Gene MacLellan’s contribution to the Canadian songbook is legendary. He penned several top forty hits in the early seventies including Snowbird, Put Your Hand in the Hand, The Call and Bidin’ My Time. Standing in the shadow of those songs was a thoughtful songwriter and reluctant performer, carefully articulating his own pain and loss. A decade after his tragic death, while many in the musicians still hold him in high regard, Gene remains an enigmatic characterat the fringes of Canadian culture.
“He was a really talented man who only cared about songs. He didn’t care about the music business, and that makes the industry people frustrated.” -Ron Hynes
As a child he endured the trials of polio and a heart condition, and later, several car accidents left him scarred physically and wounded emotionally. That personal pain gave his songs a credibility that can’t be contrived. Radio broadcaster and friend, Eric MacEwen said, “His heart understood loneliness and lost love, and he had a penchant for melody that was phenomenal.”
Ironically most people who met Gene would describe him as friendly and upbeat. His manager Jack McAndrew put it this way, “Self-effacement is a winsome quality, and endears you to people, and Gene had that. I don’t think he took himself seriously, but he took what he did seriously.”
Born in the northern Quebec mining town of Val d’Or in February, 1938, Gene spent his formative years in Toronto where his family lived a typically suburban life, kept a tidy yard and attended church regularly. He fared miserably in music class at school, but took up the guitar when he was 10, quickly becoming adept. His sister remembers “piling into our parents’ bed with Gene on Saturday mornings and singing songs together.” By 13 or 14, Gene would come home from school with songs or poems written on scraps of paper.
In the late fifties, Gene dropped out of high school and started playing with various bands in Toronto’s early rock and roll scene. The Consuls, led by Bruce Morshead featured Gene on guitar and vocals. Robbie Robertson also joined the band for a short stint. The Consuls sometimes opened for Ronnie Hawkins, who Gene would later say influenced him more than anyone else.
While most bands in Canada were covering the new sounds coming out of the U.S., Gene and other band members were writing original tunes and adding them to their repertoire. “I wrote a couple of things when I was with the Consuls,” Gene recounted in a later interview. “Bruce was writing then too, we were about the only two guys around then doing any writing. We probably had about five or six songs to our credit.”
Gene left Toronto and roamed about the east coast, working as a busboy in Rhode Island, singing with a travelling evangelist, and eventually harvesting produce on farms in PEI. He may have been gathering material for the song he would later write about a prodigal wanderer, Thorn in My Shoe.
By 1964 Gene had settled down, living with his aunt at Pownal, PEI near Charlottetown, and working as an attendant at the Riverside Psychiatric Hospital. That’s where he started writing songs seriously and sent out a demo tape to some broadcasting outlets, including the Don Messer TV Show in Halifax.
A regular gig on the Don Messer Show, starting in 1966, led to a brief stint touring with Hal ‘Lonepine’ Breau, a country singer and father of the jazz guitarist, Lenny Breau. Invited to join the cast of Singalong Jubilee, another CBC TV production, Gene was introduced to a rising talent named Anne Murray and began a professional relationship that would change both of their lives. Anne remembers him fondly, “ He was quiet and very unassuming, but he had a wonderful, wicked sense of humour. He kept us all in stitches on the Singalong set with these little asides here and there.”
Over her career Anne would record a dozen or more of Gene’s compositions, most notably Snowbird, a catchy, singable melody articulating the sorrow of false love. “Gene told me he wrote the song in 20 minutes when he was walking on a beach in P.E.I,” she says. “It’s so appropriate, the mental picture of Gene–this frail little guy on the beach in the middle of winter, seeing these birds and conjuring up this image.”
“Gene was a wonderful poet and a wonderful man and his gift of a song started me on a career that continues to amaze me with each passing year.” -Anne Murray
The success of Anne Murray’s recording of Snowbird in 1970 overshadowed the release of Gene’s self-titled, first album recorded in Nashville that same year. A slightly modified album was released in the U.S. a few months later under the title Street Corner Preacher. He was married that year and at the age of 32, it seemed like things were coming together, at last, for the late blooming songwriter.
“What I start out with is a sound. I get a sound in my head. Writing tunes, to me, is the easiest part,” Gene told music journalist, Larry Leblanc. “I have to be in the frame of mind to write. I just can’t sit down and write any old time.”
In the early seventies, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar played on Broadway and the Jesus People movement was in full swing. Although he probably didn’t plan it that way, the timing was right for Gene’s gospel song, Put Your Hand in the Hand. A knockoff version of the song was recorded by an unknown Canadian group called Ocean, resulting in another huge radio hit for him.
Fans of Gene’s songs wanted to hear him perform them as well. At the peak of his success in 1971, he was playing venues like the CNE, Massey Hall and even the Miss Teen Canada Pageant. TV wanted him, concert promoters wanted him, and he wanted out.
“I’m getting awfully tired of the business,” he told journalists. “I’d just like to be by myself for the next few years, but that’s impossible the way things are going.” A year later, his marriage failed and he sold his farm, he tried to give away the rights to his songs and left the spotlight completely for five years.
The Gene MacLellan who returned to the public eye in 1977 had a quiet confidence and renewed sense of purpose. He had an album of new songs, If It’s Alright With You, remarried and started a family. His spiritual journey had taken him full circle, back to the Christian faith he had known as a child.
Gene was playing gospel music, performing in churches and prisons. One prison inmate, Harold Shea, often spoke about the different path his life took because of Gene’s involvement. When he attended Gene’s funeral, he said he was able to cry for the first time in many years. “I had lost a man I dearly loved, a man who had led me to deep places in God.”
Continuing to write songs, Gene would involve himself in two collaborative recordings before his death — Gene & Marty with Marty Reno and Reunion with Janice Lapointe. Refuge, a group Gene formed with old musical friends Tom Kelly and Marty Reno performed on CBC Radio in the mid-eighties.
In those later years, fellow East Coast songwriter, Ron Hynes would run into Gene occasionally. “I had the great pleasure of co-hosting a writer’s workshop with him,” Ron remembers. “He literally refused to offer any critique of the work being presented by the participating writers, but rather he said he had ‘enjoyed that song and keep up the good work.’”
The back cover of Gene’s first LP displays a black and white photo of his face, partially hidden behind the patch that he wore over his left eye. The other half of his face disappears into blackness. That photo expresses well the dark mystery of the songwriter’s life.
Jack McAndrew said, “Gene had embodied deep within his persona that dark side of creativity that has led so many writers and composers to depression.” There is a spiritual yearning, a lonely search for grace that threads its way through his songs.
In January of 1995, shortly after returning home from a hospital stay, Gene took his own life. He was buried in a churchyard in rural PEI, leaving three children and many friends mourning.
“He was such a gentle presence. He touched a lot of people and he left a string of songs that everyone knows.” -Lennie Gallant
Since his death, Gene has been honoured with numerous awards and his name was given to a drop-in centre for ex-offenders in Nova Scotia. His song, Snowbird, was one of the first inducted into the new Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (Put Your Hand in the Hand joined it in February of this year). Perhaps Gene’s greatest legacy is the burgeoning career of his daughter, Catherine MacLellan, a singer/songwriter based in the Maritimes.