a hard time explaining such a Yuletide visit to my family. Or, for that matter, to Santa.)
Amazingly, Sam responded to this nonsense with a cheery early-1987 postcard that began, “Hello and Happy New Year to my Nova Scotia connection,” pledged that she would try to play at least one of my requests, and concluded: “Stay groovy, Adam! Love, Sam Taylor.” (Yes, one of the most recognizable Canadian faces in the ’80s music-video scene was encouraging her teenage fans to “stay groovy.”)
I was beyond “groovy”; I was smitten. Still a year away from landing my first job as a newspaper editorial cartoonist, I tried to impress Sam by sending her drawings of herself. Most of these were tasteful bits of frivolity, but in the summer of 1987 I depicted her as the woman at the 2:50 mark of this Rock and Hyde video (even wearing the same swimsuit), doing an underwater version of Video Hits in front of an audience of happy fish.
To this day I remain amazed that Sam’s response, arriving in our family mailbox roughly three months later, was a lovely Christmas card. I’m sure she sent cards to thousands of fans that same year, including a handful of young male viewers who were likely responding to her physical appearance more than anything else. The fact that she was able to carry herself with such class and grace, and recognize hormonal teenage boys for the confused piles of protoplasm that they were, speaks volumes of the kind of person Sam Taylor really was (and is), on and off-camera.
Around this time, I started to notice that, as with any highly-visible public figure of the day, Sam Taylor had her detractors. One of my Grade 10 classmates earned the nickname “Sam Taylor” because of her constantly-changing hairstyles. (It wasn’t a compliment.) The following summer, Heather and Cookie Rankin – not yet touring with The Rankin Family but doing comedy skits in The Cape Breton Summertime Revue – played two Sydney-area teenagers attempting to identify aliens in their midst, based on helpful hints on “unusual behaviour” provided by supermarket tabloids. Cookie gasped: “Samantha Taylor on Video Hits!” Heather retorted: “She’s not an alien, she’s a snot!” (Other “potential aliens” named in the same skit: Bryan Adams, Platinum Blonde, Madonna, Brian Mulroney, Queen Elizabeth II, Mikhail Gorbachev, “Lucy Coe from General Hospital,” and “everybody in Grade 8.”)
The unkindest cut of all came at a birthday party for one of my high school friends in September 1989, just as I was beginning my grad year. I wasn’t invited to a lot of parties back then, particularly with this specific group of friends, so I wanted to make a good impression and show I was ready for anything. And that’s how I wound up playing a game of “Embarrassing Questions,” with a female friend asking a book’s worth of probing queries to the awkward teenagers assembled that night on the shores of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake.
I can’t remember the exact question this friend asked me, but for the sake of moving this story along while keeping this blog post in PG territory, let’s say it involved some variation of “Who would your dream date be?” I didn’t even have to think: “Samantha Taylor,” I eagerly responded.
I was greeted with a chorus of: “Samantha Taylor?!?” “The one from Video Hits?” “You can’t be serious!” After the laughter and taunts had died down, the girl asking the questions looked at me and said, without a trace of irony: “You must have meant Samantha Fox.”
Heartbroken but meekly wanting the attention taken off me, I mumbled, “Yeah, I guess I meant Samantha Fox.”
With all due respect to Ms. Fox, who does a fine job of horseback riding and underwater lip-syncing and had released a decent cover of this Dusty Springfield song earlier that summer, I most certainly did not mean Samantha Fox. I meant the smart, talented, pop-culture savvy broadcaster who had wrapped up her five years on Video Hits the previous month, resulting in one last caricature, which depicted that odd teenage viewer from Cape Breton grabbing a bemused Sam by the ankle and begging her not to leave the show.
Video Hits never felt the same after Sam Taylor left. Her immediate replacement, an affable young man named Bryan Elliott, was likable enough and definitely put in the effort but seemed to lack Sam’s on-camera confidence and in-depth knowledge of the music scene. (Watching this promo spot for his first season as Video Hits host, I was somewhat struck to see Elliott giving off a bit of a Ben Mulroney vibe.)
Two years after Sam’s departure, I was quite surprised to randomly turn on my little TV set in my university dorm room and find the show re-branded as Dan Gallagher’s Video Hits, now hosted by the goofy, in-your-face dude that cut his teeth as a MuchMusic host, hosting the game show Test Pattern from 1989-91. To his credit, Gallagher delivered a welcome energy to the series, but the changing media landscape and shifting CBC priorities led the network to cancel Video Hits after its ninth season. (In one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on The JUNO Awards, presenter John McDermott reworked “Danny Boy” as a tribute to a comically-sobbing Gallagher, who had received the cancellation notice days earlier. The tears were more real in 2001, when Gallagher unexpectedly died at the age of 53.)
Sam Taylor, meanwhile, virtually disappeared from the national spotlight after her CBC days ended in the summer of 1989. According to blogger Toronto Mike, she now goes by Samantha Taylor Bojeczko and “seems very happy living her life right here in Toronto.” (Trivia: Before adopting the “Sam Taylor” moniker in her early twenties, she went by her original name, Myroslava Lastivka Lydia Luciw.)
Ms. Bojeczko, if you ever wind up reading this: Thank you for the effort you put into both Video Hits and its fan base in the mid-to-late ’80s, and for influencing a young man who wound up having careers rooted in both music and media/broadcasting.
And thank you for putting up with a teenage admirer from Nova Scotia who, you’ll be relieved to hear, has grown up, found Jesus, and just celebrated his ninth wedding anniversary. (With a woman who brought a Frozen Ghost album into our marriage, no less. She is definitely my dream date – I’ll even say, as Frozen Ghost did in their second video, that she’s my “Dream Come True.”)
Stay groovy, Sam.
[Footnote: For the complete list of songs played on Video Hits in 1984 – no, I’m not making this up – click here.]