In a scene that played itself out in households across North America and beyond in the 1960s, a kid with a guitar who wanted to go far was discouraged from doing so. In the case of young Jerry Doucette, it happened in Hamilton, where his mother, a strict Catholic, preferred he devote his energies to his school work rather than his guitarwork. The boy’s father intervened.
“Mama, you let him play,” he said.
Those words struck a chord with the teenaged Mr. Doucette. “I thought ‘wow, what a great song title,’ and I wrote it down,” he would say later. A full song quickly materialized. “It just poured out,” he told the Victoria Times-Colonist in 2017.
The bluesy and boisterous Mama Let Him Play by the guitarist and singer-songwriter wouldn’t be recorded until 1977, but it took off quickly after hitting the airwaves. Released on the Canadian independent label Mushroom Records under Mr. Doucette’s surname only, the single charted in Canada and significantly boosted Mr. Doucette’s profile and touring possibilities.
Mr. Doucette’s debut album, also named Mama Let Him Play, earned Platinum status (meaning 100,000 in sales) in his home country. Both the LP and the single charted in the United States. The song is a staple on Canadian classic-rock radio playlists to this day.
Mr. Doucette died of cancer on April 18 at a hospice in Delta, B.C., surrounded by family. He was 70 years old. He was a firebrand guitarist, a supple and big-voiced singer, and a crafty songwriter. His success extended into the United States, where his namesake band, Doucette, opened shows for Bob Welch, Eddie Money, Meat Loaf, the Doobie Brothers and Atlanta Rhythm Section.
Though Mr. Doucette released four studio albums, had a Top 20 hit in Canada with 1979′s Nobody and regularly performed on stage until his retirement in 2018, he will forever be associated with Mama Let Him Play, a galvanizing rocker that spoke to the rock and roll liberation of its era and served as anthem for the upstart rockers that would attempt to follow in Mr. Doucette’s footsteps.
Give that boy some freedom
Let him move around
Don’t get in his way
You’ll only bring him down
Mama won’t you let him,
Let him play some rock ‘n’ roll …
The signature song emerged at time when the Canadian music industry was just finding its legs, and when rock music was generally considered to be allied with sex and drugs. Parents, such as Mr. Doucette’s mother, discouraged electric-guitar aspirations.
Dave Bidini, the author and co-founder of the Toronto rock band the Rheostatics, used to practice Mama Let Him Play in front of a mirror as a teenager. “It had a thread of defiance to it that really stood out in Canada,” Mr. Bidini told The Globe and Mail. “It was as important to me as the Sex Pistols’s Anarchy in the UK or the Ramones’s Blitzkrieg Bop.”
At the turn of the 1970s, a wave of new laws across North America lowered the minimum legal drinking age. The progressive legislation gave rise to a culture of tipsy camaraderie that helped spawn a ruggedly uplifting style of Canadian barroom rock in the second half of the seventies that appealed especially to young men.
Trooper’s fist-pumping crowd-pleaser Raise a Little a Hell embraced a spirit of party-starting insurgency, while April Wine’s I Like to Rock, Burton Cummings’s My Own Way to Rock and Mr. Doucette’s Mama Let Him Play were persuasive arguments for the transformative power of rock and roll and the freewheeling lifestyle the music promised.
Sturdy, simple and lager-drenched, the genre eventually lost its sway with radio. Keyboards and synthesizers, not guitars, became the instruments of choice for many New Wave bands heading into the 1980s. Mr. Doucette reacted to the shifting landscape with The Douce is Loose in 1979. If the album’s sleek hit single Nobody wasn’t yacht rock, it was at least floating in the marina.
Elsewhere on The Douce is Loose, Mr. Doucette adjusted his intensity and tempo upward, perhaps to compete with the sophisticated music of progressive rock bands such as Rush and the hard-rock trio Triumph, who played fast, flashy and metallically.
“Young men were knocking back beers at clubs like the Gasworks in Toronto where you had to buy it by the quart,” said Al Mair, who co-founded the Canadian independent label Attic Records in 1974. “The drunker the audiences got, the louder and heavier they wanted the music. The bands saw that and responded accordingly.”
After the release of The Douce is Loose, the Vancouver-based Mushroom Records went out of business, resulting in a loss of momentum for Mr. Doucette’s career. Because the membership of his band was in flux, he was touring less. With no new songs on the radio, his royalty payments dipped. Soon he was “penniless,” in his own words, and deeply discouraged.
In 1981, Mr. Doucette was finally able to release his optimistically titled third album Coming Up Roses. A return to radio relevancy failed to materialize, however.
Still, in his review of a concert at Toronto’s El Mocambo that year, Globe music reviewer Alan Niester noted the guitarist’s passion for rock and roll was intact, and that there was carefree “looseness” to Mr. Doucette’s performance.
“In short, Mr. Doucette is back, and raunchier than ever,” the review read, “He may not scale the heights of Mount Juno again, but if they gave one for being a great band to get drunk in a bar to, Doucette would win it hands down.”
His career stalled, Mr. Doucette would not release another album for 14 years. The Juno mention was in reference to the Juno Award for Most Promising Group of the Year in 1979, won by Mr. Doucette and his band. Though the promise was not fully realized, he had already achieved more than most.
Jerry Victor Doucette was born on Sept. 9, 1951, in Montreal. When he was four, his family relocated to Hamilton, where his father, Louis Doucette, worked for the Stelco steel company. His mother, Georgette Doucette (née Lepage) was a homemaker.
In a musical household where his father took a bobby pin to an old acoustic guitar and his mother played the squeezebox, the child received his own guitar at age six. By the time he was 11, he was in a band called the Reefers.
In Mr. Bidini’s 1998 book On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventures in Canadian Rock, Mr. Doucette recalled playing with the Reefers at an outdoor stadium in Hamilton in front of some 6,000 high school students in the mid-1960s.
“This was back when the Beatles were doing their thing, back when the chicks were going crazy,” he recalled. “That day, after our set, we got mobbed. I couldn’t believe it. We were chased, and just like in the movies, I had to run away or risk being caught.”
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Doucette ran all the way to Toronto, where he played with a number of bands, including, in 1967, Tribe.
They were a good band, but they had trouble with the woman who was managing them, Mr. Doucette said in On a Cold Road. “She was real domineering.” Suspecting the manager was holding back his wages, the young guitarist complained to the musician’s union. “I got my money back,” he recalled.
In the early 1970s, he moved to Vancouver, where he joined Seeds of Time, a garage rock band that had had a modest local hit in 1970 with My Home Town. With a change in name and membership, the band continued working the clubs as the Rocket Norton Band. Musicians from both of those groups went on to form Prism, which later scored international hits with Spaceship Superstar and Don’t Let Him Know.
Mr. Doucette’s solo success with Mushroom Records and the band that was formed under his name was substantial as well. Carried by the fame earned from Mama Let Him Play, “The Douce,” as he was known, toured on both sides of the border.
One New Year’s Eve, Mr. Doucette and fellow Mushroom Records signee Chilliwack simultaneously shared headlining duties in Calgary and Edmonton. While one band played in Calgary, the other performed in Edmonton. Upon completion of their respective sets, the two acts hopped on planes and switched cities to finish off the evening.
The high times didn’t last. By the mid-1980s, beset with record contract issues, Mr. Doucette was bitter and depressed.
“It was a nightmare for me,” he told the Ottawa Citizen. “A lot of people don’t know all the problems I went through. But you learn. These things happen when you’re green behind your ears.’’
Within a few years, he restarted his career with a touring schedule of small clubs and festivals mostly in Western Canada that lasted for most of the rest of his life. Alluding to his costly lessons, he named his 1995 blues-rock album Price of an Education. The single How Strong charted, but the middle-aged Mr. Doucette was not inclined to work the touring road hard in another bid for stardom.
“It’s pretty tough to jump back in the small vans after you’ve been in the big tour buses,” said B.C.-based blues guitarist David Gogo.
In the 2000s, health issues plagued Mr. Doucette. Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces within the spine, kept him from playing the guitar or doing much of anything at all.
“It’s like an electrical shock going up the back of my legs,” Mr. Doucette said in 2005. “I get about 40 of those zingers a day, and they stop me dead in my tracks.”
He kept touring. Bandmates helped him on and off the stage. He eventually recovered enough to resume golfing, a passion of his. But, playing in 2007 in Tsawwassen, B.C., Mr. Doucette “dropped dead,” he said, on the golf course.
“It turns out my heart was beating less than 60 beats per minute, slowed right down,” the guitarist told the Surrey Now-Leader newspaper. “But they got a pacemaker put in and it’s just perfect now.”
True to his Mama Let Him Play ethos, Mr. Doucette supported aspiring musicians at every turn. In 2015, at the Grizfest Music Festival in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., he invited a young guitarist from the audience onto the stage, put a red Fender Telecaster in his hands, and told him to play.
“I was shaking in my boots the whole time,” said Leo Gilmore, guitarist with Vancouver rock band Chase the Bear. “I had played the stage earlier in the festival, but I hadn’t played a legend’s guitar right in front of him.”
Mr. Gilmore later bumped into the 63-year-old guitarist backstage. “He told me that I’d hear ‘no’ a million times, but to keep striving for that one ‘yes,’ because it would make all the effort and all the pain worth it.”
Mr. Doucette leaves his wife of 43 years, Maggie Doucette; brother, Donald Doucette; children, Mark Doucette, Gerry Doucette Jr.; stepchildren, Shirley Burdon, Lesley Dethridge, Karen Burdon; and 10 grandchildren.