Richmond band's roots run deep in the community

John Gedak started playing drums in Grade 9 at Cambie Junior High, and he still plays them today.

John Gedak was at Cambie Junior High in the mid-1960s when he got called over the PA system to come to the office. Sheepishly, he rose from his desk and headed to the door as his fellow classmates laughed and jeered. The school had laid down the law and was demanding he cut his hair.

Gedak was the drummer of The Centaurs, a fledgling Richmond-based band, and they were carefully crafting their “mod” look, following the British bands of the day.

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While the five-member group was poised to become one of the top-billed bands in Vancouver, Gedak was still in Grade 10 and his hair was a radical departure from the norm. Across the pond, the Beatles were growing their hair but in suburban Richmond, hair at school (on boys) needed to be kept closely cropped.

“It was a big deal to us as a band — like Samson getting his hair cut,” Gedak said, referring to the biblical figure whose hair gave him superhuman strength.

Unbeknownst to Gedak, however, the band’s road manager had gone to speak with the principal, Mr. Ross, and had told him Gedak’s hair was part of the “entertainment package” of the band.

The principal had come up with a compromise, saying Gedak could keep his hair long if he combed it and gelled it back with Bryl cream, so it didn’t look like long hair.

There were not many rock’n’roll bands in the mid 1960s in the Lower Mainland and The Centaurs was the only one in Richmond at the time.

Half a century after the band broke up, some old Centaurs recordings were found in the home of the band’s former road manager on Vancouver Island. After two years of work, the recordings have been remastered and released as an LP/CD, produced by Richmondite Jamie Anstey.

The new album has afforded Gedak the opportunity to relive old times. It was only a few years of Gedak’s life, but it was intense and provides a glimpse into Richmond‘s rock’n’roll history.

Gedak’s musical career began at Cambie Junior High where he signed up for band in Grade 8. When it came to choosing an instrument, his parents suggested he take up the trumpet since his uncle, Johnny Schwarz, was a well-known trumpet player performing at all the joints in Vancouver.

His family, though, didn’t have money to buy him a trumpet, so he spent a year borrowing trumpets from friends to get through the class.

The next year, after a suggestion from his parents to take up the accordion was soundly rejected, he got a Ludwig snare drum.

From then on, for every birthday and Christmas, he received another piece of a drum kit until he had a full set.

Birth of The Centaurs

After about a year of playing the drums, at just 15, Gedak answered an ad in the local paper — a guitar player was looking for a drummer to start a band.

That was how he met Hugh Reilly, who was already a first-year student at UBC.

Reilly came to the Gedak home, and he and Gedak played a set in their basement. There was an immediate connection between the two musicians.

“I felt a real high,” Gedak recalled. “When I was in the school band, it was great, I loved it, but now my adrenalin was going and I thought, ‘wow, this is what I want to do.’”

The two musicians put another ad in the paper, looking for a singer, and that’s when Ron Williams, a singer and songwriter from Saskatoon, came on board. They were soon joined by Louis Pitre, a keyboardist who also played piano and organ and sang backup, and Al West on bass.

So formed The Centaurs and they started practising every spare minute in the Gedak’s unfinished, uninsulated basement.

Gedak marvels at the patience of his parents who slept just above their practise area.

“They put up with us for years – all day sometimes on the weekend, to one or two in the morning,” Gedak said.

The Gedaks lived in a house at the corner of Beckwith and Gage roads that their father had built in 1962, where Costco is now.

The person who expressed the most displeasure was their neighbour, Ted Youngberg, a Richmond city alderman (councillor). He complained bitterly to Gedak’s parents about the music, saying he needed to sleep.

“He was an alderman, prim and proper – rock and roll didn’t fit into the picture,” Gedak said. “When I think back, he was probably right.”

Blood and sweat

Their meteoric rise between 1965 and 1967, from playing the gym at Cambie Junior High to performing at clubs in Vancouver and touring around B.C., was a result of their absolute dedication to music, Gedak said.

“All our life was play, practise, play, practise, play, practise,” Gedak said. “I ran home from school to play my drums.”

Music was on their mind 24/7, Gedak said, and the Centaurs paid for their success in “blood and sweat.”

“It was the wildest ride you can imagine,” Gedak recalls. “We went from nothing to top band in Vancouver.”

Richmond in the 1960s was considered a backwater — at least, compared to Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, Gedak said, and was often called “Ditchmond” because of the deep ditches throughout the municipality.

In fact, there was practically a river running in front of his first home on No. 3 Road, Gedak explained, where he and his brother would find frogs and minnows.

So, for Richmond to have a rock’n’roll band was a big deal, Gedak said.

After a year of testing the patience of the senior Gedaks and the alderman, The Centaurs started playing gigs wherever they could, first at the Antonian Club in Steveston and Cambie High gym.

At the Antonian Catholic Church Club, the young people were under the mentorship of Brother Guy, the youth worker, and Gedak gives him credit for creating a safe place for youth to hang out and a venue where    the band could perform.

Then, a couple of brothers opened up Gassy Jack’s Discotheque. No one knew what a disco was, Gedak said, and it was just set up as a music and dance venue with pop and snacks — no alcohol.

There was nothing like it in the Lower Mainland, and The Centaurs practised there for free and performed for $25 a gig.

The band was told not to touch the snack machines while practising, but, despite being generally well-behaved Catholic kids, they couldn’t help but pilfer the snack machines.

“We thought we’d died and gone to heaven,” Gedak said.

Richmond, despite being considered the hinterlands, was a tight community in the 1960s, Gedak said.

“The Antonian was the glue that kept everyone together,” he said. “Richmond High and Cambie – they were part of the community. A&W on No. 3 was the hangout place.”

Vancouver and beyond

The Centaurs were soon playing gigs in Vancouver and were on their way to fame, if not fortune. That said, the money was decent. In Vancouver, they would earn $100 to $200 at clubs.

They performed at Oil Can Harry’s in Vancouver, at the Grooveyard, formerly the Hollywood Bowl, UBC Memorial Hall and the Cave Supper Club. They even opened for the Beach Boys at Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Eventually, The Centaurs left to tour Europe. They played in the Netherlands and Germany where they were billed as the top band from Canada. After touring and playing, including in Bavaria where Gedak was born, the band split up.

Gedak stayed in Europe for another six months but soon felt homesickness and came back to the Lower Mainland to discover a completely changed music scene.

The wild ride had come to an end, and when Gedak arrived home in Richmond, he knew he had to figure out a career for himself.

While music remained hugely important — he still gives lessons to up-and-coming drummers and plays an occasional set —  Gedak got into car sales in his early 20s. He then went into the RV business both in the Lower Mainland and California.

Eventually, he and his family formed a company manufacturing Get-Away RVs in Richmond.

He also founded The Picture Show, a gallery that sold posters and prints at prices anyone could afford, unlike the expensive art sold at art galleries.

But Gedak said music and the life lessons he acquired from playing and being in a band never left him and he would continue playing even when he was busy running his many companies.

“Music was always number one in the back of my mind,” he said. “Music is the heart – without the music, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Their newly released and remastered LP/CD, The Centaurs: From Canada to Europe, is available at Beatmerchant Record Store in Steveston and at Neptoon Records in Vancouver.

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