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Lucille Starr: the Canadian country queen you’ve probably never heard of

Andrea Warner

“I had some cancer surgery, and you feel kind of sluggish but everything's fine and I’ll be OK. I always tell everybody God’s not ready for me and the devil couldn't stand the competition, so here I am!”

It’s less than two minutes into CBC Music’s phone interview with Lucille Starr, the one-time Canadian queen of country music. The mischievous delight in her voice seems as fiery now, at 79, as it probably did when she was a little kid, sneaking her way onstage for the first time.

It was a play at Saint Boniface church, the centre of her tightly knit francophone community in Winnipeg, Man. Her mom refused to let little Lucille join the older kids in the tiny production, but Starr wouldn’t listen.

“She came to the play with my aunts and next thing she knew she saw me up onstage!” Starr recalls. “I'd had somebody put makeup on me and I had my clothes and I was dancing my little heart away. I was so proud of that. Later on when we got home, Mum says, ‘Where did you get the clothes? What did you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I went down the street and I asked some people if I could borrow some things,’ and Mum says, ‘Oh my God, they're going to think we don't have anything!’ However, Mum never forgot that when I said I wanted to do something, sing or whatever, she'd better let me.” Starr laughs. “And that's how I really started.”

Performing was what she always wanted to do, and even as a kid she could command a price for her talents.

“When we lived on the farm for a while, the help would teach me little songs — and I wasn't going to school, I was pretty young — and they taught me some naughty little songs,” Starr says. “In the evening to amuse themselves, they'd have me sing for a penny each song. Till Mama caught on to what I was singing. She put the kibosh to that. I started working for pennies, thank gosh I didn’t finish that way.”

She was born Lucille Marie Raymonde Savoie, and her family moved from St. Boniface to Maillardville, B.C., a francophone community outside Vancouver, when she was young. Classically trained but in love with pop music, she’d sing anything, anywhere, any time. Then she heard about a young man who needed a “girl singer” because he’d stopped singing with his sister. His name was Bob Regan, and soon the pair were releasing country, rockabilly and folk records as Bob and Lucille. They married and headed for Los Angeles.

“Everybody was saying, ‘You’ve got to move to the States’ and blah blah blah,” Starr says. “And so we did and a gentleman by the name of Uncle Art Satherley, who was Gene Autry's manager at the time, and he liked us — he said I had a tear in my voice, and probably I did.”

They were dubbed the Canadian Sweethearts, but their homelife was anything but. Regan was abusive, and increasingly jealous of Starr’s growing popularity. Their marriage on the rocks, Regan’s behaviour only worsened and became more controlling when she suddenly became a star, quite literally, in 1964.

She met Herb Alpert (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Band), who was also a producer and co-founder of A&M Records. They changed her name from Lucille Savoie to Lucille Starr, and began recording Starr as a solo act.

“The first song I recorded was ‘The French Song,’” Starr says. “Herb and Dorsey Burnette, my producers, were in the studio encouraging me. I sat on a stool, feeling very much betrayed and alone. I was crying tears and I guess [that feeling] came through on the record.”

The song, which is sung in French and English, was released to little fanfare. Starr remembers her mother calling to ask how the record was doing.

“I said, ‘I don't know, we haven't heard anything for two weeks. And Mum says, ‘Well, it's a good thing you changed your name, so nobody’ll know Savoie didn’t make it!’” Starr laughs. “And right after that it took off everywhere. It just kept playing and gold records kept coming and it was a good feeling.”

At a time when the Beatles were the biggest deal in music, Starr’s bilingual tune made her an international sensation. She was being booked in Australia and Europe, and every time she went onstage, she says, she felt like a queen because the applause was so deafening and the excitement was so high.

“That felt good. I felt like I had arrived and I thought, well that's as far as that's going to go. I've done well, I've made my parents proud, and I always wanted to do that.”

But her relationship to Regan kept getting worse.

“The man I was married to at the time did not like that,” she says. “He would do everything he could to make sure that I wasn't going to get ahead. … Every time a good break would come in, he wouldn't tell me about it. So then people thought that I didn't want to listen to the bookers. I wanted out, but nobody seemed to know. But eventually I went on my own, I had the courage to go on my own, and it all worked out for the best.”

Starr left Regan and they divorced in 1967. But they would continue recording and touring together musically until 1977. After venturing out on her own, she fell in love with Bryan Cunningham, to whom she’s still married.

“He's been the light of my life for almost 40 years now,” Starr says with affection. They went to Las Vegas to get married and essentially stayed. When they arrived, the airline had lost Starr’s luggage with her wedding dress. Cunningham suggested they go shopping and pick out a new one, but Starr had a different idea.

“I said, ‘you can't just buy a wedding dress just like that. But I have a good idea: let's buy silk sheets for everybody and we'll stand on the bed wrapped up in a silk sheet! Both of us. And the preacher can stand there in a silk sheet and marry us. That’ll be really different!’” Starr laughs at the memory. “And for some reason he wouldn't do it. They found my suitcase and I had my wedding dress just in time. Bryan took a deep breath and thought, ‘thank God.’ After we were married, I said, ‘I can promise you one thing: I will always always love you. And our marriage will never be dull.’ And he’s said quite often since then, ‘You were right! I’ve never been so tired since I married you!’”

It’s the way Starr has lived her professional and creative life as well: always moving, always working, and never dull. This is how Starr has so many incredible milestones to her credit. She was a great yodeler and provided the yodeling vocals for the character of Cousin Pearl on the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. She was the first female solo artist to perform onstage at the famed Grand Ole Opry in 1965. And in 1989, she became one of the first women inducted into the CCMA Hall of Fame. Marg Osburn was posthumously inducted that same year.

She’s grateful for the friends she made along the way. Being the first solo female at the Grand Ole Opry? That was a distinction made possible by touring with Hank Snow.

“Hank Snow was very helpful to a lot of people, actually,” she says. “A lot of folks don't know that. But Hank helped a lot of people and I was one of them.”

She remembers that night at the Opry quite clearly, even though more than five decades have passed since then.

“I wore a yellow dress and a black crystal necklace, and I did 'Freight Train' and another song, a fast one,” Starr recalls. “The audience was really nice. And as a matter of fact, on that night backstage was Bonnie Owens and Merle Haggard. I see Bonnie and I said, ‘Oh Bonnie, how are you?’ and she's holding hands with Merle and they said, ‘We just got married!’”

Starr says that touring with Snow was a thrilling experience, and one for which she continues to be grateful.

“Hank Snow was giving me good advice,” Starr remembers. “I didn't always listen but he'd laugh when I'd be in trouble. He'd say, ‘You didn't listen, did you?’ I admired that man. He treated me so well. His best advice was: ‘Remember how to treat people on the way up because you'll have to meet ’em again on the way down.’” Starr laughs. “I don't know how far down that's going to be! I hope it ain’t too hot!”

The gallows humour is Starr’s trademark, but she delivers every zinger with genuine joy despite the fact that she hasn’t been able to perform since she had brain surgery in 2011. She can’t see very well, and there’s the recent cancer surgery, too. But she misses performing and would love nothing more than to make a miraculous return to the stage.

But there are so many ways in which her legacy lives on. Starr’s songs and life are the foundation of Back to You, a jukebox musical written by Vancouver-based actor, producer, playwright, and choreographer Tracey Power. The show made its debut in 2010 and has toured across Canada.

Power was actually researching Mary Pickford, another strong Canadian woman, when she came across Starr and started listening to her music.

“I loved the passion and joy in her sound and once I began to learn more about her journey from Lucille Savoie to Lucille Starr, I thought it would make for a kick-ass night in the theatre,” Power says. “Lucille was one of Canada’s pioneers in the music industry. She played right across the country and at a time when there were no laws about Canadian content, and she did what she needed to do to be heard as an artist, on radio and TV. At that time it meant moving to the States. She was a survivor, one half of a musical duo [who] then had to learn to go it alone. A singer who lost her voice and had to find it again. After I’d spoken with Lucille on the phone there was no doubt in my mind that her story should be celebrated.”

Starr is happy that her name is still out there, and that people remember the songs and the milestones. She was so young when they happened, she didn’t get the impact of it all until years later. It’s hard to know one is blazing trails in the moment.

“I see some of these trophies on the wall, and I think, ‘My God, Lulu, you were really on your way,’” Starr says. “I appreciate people that choose to give me credit for what I've done. And it's been a productive life in many many ways. It sure hasn't been a dull one.”

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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