Lighthouse co-founder Skip Prokop made rock history

Skip Prokop was among Canada’s first significant rock stars, a world-class drummer and gifted songwriter who uttered the groundbreaking jazz-rock band Lighthouse, which earned international acclaim in the 1970s. His death on Aug. 30, after a long struggle with cardiovascular disease, sparked an outpouring of tributes in the music world. He was 73.

Mr. Prokop got his start with the Paupers, an advanced Toronto rock quartet that took New York by storm in March 1967, and became the first Canadian group to land a U.S. record deal. Then he listed with Janis Joplin, performed with Cass Elliot and Carlos Santana, and became admired for his session work with Peter, Paul amp; Mary and Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. Nevertheless, it was with Lighthouse, which published five bestselling records and had four Top 10 singles including One Fine Morning, that he actually made his mark.

Lighthouse gave Mr. Prokop a broad canvas on which to explore new musical ideas. His idea of bringing together jazz horns, classical strings and a rock rhythm section was as daring as it was revolutionary. When Lighthouse took off, it directed other fusion acts like Chicago to follow suit. Finally, Mr. Prokop was a talented drummer whose finesse and power inspired admiration from the likes of Rush’s Neil Peart, who wrote: “Skip was a brilliant technician and delivered a superbly musical {}.”

Ronald Harry Prokop (the nickname “Jump” came later) was born in Hamilton, Ont., on Dec. 13, 1943. He was one of two children of Harry, a Ukrainian autoworker, and Janet (née McConnell) Prokop, an Irish-born hospital employee. The boy learned to play drums at the Sea Cadet Corps and quickly excelled in his instrument. His father instilled in him a strong work ethic and he would practice drum patterns constantly, even on his bedroom pillow at night. After joining the Toronto Optimist Drum Corps, a 17-year-old Mr. Prokop won the Canadian National Rudimental Drumming Championship, earning a scholarship offer from West Point Military Academy.

However, Mr. Prokop had his sights on a music career. After graduation from Lakeshore Business College and a brief stint in the Toronto police force, he left the Drum Corps to form the Paupers with vocalist Bill Marion, guitarist Chuck Beal and bassist Denny Gerrard. A Beatles-style pop group, the Paupers enjoyed some local success in Toronto’s Yorkville district but actually started going places after hooking up with Bernie Finkelstein, who became their manager, and recruited singer-songwriter Adam Mitchell when Mr. Marion quit.

Retooled as a psychedelic rock band, the Paupers landed a gig at New York’s Café au Go Go in March 1967. Mr. Finkelstein had got them on a bill with San Francisco’s highly touted Jefferson Airplane.

The Paupers wound up stealing the spotlight. In addition to Mr. Beal’s distorted fuzz guitar and Mr. Gerrard’s frenetic bass solos, the Toronto group’s dynamic stage show featured a crazy rhythmic climax conceived by Mr. Prokop.

“We used three drummers,” remembers Mr. Mitchell. “Skip was on his kit, I had been on tom-toms and Denny played with a floor tom and a bass drum turned on its side to create a large, deep African noise. We were like a drum corps on LSD — it really packed a wallop.”

Riding high, the Paupers scored a U.S. record deal and combined the artist roster of industry heavyweight Albert Grossman. Mr. Prokop and his band mates were abruptly the darlings of Canadian music. However, the buzz started wearing off after the group’s two albums failed to match the excitement of its live shows. After a devastating, drug-sabotaged appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967, the Paupers started drifting apart.

For Mr. Prokop, a chance meeting in New York with Toronto-based jazz keyboardist Paul Hoffert changed everything. After meeting in a Paupers gig at New York’s Electric Circus, both — by chance — wound up sitting next to each other on the flight back to Toronto. On the airplane, Mr. Prokop told Mr. Hoffert his dream of integrating strings, strings, electric instruments and drums into a new rock orchestra. They launched Lighthouse the next year. Mr. Hoffert said he admired Mr. Prokop’s “chutzpah” and “never say die attitude.”

The 13-piece band made its debut on May 14, 1969, in the Rock Pile in Toronto’s Masonic Temple. Recalled Mr. Hoffert: “Skip managed to tap into Yorkvilles rock scene and I knew I could call the Toronto Symphony and get four string players under the age of 25 who were totally into stone ‘n’ roll. And I had no trouble finding horn players of the calibre either. It all came together very naturally.”

A recording deal and three albums with RCA followed in rapid succession. Although well received critically, not one of those albums were big sellers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Prokop made his voice heard in Ottawa one day in April 1970, where he contended in the CRTC hearings in favour of a Canadian content quota for radio. “The thing that I believe,” he told the hearing, “is it is going to establish a chain reaction. If Canada can get behind this whole thing, there’ll be a lot more kids who’ll make it globally.

“First of all, the children that are recording will begin getting hit records. Then Canadian kids will begin paying a certain quantity of money to go and see them in concert. This creates the beginning of a business — you get started creating stars inside your own country.” Together with the emotion rising in his voice, Mr. Prokop concluded, “This is something that Canada hasn’t really had.”

Coming from a successful working musician, Mr. Prokop’s words had weight and earned him the respect of both CRTC chairman Pierre Juneau and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The Cancon quota came into effect the following year and helped to construct the Canadian music industry.

Lighthouse was an adventurous traveling act, performing at major events such as the Atlantic City Pop Festival and England’s Isle of Wight Festival, where the band and Jimi Hendrix appeared on two consecutive nights due to audience demand. The team also performed with orchestras in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Philadelphia, and toured with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of Ballet High. Lighthouse guitarist Ralph Cole advocated the Edmonton Symphony to Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker and the consequence, Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, became the British group’s bestselling album.

Lighthouse’s own album sales took off when the band teamed up with producer Jimmy Ienner and switched labels to GRT Records in Canada. Mr. Ienner had specific ideas about how to make the group’s sound more commercial. Year-old GRT president Ross Reynolds: “One day in the studio, Jimmy handed Skip a roll of tape and said ‘Here is your drum {}’ This was his way of telling Skip his drum solo was not going to be on the record. Skip grumbled a bit, but realized that the band was due for a change.”

In addition to Mr. Ienner’s leadership, Lighthouse gained from two other changes: the addition of formidable singer Bob McBride and the sharpening of Mr. Prokop’s pop songwriting. Starting in 1971, Mr. Prokop’s tunes, such as One Fine Morning, Hats Off (to the Stranger) and Sunny Days, all started topping the charts.

“Jump had the rare ability to distil complex musical and lyrical ideas into simple, heartfelt and extremely catchy tunes,” Mr. Hoffert said. The team won the first of three consecutive Juno awards for Best Group of the Year, together with Mr. McBride taking Best Male Vocalist in 1973. And Lighthouse Live! , listed at Carnegie Hall, became the first platinum album in Canada.

From 1974, the incessant cycle of recording, promoting and touring started to take its toll. First Mr. McBride, who was getting unreliable because of substance abuse, went AWOL and Mr. Prokop joined the front line on guitar and vocals.

Subsequently Mr. Prokop himself quit and Lighthouse disbanded in 1976. Throughout the ’80s, Mr. Prokop became a born-again Christian and hosted a Christian-themed rock series, known as Between a Rock and a Hard Place, on the Toronto radio station CFNY. He also drummed in a Christian rock group, released a jazz album and later worked in advertising sales for many London, Ont., radio channels.

Mr. Prokop and Lighthouse reunited in 1982 for four big concerts at Ontario Place, dubbed One Fine Weekend, and then took another hiatus before 1992 and has continued to carry out ever since. However, Mr. Prokop, a heavy smoker and drinker, was forced to leave the group he began in 2012 because of health issues. He suffered a heart attack in 2013 and underwent bypass surgery the next year.

Mr. Prokop’s location in Lighthouse was taken by his son, Jamie, who learned to play drums from his dad, beginning at age seven. “Dad was not always the easiest person to get along with,” Jamie said, “since he was very opinionated and pushed himself and everybody around him to succeed. He could not stand mediocrity and I heard all about the benefits of hard work {}.”

The elder Mr. Prokop also needed a caring side. He worked with the World Vision charity and two decades ago, despite poor health, directed a drumming workshop in South Dorchester Public School, near Aylmer, Ont., teaching kids to play rhythm patterns on Home Depot plastic pails. His remarkable life story will be told in his forthcoming memoir, written with the support of audio journalist Jaimie Vernon.

Mr. Prokop leaves his parents and sister, Darlene. His wife, Tracy (née Beauvais); three kids from his first marriage, Shannon, Cassandra and Jamie; granddaughter, Gina; and stepsons Paul and Jeffrey Vandepol.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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