Brian Conrad Gurney – 1930 – 2006
BRIAN GURNEY EULOGY – THE EARLY YEARS
by Howard Lear
Brian and I lived across the lane from each other from the time we were six until our early twenties. The block where we lived was an island of bush surrounded by a built up neighborhood until 1937, when our parents were among the first to build there. It was situated in Kitsilano, bounded by 12th and 13th Avenues between Trafalgar and Stephens Streets. For the next three or four years Brian and I had a great time playing in the bushes of the vacant lots and in the partially built houses. On a long summer’s evening we’d scramble up to the top of a newly framed house and pretend it was a battleship and Brian was the captain, then our mothers called us home for bed. From these building sites we gathered scraps of lumber for making bows and arrows, swords and shields, guns and airplanes, tanks and trucks and cars – toy cars that we raced over the roads on the mountains that we built.
Brian had a big wagon with wooden sides. Using bits of wood and a blanket we made it into a covered wagon one day and coasted down the sidewalk to the bottom of the block then I pulled him back up the hill for another run. In the lane we played catch so often that Brian learned to throw with either hand. With our nearby elementary school friends we played soccer after school in the fall at the Kitsilano school ground.. At Connaught Park we played Mark and American Ping Pong in the summer.
In our teen-age years our gang, which included Bob Nicholls, Doug Ross, and Vic Critchley, Glen Buckley and Dave Armstrong, played poker on Saturday nights at Glen’s house. At those laugh-filled sessions we learned – eventually – how to handle our beer. In our late teens we played in my tiny back yard our version of American Ping Pong. Instead of a baseball we used a shuttlecock. So we could swing has hard as we liked without damaging anything. Over the fence was a home run.
During the summer of 1947 we walked down to Athletic Park at 6th and Hemlock to watch the Capilanos baseball team play a 10 game home series.
Walking back home one night-a strange thing happened – we started to sing! In September, Glen, recalling that unprecedented event, persuaded Brian and Dave and me to join the barbershop quartet club at Kitsilano High School. We enjoyed it so much that we practiced the songs at home just for fun.
With Brian as our lead singer we made such good progress that Mr. Parfitt, our music teacher, invited us to sing at the noon hour concert just before the Christmas holidays. As we nervously walked on to the stage, our school mates laughed and jeered. But when we started to sing they suddenly went very quiet. When we finished they burst into loud cheering and clapping. We were amazed! (and delighted!) That afternoon, still feeling high on the applause, we piled on to the Macdonald bus to go Christmas shopping downtown. From our seats at the back of the bus we started to sing. When we finished a man in a suit strode down the aisle and asked us if we should like to sing on the radio. We said yes – and we did!
And so the career of the Four Notes Quartet was launched. The Four Notes Quartet became successful because we loved to sing together. We practiced a lot, sometimes with as much laughing as singing. Brian, with his quiet a sides, was usually the one to spark the laughter. Then, relaxed, we got back to work – learning the notes, developing our blend and getting the words absolutely together, singing as one. Brian’s ideas on how we should sing a song were greatly respected. When we paused for refreshments, Brian would sit down and play the piano for us.. Now Brian never had a piano lesson in his life, but he certainly could play — always his own compositions rendered flamboyantly with humorous touches that would have us in stitches. One of his pieces he entitled “False Creek at Low Tide.”
The highlight of our singing career was touring the British Isles and Holland in 1950 for five months with the Kitsilano Boys’ Band. Glen and Dave had been playing in the band for years. The bandmaster said to Brian and me. “You boys will have to learn to play. I don’t have no dead wood on this trip. ‘Howard, you will play the base drum and Brian, the alto sax.” So Brian got his pal Doug Ross, who played tenor sax in the band, to show him how to play the alto. Being a natural musician, Brian was soon filling the Gurney house with alto sax sounds.
He could play anything — except what was on his music stand; for he didn’t learn to read music; he played entirely by ear. Nevertheless, Mr. Delamont told Brian to be in his place for every rehearsal and every concert – -but he was not to make a sound. Brian did this quite cheerfully for the whole five months. On our nine day voyage across the Atlantic the band practiced hard twice a day.
This was rather boring for Brian just sitting there not able to play. So when he returned to his cabin he played his sax. His tired room-mates reacted quickly. “Gurney, Shut Up!” which he did with a smile. During concerts Mr. D would sometimes stroll over to Brian at the end of the front row, pick up the top sheet of music from his stand and hold it up for the other players to see. It was the Washington Post March, but the band was playing Oklahoma at the time. When we played a week at the Golders Green Hippodrome, one of the stage hands accused Brian of faking his playing. Brian reacted indignantly, “I wasn’t!” he exclaimed and blasted off a riff on his sax.
One night in Glasgow, the 39 boys in the band were assigned to a large dormitory in the YMCA. With lights out someone started a pillow fight. Soon half the band joined in and the noise crescendoed. Mr. Delamont burst in and read the Riot Act. Then from the back of the room came the sound of Brian’s smooth voice singing “Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat.” Through our stifled laughter came the bandmaster’s muttered reply, “We don’t need no lullaby,” and he retreated in a huff.
The Kitsilano Boys Band had a huge trunkful of postcards showing the band standing on the steps of the former Vancouver Court House that faced Georgia Street. These postcards were sold on the tour after every one of our 190 concerts. Guess who had to leave the bandstand before our closing number and go out to sell those postcards. – Brian got teased about it, but did he complain? No, he seemed to enjoy it.
Along on that band tour was Brian’s good friend, Doug Ross. Brian was a vocalist in Doug’s dance band along with Gerry Wilkinson who became Doug’s wife. Brian and Doug shared interests in cars and fishing. After driving lessons from his Dad, Brian got his driving license just as soon as he reached the required age. Brian and Doug would buy used cars, fix it them up together and sell them. One year they did eight cars.
When he met Wanda, Brian was driving a 1950 Mercury. Brian washed and polished it as he did with all his cars, keeping them in immaculate condition, even when he was travelling up country on his sales rounds. Brian, along with his younger brother Ron, was introduced to fishing by his Dad. Their preferred fishing destination was Campbell River. Doug Ross joined them. For many years later Brian, along with Doug and Gerry, spent many happy holidays fishing for salmon at Campbell River.
When Brian’s sister, Carole, was asked for her memories of the early days at home, she recalled that when she was very small, Brian would often sing her to sleep. “May be, he just wanted to get out of doing the dishes,” she said. When Carole was six he placed her in the carrier on his bike and gave her a ride down the lane and back. (Brian used his bike in delivering newspapers. His route included the Hycroft mansion just east of 16th and Granville, which at that time served as a hospital for war veterans.) He played catch with Carole in the lane, teaching her how not to throw like a girl. Unlike their brother Ron, who was analytical and philosophical, they were alike in temperament and tastes. They had an uncanny way of simultaneously thinking up identical one liners. They both loved singing and shared a craving for Eagle brand condensed milk, which they would spoon from the open tin when their mother was baking. However, when it came to tinned creamed corn, a staple at supper in the Gurney home, Carole grew to hate it; but Brian always loved it!
Earlier this week I phoned Dave Armstrong in Quesnel. Dave, who was the top tenor in the quartet, described Brian as light hearted and positive, always looking at the bright side. Dave felt relaxed in Brian’s company. Carole described Brian as easy going. “He never complained. He was the perfect brother,” she said.
For me Brian’s definitive characteristic was his musicality. This was shown in his playing of the piano and alto sax, in his keen ear in listening to music and most of all, in his singing. When visiting Brian in recent years I always took along a Walkman or a tape recorder and some audio tapes. His favorites included Glenn Miller’s Orchestra, Fats Waller’s piano, and Ella Fitzgerald’s singing. It was good to see his face light up with pleasure as he listened. Before he moved into Cedarview Care home he lent me some audio tapes, one of which was Brian singing solo, no back up, song after song, improvising on the melody and obviously enjoying himself. It was a revelation to me. None of our recordings of the Four Notes gave an accurate reproduction of our sound; the equipment in those days was inadequate. But this more recent recording was different. Unbound from the confines of singing in the quartet, his voice soared on the melodies free as a bird. And I understood then how gifted Brian was. From time to time over the years Brian and I would fondly recall those early days and laugh. In his unassuming way Brian has greatly enriched my life. And for that I am truly grateful. -Howard Lear, December 20, 2006
December 20, 2006 Boal Chapel, North Vancouver, B. C. Revered Graeme Brownlee officiating: A Celebration of Life Brian Conrad Gurney ( 1930 – December 13, 2006) Passed away peacefully at Evergreen House after a courageous battle with Alzheimer’s.
Brian is survived by his loving wife of 50 years, Wanda, daughters Jolayne (Robert) and Carolyn (Kevin), grandchildren Jordan, Tessa, Brian and Nicole, sister Carole MacKay, sister-in-law Helen Horn and many nieces and nephews.
Brian’s singing and sense of humor will be missed and never forgotten. The family wish to thank all the staff at Evergreen House (2 south) for all their care and support.
A memorial Service will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, December 20th at Boal Chapel, 15050 Lillooet Road, North Vancouver.
In lieu of flowers, donations to the Alzheimer’s Society of B. C., 300-828 West 8th