I Remember Charlie Biddle
Charlie Biddle – even the name sounds like show biz. But it didn't take long for that name to become a pseudonym for Montreal jazz. I guess it helps to a club named after you.
When anyone talked of Montreal jazz, Charlie’s name always came up. Truly he was one of those larger-than-life figures. Not only did he have a big personality, but he was physically a big man. When he would shake my hand, it was like shaking hands with a bear. My hand would be engulfed up to my wrist; he’d hold it like that for a couple of seconds and grin at me, and I was never fully sure whether he’d give it back or not.
Charlie was an ambassador of jazz. He made things happen. He created a music scene where there was none. Sure, he played bass. But that was only a part of his talent. His other and perhaps more important talent was that he made people feel good. He made regular people feel good about listening to jazz. Charlie made friends with everyone, so eventually he had a lot of friends. And a lot of influence.
I played with Biddle on many occasions, too numerous to count. We played duo, we played trio, we played with horn players, we played with singers.
Before he founded the club that would bear his name, Charlie Biddle and Nelson Symonds were an inseparable duo. In fact, that was the first time I ever heard either Charlie or Nelson – playing together. It was a remarkable thing to see and hear. These two seemed as one, and played a high energy music that would overwhelm you after a few minutes. It was totally compelling. Hypnotic. In fact, I never saw Nelson without Charlie for a number of years. They were like one guy.
I started hiring Charlie from time to time in those early days of my own jazz career. I found his playing sporadic. At times, it was uncertain, yet at other times it was remarkably solid. When he was on, Charlie was very on and he played great. I soon began to understand that the quality of Charlie’s playing depended upon his mood and who was on the bandstand with him, mostly the latter. If he was playing with some illustrious out-of-towner, his playing was extraordinary. But if it was just another night behind a mediocre singer, his playing declined and his level of inebriation rose. Yet make no mistake – when Charlie was inspired, he laid down those bass lines like railroad tracks for a train to come thundering through.
It didn’t matter in what environment you met Charlie, he was always the same - authentic. I remember visiting him at his country house - was it in Vermont? He’d show me around the area with that “aw shucks” banter, and effusing hospitality. Yet he was a proud man. He was proud of his achievements and he was proud of his family.
Of course, the greatest memories for me were those on the bandstand at the club which bore his namesake, “Biddles”. After Oliver Jones moved on, I became the regular pianist there, playing every Thursday through Saturday night for my last nine months as a Montrealer, prior to moving to Toronto. Charlie and I (along with various drummers) played behind some wonderful horn players and vocalists. We particularly enjoyed having Ranee Lee as a guest, a vocalist whom Charlie seem to have “discovered” for his club. Charlie’s mood and playing depended on who was out front, and when Ranee was there Charlie wore a constant smile. When she started singing, I would look over at Charlie and he’d grin back at me, his big head bobbing up and down to music. The club was always packed, especially on a Saturday night. After each set Charlie would introduce the band, announcing our names with great flourish, like we were royalty. But for himself, he used the understated monogram “Charlie Biddle on the fiddle.” There would be thunderous applause.
Had Charlie Biddle not been on the “fiddle”, there would have been none of these great performances. Oliver Jones was hoisted into the limelight by Charlie, and went on to become one of Canada’s jazz stars. Ranee Lee became a name of musical theatre as well as jazz vocals. And whatever had passed between Nelson Symonds and Charlie to cause the duo to break up in earlier years, Charlie made sure that Nelson was one of the regular featured artists at the club along with everyone else.
I still wonder why it was only when Charlie was on his deathbed that the government came to call, to commend his contribution. He was given the order of Canada with a house call, hastily followed by a similar award from the Quebec government which scurried in at the end. But they were the latecomers. We were there, and we remember Charlie Biddle’s goodness.