As one of the original members of the Fort George Rockers, it is my pleasure to share fond memories of the band’s founder and my dear friend, the late Roderick David House, who everyone called Roger.
While I would have loved Roger to have written the musical history of our band himself – something we often talked about – we just never got around to doing so until now. And, while he is no longer with us, I can feel his hand guiding every word as I write this piece. I’m reminded about how he used to say that he was able to perceive my personality in my writing style. Ah, the memories!
The year 2017 was a sad one for music lovers everywhere. It marked the passing of great rock’n’roll pioneers whose music is as popular today as ever was: Chuck Berry (March 18); Fats Domino (October 24); Gregg Allman (May 27); and Tom Petty (October 2). Of course, our dear Roger was plucked away the day before Tom Petty on October 1.
All, without exception, were singers, musicians and songwriters – like Roger. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt the very first time I appeared on stage with him. I am sure the audience felt it, too. I can still feel the goosebumps running up and down my arm as I strummed my guitar.
To me Roger was my brother in music and in life, a favourite songwriter, silent teacher and, yes, a philosopher who appreciated life. I often imagine him in heaven with our grandfather (the beaver man), smiling down on his loved ones, with a beautiful song in his heart.
Jules Goulet introduced Oliver Rupert (my childhood friend) and me to Roger in the summer of 1972. Jules still remembers how shy Oliver and I were back then. I was amazed by how fast Oliver, a left-hander, learned to play his guitar with his right hand. He could have changed the position of the strings but didn’t. And I was the one who had a left-handed bass guitar!
That same summer, we formed the band Victory, Life and Power (by the way, every time a band member left, we changed our name). I can’t recall how we arrived at that name. Maybe because school was out for the summer, a “victory”. Oliver and I had just left high school, ready to start a new “life”. And we had “power” amps for our music.
We practiced in the shack behind Roderick Herodier’s house and, as I recall, Roger’s family lived in Roderick’s basement at that time. Josie Sam, then the Chief of Fort George, would lend us his own amplifier for our weekend dances and his community-cleanup dances.
In my journal of that time, I wrote: “Roger House, lead guitar and vocals; Oliver Rupert, rhythm guitar; Charlie Louttit, bass player; Eric House, vocals and boxes.” Eric was “the boxer” because he didn’t have drums and used boxes instead.
Recently, I asked Eric if he’d be interested in doing a gig with his boxes to celebrate our musical history on stage. “You know, Charlie,” he said, “the boxes today don’t sound like they used to back then.”
In the beginning, I too, had to be innovative like Eric. I didn’t own a bass guitar, so I would remove the two thin bottom strings, leaving just four to make my guitar look like a bass. I would then lower the top strings to get that useful low-end bass sound. I would use my fingers or thumb to pluck, slapping occasionally and thumbing-’n’-strumming to deliver all of what a bass guitar demands.
Eddie Pash owned a bass guitar that I would borrow when we performed for audiences.
Local high school students always looked forward to the Friday night dances in the parish hall. Elders, too. And not a precious minute was lost. In fact, bingo players at the Sand Park High School would often dash over to the parish hall to dance during intermissions and then rush back to the bingo to continue their game.
The first two wedding dances we played were Samuel Isheroff’s wedding on December 4, 1973, and Roger’s wedding on June 27, 1974. Samuel used to bring pop and chips to our practices.
By then, Jeff and Mary Humberstone’s restaurant and Samuel had donated money to the band to buy a set of drums, which was awesome! By the way, I took the initiative in the science of money management for the band to focus on the equipment and drums. I tried to convince the band to save the money so that we could purchase better equipment.
I can still see Roger as he played and sung his heart out. I believe he was the best lead guitarist of our time. He brought real rock’n’roll to the people of the Island of Fort George. There’s no doubt about that!
One thing to remember is that we didn’t do it to get rich. We did it for the love of playing for our always appreciative audiences.
From 1973-74, after Eric House left the band, we were called Red Cloud. During that period, Jules took over on drums – not boxes. Our inspiration for the name came the evening before we played a gig, we saw this red cloud on the horizon of James Bay.
In August 1974, Red Cloud did a tour on the eastern coast of James Bay in three 24-foot canoes with our roadies. This included the late Ernest House (our Elder and guide from Fort George to Wemindji), the late Sherman Herodier, George Matches, Charles Bobbish, Josie Cox, Debbie House, Freddie Louttit, Lawrence Kanatewat, Jimmy A. Fireman, Charlie Tomatuk (our guide from Wemindji to Eastmain), and David Whiskeychan (our guide from Eastmain to Waskaganish).
On August 5, when we arrived in Wemindji, all our guitars were wet, and we had to take them apart to dry. Of course, they weren’t ready before the show so Oliver and I borrowed guitars from the locals. That night, Roger went on stage at the Catholic mission hall with his hip waders on because he didn’t have the time to take them off. We made $345 that night.
The next day on our way to Eastmain we were caught by a storm’s updraft (a gust front), which forced us to go ashore and we slept along the shoreline of one of the islands.
We played a total of 32 nights in 1974 and made a total of $9,042, which included the Fort George Band Council contribution. But from 1974-76, the band name changed once again to R.O.C. taken from the first letters of our names – Roger House, Oliver Rupert and Charlie Louttit.
On January 14, 1975, we left Fort George, and toured the eastern coast of Hudson Bay as the R.O.C. with Ray Spencer, the best fiddler in James Bay. Ray had asked us to tour with him but when we landed in Great Whale River, the mayor asked what we were doing there. Ray pointed at Roger and said, “Roger, boss.” Roger was dumbfounded but it answered the question as to why Ray would pick the coldest month of the year to travel the Hudson Bay.
On January 16, 1975, we left Great Whale River and landed on the frozen river of Port Harrison (Inukjuak). When we got to the town, we noticed the box containing the floor tom as well as my bass guitar and Roger’s guitar were missing. I told the boys that I would go back to the landing spot to check. There I saw a small black spot on the snow drift. I immediately started scraping the snow off and found the two guitars buried under the snow. The boys told me that they found the box with the floor tom at the Co-op store.
Two days later, on Saturday afternoon, we did a three-hour tape-recording session and made $39. We flew from Port Harrison to Great Whale and then north to Puvirnituq on a night flight. We arrived in the community during a power outage and the mayor cancelled our gig. He closed the hall for one week because of sickness within the community. On January 24, 1975, Austin Airways allowed us a free flight back to Fort George on a promise of repayment.
Roger wrote a song during our stay in Puvirnituq and called it “Down On My Luck”. We performed in Fort George to help us repay what we owed Austin Airways. Today, organizers pay $150 per song or $3000 a night for a band to perform. To do a comparison, we made $ 2,721.87 for 10 nights in 1976 – and we thought we’d made a lot of money.
From 1976-77, we had three name changes and an alternating roster. We were called Storm, when Jules returned from Moose Factory. Then, The Band in which the junior Red Cloud band members joined. After that, Roger left to educate himself musically.
In 1977, CBC North approached us to do a recording with them in the St. Philip’s School cafeteria. Cree CBC announcer Gloria Kitty called us the Fort George Rockers and the name has stuck ever since.
After that I started to fade away from the stage and Ernie Herodier, the best man at my wedding, became the bassist for the Fort George Rockers. The last time I played with Roger and the band was in Val-d’Or in 2013. At that time, it had been over three decades since I had last gigged with them.
I played two songs that night and then announced my retirement from the band. Dale House, lead guitarist, told me, “You’ll be the first one to retire from the Fort George Rockers.”
And I replied, “In that case, I just took a 35-year vacation.”
When we marked the first anniversary of Roger’s passing on October 1, 2018, I reflected on how much he shaped our musical history on the Island of Fort George. Where did all the years go, I wondered.
I played one song with the Fort George Rockers that night during the celebration of his life. I couldn’t play anymore no matter how hard I tried because I was still devastated, like so many, by Roger’s passing.
As other musicians who share similar experiences will surely attest, it is tragic to lose a cherished band member and the loss stays with you. Thankfully, we have our musical memories and, of course, our friendship.
There are moments when I hear songs that we played or remember something we did together that bring tears to my eyes. Whenever I listen to the song “Hideaway” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example, I feel sad as the singer mourns the loss of a good friend and brother.
I will conclude this article with a final blessing that I’m sure all his fellow players and our audiences would bestow on Roger House. Rest in peace, brother and continue to rock’n’roll in musical heaven.