DURHAM’S MUSIC SCENE: Jack de Keyzer keeps the blues alive

Blues musician Jack de Keyzer plays guitar in his living room in Courtice, Ont. Photo credit: Melanie Lennon

Clarington-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Jack de Keyzer always had the love of music in him.

Growing up in London, England during the 1950s, the award-winning artist was surrounded by music. He says the first musician who stood out to him as a child was Cliff Richard from UK-based rock group, The Shadows.

“I remember when I was about six or seven, my mom took me to see this movie called The Young Ones, which was a Cliff Richard movie,” he says. “At the end of it, I said, you know, ‘Mom, can we watch it again?’”

Yet, it was only after The Beatles formed that de Keyzer decided he wanted to be a musician. He says songs like ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ really “clinched the deal” for him.

He says his family moved to Hamilton, Ont. around 1964. This was when he got his first guitar.

“I got some books and kind of taught myself,” he says. “As I started playing with better musicians, the circumference got larger. Then I started playing with musicians from Hamilton and then eventually musicians from all over the world.”

de Keyzer established a name for himself while playing guitar for numerous bands and musicians, including King Biscuit, Ronnie Hawkins, Robert Gordon and, most notably, the 1980s-rockabilly band, The Bopcats.

“We were kind of like Canada’s version of the Stray Cats and we played all across Canada. We put out several albums and that’s when I started writing songs,” he explains.

In 1989, de Keyzer began his solo career. He says the transition from band member to band leader wasn’t easy.

“I would say the toughest part was not losing my voice as being the singer, and building up the strength and confidence to be able to get out there and sing every night,” says de Keyzer. “Also, to hold the crowd’s attention, you know. You don’t realize when you’re just playing guitar that there’s an audience out there that wants to be entertained.”

With more than 30 years as a frontman, the 65-year-old has developed a firm understanding of what the role entails.

He says other artists may dance around to hold the crowd’s attention, but his approach is much simpler.

“My tactic is music,” he says with a shrug. “I always admired Eric Clapton because to me it was like one of the top guitarist stars in the world and the guy never was flashy, never jumped around…So, I sort of thought if, you know, as long as I keep practising and be as good as I can, hopefully that will engage the audience.”

In his solo career, de Keyzer has released 12 albums.

He won a Juno Award in 2003 and 2010 for Blues Album of the Year. He’s also received seven Maple Blues Awards and two Music Express Canada Awards.

de Keyzer says there’s been a number of standout moments in his career.

“The first time I played, there was a big stage in Toronto called Ontario Place Forum…and I played there, which was pretty amazing because I’d seen so many of my heroes play there,” he pauses, sorting through his memories.

“There was another time when we were playing at this club on Bloor Street…and I had my eyes closed,” he grins. “All of a sudden, I felt like something was going on and I opened my eyes and there was a woman in a leather bikini with a studded leash holding a tiger. I don’t think they would get away with that today.”

de Keyzer says other standout moments include playing alongside “heroes” Etta James, Bo Diddley and Otis Rush.

However, not every moment of his career has been eventful, but one thing always keeps him going.

“Well the music, you know,” he smiles. “There’s always a point where you’re driving and you know, there’s ice and snow or it’s far and…something clicks in my head that I get to play music.”