Long before there was a Long & McQuade store in Oshawa to serve the musical community, artists relied on Mike Kupnicki to buy instruments.
Kupnicki, who started and ran Alto Music for many years, is being recognized posthumously as one of the Lifetime Achievement Award winners at this year’s Oshawa Music Awards (OMA). He passed away in 1997 at age 78.
Born in 1918, he grew up an only child in Port Hope, Ont. and was drawn to music from a young age. His father, Martin, was a factory worker and his mother, Josephine, a homemaker.
Yet, his interests were elsewhere.
According to Dianne Clements, 73, the youngest of his two daughters, Kupnicki began taking violin lessons as a child.
“The violin was his first and lifelong love and he practised and took lessons to increase his skill his whole life,” she says.
Despite his passion for music, Kupnicki eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and began working at General Motors. On the side, Clements says he’d play in dance bands and Ukrainian bands to earn extra money.
In the early 1950s, Clements says her dad ran the Edgewater Pavilion in Bobcaygeon, Ont. It was open during the summer, with live bands for dancing and entertainment.
“I still remember the sparkling, silver ball that rotated over the dance floor,” says Clements, who lives in Vermont.
Later that decade, Kupnicki turned his passion into a full-time career and opened his store, Alto Music. Clements says he decided on the name “Alto” because it would be listed first in the phone book.
His eldest daughter, Sonia McMillan, 77, says its first location on Albert Street in Oshawa only made $7 during its first week of business. However, that didn’t discourage Kupnicki.
As time went on, she says the store kept growing in popularity. McMillan believes it was the result of her father’s geniality.
“He was a musician first and a storekeeper second,” explains McMillan, who lives in Picton, Ont. “If people came in to rent equipment and their gig didn’t go too well, often he’d say, ‘well, don’t worry about paying me. I’ll catch up next time when you make some money.’”
Eventually, Alto Music moved to Simcoe Street, where Kupnicki opened two separate locations.
Clements says her dad was able to exhibit all of his musical skills after making this transition.
“He could pick up any instrument a customer was interested in and play it beautifully. Piano, accordion, organ, clarinet, guitar, bass,” she shares. “The music store allowed him to immerse himself in music as well as earn a living to support his family.”
Kupnicki wanted to share his knowledge with young musicians in the area. As a result, he arranged for music lessons to be taken at Alto Music on Saturdays.
McMillan says she would help out at the store during ‘lesson’ days.
“I kind of absorbed some of the feeling of the store and it was just a madhouse on Saturdays…there would be accordion teachers and guitar teachers and piano teachers and drum teachers, and it’s all going on at the same time,” she reminisces. “Of course, everybody smoked then. So, there’s ashtrays all over the [basement]…and just a haze of smoke. It was amazing.”
However, Saturday wasn’t the only day to jam at Kupnicki’s store. McMillan says her dad was notorious for encouraging the same behaviour all week long.
“He was so obliging and kind to musicians and they used to hang out in his store,” she says. “He didn’t care really if they bought anything and you know, there was so many times when he’d have almost like an informal jazz session right in the middle of the store.”
Clements says Kupnicki was involved in music outside the store, too.
Her father created his own record label called ‘Alto Records’, which was used to produce Ukrainian music recorded in Oshawa. She says he also played at various Ukrainian weddings and eventually became the first violinist with what is now known as the Ontario Philharmonic, which is based out of Oshawa.
“I can remember as a girl, he would go down into our rec room and I could just hear him going over phrases until he got a phrase perfect,” says McMillan.
After years in the business, Kupnicki sold Alto Music to Long & McQuade in the 1980s.
He spent a good portion of the following decade in Florida, playing with The Florida Orchestra before he passed away.
Kupnicki’s daughters say they’re overjoyed about their father winning a Lifetime Achievement Award at the OMA.
McMillan says Kupnicki would’ve been equally as thrilled if he were here, too.
“I don’t think he could’ve conceived of getting it. He was very down to earth…I think he would have been over the top, just exhilarated by it,” she says.
Clements says their family is still waiting for another musician to come along with Kupnicki’s skill, vibrancy and wide-ranging interests.
“He loved us…but music was his whole focus,” McMillan explains. “He just lived and breathed music.”
The awards ceremony was set to take place April 3, but is transitioning to an online format instead due to COVID-19.