Proudly Canadian: Big Sugar

Big Sugar Photo Credit Michael Maxxis_0.jpg

Submitted to Cashbox Canada
Photo Credit Michael Maxxis

Big Sugar are a Canadian blues, reggae rock band. They were active from 1991 to 2004 and again since April 2010, currently still performing.

Big Sugar officially formed in 1988 in Toronto, Ontario, consisting of vocalist and guitarist Gordie Johnson, bassist Terry Wilkins, and drummer Al Cross, though the three musicians had already played together for several years as a supporting band for Molly Johnson's jazz performances and as an informal jam band with members of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. After Molly Johnson returned to rock music with Infidels, she helped her former bandmates to secure a record deal; their eponymous debut album was released in 1991 on Hypnotic Records.

After Wilkins left the band in 1993, Big Sugar recorded the album Five Hundred Pounds with the help of guest musicians, including harmonica and tenor saxophonist Kelly Hopple, also known as Mr. Chill. Hoppe brought a blues and old-school r'n'b influence into the band's sound. Hoppe would become an official member of the band in September 1994. He would later add keyboards and melodica to his sideman responsibilities. In July 1994, bassist Garry Lowe joined the band. Lowe had moved to Canada in the mid-1970s from Kingston, Jamaica. Soon after arriving in Toronto, he became an in-demand bass player for touring reggae recording artists. He often accompanied them at Toronto's famed Bamboo club on Queen St.W., among other venues. Lowe was a founding member of "Culture Shock", a popular Toronto reggae band. Johnson, an avid reggae maven (and one-time bass player), had been a fan of Lowe's and was overjoyed when he agreed to join Big Sugar as a full-time member.

Big Sugar had slowly built a reputation as an outstanding live band, and Five Hundred Pounds consolidated it; the album sold 10,000 copies in Canada on the strength of their live shows without any real publicity or radio airplay. During this time, Gordie Johnson also recorded an album as Don't Talk Dance, with Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies and Chris Brown of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.

In 1995, the band released two EPs; Dear M.F., which featured a cover version of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy"; and Ride Like Hell. Following the release of these EPs, Stich Wynston left the band and was replaced by Walter "Crash" Morgan. During the band's tour that year, however, Morgan suffered a heart attack, collapsed, and died on stage during a show in Iowa. Longtime band associate Raffa Dean was enlisted to finish the tour, and former Odds member Paul Brennan subsequently joined as the band's new drummer, appearing on one of their most commercially successful albums, 1996's Hemi-Vision.

Hemi-Vision's single "Opem Up Baby" was a notable first for the band, who recorded a French version of that song, "Ouvres-Toi Bébé", for radio stations in Quebec. The song gained widespread airplay in the province, and for their next album, 1998's Platinum-selling Heated, the band recorded a French version of each single they released; the French songs were collected on the 1999 EP Chauffe à bloc. Also that year, Johnson and Hoppe performed several acoustic shows as a duo under the names "Little Sugar" or "Two Fools on Stools".

Cross returned as drummer in 1999. The band also added a new rhythm guitarist, Mojah. In July of that year the band performed at Woodstock 1999.
In 2000, the band released a dub album, Extra Long Life, under the stage name Alkaline.

In 2001, Big Sugar released Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready? Taking their abilities in writing and performing French material to its logical conclusion, a complete track-for-track French version, Brothers and Sisters, Êtes Vous Ready?, was released the same year. Only the English album concluded with a blistering rendition of "O Canada".

The two-CD compilation Hit & Run, featuring a greatest hits disc that included a special edition, limited run live concert performance disc, was released in 2003.
Big Sugar, known for its thundering rock shows performed without set lists, played their last concert before splitting up on December 31, 2003, at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton, Alberta. Gordie "Grady" Johnson immediately formed the Austin, Texas-based band Grady and later joined Wide Mouth Mason as their full-time bassist, and also started the gospel dub duo Sit Down, Servant!! when he began playing steel guitar. Kelly Hoppe formed Mr. Chill & The Witnesses, a roots music group. Mojah and Garry Lowe went on to form Truth and Rights Revue, a reggae band, and have released one album to date.

The band reunited in 2010, playing their first show since 2003 at Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival in Whistler, B.C. on April 23, with tour dates through summer 2010. A new studio album evolved and was released in June 2011, titled Revolution Per Minute. This recording included Stephane Beaudin "Bodean" on drums and new full-time band member "DJ Friendlyness" as the fifth member of Big Sugar. Revolution Per Minute was released on both cd and vinyl with the vinyl album containing bonus "Alkaline" dub remixes and additional songs. 2012 was the first ever DVD release when Eliminate Ya! Live!, a double CD/DVD set that included a new single covering Al Tuck's "Eliminate Ya!" was released.

Big Sugar are still actively performing and are on the tour circuit with many dates across Ontario. For more visit www.bigsugar.com