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Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, acts like Downchild, the Powder Blues Band and Jim Byrnes tore up Canadian stages with their high velocity blues rock.

Among them was Victoria’s own Uncle Wiggly’s Hot Shoes Blues Band. While not as well known as the others, Uncle Wiggly’s did make history in this city and beyond.

Uncle Wiggly’s claims to be the first Victoria band to independently release a 45 (in 1980) with two original songs. In 1981, the band cut an album that sold a remarkable 5,000 copies at Richard’s Records. On the strength of that, Uncle Wiggly’s scored a distribution deal with RCA that resulted in a total of 25,000 copies of that debut album being sold.

And then, midway through a Canadian tour, they broke up.

Uncle Wiggly’s lead singer was and still is Edmonton’s Hank (Uncle Wiggly) Leonhardt. His old band still gets together for annual reunion gigs. Tonight, Uncle Wiggly’s will perform at the Tally Ho Sports Pub to relive its glory days.

Leonhardt, 66, says he’s moving back to Victoria in June to shift the dance band back into high gear. Uncle Wiggly’s may even reunite with Powder Blues guitarist Tom Lavin, who recorded their first album.

“He’d love to do another with us, so we’ll see,” Leonhardt said. “We’re definitely going to be doing lots of writing and recording and playing.”

Leonhardt started singing with bands in the mid 1960s. He fell in love with the blues as a member of Edmonton’s Hot Cottage (CBC Radio host and record producer Holger Petersen was the drummer). Leonhardt then moved to Victoria to reunite with his former bandmate, bassist Norm Piercy. Uncle Wiggly’s Hot Shoes Blues Band was formed in 1978.

The band soon found a following, playing often at the University of Victoria’s Sub Pub and Harpo’s nightclub. Leonhardt recalls cutting their first 45 (with the songs Uncle Wiggly’s and Watermelon) at the now defunct Keye Recordings, a brick walled studio on Quadra Street.

When Uncle Wiggly’s shared a bill with the Power Blues Band in Duncan, Lavin was sufficiently impressed to ask the band to record at his Blue Wave Studios in Vancouver. “I said, ‘We can’t really afford it.’ He hands me his card and says, ‘Yes, you can, call me.’ ” Leonhardt recalled.

The album was released on Uncle Wiggly’s own Mister Deluxe label. RCA then picked it up for distribution. Uncle Wiggly’s started getting national airplay and opening slots for Joe Cocker, Koko Taylor and George Thorogood. Leonhardt particularly remembers playing dates with Muddy Waters at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom and the Royal Theatre.

“He was the most gracious, beautiful, wonderful man you ever met,” he said.

Uncle Wiggly’s appeared poised for the big time. However, a cross Canada tour and the band’s career abruptly ended in Winnipeg in the early ’80s. Leonhardt, who prefers not to rehash old history, says the group “had some issues” and broke up. RCA decided not to pick up its option to release a second Uncle Wiggly’s album. That disc, also recorded at Blue Wave Studios, was distributed on a small scale by Uncle Wiggly’s but sold just 1,000 copies.

“Had we not broken up when we did, and had we finished going across Canada, I think we would have made that next step. I think we would have made it there. But we didn’t,” Leonhardt said.

Fifteen years ago, Uncle Wiggly’s began reuniting for annual concerts. One nighters eventually expanded into mini tours reaching Duncan and the Gulf Islands.

Leonhardt believes Uncle Wiggly’s appeal lies in its original music, an uptempo take on the blues with a horn section added.

“We’re a dance blues band, but we’re still very traditional to the roots. And we have a blast when we play. We have fun. We dance around on the stage. We try to get to crowd going.”.
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