The band, the Cottonpickers, started small in 1957, but with great talent, great showmanship, great work ethic, and unrelenting determination they became a dominant part of the music and dance scene here in Saskatchewan and Western Canada. That dominating presence was to last for over five decades, a dominance that had much to do with the band’s adherence to its motto providing “Music Anyway You Like It.”
This dominance was recognized in many Saskatchewan circles including the University of Saskatchewan Archives whose archivist, in 2001, contacted the band stating, “The Cottonpickers are obviously a vital part of the provincial musical scene, and are a group whose career warrants a permanent retention in an archive.” As a result materials were provided where they remain for all to peruse.
Other recognitions for the band included: a television documentary on famous Saskatchewan dance halls which showcased the Cottonpickers performing at Danceland in Watrous, the Saskatchewan Country music Association Legend and Legacy Award in 1992, being named Prince Albert Ambassadors by that city’s Chamber of Commerce and given suitable ‘Top Hats’ for each band member. Then there were several hit recordings including ‘Let’s Have a Party,’ ‘The Cottonpickers on TV’ and ‘The Best of the Cottonpickers.’
These recognitions tell part of the story, but only a part of the many ventures and adventures that took the Cottonpickers to their place of prominence.
The Cottonpickers were never a one man band. Over the years many talented musicians (@30) joined the originating nucleus of Llew Bell, sister Bev and Llew’s wife Dolores. One central ingredient of all who joined was their ability to play more than one instrument. Often dancers would pause, marvel and applaud as several band members would move from instrument to instrument. They were a fun group and full of a zeal to entertain.
Being full of that zeal to entertain was vital, as getting to dance locations proved at times to be a most challenging chore.
A trip to Mankota, 150 kilometres south of Swift Current, was a prime example. Llew had gone ahead with the instruments and the band members were to follow in a small plane. Baldwin Malec, a talented and fun loving band member, had one major problem with the trip – he was petrified of flying. With great trepidation he boarded, but sat right next to the pilot and right next to the plane’s door, his fingers solidly wrapped around a nearby strut. When the plane got to Mankota it was very dark and the pilot could not see the landing strip; so off they flew to Regina. There they phoned Mankota and arranged to have the elusive landing strip lit up. The flight continued, Baldwin gripping even more tightly to the nearby strut. Arriving in Mankota, there was no problem finding the runway. It was bordered by farm trucks with their headlights shining brightly. The landing went well, but it took great effort to free Baldwin’s fingers from their handhold. A nervous, shaky Baldwin entered the dance hall – a triple scotch, consumed in one gulp, rectified the situation. The Band Played ON!
On one foggy night the band was making its way home after a long night of entertaining. It was so foggy that Wes Stubbs, another talented and versatile member, showed his worth by walking ahead of vehicle guiding it with a flashlight.
Llew was so filled with the desire to entertain that he would not, at times, stop at the designated closing hour, playing on as long as people wanted to dance.
This commitment led to some very late trips home. One was so late that the band was forced to stop in a small town with a roadside motel. The clerk asked if they wanted a room by the pool. Excited by the chance for a morning dip, the answer was a resounding YES. The next morning they woke, looked out the window, and saw the view blocked by a massive grain elevator with its proud name -POOL.
On more than one trip the band pushed and pulled their car and trailer through many a mudhole.
Yes the Cottonpickers were dedicated. That dedication led to awards, but the greatest LEGACY they left was: memories for many many dancers in dance halls all over Western Canada.
Thanks for those Memories – you Cottonpickers!
Next column- the Cottonpickers and the Big Dipper.