Canada’s Yodeling Cowboy
Alberta Slim was a pioneer of the early days of Canadian country music. Born Eric Edwards in 1910 near Wiltshire, England, Slim emigrated with his musical family at the age of ten to Lloydminster, Alberta where they homesteaded in a two-room cabin, later moving to Saskatchewan. Slim learned to play the fiddle and eventually the guitar, playing and singing at local events. When the Depression hit, Slim took his guitar on the road, riding the rails across Canada and singing for his supper on street corners.
In 1937, lured by the promise of free pie, Slim performed on an amateur show on CKCK radio in Regina, sponsored by the Army and Navy. Officials were so impressed that they asked him to play regularly. There was no salary, but Slim was allowed free advertising of his local performances. He snapped up the opportunity to promote his musical talents, composing songs, selling autographed pictures and song booklets, and dressing in elaborate show costumes. By 1940, he was working at CFQC Radio in Saskatoon, and had soon become a household name. He received $18.00 a month, and paid $16.00 for his room and board. To make extra money, Slim also told fortunes. When reading the tea leaves of a pretty young Saskatchewan girl named Pearl, he predicted that she would marry him-which she did.
Slim started a summer road show after acquiring the first of a series of trick horses, named Kitten after a horse he owned as a boy. Accompanied by Pearl, who was announcer and assistant, he sang and performed at carnivals, rodeos and fairs across Canada. Slim’s entourage soon grew to include trick dogs, a wrestling bear, a chimpanzee, and eventually even an elephant named Susie. They wintered in Burnaby, British Columbia, where they kept the elephant in the back yard and the horse in the basement.
“I was quite a celebrity at school. The kids all knew I had an elephant in my backyard,” laughs daughter Betty-Lou. “It was normal to me.” Betty-Lou and her brother Carey both participated in the show. “Dad thought we should be part of the performance.”
Slim had a live morning radio show on CKNW in New Westminster, and continued to travel with the zoo during the summer months. His first recording, When It’s Apple Blossom Time in the Annapolis Valley, was recorded in 1948 and soon became a smash hit. Pat Gerow, with his band, The Rhythm Pals, was playing regularly on CKNW when he met Slim. He recalls playing steel guitar on the recording. “In those days it was a needle cut,” he says. “There were no tapes then.”
Early in his career, Slim had mastered the difficult style of echo yodeling, sometimes joining in song with Wilf Carter, his role model. One of Slim’s first songs, She Taught Me How To Yodel, remained his all-time favourite. Slim wrote dozens of songs. Songs about the life of a cowboy, about Canadian history, and about the places he had been.
“Dad thought that songs were as much about telling a story as about the music itself,” says his son Carey.
In 1957, Slim and Susie were interviewed by a young girl, a junior reporter at CBC named Avril Campbell. Avril, later known as Kim, would go on to become the first female prime minister of Canada.
Following the birth of their son and daughter, Pearl decided traveling across the country with an elephant and a horse was no way to raise children. By 1958 they had sold the zoo and Slim directed his entrepreneurial talents to real estate investment, developing a successful business with Pearl. But he never stopped performing. He continued to sing and yodel and write songs.
“My dad sang every day,” says Carey. “Every evening he would sit down with the guitar and sing for an hour or two. Even after he became partially paralyzed from a stroke in 2003, he continued to sing every day as therapy.”
Slim’s career was rejuvenated in 1999 when, at the age of 89, he delighted crowds at folk festivals across the country, singing and yodeling like a man half his age. Happy to be performing again, he appeared on stage, radio and television, and at the age of 93, he released his last CD recording, Alberta Slim, A Canadian Legend, that contained several of his newly written songs about Canada, including Phantom of Whistler Mountain, and Blue Waters of The Yukon.
“I always wanted to be an entertainer, sing and play and make records and travel with a trick horse like Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers,” Slim wrote about himself.
Little did he know he would become a Canadian legend.
Alberta Slim passed away in Surrey, B.C. in November, 2005, at the age of ninety-five.
You can visit his website at www.albertaslim.com.