Almost 50 guests attended our first speaker presentation of the year, hosted by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library on September 9, 2023. Prior to the presentation, Dianne Brydon, President of the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa took a few minutes to describe some of the outstanding events they have in their upcoming season. For more details on their organization and their presentations, please check out the BIFHSGO website.
We were then pleased to welcome Peter Atkinson, a retired educator from Ottawa, who spoke to us about his father, noted broadcaster Gord Atkinson. Peter focussed on a 13-year period of Gord’s extraordinary career when he introduced Rock & Roll music and the musicians who played it to Ottawa, to Canada and in some cases to North America. Gord was “Ottawa’s Oldest Teenager”.
Gord was recruited by radio station CFRA in Ottawa from radio station CHUM in Toronto in February 1954, based on the national success of his program featuring the music of Bing Crosby. Arriving in Ottawa, he soon determined that there was a market for the new music known as “Happy Beat”; the term “Rock and Roll” being considered as too risqué. The station attracted an older audience and their management was reluctant to try new things but eventually Gord convinced them to allow him to run a show of new music on Saturday afternoons, considered to be a dead time on the radio. He called his show the “Campus Corner”, a name he borrowed from the shoe department of the Ogilvy’s department store on Rideau Street. Gord ran the show from the Freiman’s department store in the Westgate Shopping plaza and it featured a mix of live performances and recordings. It was an immediate and overwhelming success soon outgrowing that venue and by 1963 changing to a Monday to Friday time slot and its name to the “Campus Club”, which eventually totalled some 30,000 members.
Gord created his own “Platter Poll” based on requests from his own listeners, rather than from nationally compiled lists of hits. Some of these listeners tuned in to late night radio from pioneering Rock & Roll hotbeds such as Buffalo and Rochester, allowing him to always be among the first to play new songs and new bands, often beating the major U.S. broadcasters by months.
Gord was also at the centre of the concert scene in Ottawa. He introduced the first “Happy Beat” concert in Ottawa, headlined by Bill Haley & His Comets, but also featuring Chuck Berry and the Platters. His best remembered concert was the April 3, 1957, appearance of Elvis Presley, one of only 3 such appearances outside of the United States throughout Elvis’ career. Elvis was eager to play Ottawa as he knew that his music was being well received and played here, based on the fan mail he had received. Later, in 1964, Gord took a group of some 40 Club members to see the Beatles in Maple Leaf Gardens. Returning home he told his family that he hadn’t heard them at all because of the constant screaming of the crowd.
Gord hosted a series of wildly successful talent shows at the Ottawa Coliseum, called the “Campus Hop”. This provided a venue for emerging local talent to perform and gain exposure – among many others, this helped launch the career of Vern Craig, later of the Staccatos, and the very popular Hugh Scott.
Speaking of the launching of careers, Gord introduced and promoted two local performers who would go on to become mega-stars in the entertainment world. Both Paul Anka and Rich Little owe their start to Gord Atkinson. Gord was the first in the world to play Paul Anka’s first big hit, Diana , Paul bringing the record to him for that purpose. Paul and Rich remained life-long friends with Gord and his family.
Life as a radio DJ, especially at that time, was highly competitive, demanding long hours and hard work. Gord maintained as successful a family life as he did a professional one, this due, in large part, to his wife Elaine, who raised their seven children and kept everything together and running.
Gord stepped away from the “Campus Club” in 1967 to run CFRA’s sister FM station, CFMO. He continued as a broadcaster with his other show “Show Bill” that he had started when first coming to Ottawa. Gord was also heavily involved in charitable work, most notably being one of the chief organizers, along with Rich Little of the 1982 Frank Sinatra concert that raised over $1,000,000 for a neo-natal unit at the Civic Hospital.
Peter has recorded many fascinating stories along with lots of photos, often previously unpublished, in his highly recommended book, “ Gord Atkinson: Ottawa’s Oldest Teenager”, which can be purchased at upcoming HSO in-person speaker series presentations at the library or through the Showbill website.