Don Messer Biography

Don Messer was born in 1909 in a house located in Tweedside near Harvey Station. He was the youngest of 11 children in a family so musical that a dozen fiddlers might be grinding away in the parlor come evening. Young Don would sit in the corner, fascinated, but whenever he reached out a hand for a fiddle, he got cuffed over the ear. He had to wait until he was five to be able to unscrew the hinges on one brother’s fiddle case, remove the fiddle and began practicing. His mother would hum old-time tunes and he would wail them out on a protesting instrument. Within a year he played Haste to the Wedding in public and, by the time he was seven, he was regularly playing at dances.

As a youngster, he lived with an aunt in Boston while he took violin lessons and worked in a five-and –dime store. But he had a nervous breakdown (he hated the store) and had to return to New Brunswick. He once persuaded a Saint John fishmonger to dump his sponsorship of a program of classical music on the radio and to sponsor Messer instead.

By the mid-30’s, Don was well known in New Brunswick as the leader of various groups of old-time music-makers, but he was on the look-out for a permanent band and  a bigger audience.

He was introduced to Charlie Chamberlain, then a singing, roistering lumberjack who could, if necessary, play a two-stringed guitar and sing in French or English. Duke Neilsen, a tough circus roustabout and an orphan, joined Don and Charlie as a hot banjo player, although he said modestly at the time. “I can play pretty near anything.”

Don Messer got into the “big time”, relatively speaking, in 1939 as director of old-time music for CFCY, Charlottetown, PEI, at $12.50 a week. He would not take the job unless the station allowed him to bring Chamberlain and Neilsen with him. He arrived in a Model A Ford containing nine people and dozens of jars of jam and preserves strapped to the running boards.

At this time the musicians, now called the “Islanders”, were so poor that they would sell publicity pictures of themselves to get enough gasoline to get to the next town and dance hall. “But they were good times,” recalled Don.

By the end of World War II, Don had pioneered charter airplane flying to get to engagements throughout the Maritimes. Soon afterward, the band got a national radio network show with CBC, and, in one year, drew 12,000 letters from fans – more than any other show except The Happy Gang. In 1949, Don decided to make a national tour. As the band began driving west from the Maritimes in two cars and a station wagon, its membered expressed skepticism of what lay ahead. They wondered if anyone would have heard of them out here. To their astonishment, the rest of Canada had heard of them. By the time they hit the first big city, Montreal, there was no suspicion or worry. They found other country fiddlers were modeling their styles on Don and his band playing. In Ontario they broke most attendance records. In Ottawa, they drew 5,000 people at the Coliseum. At Peterborough, they rented a hall for $25, then packed it with 2,500 people at $1.50 a head. The tours west continued but were exhausting and expensive.

About 1956, before leaving an engagement in PEI Don called a CBC friend in Halifax suggesting that his band do a TV show on their way through. “It was a frightening time for all,” recalled Don. “The lights were so bright that most of us could not see what was happening. When it was over Duke Neilsen said, “I bet they think we’re a bunch of farmers.” But as they were making their way to their next engagement a deal was already in the works with CBC to have a permanent Don Messer program. The idea took fire and the show continued on TV for many years.

The band took their success calmly. Don was not too impressed. “We’ve always had plenty of bread,” he says “and in good years, butter and jam to go with it. But that’s all”.  A heart attack at the end of their last radio show in 1956 convinced Don and his band that they belonged in the Maritimes and several offers to travel to the United States or Toronto were turned down. Don and his band were true Maritimers and fame and success never changed them.

Don Messer died on March 29th, 1973.  A monument was unveiled on May 15, 1979 at Tweedside next to his former school, “in recognition of his contribution to the musical heritage of Atlantic Canada “ Over 100 people attended the dedication. After the blessing delivered by Rev. George Stratton of Harvey, one of Don Messer’s former classmates, Earl Swan, unveiled the monument. Following the dedication service a reception was held in the Tweedside Orange Hall. Brothers and sisters of the late Maritime musician at the dedication were Roy Messer, George Messer, Emma Treadwell and Doris Davis.

Unknown author; Source:  Harvey Heritage archives

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