TEHKUMMAH—The Tekummah Triangle Club Seniors’ Hall was packed to overflowing as friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate the pending induction into the Northern Ontario Country Music Association Hall of Fame of one of the most popular entertainers and Island country music icons, Eugene Manitowabi.
Manitoulin’s Down Yonder, itself containing a number of inductees and members of the Great Northern Opry, provided the main musical support as a number of the North’s top country musicians took to the stage for guest spots honouring Mr. Manitowabi.
The evening started off in fine form as the fiddling barber (and Down Yonder mainstay) Doug Hore launched into a rendition of ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ Pianist Maurice Labelle and singer Debbie Robinson also provided songs before the first of the special guests took to the stage. Bettina Mercer was the first guest, noting that Mr. Manitowabi “is my mentor in many things.”
Cape Breton minstrel Harold McIntyre brought a great rendition of ‘Kelly’s Mountain’ along with the banter of a professional entertainer to capture the crowd.
Throughout the evening the music pierced the mists of time, bringing back old favourites enjoyed by many in the audience in their childhood.
Ben Lentir was filling in on bass, rather than his usual flattop, but certainly did his own set proud despite wielding the less familiar instrument.
Northern Ontario Country Music Association inductee Robbie Shawana channeled Johnny Cash among other artists and had the audience bouncing in their seats, while guitarist Jim Beech (who lost his fingertips in childhood) invoked tears with his original song about singing Amanda for Maria (a 10-year-old blind girl) and laughter with his compendious collection of jokes.
But a standing ovation awaited the guest of honour, as Mr. Manitowabi made his way to the stage.
“You look like you are all having a good time—we’ll soon fix that,” quipped the veteran entertainer as he donned his guitar. “We’ve locked the doors and windows.”
Mr. Manitowabi introduced himself with a chuckle and plug. “I am Eugene Manitowabi from Wikwemikong and I listen to Brother John’s Gospel Hour every Sunday, then I go to Holy Cross to listen to Robbie Shawana. I am a former chief of Wikwemikong, a former councillor, a former lands administrator, in due time my gravestone will read ‘here lies the former Eugene Manitowabi’.”
Mr. Manitowabi peppered his songs (opening with ‘Mirrors Don’t Lie’) with anecdotes and humour throughout the evening and had clearly captured the hearts (and ears) of his audience, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance to join him for the celebration.
“This is a most humbling experience,” said a visibly moved Mr. Manitowabi. He recalled a number of his friends and colleagues, including the late Clayton Shawanda and Carole Middaugh. “Carole was quite a community organizer,” he said. “I remember the first time she invited me here to downtown Tehkummah, it has always been a pleasure to be here.”
The evening proceeded with gentle ribbing, and a few mildly ribald references.
“From the bottom of my heart I love every one of you,” he said.
As the first set ended, the musicians gathered onstage for a group photo.
Mr. Manitowabi will be inducted into the Northern Ontario Country Music Association Hall of Fame during the annual Country Music Awards weekend in Sault Ste. Marie November 3 to 5.
Bus packages are available from Manitoulin to Sault Ste. Marie return and can be reserved by contacting Beth and Glen McDougall at 705-377-4643 or by email at email@example.com.