Half a century ago, Bobby Gimby was arguably Chilliwack’s most famous son.
Gimby was the local music man who’d made good for penning the hugely popular song, CANADA, several years before Canada’s Centennial year of 1967.
The catchy tune broke every music-industry record going at the time. But more importantly, “it became an anthem of unity for a Canada deeply divided,” according to the family-run website, bobbygimby.com.
The image of Gimby, as a caped Pied Piper character, was one first envisioned by his daughter, Lynn, who also glued the baubles and beads onto his herald trumpet. During the Centennial celebrations Gimby was sometimes photographed or filmed with a huge crowd of kids behind him, wearing a cape, and playing that bejewelled trumpet.
Gimby spent some of his formative years in Chilliwack. The Gimby family had moved to Chilliwack from Saskatchewan in the 1930s, after the family hardware store burned down.
“There, a 17-year-old Bobby got a job pumping gas, and wrote his first radio jingle, for the gas station, joined the Chilliwack Town Band, and started a small group of his own, playing dances around the area,” according to the family website.
It was in Chilliwack prior to the Second World War that the future band leader, radio star, and songwriter started to become known for his sparkling musicality. He was from a musical family and in some ways Chilliwack was his musical crucible.
“Pretty soon he grew restless and itched to join one of the orchestras touring Canada at the time: Mart Kenney, whom press had dubbed ‘The Wizard of the Trumpet’ and his Western Gentlemen.”
Bobby scored a private audition after the gig — so he went to the club early.
“Spotting Gimby in the audience, Kenney surprised him by bringing him on-stage mid-show,” asking him to call a tune.
Gimby did his number and was invited to join the band on the spot.
“Only problem was, Bobby was a good 10 years younger than the rest of the band — and looked it — so he did the only thing he could think of to appear older: He grew a mustache. And thus, he found himself out on tour just shy of 18, making a living as a professional musician.”
Bobby entered one of the most prolific periods of his life as a composer in the 1950s, writing songs that were recorded by Peggy Lee, Liberace, Nanette Fabray, Rich Little, and more.
Later during that big centennial year Gimby crossed Canada 20 times, performing 500 shows, and entertaining 200,000 young Canadians.
The bilingual song, CANADA, sold 75,000 copies of the sheet music and was unprecedented in its success.
He won the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967, and a Progress writer at the time wrote:
“This is an honor that is richly deserved for few men have worked as hard and unselfishly as Bobby Gimby in order to spread joy and happiness to others.”
A Chilliwack Progress headline makes clear how Gimby felt about the town: “He Left His Heart in Ol’ Chilliwack” from June 7, 1967.
“A little bit of me,” will always remain in Chilliwack, according to Gimby.
Although the family moved to Chilliwack from Saskatchewan, Gimby eventually left to meet his worldwide destiny, but the B.C. community of Chilliwack, was the one he kept returning to, over and over.
Over the years his star was rising, Gimby was mentioned in The Progress dozens of times, and he came to see friends and family, and perform for kids.
“The one-time Chilliwack resident, now a famous composer, musician and bandleader,” was the “star attraction” at Chilliwack’s Centennial Showcase of 1967, according to The Progress coverage.
In a thank you letter to Mayor Al Holder, acknowledging Chilliwack’s down-home hospitality when he was there, Gimby wrote: “You people live in one of the few heavenly places on this earth,” adding he might just come back one day and buy land in Chilliwack.
The family home was on Young Road at Alexander Avenue, according to the newspaper archives.
Marian Gimby Brannan, Bobby Gimby’s sister, recounted a fascinating detail in a 1998 Progress article about the day her brother left Chilliwack for Toronto in the 1940s to make his mark in music: “Our father tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him from getting into the music business.
“Nonetheless, off he went,” his sister recounted. “He left our house in Chilliwack just after supper to catch the bus for Vancouver.”
His father handed him a corn cob as a parting gift.
“I can still see him swinging his trumpet case in his hand as went. He placed that empty corn cob in his trumpet case and carried it there the rest of his life.
“It was buried with him! It must have been his way of never forgetting where he came from.”
Gimby died in 1998, and that famous bejewelled trumpet was on his casket, and the corn cob was with him as well.