From Harrow church choir to pop sensation

Big Town Boy was a big-time pop hit in the early 1960s and it was sung by Harrow small-town girl Shirley Matthews.

Matthews had performed at school dances at Harrow high school and with her church choir before leaving for Toronto to join her older sister Joyce. Matthews found work in Toronto as a telephone operator for Bell.

Her sister was also a singer and performed as a backing vocalist for house bands at the famous Bluenote Club in downtown Toronto. Matthews joined her sister at the Bluenote one night, was asked on stage by the club manager and was soon doing lead vocals. Then she got her big break.

Bob Crewe, an American singer-songwriter and record producer, saw her perform, liked what he heard and invited Matthews to New York City for a recording session. Big Town Boy was the result. It debuted on CHUM 1050, a Toronto radio station, on Dec. 3, 1963, the same day as the Beatles’ She Loves You and less than a month after U.S. President John Kennedy was assassinated. The song also received heavy play on Windsor’s CKLW.

The song was a big hit in Canada and border cities like Detroit and Buffalo. It sold more than a million copies.

“I remember it,” said cousin Charlotte Baylis-Brown, of Windsor. “I was very proud of her.”

Matthews, who won the RPM Gold Leaf Award for female vocalist of the year in 1964, performed Big Town Boy on Music Hop, the CBC version of American Bandstand. She was introduced by Alex Trebek, without mustache and wearing the uniform of the period, an open-neck shirt, skinny trousers and a cardigan. Trebek, who died Nov. 8, 2020, after a battle with pancreatic cancer, hosted the popular game show Jeopardy.

Elizabeth Bliss (nee Haslam), a former classmate of Matthews from elementary through high school, said Big Town Boy was part of the background music of her era. “I must have heard Big Town Boy on the radio because it seems I’ve always known about it,” she said. “I still think the song has a great sound … (it’s) a trip down memory lane.”

Matthews quickly became a celebrity in the burgeoning 1960s Toronto music scene, a scene that included Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Clayton-Thomas — and Buffalo’s James Ambrose Johnson, who as Rick James went on to become a major funk star in the 1970s and ’80s.

In the early ’60s, Johnson had deserted the U.S. naval reserves after being called up to active duty. He fled to Toronto and helped form a band called The Mynah Birds, which later included Young.

Shirley Matthews is interviewed during an appearance on a 1960s music show.

Matthews, learning Johnson was a fugitive, told him he needed a new name to hide his identity from U.S. authorities. She gave him the name Ricky James Matthews.

Matthews’ fame was brief and ended as suddenly as it began.

After the success of Big Town Boy, Matthews released a few more records with middling success, then retired from performing.

Milo Johnson, a local historian and author of New Canaan: Freedom-Land, said the songs Matthews recorded after her hit — Wise Guy, Feel so Pretty and Private Property — were solid pop tunes. But he felt Matthews’ career may have fallen victim to the times.

“In 1963-64 there was a lot of competition, not just out of Detroit, but New York … Philadelphia. R&B was becoming popular. And there was the British invasion … the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Eric Burdon,” he said.

Matthews later married, took the name Shirley Louise Vedder, had two children and later became the CEO of a string of fitness clubs in the Toronto area. She died on Jan. 8, 2013, at age 70.

She had a big voice. She was a gifted woman. That’s what I remember of her. Everybody loved her. She was a beautiful gospel singer. She could sing anything and sound good.

Her obituary made little mention of her singing career, but on the condolence board accompanying the obit, fans did comment.

“Big Town Boy was one of the first 45s I purchased for myself as a young guy in St. Catharines,” one fan wrote. “Loved the urban feel, the key changes … great tune.”

Kingsville resident and music fan Mike Pearce remembers the song. Living in Toronto, he heard it on CKLW, whose broadcast signal reached much of North America.”You listen to the lyrics, who wouldn’t aspire to being a big town boy and impressing all the girls?” he said.

Baylis-Brown was familiar with the power of Matthews’ voice from their days singing together at the Mount Calvary Church of God and Christ choir near Harrow.

“She had a big voice. She was a gifted woman. That’s what I remember of her. Everybody loved her. She was a beautiful gospel singer. She could sing anything and sound good.”

Baylis-Brown said Big Town Boy, while a great pop tune, didn’t reflect Matthews’ range as a singer.

“She was dynamic. She could sing. When the spirit was on, she could bring it. She could bring it.”

Matthews was not the only famous Black performer to come from Harrow. Ken Kersey was an accomplished jazz pianist in the 1950s and Burnetta Day was a concert soprano who later moved to Germany.

Johnson said the important role music plays in Black churches offers one explanation for the talent the Harrow area has produced.

“(Churches) were the centre of the Black community … singing was a big part of that community connection,” he said.

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