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“Does Your Mama Know About Me?”: Tommy Chong’s Late-’60s Motown Hit
Before he paired up with Cheech Marin to become one-half of the popular 70s comic duo Cheech & Chong, Tommy Chong had already experienced quite a lot of success in the 60s; he’d been a club owner and touring musician, signing a record deal with Motown’s Gordy imprint, in 1967, and having a charting hit song with a song he co-wrote, “Does Your Mama Know About Me?,” which Chong claims today changed Motown’s direction towards becoming more socially conscious.
It’s really a great story, which we’ll have to condense quite a bit, but if you want to go back to the very beginning of Chong’s career, you’re going to be going way, way back — to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, circa 1956 — back to when Tommy Chong was still in high school. That’s when he first began playing rhythm guitar for a band led by a teenage Elvis impersonator named Dick Byrd, a full-blooded Native American from the Sarcee Tribe who lived on the nearby Stony Indian Reservation.
Byrd and Chong and their band — which included Chong’s brother Stan on bass, Bernie Sneed on the keyboards, Pete Watts on sax, and Eric Murray on the drums — gigged frequently at the Canadian Legion Hall and at local dances, and it was at one of the shows where Chong met an ex-semi-pro football star/ex-pro boxer named Tommie “Little Daddy” Melton, who just happened to be a pretty good singer too. Melton was black, like most of Chong’s friends at the time, and soon he was asking to join Chong’s band, and that led to Melton and Byrd both switching off on the lead vocals for awhile until Byrd decided to split off with Watts and Murray to keep his own band going.
Now, Chong and Melton began looking for a new drummer, adding Sunny Caruthers, another black musician from Edmonton. They needed a new name too, and began calling themselves The Calgary Shades — or just the Shades — which Chong says was a reference to their interracial make-up.
In his autobiography, Chong — who is of Chinese, Scottish and Irish descent — wrote about experiencing a lot of racial descrimination while growing up in Calgary, describing how he learned his ancestors were treated poorly by the whites in Canada, just as they had been down in the States, where they had also been brought in to work as slave labor on the railroads. Chong realized that here he was, just out of high school, in mixed race band in Calgary, which he describes as feeling “more like Mississippi than California in the way that black people were treated.”
Chong became the group’s official leader, simply because he had more experience than the others, and he was a natural leader. He immersed himself in “black music” — R&B, the Blues, and rock n’ roll played by black artists, people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley — and they got so good that they were hired by the owners of the huge Bowness Park, in the northwest quadrant of Calgary, without even having to audition the band. They played at an outdoor deck at Bowness for an entire summer, adding backing vocals and expanding their repertoire to include a little Fats Domino, Joe Turner and Chuck Willis now and then too, and like most bands, there were some personnel changes along the way too.
It was in 1957, by the way, that Chong says he smoked pot for the first time, after Raymond Ma, a Chinese bass player visiting from Los Angeles, gave him a joint and a Lenny Bruce album, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, which he says he listened to constantly. Chong says he smoked that joint so sparingly that it lasted for at least a month. The Bruce album, and marijuana, both became very important in his life, but back then, it was mostly about the music.
The Shades continued gigging frequently in Calgary, and they were so popular that the dances — usually at the Legion Hall, which was a no-alcohol venue — became so rowdy that The Calgary Chief of Police called up the President of the Legion and ordered them to a meeting at the Mayor’s office where they were told of the numerous complaints of trashed local homes, brawls, underage drinking, rowdy mobs and vandalism, all of which they blamed on the Shades. The Chief told Chong, in front of the Mayor, “All of Calgary thinks it would be a good idea if you and your band left town.”
Soon they were departing Calgary, and they began touring all around Alberta, and part of their loyal audience even followed them around to wherever they were playing. Since Alberta is part of Canada’s “wheat-growing bread basket,” as Chong writes, they played to a lot of farmers, some of whom liked to blow off steam on the weekends by getting into fistfights. Trouble seemed to follow them around, says Chong, which is how they got a reputation as a band of “tough Canadian fuckers.” They ultimately ended up in Vancouver, and found a home at an R&B club called the New Delhi, where they gigged regularly for the next year.
Chong writes that the Shades fell apart around 1960, and he and Bernie Sneed went back to Calgary and got straight jobs for the first times in their lives. Chong began driving a truck for the next year for Canadian Freightways, but he missed being in a band and calling all the shots, and soon he and Tommie were talking about reforming the Shades, which they did, playing their reunion show in Vancouver at the Moon Glow Cabaret. Chong moved back into his old single room on the fourth floor of the Hazelwood Hotel, a whorehouse where he had lived the year before, and the Chinese owners — who had met his parents when they came to visit — welcomed him back as if he was their own son.
By 1961, the Shades were gigging regularly on the east end on Vancouver, where all the R&B clubs were, but Chong was still barely scraping by, covering the rent but having very little extra money to live on beyond that. He scraped for a few more years, fell in love and got married in 1963, and soon he had a daughter — Rae Dawn — and things were finally starting to come together when he began running his own blues club, along with Melton’s help, out of the Alma Theatre on Ninth and Alma in Vancouver’s West End, which he re-named it the Blues Palace (although some sources say they both called it the Blue Balls).
Now that he was a club owner, he and Melton worked hard to keep it all afloat, hiring bigger headlining bands and artists to come and play, like Ike & Tina Turner’s Revue (who were booked to play for $750), while their band, now called Little Daddy & the Bachelors, would stand as the opening band. They had a short run of success before too many complaints from the neighborhood pressured them to look for a new location, which they found, in Vancouver’s Chinatown. This time their club was a much smaller space, which they called T’s Cabaret, and the band — now a quartet after Bernie Sneed quit to form his own B3 organ combo, leaving Chong and Melton with bassist Wes Henderson and drummer Floyd Sneed — began packing them in on Friday and Saturday nights. They kept looking for more bands to bring in large crowds on the weekends, and during the slower weeknights too, and by now Chong — in addition to leading his own band — was also a club owner, and booker, a talent scout and manager.
The Chinatown club also turned out to be a short-lived experience, but Chong didn’t let that stop him, opening his third Canadian club in late ’64, called the Elegant Parlour, in the basement of The Embassy Ballroom at Davie Street and Burrard. They didn’t have to pay rent for the first six months, but even so, Chong says they struggled for a few months trying to make enough just to pay the band and the help.
By now, their drummer, Floyd Sneed, was leaving to join a band that would end up becoming Three Dog Night, and Bobby Taylor — who they met in San Francisco — joined the group, and it was around this time that they decided to call themselves something new to reflect the new changes. Inspired by Lenny Bruce’s stand-up comedy routines, Chong says, he christened the band as “Four Niggers and a Chink,” but when they put it up on the marquee of the Elegant Parlour, a firestorm of notoriety quickly descended on the club. They were pressured to change it, after the first week, to “4 Colored Guys and a Chinese Lad,” and then “4 Ns & a C,” and it was about this time that Tommie Melton, who had sung in Chong’s band for six years, decided it was time for him to move on.
Soon they had settled on the name Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, in early 1966, and the ever-evolving lineup consisted of Chong, Bobby Taylor, Wes Henderson, along with guitarist Eddie Patterson, organist Robbie King, and drummer Duris Maxwell (aka Ted Lewis), the latter three having come as a package when the original Vancouvers merged with another local group, the Good Shepherds.
In late 1966, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes heard the band — whose repertoire consisted primarily of Motown covers, Chong says — when they came by the Elegant Parlour. By then, the Supremes were one of the top groups in the world, and their album The Supremes A’ Go-Go had recently become the first album by an all-female group to reach #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, knocking the Beatles’ Revolver out of the top spot. Chong writes that Wilson and Ballard were so taken with his band that they alerted Motown CEO Berry Gordy, Jr., who brought them down to play in Detroit, and that’s when he signed them to his Gordy Records, a subsidiary of his mighty Motown Records.
In 1967, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers recorded songs for their debut album, an eponymous release, and their debut single, the Tommy Chong co-composition, “Does Your Mama Know About Me?,” had an immediate impact on some of the other Motown acts:
“Before we were in Motown, they were always singing about ‘My Girl’ and the girl who’s gone, all about loving girls. And then I came in there with ‘Does Your Mama Know About Me?/ and it changed Motown’s course, you know. And all of a sudden, the Supremes got ‘Love Child’ and the Temptations did ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone,’ and all those socially, what do you call it, social awareness… And then Marvin Gaye did ‘What’s Goin’ On’ and that took it even further.”
Chong and the band began touring, and says that when he was on the road with Smokey Robinson, and they were down in the South, coming into a venue, they met a bunch of “little black kids that weren’t allowed to go to the venue to see Smokey — literally.”
Chong says, “And I was the only one that protested. I went to the owner, you know, the club owner, and say, ‘You can’t do that.’ And the next thing you know, they were allowing the black kids in. Because all it took was a voice. Someone to remind them, ‘Hey, this is America. You can’t do that.’ So I had that social consciousness; I brought that into Motown.”
For a July 1968 “Battle of the Groups” engagement at the Regal Theater, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers had a local-area family band, The Jackson 5, as their opening act. Chong later referred to the lead singer, the young Michael Jackson, as a “cute little guy,” and Bobby Taylor was so impressed with the group that he personally brought them to Motown’s Detroit offices, arranging an audition for them with Motown executive Suzanne de Passe and Berry Gordy, who were also impressed with the Jacksons, and the group was signed to Gordy’s label within a year.
According to Chong, all of the Motown myths about Diana Ross discovering the Jackson Five are just that — myths — and it was actually Gordy’s marketing machine who decided to use Diana to introduce the band. After all, she was better known than Bobby Taylor, but Chong says it was Taylor who had everything to do with the J5’s intro to Motown, and he played a big role in mentoring them during their early days with Motown.
Meanwhile, “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” climbed the charts and went to #29 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Then, after the band released two additional singles, Chong and Wes Henderson were fired by Motown producer Johnny Bristol for missing an appointment — they missed it because they were applying for green cards which would have enabled them to live, and work, in the U.S.
Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers broke up shortly afterwards when Chong tried to reduce the number of players covered by the Vancouvers’ contract. He intended that he, Taylor, and Henderson would constitute the group, while other members — Robbie King and Ted Lewis — would simply be regarded as sidemen and session artists.
Taylor auditioned for the then-vacant lead singer position in The Temptations (following David Ruffin’s expulsion from the group), but he was turned down. Meanwhile, Chong returned to Vancouver with a new idea germinating in my head: improvisational theatre.
The Elegant Parlor’s landlord had sold the building it had been in, so in early 1969, he moved the Parlour to the back of The Shanghai Junk, which was run at the time by his brother Stan. The Junk — located at 205 East Pender Street and Main in Chinatown — had originally been called the Kubla Klan, but now it was a topless joint and could be a rough place, and Stan would sometimes have to be a “heavy” to get people to pay for their drinks.
Chong writes that he didn’t have the heart to fire the strippers when he took over, so when he decided to turn their stripping show into a comedy troupe known as City Works, he put the girls in the skits, creating in the process the only topless improvisational theatre in Canada. Chong ran the club with his brother Stan and their parents, who had moved their from Calgary, and they transformed the intricate Chinese décor of the Shanghai Junk into a black-walled improvisational theatre.
One day, a Hispanic guy delivering carpets next door came into the club. He was fast and funny, and tired of laying carpets, so Chong offered him $5 a week more than he was getting laying rugs to do comedy. His name was Cheech Marin, and he was now making $60 a week as a member of City Works.
Soon, Cheech and Chong — along with improv comics David Graham and Gaye Delorme — were all trying out different material on the unwitting stripper bar patrons, and it was during this time that they began creating a stoner character based on a young hippie that Chong had met on Granville Street. Chong describes how he met this homeless hippie, who had long frizzy red hair and wore a long overcoat, when he just happened to be sitting on a big bag of garbage while he was tripping on LSD. Chong gave the young man some spare change and asked his name, to which the hippie replied “Strawberry.”
Chong let the hippie live at the club until he could get his shit together, in the lighting booth, and eventually Strawberry became the light man for City Works. When Cheech and Chong bombed on stage he would mock them, and tell them his honest opinion, with a stoned-out slow hippie drawl, “Heeeyyyyy, maaaaaaan, that bit reaaalllly sucked!” or “Wowww, maaaan, no one laughed! They hated it!,” and soon Cheech and Chong were doing impressions of Strawberry in their act. You might say that’s when their whole act came together, in fact.
By the way, this video of Chong’s tune includes scenes from La Mission with Benjamin Bratt.