Bernie Finkelstein – True North – A Life in the Music Business

Cover, April 13, 2012

Story: Sandy Graham

The name Bernie Finkelstein is synonymous with success in the music business. What most of us know is that Finkelstein is a Torontonian and a leading figure in the Canadian music business. We know he managed The Paupers from 1966–1967, Kensington Market from 1967-1969 and founded True North Records in 1969. Through 1972-1981, in partnership with Bernie Fiedler (1972-1981) he managed the careers of Ronnie Abramson, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill.

We know until 2011, Bernie was the Chairman of MUCHFACT for 26 years, an organization he co-founded with Moses Znaimer in 1984 when it was known as VideoFACT. Bernie was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2006, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (CARAS) awarded Bernie the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, which is only given to "individuals who have contributed to the growth of the Canadian music industry". Bernie Finkelstein has also been the recipient of the prestigious Order of Canada in 2007.

What most of us do not know is Bernie Finkelstein lived in England with his parents (his Dad was in the Air Force so the family travelled and lived on bases) got to see Buddy Holly live, loved old rock ‘ roll songs like Stay - Maurice Willams, Cathy’s Clown - The Everly Brothers, Stagger Lee - Lloyd Price and Running Bear by Johnny Preston (we always thought Bernie was a folkie) was a bit of a pool shark as a kid, started off as a bouncer in the Yorkville clubs (as well as chief cook and bottle washer) worked for Honest Ed’s and part of his job to was to drive the mother of Ed Mirvish home at night.

Bernie Finkelstein and Bruce CockburnBernie Finkelstein and Bruce CockburnRead Finkelstein's autobiography, "True North: A Life Inside The Music Business", and you find out it has always been all about the music for Bernie. He cried when his parents took him to see the Elvis Presley movie ‘Love Me Tender’, not because the movie made him sad but because there was only one song in it. He loved living in England as he could share his knowledge of American rock ‘n’ roll with his schoolmates.

Bernie Finkelstein Photo Credit Daniel KeeblerBernie Finkelstein Photo Credit Daniel KeeblerWe also find out he started his strategic way of hustling and bustling early in his youth; acting as a ‘valet’ and charging people to park in what was a free parking lot. He became the crusader for his acts at an early age. When he first started to manage The Paupers, the band told him their equipment was being held in ‘hawk’ at Long & McQuade, with a debt of $ 100.00. Needing the band to play a gig, Bernie went to his Dad and asked him for a loan of $ 100.00 to start a new business. His Dad gave him $ 75.00 and said that was all he was going to do. Bernie then took it to Long & McQuade, where he paid $ 75.00 and got the band equipment back – his first wheeling and dealing in the business.

The PaupersThe PaupersIn December 2007, True North was acquired by an investment group led by Linus Entertainment (Finkelstein remains as chairman and long-term consultant) Finkelstein talks of walking into the bank with a cheque in the amount of seven figures. Thinking the teller would react to such  a large deposit Bernie goes to the bank. “I thought for sure bells would go off and the teller would turn a spotlight on both me and my deposit. Surely the teller would demand more identification than I usually carried or at least ask me a few skill-testing questions before accepting my deposit. But none of that happened. The teller barely blinked, took the deposit, stamped it a few times, and told me to have a nice day. I said I would give it a try and that was that. I headed out into the snowstorm.”

Finkelstein in his officeFinkelstein in his officeThis book is how Bernie Finkelstein got to the bank. When asked if life slowed down for Bernie Finkelstein since he sold his label, True North Records,  “Let’s put it this way: before, I had a million balls in the air, and now I have 10 or 15.”

True North Book coverBernie Finkelstein’s latest ‘gift’ to the music business is the release of his book, ‘True North – A Life in the Music Business’. Sitting down to read it for a Cashbox review, I had no idea what to expect, but it is a great read. Finkelstein gets you involved in his life, tells some great stories, brings his vulnerability and incredible music business intuition to the pages of memoirs.

The foreword is written by singer/songwriter, True North Label artist and long-time friend Murray Mclauchlan. “This is self-penned autobiography so it is up to Bernie to tell his own story in his own way. But in spite of his fearsome reputation for planting himself in other people’s offices and hectoring them until he gets what he wants, he has always been better at blowing other people’s horns than his own. Compliments will leave him speechless.” There is so much more to say about this great literary journey of not just the True North man, who not only got this little label up and running, but built it into one of the most progressive independent labels in the world. “Bernie was a champion; a guy who stuck up for you.”

After decades in the business, Bernie Finkelstein still has ‘it’, now as an author of a great book, and a legacy to his long and colourful career. ‘True North – A Life in the Music Business’ is published by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. and is available as of Saturday April 17, 2012 and will be available in all major outlets.

Editor’s Note: Finklestein remains on the Board of Directors for CIMA, and continues to run Finkelstein Management Company with his son Noah, still guiding the career of long-time artist and friend, Bruce Cockburn.