The following article was originally published in the latest edition of the News Harp from the A.F. of M. Local 180, The Musicians Association of Ottawa-Gatineau. It has been reprinted here with the permission of the author, Roddy Ellias, whom I would like to sincerely thank for truly capturing the essence of my parents. Enjoy! Danielle
Remembering Bob Sabourin (1935-1993)
by Roddy Ellias
Let me set the stage a little. Ottawa in the early 1960s.
We listen to music on record players (or stereos) -LPs and ‘singles’, or on radio, or on television shows.
Many of us will remember the infamous Sunday evening Ed Sullivan Show, where we first heard the British phenomenon called ‘the Beatles’!, or the very occasional live music event. One of the great venues anywhere to hear music in those days was Ottawa’s Le Hibou Coffee House,where this teenager (at the time) got to hear a young Joni Mitchell, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Lenny Breau, Elvin Jones, Bruce Cockburn. The list goes on and on and on.
Information about music, and especially music theory, was not as readily available or accessible as it is today.There were no computers, no internet, no Youtube, you get the picture. Yes, there were good text books on classical theory, but not much related to much else.
Most of us who were learning to play pop, rock, jazz, folk, country or basically any music that was not western classical music did so largely by copying records. (The great American jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan even wrote a tune cleverly titled ‘Nights at the Turntable’, in honour of this tradition and process of learning music.)
As a young teenager playing the guitar in the sixties, I tried to learn things anywhere and everywhere (I still do, by the way!). There were a few places in town that offered guitar lessons. Some of the fine guitar teachers in those days were Hank Sims, Ken Davidson, Bill Shepherd and of course, Bob Sabourin. Forgive me if I’ve left someone out by mistake. I was fortunate enough to have had lessons with three of these four teachers but most extensively with Bob Sabourin. And how lucky I was, and let me tell you why.
Bob taught out of his guitar shop on Bank Street in the Glebe from 1960 on, when it was called Professional
Guitar Studios, until his death in 1993. (By the way, he changed the name of the shop to Metro Music in 1965 and the shop is still run by his daughter, Danielle).
I was already playing Beatles tunes and trying to play jazz on the guitar when I started lessons with Bob in the early sixties. My goal was to learn to read music, but as Bob opened my mind and ear to different musical worlds, I developed many other goals as well.
As a business man, Bob Sabourin was not always the most personable. I remember seeing people come in to look at guitars that were hanging on the wall. I got the impression most of the time that, although he was helpful with questions, he really couldn’t wait for them to either buy the damn thing or leave the store so he could get back to teaching, practicing or just hanging and talking guitars with his buddies or students! Don’t get me wrong, Bob was a beautiful and warm person; he just had little patience for the sales part of his daily affairs.
What Bob lacked in charm and beauty (yes, beauty) was more than made up for by his better half, Christine. And what a beautiful person she was, inside and out. One of the most positive people I have ever met, especially in the face of the health challenges that faced her. Bob and Christine lived upstairs from the shop at this time with their little baby Danielle and they made me, along with most of the students, feel like part of the family whenever I was there.
Bob was an excellent musician who loved and could play in just about any genre: pop, jazz, classical, country and so on. And he, unlike most guitarists in those days, could read just about anything. I know that if he lived in LA in those days, he would have been a great studio musician. But we were lucky enough to have him here in Ottawa!
Did I say that he had little patience sometimes with customers? Well that was nothing. If you were his student and for one reason or another, you hadn’t done your homework, well let’s just say that Bob could make you feel like you never wanted to do that again. I came in once and once only without having everything down well. But, if you worked hard, the sun came out! Some of his best students in those days, Steve Groves, Alfie Collins, John Cassidy and I’ll put myself in that group (again, sorry if I have mistakenly left someone out), learned a great deal technically about the guitar but I think what Bob imparted to the students who were open to it was a love and enthusiasm for all kinds of music - not just jazz, or classical, or folk or whatever, but all kinds of music. He was genuinely excited about flamenco, about classical guitar, about jazz, and would pass that joy on to us.
He also went out of his way to do special things for his students. One of them was having visiting artists over to his house (by then on First Avenue) and inviting some of his hard-working students over to hang
with them. One of those artists was Lenny Breau, who came maybe twice or more to play a six-night gig at Le Hibou Coffee House. I’ll never forget those wonderful experiences that never would have happened
without the dedication and love of a great teacher like Bob Sabourin. I’m forever grateful and I know that the other students from those days are as well.