Vinyl Café music director to share stories
By Chad Ingram
Published March 23, 2017
Many Canadians felt they knew Stuart McLean, listening to his unique and familiar voice read his stories on CBC Radio for years.
But John Sheard really knew McLean, and knew him well.
Sheard was the music director of McLean’s Vinyl Café for 20 years and will be speaking at the Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library’s Lunch and Learn event in April.
“Honestly, I think he was exactly the kind of person you might think he was,” says Sheard, a Toronto-based pianist and composer who started with The Vinyl Café in 1997, just a year after the show first hit the airwaves.
Recording, performing, writing and arranging with artists such as Celine Dion, The Pointer Sisters, Ian Tyson and Art Garfunkel, among many others, Sheard had been living life as a musician on the road for a couple of decades by the time be he joined The Vinyl Café. He and fellow Toronto musician Chris Whiteley were essentially the show’s house band, travelling the country with McLean, providing musical interludes between his readings.
“Basically, Stuart would read two short stories, a long one and some vignettes,” says Sheard, adding the vignettes were often carefully researched tidbits about whatever community they were visiting. “We’d maybe play Ain’t Misbehavin’, some jazz, some Gershwin, some blues.”
McLean’s most famous stories were about the adventures of Dave, the owner of a fictitious record shop called The Vinyl Café, and his wife Morley. They were the show’s hallmark.
As the show’s fan base grew, so did its bus. During the later years, the crew of The Vinyl Café were crisscrossing Canada in a large tour coach. While they did performances in cities, part of the show’s appeal was that it often visited small towns. Sometimes very small towns.
“The small towns were more memorable, for sure,” Sheard says, explaining that the entire population of these communities often knew that McLean was on his way. “They’d see the bus rolling in. There’d be five people waiting for you before the doors opened.”
Sheard breaks into a bang-on McLean impression, imitating his conversations with fans.
He says the theatres of a few hundred people could often fit a good percentage of a community’s residents into them.
“You’d be probably running into everybody you knew.”
Sheard recalls McLean as charismatic and kind, someone who liked to have fun and truly enjoyed meeting and talking with his fans.
He was also an extremely hard worker.
“He’d sit on that bus and he’d sit with his laptop,” Sheard says, adding it wasn’t unusual for McLean to spend an entire 10-hour bus ride reading and writing.
Sometimes those bus trips would go off course if McLean had a tip he wanted to investigate, those tips often involving eccentric people with eccentric hobbies, who would wind up as subjects of future stories.
“Sometimes they paid off, sometimes they didn’t,” Sheard says. “He had a real adventuresome spirit. We were sort of infatuated by his joie de vivre.”
McLean was incredibly responsive to his fans.
“He answered every email,” Sheard says. “Thousands of them. He answered them all. He was a great man and a great Canadian.”
In late 2015, McLean announced that he had melanoma and in December of 2016, announced that he was putting The Vinyl Café on hold after treatments had proven ineffective and he prepared to begin another round.
McLean died on Feb. 15 of this year, at age 68.
Many, including Sheard, figured McLean would get better and that the show would go on. After all, the success rate for the treatment McLean was receiving was 85 per cent.
“He just wasn’t part of that 85 per cent,” says Sheard, who described McLean as incredibly healthy for a man his age, someone who did everything in moderation.
McLean’s parents both lived into their 90s.
“We used to tell him he was going to live to be 100,” Sheard says. “If I learned anything from what happened to Stuart and his quite quick demise, it’s that you can’t count on anything. Go out there and do it.”
The Lunch and Learn event will take place on Wednesday, April 19 starting at noon at the Community Room at 13523 Hwy. 118 in Haliburton. Sheard is scheduled to speak at 1 p.m.
Coincidentally, that day would have been McLean’s birthday.