From NBGS Miramichi-WIKI
Piano Man – Sproul celebrates 78 Musical Years With First Release By Denise Berthelotte
Even at 88 years old, Leland Sproul still lets his fingers do the walking. Sproul has been playing the piano since the age of 10. He recently released a cassette, entitled Lee’s Pianologue, with over a dozen ragtime favourites like Mr. Sandman, Hot fingers and It had to be you. “I never play a song the same way twice,” Sproul said in an interview from his former home in Newcastle. Sproul owns Castle Lodge, a house his father, Heber Sproul, built around 1908 on the corner of Castle and Pleasant Streets. He lives in Ottawa now but he returns frequently for visits, sometimes bringing his daughter with him.
When Sproul plays the piano, he puts all his feelings into whatever song he plays. But he had a little trouble getting used to public performances. He walked away from his first recital under the tutelage of Gene Allison in Sussex. Sitting down at the piano and about to begin Happy Farmer Sproul was struck by the number of people in the audience. “All of a sudden my mind went blank and I got up and walked away from the piano.” That was the last time Sproul walked away from a public appearance.
He got his first break in the music business when he was 15 or 16 years old. He took over the organist position at St. James United Church in Newcastle, once held by his former instructor, Professor Liscomb. At the same time, Sproul attended Mount Allison University in Sackville studying music. He travelled by train to get to and from home. He returned to the university for a bachelor of Science after he graduated from the music program. Little did he know the role his knowledge of science would play in his future.
In 1938, Sproul directed the North Shore Regiment band, but had to give up the position when the war began. “They struck me off,” said Sproul. He could not go overseas because the government wanted all science people to stay in Canada. He applied to join the Armed Forces several times but wasn’t accepted until he removed mention of his Bachelor of Science from his resume.
After the war, Sproul played for school bands, local churches, silent movies and private gatherings. Although piano was always his main instrument, Sproul also played the violin and melophone. Sproul played in different parts of Canada and even some parts of the United States in the early 1950’s after moving to Ottawa, Ontario. He played the melophone for the Shriners in Toronto with Scott Wilson as band master. Sproul played in several band competitions, but one in Buffalo stands out in his mind. His band was the only Canadian band among the seven in the contest. “We took first place,” Sproul said with as much pride as he probably felt when the band first won.
While there have been many big moves in Sproul’s musical career, the biggest is probably the release of his cassette. He said after years of people asking if he had one on the market he decided it was time he did. It comes in his 88th year – one year for each key on the piano, his daughter points out. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy can find it at Jackie Fallon’s corner store in Newcastle.
Opera House Silent Movies Livened by Sproul’s Piano
When the horses started galloping, he started playing, says Lee Sproul. In the mid-twenties, Sproul was asked to play for the silent movies at the Old Opera House in Newcastle. Bill Stymus was in charge of the theatre. “He was after me for a while, but I didn’t feel I was qualified,” Sproul said. Finally a year after he graduated high school, Sproul accepted. He played once in the evenings and during Saturday matinees.”I used to see all the movies then, Sproul said laughing. Sproul said at first he was given instruction sheets showing when to play. But the instructions were not the rule and he soon took a natural instinct to playing at the suitable times. “I got a so I just played to the picture. It was a great experience because it gave you an idea about improvisation with the piano.” Sound started to accompany movies in the late 1920’s so Sproul’s career as a movie musician only lasted about six months.
Sproul Part of the Big Band Area
Lee Sproul has first-hand experience with big bands. He formed his own band, Lee Sproul and his Danceland Kings, around 1936 during the Big Band era.
The big names in those days were Benny Goodman, Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsy. “They played all the good numbers,” said Sproul. Sproul’s own band was formed with local musicians. Sproul played the piano. “We didn’t use all the members all the time, it depended on the money,” Sproul said. Big Bands cost more than smaller groups and Sproul said that caused problems sometimes. “I think that’s why we don’t have that many big bands anymore.”
Instruments used in big bands included the violin, tuba, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and saxophone. They also used drums in the percussion section. His band was together for about 10 to 12 years and played mostly in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Source: Miramichi Weekend – July 15, 1994
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