It takes three seconds and five simple words for Rick McGhie to take control of a room.
The simple strum of a guitar and the soft, melodic, ‘A long, long time ago,’ that rings from the beer-stained amps grabs students’ attention quicker than a bartender shouting last call.
McGhie’s appearances each Wednesday at The Spoke – and Thursdays at The Grad Club – have been called ‘legendary,’ a ‘tradition,’ and a ‘rite of passage’ for Western students. As for the 67 year old, “it’s what I do,” he said.
McGhie’s first taste of Western came while he was still in high school, stopping in at The Hub on Friday and Saturday nights to listen to some acoustic tunes. When time came for him to become a Mustang, McGhie arrived with a guitar in tow. He came to Western in 1970, ready to tackle a Science degree.
He was no stranger to the guitar. Buckwheat, McGhie’s high school band, played every weekend, and even played at Expo 67 a couple of times. After coming to Western, it didn’t take long – a week, in fact – before he was approached by fellow Mustangs to put a band together.
“I had a bit of a reputation for playing and was approached by a couple other students,” said McGhie.
This encounter led to the formation of Every One of Us, his first official Western band. The group played Friday and Saturday nights at the Spoke (when it was located in Somerville House). They grabbed the odd gig in London for a few extra dollars and, after a lineup change, and a name change (or two), the band, known at the time as Homespun, took on traveling gigs full time. McGhie was not a fan.
“It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. I often describe it as being married to four guys you don’t really like,” he laughed. “People ask me why I never pursued the whole stardom idea. Those are the same people who’ve never spent their life on the road.”
By 1975, McGhie decided to call it quits with Homespun and head back to school. A fellow band member, however, encouraged him to stay with the music and give it a shot as a solo artist.
McGhie began showcasing his talents at the Elbow Room, a pub located in the basement of the University Community Centre, on a regular basis – at least until they shut the doors in 1991.
“In those days, you played full weeks. They offered me one week a month, and the whole summer,” said McGhie. “The Elbow was a great place to play. It was lined-up from 11:30 in the morning, pretty much every day.”
McGhie also played shows around London, and went back on the road for shows in Toronto and the Niagara Falls area. He even performed at other colleges and universities. At Loyalist College, he met Kathy; last year, the pair celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
At the time, McGhie was doing contract audio component work during the day and playing at night. But being ‘on the road’ soon became ‘stay in London’, after what he refers to as the ‘Brock Incident.’
“I was driving back from Brock (University) one night, and was in a driving trance, because I was working in the daytime, playing nights and commuting back and forth,” he said. “I remember being on the QEW, and then, I woke up in Brantford. I had no idea where I was. I woke up because I missed my turn. That was terrifying and that’s when I stopped doing that. I then just started playing locally.”
And that was a good thing. He and Kathy were just starting their family and this allowed him to focus on helping to raise the children, while playing at night. McGhie still played a few gigs outside London, but he made sure all the shows were within commuting distance, in order to be home every day for his children.
The Ceeps was a quick commute for McGhie, who held the Sunday and Monday slots for a few years. He also began doing more special events for faculties, anniversaries and even played the wedding of two Western grads who first met at one of his Spoke shows.
Alumni events are still big for McGhie, a chance for him to rekindle a lot of memories with many Western graduates. The university even took him on a tour out west in 2009 to see his Mustang fans.
While he never tires of listening to, and appreciating, the ‘I remember seeing you …’ stories, it still boggles his mind how, as if he were a character on Cheers, ‘everybody knows his name.’
“I’m often amazed at how well known I am, and I’m not being egotistical,” he said. “I remember once, I was playing the Hard Rock (Café) in Toronto, and was out on Yonge Street, waiting to meet someone, when six different people walked by, ‘Rick, what are you doing here?’ They all went to Western and I was flabbergasted they knew me. I can’t complain about that. I’ve been around so long, there are thousands of people who know me and are happy to invite me to play.”
McGhie refers to his regular Spoke and Grad Club shows, which require no written contract – “I guess they find me reliable” – as a two-sided coin.
“There is the artistic side and there’s the sing-along side, and I love both of them,” he said. “I get up every morning and play a few hours. I’m always looking for ways to improve as a musician; I’m always trying to be better. And I need a place to play those types of songs, so the Grad Club is where I can do that.
“But there’s a certain amount of musical baggage I need to bring along for the Spoke. They want a set routine, and I don’t mind that. I need that. It’s probably more fun because the crowd is really with me all the time.”
Although he’s getting older – mentioning a hip replacement a few years back as proof – McGhie said there are no plans to put the guitar on a shelf and head to the beach any time soon.
“I think I’m the only one (from the bands) still making a living playing music,” he said proudly. “If you can get away with doing this, not having to be on the road and have a reasonable lifestyle, then that’s a great thing. I’m good with where I’m at. I don’t find any frustrations with the job, it’s not like I have bad management, I have no management. As long as I can sing and play, I’ll sing and play.”
Grad collecting memories of McGhie
Tom Weihmayr remembers the first time he saw Rick McGhie. He was a first-year student at King’s University College when a friend knocked on his residence door.
“He said, ‘Put that book down, we’re going to the ‘Bow’ to see Rick McGhie,’ recalled Weihmayr, BA’96 (Hons). “Befuddled, I answered, ‘Who is Rick McGhie, and why do I need to go to a place called the Bow to see him, on a weeknight?’ He answered, ‘You’ll understand when you see him.’
“I didn’t fully understand Rick’s legacy until many years later, but I certainly appreciated his music and understood why people were lined up out the door of the Elbow Room to hear him play.”
Weihmayr grew to love McGhie’s music while at Western and, looking back, he started to gain an appreciation of the significance the musician played in the lives of many students. Over the years, following his graduation from Western, Weihmayr would bump into McGhie at various events, running into “the same old Rick.”
“He had a steadfastness that we could all relate to, and it always reminded me of more carefree days and younger years,” said Weihmayr, who this past year attended a Western Alumni event in Toronto, watching in awe as more than 500 fellow alumni – covering a range from recent grads to retirees – sang along with McGhie. It was at that moment Weihmayr had a great idea.
“They remembered all the words to his songs – you know, the ‘Western words’ that make it a unique experience that only people who attended the school would understand,” said Weihmayr, who approached McGhie after his first set. “I asked him during one of his breaks if anyone had ever suggested writing his bio and he said no one had, so we started down this road together.”
The book, currently in the works, will be a set of memories about both McGhie and Western, Weihmayr added. He plans to hunker down this summer and is aiming for a release later this year, or early 2018.
Weihmayr is looking for alumni to share their own unique and interesting memories of being at a McGhie show. He is looking for photos, stories or anecdotes from alumni, which could be included in the book. You can email Weihmayr at RickMcGhieMemories@outlook.com.