Big Sugar

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Big Sugar
Big Sugar at Kitchener Blues Festival 2016.jpg
Big Sugar at Kitchener Blues Festival in 2016
Background information
Also known asAlkaline
OriginToronto, Ontario
Genresrock, reggae, alternative rock, acoustic rock, progressive rock, reggae rock, blues rock[1]
Years active1988 (1988)–present
LabelsBread & Water, eOne Entertainment,, Universal, A&M, Hypnotic
MembersGordie Johnson
Alex Johnson
Ben Richardson
Rey Arteaga
Chris Colepaugh
Past membersTerry Wilkins
Al Cross
Walter Crash Morgan
Paul Brennan
Lloyd Mojah Benn
Kelly Hoppe
Garry Lowe
Bucky Berger
Maureen Brown
Jeff Arseneault
Michael Skeeto Gibbs/ Rob Misener
Steve Hunter
Kit Johnson
Bodhan Hulusko
Tony Raffa White
Stitch Winston
Marks Lockhart
Al Webster
Gavin Brown
Rich Brown
Chris Layton
Tommy Shannon
Glenn Milchum
Victor Bateman
Mark French
Peter Prilesnik
George Kohler
Gene Hardy
Richard Isax Howse
"Dizzy" Daniel Moorehead
Steve Donald
Sarah McKelchran
Johnny Johnson
Scott MacIntosh
Tony Rabalao
Tyler Stewart
Eric Paul
Nina Singh
Sean Dalton
Bongo Gene Campbell
Safwan Javed
Shaun Verreault
Meredith Shaw
Stephane Beaudin
Brannen Temple
Michael Hale
Max Whitey Don Heinrichs
Christopher Friendlyness Hatton
Willi Williams
Chris Gormley

Big Sugar is guitarist, singer, producer Gordie Johnson. His roots, rock, reggae band released its first album in 1991 and continue to release new material. The band is continually evolving with bandleader Gordie Johnson's signature songwriting and sound as the glue binding many various musicians joining him on stage.


Officially formed by Gordie Johnson in 1988 in Toronto, Ontario, Big Sugar consisted of vocalist and guitarist Gordie Johnson, bassist Terry Wilkins, and drummer Al Cross, though the three musicians had already played together for several years as a supporting band for Molly Johnson's jazz performances[2] and as an informal jam band with members of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. After Molly Johnson returned to rock music with Infidels, she helped her former bandmates to secure a record deal; the eponymous debut album was released in 1991 on Hypnotic Records.


Johnson and Hoppe in 1997

The first of many band changes came in 1993 with the departure of Wilkins. Big Sugar then recorded the album Five Hundred Pounds with the help of guest musicians, including harmonica and tenor saxophonist Kelly Hoppe, also known as Mr. Chill. Hoppe brought a blues and old-school R'n'B influence into the band's sound. Hoppe would become a regular member of the band in September 1994. Longtime friends from the same home town, he had given Johnson his first gig as a guitarist after Johnson was a professional bass player for many years. Hoppe would later add keyboards and melodica to his Big Sugar sideman responsibilities. In July 1994, bassist Garry Lowe joined the band.

Lowe had moved to Canada in the mid-1970s from Kingston, Jamaica. Soon after arriving in Toronto, he became a bass player for touring reggae recording artists. He often accompanied them at Toronto's Bamboo club on Queen St.W. and other venues. Lowe was a founding member of "Culture Shock", a popular Toronto reggae band. Johnson had long admired Lowe and was delighted when they started touring together full-time, adding the bass sound that Johnson (himself a bass player) had been looking for in the string of bass players he had hired before asking Lowe. As quoted in The Globe & Mail, Johnson explained, "His bass sound became how I envisioned Big Sugar's sound- a blend of blues and rock anchored by his reggae groove.".[3] In later years Johnson spoke of their unique musical language, " much of our connection was unspoken. We didn't work things through musically. If I played a little something, he would play a little something back. It was a very symbiotic relationship.".[4]

Five Hundred Pounds sold 10,000 copies in Canada on the strength of their live shows with little publicity or radio airplay. During this time, Gordie Johnson also recorded an album as Don't Talk Dance, with Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies and Chris Brown of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.

In 1995, Gordie Johnson's Big Sugar released two EPs; Dear M.F.(which featured a cover version of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy") and Ride Like Hell. Following the release of these EPs, drummer Stitch Wynston who had taken over from Al Cross was replaced by Walter "Crash" Morgan. During the band's tour that year, however, Morgan suffered a heart attack, collapsed, and died on stage during a show in Iowa. Longtime friend Tyler Stewart flew in to help finish the tour followed by Tony Rabalao. Garry's musical partner and friend Raffa was enlisted for recording and other live performances, becoming Johnson's all-time favorite studio drummer, appearing on many Big Sugar albums through the years. Former Odds member Paul Brennan subsequently joined as the band's new drummer, appearing on one of their most commercially successful albums, 1996's Hemi-Vision. In May 1997, Brennan left the band and the drummer chair continued to rotate with drummers including Gavin Brown.

A French version of Hemi-Vision's single "Opem Up Baby" was recorded, titled "Ouvres-Toi Bébé", for radio stations in Quebec. The song gained widespread airplay in the province, and for their next album, 1998's Platinum-selling Heated, the band recorded a French version of each single they released; the French songs were collected on the 1999 EP Chauffe à bloc. Also that year, Johnson and Hoppe began to perform several acoustic shows as a duo, affectionately nicknamed "Big Sugar Acoustic - Two Fools on Stools" that included equal amounts of entertaining repartee and music.

Cross returned as drummer in 1999. The band also added a new rhythm guitarist, Mojah. In February that year they opened for the Rolling Stones at the Air Canada Centre,[5] and in July the band performed at Woodstock 1999.

In 2000, the band released a dub album, Extra Long Life, under the stage name Alkaline. The same year Alkaline toured as an eight-piece band, complete with horn section. Johnson has continued to include dub mixes of Big Sugar songs periodically, and another full dub album may be released. [6]

In 2001, Big Sugar released Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready? A complete track-for-track French version, Brothers and Sisters, Êtes Vous Ready?, was released the same year. The English album concluded with a blistering rendition of "O Canada" that became a signature version that was included on the 2017 Universal Music box set Canada 150: A Celebration of Music[7] released as part of the 150th anniversary of Canada.

Hit & Run - greatest hits[edit]

The two-CD compilation Hit & Run, featuring a greatest hits disc that included a special edition, limited run live concert performance disc, was released in 2003. This lineup of Big Sugar played their last thundering rock concert on December 31, 2003, at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton, Alberta that was followed by a period of musical exploration and family relocation for Johnson. While he continued to perform Big Sugar material he also creatively stretched with additional projects.

Gordie Johnson formed the Austin, Texas-based trio Grady, which comprised "Whipper" Chris Layton on drums and Big Ben Richardson on bass. Described as 'cowboy metal', Grady recordings included versions of Big Sugar songs. In 2012 he formed the duo Sit Down, Servant!! when he began playing triple neck steel guitar and Moog bass pedals. This project was born out of a mandatory restriction from playing electric guitar after carpal tunnel surgery. SDS toured the world opening for Joe Satriani and also George Thorogood and does occasional shows in their hometown of Austin TX as a four piece Latin/dub/jazz band. Kelly Hoppe formed "Mr. Chill and The Witnesses", a roots music group. Mojah and Garry Lowe went on to form "Truth and Rights Revue", a reggae band, releasing one album.

A new decade[edit]

Big Sugar made a splash in 2010 at the Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival in Whistler, B.C. on April 23,[8] with tour dates through summer 2010. A new studio album evolved and was released in June 2011, titled Revolution Per Minute that included musicians keyboard player and rapper DJ Friendlyness along with drummer Stephane Beaudin. Revolution Per Minute was released on both cd and vinyl with the vinyl album containing bonus "Alkaline" dub remixes and additional songs.[9] This release featured the radio hit "Roads Ahead". 2012 saw the DVD release with Eliminate Ya! Live!, a double CD/DVD set that included a new single covering Al Tuck's "Eliminate Ya!".

In 2014, Big Sugar released an album called Yard Style which contains unplugged versions of nine of their original songs, plus four previously unreleased songs. This release was followed by a three-month national theatre tour with the ensemble of musicians from the studio recording, resulting in 10–12 musicians onstage nightly. Reggae legend Willi Williams, a past musical collaborator, was a featured performer for this tour. The tour was completely acoustic showcasing Johnson's vocal abilities along with the rhythmic group of hand drummers and Big Sugar's song melodies.

Their next studio album Calling All The Youth, was released in 2015 and distributed by eOne Records. Gordie Johnson and his Big Sugar bandmates saw two years that consisted almost entirely of touring, including Big Sugar European tours, the North American acoustic tour, summer festival dates and a national tour for the new release, as well as two world tours for SDS. This time period was concluded with a period of time off the end of 2015 where Johnson completely withdrew and reevaluated his life choices and musical future. It was a time of rebirth. One of the results of this was the addition of Alex Johnson- Gordie's wife- on percussion and backup vocals. She stepped on stage after managing, working and touring with Big Sugar since the '90s. In May 2017 longtime member Kelly Hoppe retired from touring and the band while the same time period saw DJ Friendlyness leave the band to focus on his own project "Human Rights". Austin based Rey Arteaga, master of Afro Cuban congas joined the band at this time as the band evolved to a more percussion heavy, guitar-based presentation, no longer having keyboards, harmonica or horns. Big Sugar members were devastated by Garry Lowe's sudden death from cancer on July 7, 2018. In the words of Gordie Johnson, "He was my greatest musical collaborator, our wisest elder. We were blessed to be on life's journey together."[10][11] Big Ben Richardson, Johnson's partner in Grady who actually played bass in Big Sugar briefly before Lowe joined the band, returned to the stage. Renowned guitarist (yes, you read that right!) Chris Colepaugh has rounded out the 5 piece band on drums.

In November 2018, Universal Music ICON album series [12] released a "Big Sugar ICON" album on CD with plans to reissue the back catalogue on vinyl beginning in 2019.

On December 28, 2018, the date of Garry Lowe's birthday, Big Sugar played a sold-out tribute concert in Toronto that featured an evening of musical collaboration, in the Big Sugar style, of the Big Sugar song catalogue that included special guests and musical friends. Joining them were members of Barenaked Ladies, Bedouin Soundclash, Broken Social Scene, Sloan, Tom Wilson, Danko Jones, Dream Warriors, The Road Hammers, Maestro Fresh Wes, Willi Williams, Errol Blackwood, Human Rights, I Mother Earth, Isax Injah, Julian Taylor, Leroy Sibbles, Mojah, The New Deal, Adrian Sheriff Miller, Culture Shock, Wide Mouth Mason and more.

Big Sugar has a new release ready for 2019. Titled Eternity Now it was recorded and mixed at the Johnsons' studio, 'The Sound Shack', which has become a busy center for Gordie Johnson's continuous producing projects. Along with the release of Eternity Now, Big Sugar will be playing select concert dates around the world in 2019.

Awards & Recognition[edit]

Gordie Johnson has earned numerous gold and platinum records with his band Big Sugar and as producer or musician with such acts as The Trews and Default.

Johnsons' Big Sugar has multiple Juno Award nominations including 1995 Breakthrough Artist, 1997 Rock Album of the Year and 1998 Group of the Year.

In 1995 Big Sugar won the European Edison Award one of the oldest music awards in the world.

SOCAN #1 Song Awards as songwriter for Big Sugar "The Scene" in 1998.

In 2000 Johnson was named to the 'Toronto Star Best Dressed' list, a culmination of his decades-long Hugo Boss endorsement.

In 2003, Gibson guitar released a special edition limited run "Gordie Johnson signature series SGJ" guitar that incorporated fashion house Hugo Boss with a HUGO neckstrap and hardshell case (as the longtime clothing endorser of Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar). Hard Rock Café Hotel & Casino created a Gordie Johnson display in the Vancouver, Canada location for its opening in 2013 that featured the "SGJ".

In 2007 COCA (Canadian Organization of Campus Activities) inducted Johnsons' Big Sugar into the Hall of Fame.

In 2010 Gordie Johnson was inducted into the Canada South Blues Society Hall of Fame.

WCMA nominations for Producer of the Year 2012, Engineer of the Year 2013.

In 2015 Johnson and his Big Sugar bandmates were awarded a Road Gold Award.



Year Title Chart positions Certifications
1991 Big Sugar - -
1993 Five Hundred Pounds - Gold
1996 Hemi-Vision 24 Platinum
1998 Heated 18 Platinum
2001 Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready? 12 Gold
2001 Brothers and Sisters, Êtes Vous Ready?
2011 Revolution Per Minute 34 -
2013 Eliminate Ya! Live! - -
2014 Yard Style - -
2015 Calling All The Youth - -
2019 Eternity Now - -

Live Albums[edit]




as Alkaline[edit]


Year Title Peak Chart Position Album


1991 "Sleep in Late" × Big Sugar
1993 "Ride Like Hell" × Five Hundred Pounds
"I'm a Ram" ×
"All Over Now" ×
"Wild Ox Moan" ×
1995 "Dear Mr. Fantasy" 59 Dear M.F.
1996 "Diggin' a Hole" 9 Hemi-Vision
"If I Had My Way" 13 11
1997 "Gone For Good" 90
"Open Up Baby" 52 16
1998 "The Scene" 36 1 Heated
"Better Get Used to It" 17 18
1999 "Turn the Lights On" 8
"Girl Watcher" 7
2001 "Red Rover" × × Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready?
"Nicotina (She's All That)" × ×
"All Hell for a Basement" × ×
2003 "I Want You Now" × × Hit & Run
2011 "Roads Ahead" 45 8 Revolution Per Minute
"Little Bit a All Right" 23
"If Santa Don't Bring You No Funk" non-album- Christmas single
2012 "Eliminate Ya!" Eliminate Ya! Live!
2015 "Just Can't Leave You Alone" 50 Calling All The Youth
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.
"×" denotes periods where charts did not exist or were not archived.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
    • "20 Questions – Gordie Johnson has his way ahead of Big Sugar show in Calgary". Toronto Sun. 26 October 2012. Retrieved 5 July 2014.
    • Van Rosendaal, Julie (26 July 2013). "5 Alberta food favourites from Gordie Johnson". CBC News. Retrieved 4 July 2014.
  2. ^ "Johnson plays the infidel". Ottawa Citizen, August 15, 1991.
  3. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ "Live Reviews: Rolling Stones/Big Sugar Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON Thursday, February 25". Chart Attack, Ed Skira
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Chart Attack". Chart Attack. Archived from the original on 2010-05-21. Retrieved 2016-10-24.
  9. ^ inc., Canoe. "Big Sugar sweet on hitting the road". Retrieved 2016-10-24.
  10. ^ Lew MacDonald. "Big Sugar bassist Garry Lowe passes away". I Heart Radio. Retrieved July 7, 2018.
  11. ^ "Big Sugar bassist Garry Lowe dead at 65 after battle with cancer". CBC. July 8, 2018.
  12. ^ Icon (album series)
  13. ^ Peak positions for Big Sugar's albums in Canada:
  14. ^ "Gold/Platinum". Music Canada. Retrieved 2011-07-09.
  15. ^ "Big Sugar Top Singles positions (153 - 316)". RPM. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  16. ^ "Big Sugar Rock/Alternative positions". RPM. Retrieved 2010-08-08.
  17. ^ "Chart History". Billboard. Retrieved December 5, 2018.

External links[edit]