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Local Blues Saint Worked with the Mentally Challenged

Volume 31, Issue 4,5 & 6, May 30, 2017

Adrian Chamberlain. Excerpted from the April 15, 2017 edition of the Times Colonist

     Mention the name of John Fisher — a.k.a. Victoria’s Godfather of the Blues — and one subject always comes up.
     The suits.
     Fisher, who died March 14 at the age of 69, loved performing in vintage suits. 
Fisher wanted to not only pay tribute to his early blues heroes (many of whom dressed this way) — he hoped to become one.
     Or something like that.
     Johnny Shuffles was Fisher’s pseudonym, his blues handle. Shuffles was a dapper guy who sometimes slipped into a slight Southern twang. Shuffles was a skilled musician who could play slide guitar in an historically authentic manner influenced (as were all slide blues guitarists) by Mississippi bluesman Elmore James.
     When people stop talking about Fisher’s suits, they start talking about his stature in Victoria’s close-knit blues community. In this city, blues and blues-rock are especially popular. For instance, since the Victoria Blues Society was founded a decade ago, more than 750 people have joined.
     Fisher’s godfatherly status is, in part, linked to his years with Blues X Five (Blues by Five). The group, which gigged from 1965 to 1967, is considered Victoria's first bona-fide blues act.
     The Royal City Music Project, a website documenting the history of bands in Victoria, deems Blues X Five this city’s most influential blues group.
     “They were Victoria’s original blues band,” said Glenn Parfitt, Royal City Music Project’s creator. “John was a true blues purist. He was very passionate about being true to his art and his craft.”
     Guitarist Norm MacPherson — who went on to play with Skylark, Valdy and Burton Cummings — was a member of Blues X Five. He first met Fisher in the early 1960s.
     MacPherson’s older brother, Dave, and Fisher would come home from Mount Douglas Secondary on their lunch hour and after school to listen to music.
     Fisher, who had a part-time job at the Greater Victoria Public Library, was able to borrow recordings far removed from the pop hit parade. For MacPherson, it opened up a new and exciting world.
     “I remember one time, it had to be '63, he brought home this record called Exotic Sounds of the East. And it was Ravi Shankar. We listened to this music and were absolutely stunned and blown away,” MacPherson said.
     Most importantly, Fisher turned his friends on to blues music by such legends as Big Bill Broonzy. This was before the British invasion of the mid-'60s, when acts such as the Rolling Stones turned the greater public on to the blues.
     “John was a very hip guy,” MacPherson said. “He knew music I’d never heard of.”
     The teens formed a skiffle group called the 38 Slug Jug Band, which soon morphed into Blues X Five. Emerging at a time when most Victoria bands wore matching uniforms, did choreographed steps and played hits by the Ventures, Blues X Five soon attracted a following.
     The band’s big break came when it won a city-wide battle of the bands in 1967. The prize was opening for the Doors at the Memorial Arena. Although Fisher participated in the band contest, he left Blues X Five just before that dream gig.
     He’d quit because Blues X Five had — following in the footsteps of the Stones and Eric Clapton — shifted from pure blues to more of a commercial rock sound. Fisher wanted to remain true to the blues, MacPherson said.
     Other musicians also credit the jams for setting them on life-long blues paths. 
     Fisher’s ready smile and unflappably genial personality made him a popular figure in Victoria's musical community. One describes Fisher as “the nicest guy in the world.” He was renowned for his willingness to help others.
     Blues musician Charles Gates said Fisher was an educated person with a “formidable intellect” who was well versed in literature, art and architecture.
     Fisher’s father managed a bank in Oak Bay, and for a time in the 1960s, his son worked as a teller. Fisher was clever with numbers — he later served as the Victoria Blues Society’s treasurer. However, MacPherson recalls Fisher’s long hair “caused some conflict” during his tenure as a teller.
     Ultimately, he rejected a career in finance. When not playing music, Fisher worked at Glendale Lodge, which cared for the mentally challenged. After its closure, he formed Crossroads Human Services.
     Like other musician friends, MacPherson was employed by Crossroads for a time. He was struck by how Fisher dealt with clients.
     “That’s when I really saw a side of him that I had not seen before. That was his compassion and his true humanity for the mentally handicapped. Just an incredible level of kindness and patience and empathy.”
     The Victoria Blues Society has honoured Fisher by establishing the John Fisher Memorial Legacy. The fund will provide aspiring blues musicians the opportunity to attend the annual Hornby Island Blues Workshop.
     Before he died at Royal Jubilee Hospital last month, Fisher donated his collection of kitschy suits, more than 30, to the costume loft at Langham Court Theatre. In later life Johnny Shuffles had switched sartorial gears, opting for a more elegant off-white ensemble.
     “He really had it together, right down to the tie he wore and the shoes and everything. And nobody else here was performing at that level, you know,” MacPherson said.
     “He was an amazing ambassador for the music in Victoria.”