Skip to content

Famous Richmond entertainer recalls day he almost sparked prison riot

Apparently, the inmates didn't like the Don Messer's Jubilee show star playing "Please Release Me"....

He’s toured Canada coast-to-coast and was a member of what was once the most popular TV show in the country.

But acclaimed Scottish-born accordionist Johnny Forrest will never forget the day he almost caused a prison riot.

Richmond resident Forrest, 85 – who starred for a decade from ’63 to ’73 on renowned CBC show Don Messer’s Jubilee – recalled how he and fellow stars of the show were invited to Halifax Prison in ’68 to entertain the inmates.

However, Forrest burst into laughter as he remembered how he opened up his brief stint behind bars with country music hit “Please Release Me.”

Forrest reverted to type to quell prisoners

“There was about 200 of them,” smiled Forrest.

“I told the guy who organized it, ‘I’m not going to do my Scottish stuff, I’m going to do something different, maybe some country music,’ which is my second love.

“So I struck up ‘Please release me, let me go.’ All hell broke loose. They didn’t take too kindly to that particular song.”

Sensing the “discontent” in the crowd, Forrest said she quickly transitioned to one of his famous Scottish hits “Donald, where’s your troosers” to appease the masses.

Accordionist in the right place at the right time

Other than that infamous prison “gig,” Forrest – who moved into Steveston’s Maples Residences last summer - told the Richmond News that he led a charmed life when it came to showbusiness, being very much “the right person, in the right place, at the right time.”

Case in point when he was immigrating to Canada as a fresh-faced 20-year-old in 1958, via a five-day voyage across the Atlantic, he organized an impromptu talent show.

“I was on my way to Edmonton, to live with a relative. On the ship coming over, there was no entertainment,” said Forrest.

‘I had the accordion. I just went round the ship, asking, can you dance? Can you sing? Can you tell a story?

“I decided, we’re going to do a singalong and who wants to join me? I put a great group of people together and packed this lounge out during the five-day voyage.

“I think I was probably the first entertainer to put live music on a ship. People were pouring down from first class.”

On that ship and enjoying Forrest’s “show” was the owner of an Edmonton TV station, who gave the Scotsman his business card and told him to contact him when he got to Edmonton.

“I got a job at the airport in Edmonton, putting the skins on the planes, but I was on TV a week after arriving in Edmonton.”

That break led to the aforementioned Messer, while touring in Edmonton, to give Forrest an audition in his dressing room and, subsequently, a spot on his famous show.

Sadly, when Messer passed away in 1973, so did his show, along with the TV careers of most of its stars.

Forrest kept on entertaining, however, performing his array of Scottish and country hits in hotel lounges and clubs across Canada.

And in 1970, he moved his family to Richmond, where he continued to wow his audiences at various seniors homes across the city.

About 10 years ago, he developed a health issue himself and had to stop picking up the accordion.

But he still managed to strap it on one more time for his fellow Maple residents to do a “turn” for the complex’s Robbie Burns Night this past January.

“I think I’m the last known living member of the (Don Messer show,” said Forrest.

“As we say in Scotland, Y’ll never see our likes again!

“I only play now and again for my own enjoyment.

No applause. Just the four walls. It still makes me feel good though.”