Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Tribute to Ken Lamanes

A Tribute to Ken Lamanes

August 7, 1945 — September 26, 2012
By Louise Feeney Notley

Ken Lamanes, well-known Hamilton musician and high school music teacher, died on September 26th, 2012. He was 67. His memory lives on with sister Millie, brother Bob, wife Jane, daughters Ann (Mike) and Laura (Dylan), and son Kevin (Kim), grandchildren Jackson and Miles, and many relatives, friends, colleagues, former students and band mates. Condolences and tributes flooded his Facebook page and his Legacy.com memorial website and hundreds gathered to pay their respects at his visitation and attend his funeral on October 1, 2012. 

“He was one of a kind. I can’t believe he’s gone,” wrote Ann Lamanes as she read the condolences and tributes.  “I don't think dad knew how unique and influential he was.” Her sister Laura was equally overwhelmed: “My family and I are truly overwhelmed by the amount of love and support we have gotten from you all. Knowing how much he touched your lives with his gift of music or just his funny, eccentric, full of life personality … has made this time a little bit less difficult because I know he will be remembered always.” 

Ken Lamanes was born in Hamilton on August 7th, 1945. He was the middle child of hard working parents who appreciated music and were astute enough to notice that their children had a knack for it. So they got a piano.

It is 1952. A seven year old boy sits alone under a dining room table, hiding behind the lace tablecloth that cascades like a waterfall down to the floor. He likes to linger there because he can listen to the radio spilling colourful music into the room. He thinks the sound of the violins looks like yellow ribbons floating on air. He listens. Soon, his sister Millie comes into the room and sits at the piano. She is older, almost ten. She begins to practice her lessons, not knowing — or not minding — that he’s there under the table listening. Instinctively he moves closer, and presses his ear against the side of the piano. It feels like thunder. Magical. Powerful.

The boy’s mother notices the way he responds to music and considers enrolling him in dance lessons. But instead, she hires Mable Minus who comes to the house once a week in her green and white Ford to teach piano.  After a few years, they make room for an organ, and piano lessons become organ lessons. He plays all the time.  At home.  At churches.  At Bishop Ryan High School where he is now a student. Liturgical music, classical, show tunes, the blues and rock and roll. He has the ears of a bat, and can play just about anything. Sometimes late at night, his father wakes him up to entertain his friends. He doesn’t seem to mind.  

That boy was Ken Lamanes. On August 13th 1963 he landed his first paying gig. He was 18.  He played for a band called The Delfires but it wasn’t long before band mate Terry Ferris recruited him to play for The Reefers.  Alan Rees, drummer and co-founder of the popular band recalls: “we took on organ because we were looking for more of a blues sound, like the Rolling Stones.” Lamanes played with The Reefers from 1964 to 1965, when he left Hamilton for university. Rees says the band— which included musicians Randy Williams, Joe Ruffo, George Steadman and Jerry Doucette — was disappointed. “There was only two keyboard players worth hiring in Hamilton then, and they were both in our band - Grant Wilson and Ken Lamanes.”

Lamanes had a B3 Hammond organ but his parents wouldn’t let him use it unless he brought it home after every gig or rehearsal. Rees laughs about that. “The Hammond and his Lesley speaker were heavy but worth the effort for the sound. Kenny used to move it around in the backseat of this little red Ford Fairlane convertible. He’d say ‘Can you four guys help me for a second?’  I’d be thinking ‘There’s only four corners on an organ, Kenny, what part are you picking up?’ And he’d say ‘I’m opening the door, DON’T SCRATCH THE CAR!’”

Lamanes took the organ to The University of Western Ontario in London where he studied for an Honours Bachelor of Music and Music Education. Between 1964 and 1969, he lived, slept, ate and breathed music, gigged on weekends and toured through the summers. “I worked so hard at Western. Sometimes I felt like a walking quarter note! Music never left my mind. [Afterwards] I had to be de-programmed,” Lamanes joked. 

It’s a chilly October afternoon in Churchill, Manitoba. The Churchill FiddleStix is rehearsing for a performance at Churchill Hospital. The group of young fiddlers — from grades four through twelve — are Joanne Stover’s  (nee Dresser) music students from Duke of Marlborough School. These kids have played gigs for the locals, jammed for polar bear tourists, and opened for many visiting musicians.  Stover has been teaching music on the edge of the Arctic for over 25 years, but she grew up in Windsor and was Lamanes’ student from 1970-1974 at Riverside Secondary School. Stover credits Lamanes for her career choice and teaching style. “Ken truly cared about his students. He always expected the best, laughed with us, and loved us,” says Stover.  “I modeled my teaching after him.” Stover shared stories of her students with Lamanes on Facebook. “It made him feel like they were his students as well. And, they ARE his students. His influence is everywhere!”

CGHS 1983 Senior Choir
Kevin Shea would agree. A self-proclaimed “worst 3rd Trumpet ever” — Shea remembers when Lamanes first came to Riverside:  “I loved music, but was a terrible player and classical pieces [didn’t] engage me. Mr. Lamanes was exceptional. We could hardly wait to get to music class. When he pulled out Chicago’s 25 or 6 to 4, I could relate to [that].” Shea has fond memories of the time Lamanes scored an orchestral background for a rock band at a school assembly. “He played bass and we added horn stabs and woodwinds,” recalls Shea. “We felt like the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra backing Procol Harum!” He credits Lamanes for stirring a passion for music that led him to a twenty-five year career in radio and the music industry, working for prominent Top 40 stations CKLW Windsor and CKGM Montreal, and Warner Music Canada, Universal Music, and Attic Records.

The Riverside years were formative for Lamanes. “The [Riverside music program] had a profound effect on me. These kids started as early as grade six and by the time they got to senior high school were able to play the spots off the wall! [An] incredible level of musicianship that scared the hell out of a greenhorn like me,” recalled Lamanes. He discovered he was also good with teens. Lamanes was a classically trained musician with a passion for rock and roll. They loved it. 

What do I know? I’m just the guy playing the piano! — Ken Lamanes

Lamanes was a Riverside success, but he wanted to return home to his roots and in 1974 he landed a new gig at Cathedral Girls’ High School in Hamilton. Lamanes was determined to introduce instrumental band into the curriculum. “The marching band was not my thing. It was going to be an instrumental program and I based it on my experience at Riverside. It couldn't be done initially. [At Riverside] grade nine was their fourth year of music; [at CGHS] it was their first. But it gave me a goal.”

For the next nineteen years Lamanes taught, wrote arrangements and scores for band and drama department productions, and directed the band and choir at concerts and on field trips. “There were a lot of sections: junior and senior band, junior and senior choir, guitar and keyboard classes,” says Ron Kocel, a Cathedral music program colleague, now retired. “Ken could bring out the best in any group of students. He could get them excited about what they were doing, [even if] it meant changing the curriculum completely. I rarely ever saw him fail. It wasn’t something he did for a hobby. It was his soul” and if students showed a desire to excel, as former student Chris Tondreau did, Lamanes supported them. 

When Tondreau took guitar at Cathedral in 1985, it wasn’t because he wanted to be a musician. He wanted an easy elective. He thought guitar might be fun if they rocked out on Scorpion tunes, and the class was at the girls’ school — “a no-brainer” says Tondreau with a still boyish grin. But Lamanes had a talent for getting kids interested. “Ken had fun with so many different kinds of music. Whether it was something from CCR, The Band, Liszt, Haydn or Motley Crew. He got us hooked. The next thing I knew I was [ripping out solos for On Broadway] with the tubas and clarinets!”

CGHS 1983 Senior Band

When he decided he wanted a music degree, Lamanes helped Tondreau prepare for auditions. “Ken did what it took to get you to where you needed to be,” says Tondreau. “Whether it was prep periods, lunch hours, or sitting with me after hours and on weekends at his house. [I] had a genuine desire to achieve something and he supported that every step of the way.” Now a grade 5  teacher at Huntington Park and a musician, Tondreau has written, performed, and recorded his own music. Lamanes taught his students to write and record says Tondreau. “We used a little 8-track recorder he had set up. He gave you flexibility to express yourself creatively.” 

Lamanes’ style was unconventional. He wasn’t much for politics or protocol. His decisions were sometimes controversial, but his music program and the students’ personal growth came first for Lamanes. “You spend your whole life building your program. If you’re a music teacher, you’re doing stuff with the kids after hours. That’s the work that you really do. That’s when they’re learning,” says Ron Palangio, Hamilton musician and high school music teacher. “Ken didn’t see a difference between being a music teacher and being a musician and that’s really the best teacher.”

In 1994 Lamanes transferred to St. Thomas More to continue building on the music program that Palangio had carefully nurtured during his tenure there. Palangio moved on to teach music at a number of area high schools, and is now Head of Arts at Cardinal Newman and leads the Ron Palangio Group. On a return visit to STM that year, Palangio was amused by the changes Lamanes had made. “My music room there was … well, not bland, but functional. It looked like a music room! I had Yamaha posters on the walls. But Ken had Tiffany lamps, old instruments and fishing nets decorating the walls. He would dim the lights: ‘welcome to The Ken Lamanes Nightclub!’ The kids loved it!” 

I’m going to work with these people here for a minute or two, while the rest of you finger your parts. — Ken Lamanes

Lamanes’ motivational teaching style, quirky personality and genuine interest in students forged a bond between Lamanes and former St. Thomas More student — saxophonist Sal Rosselli. He was in grade eleven when Lamanes arrived at St. Thomas More. Lamanes recognised Rosselli’s talent immediately, and invited him to a weekend gig. “We played The Poor Folk’s Deli in Brantford.  I was sixteen or seventeen.  That was the night he told me to stop calling him Sir.” Lamanes often followed the nascent careers of his students, jamming with them and showing up at their gigs. But Rosselli seems most grateful for the way Lamanes broadened his horizons. Rosselli was completely into jazz, and had very little exposure to other types of music. “He brought in music that I would never have otherwise listened to, like Hotel California — he gave us the tape, all the charts, lyrics, chords. Today people on gigs will say ‘hey, let’s play Hotel California’, and I know it because of him.  I know rhythm and blues tunes because of gigs like The Poor Folk’s Deli. Jazz is great, says Rosselli, but doesn’t pay well. “Thanks to Ken I make a living with that music.”

Bob Santos, a passionate drummer and music teacher at St. Thomas More, befriended Lamanes who did supply teaching for him in 2004. At the Masque wine bar, gigging with the JH Standards group, Santos brushes the snare drum like a pastry chef whisking up an airy meringue. His sticks hit the drums as forcefully or as gently as the music needs it to be … no more and no less. Between sets, he shrugs off compliments about his style with a smile that is as engaging as it is devoid of ego, and sits down at the table. “A few weeks ago, Kenny was sitting in this exact same spot. I asked him how it sounded. He said ‘The bass could go up a bit Bobby,’ but his friend said ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s deaf as a post!’” Santos laughs. “Thirty years of teaching instrumental music can do that to you but Kenny always gave me good advice.”

Lamanes was a mentor. “I’d ask for his advice,” says Santos. “‘Kenny, I’ve got this student. I think he’s tone deaf. He tried the trumpet; he doesn’t like it. He tried the saxophone; he doesn’t like it, he tried the flute; he doesn’t like it! The kid’s got no rhythm; I’m not gonna put him on percussion!’” Only half-joking, Lamanes replied, “‘Did you try the sponge and stick?’” Santos smiles, a little apologetically but stands by this advice. “My most challenging special needs students play sponge and stick. No triangle, no cowbell. Sponge and Stick! Regardless of who you are, when you’ve taught over thirty years [like Kenny], you’ve seen every scenario, good and bad — students with no facility for music, fights, students showing up high, whatever! Kenny dealt with that stuff really well.” 

For Lamanes, the respect was mutual. Like Palangio, Kocel, and many other music teachers, Santos plays professionally in his private life. Lamanes, and those teachers like him made their programs shine by continuing to develop their own artistry in music.  Santos took a year off to go on tour when the urge to play full time got the better of him. “I think it made me a better teacher,” says Santos, “because of the stories I share about making a life for yourself as a musician.”

Although Lamanes retired in 2001, he never stopped teaching or playing. He supply taught across Hamilton and Halton region. He taught privately. He played in the rhythm sections of Burlington’s Silver Swing Band, George Arnone’s Big Band in Hamilton, and on keyboard for Now & Then. 

Jane McNeil-Slaats, vocalist with Now & Then, worked with Lamanes for over 30 years. He accompanied her on piano for weddings and private events and when they discovered they both had a crush on jazz and swing, they started playing at nursing homes. In 2003 they collaborated on a self-titled CD of jazz standards. Shortly after, Lamanes joined McNeil-Slaats’s Celtic trio “Proud Spirit”. By 2005 it had morphed into Now & Then with the addition of Sarah Nolte (vocals and flute), Lamanes’s daughter Ann on guitar and vocals, and guitarist Jim Nardi. 

They worked for a couple of years on a growing playlist of rock cover tunes spanning the decades with the occasional nostalgic jazz or swing tune in the mix. Lamanes was programming bass and drums on the keyboard, but Nardi says it was difficult. “We couldn’t move forward without a drummer and a bass player so we brought in Keith Allen and Rob Elder.” Elder and Allen had played with Lamanes in Rhythm Works with Hamilton singer Joanne Augustyn and knew his reputation. “I [told] other musicians that I was working with Ken,” says Elder. Many had either worked with him or knew him “and there was unmistakable respect.” Allen recalls: “Having Ken Lamanes in the band was like playing with Rick Wakeman and Dr. John mixed with Ray Charles and a dash of Mr. Magoo. His playing could astonish you, whether it was classical notes or blues or jazz riffs and he was a stickler for correct harmony.” Vocalist Sarah Nolte concurs. “If it didn’t sound just right, he’d make you fix it. [We were rehearsing] Seven Day Fool, and he was certain there was something wrong with the harmony.  We argued for hours about one single note. When I listened to it again, of course, he was right.”

Nolte says Lamanes played with passion and had an intense emotional connection with music. It wasn’t “just notes on the page,” Lamanes played from the heart. McNeil-Slaats says that passion was a great motivator too. When they would sing well through a particularly difficult harmony recalls McNeil-Slaats: “He would wipe tears from his eyes and give us his famous ‘look’. I can't describe it, but it would make you feel fantastic. I believe that one of the greatest things about Ken — other than his music —  was his ability to make you feel great about yourself and give you confidence in your abilities.” 

As his health declined, Lamanes kept playing. The band worried about him, but as Nardi points out, “ with someone whose got that kind of a career in music, you can’t just put him aside.” And Lamanes was playing with his daughter Ann. Nardi, who occasionally plays in the company of his own son, says “It must have been an overwhelming sense of joy for him. Who would fault him for wanting to stay around.” As for Nardi, he sums up his relationship with Lamanes with the simple respect due to one of Hamilton’s great deans of local music and music education. “Hey, I was a guitar player with Kenny Lamanes! He’s played with some prominent musicians. It’s pretty cool to be able to say that.”

Thanks guys. It was worth it. I’m so glad I met you all. It coulda been the Hells Angels. But it wasn’t. I met the best. — Ken Lamanes


Louise Feeney Notley is a Canadian writer from Oakville Ontario. She was born and grew up in Hamilton Ontario and has lived, studied and worked in Canada, France, Switzerland, and India.

Louise writes short fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and biography. She is currently at work on her first novel and has published articles about business travel in India on thetravelitch.com. Louise also hosts a blog about her experiences as a writer on http://myfirstwrites.wordpress.com


doreen brummel said...

Ken was instrumental...in life and in music...both brought Joy...and a sincerity..remember you always Mr Lamanes. Doreen Brummel Riverside High School 1970 to 1974 flute

Kim Schweitzer said...

A beautiful tribute to an amazing man and beautiful soul. Thank you Louise. He always spoke very fondly of you.

Alyshia Mahy said...

I took a keyboarding class with Mr. Lamanes. I was taking the course because I needed an elective and I had taken some lessons before. I do not play well, but Mr. Lamanes made the class enjoyable and I wanted to be there every day. Thank you Sir! You will be remembered always! Alyshia Mahy - St. Thomas More High School '95-'00

Barb Dwyer said...

Ken was a wonderful teacher, motivator and mentor. Always brought the "best out" in his Cathedral band and choir! Mr. Lamanes, thank you for keeping me flying straight. Thank you for all the great memories and for making me a better person. You are missed. Barb Dwyer Catheral Girls High School - Choir and Band

Danielle Dean-Alton said...

I was another one of those students that went onto a degree in music thanks to his influence. Reading this made me laugh at all the memories from school and gigs- the fishing nets on the wall, the sponge and stick, the 'look'. He is dearly missed!