Big Sugar is an eclectic, platinum-selling band whose expansive musical reach encompasses blues-rock, reggae, funk, and Latin sounds. Primarily the project of founder/singer/guitarist/producer Gordie Johnson, Big Sugar have, since their inception in Toronto during the late 1980s, released several gold- and platinum-selling albums and hit the top of the charts with a handful of singles including "Turn the Lights On," "Diggin’ a Hole," and "The Scene." While initially adopted into the jam band scene of the early '90s, Big Sugar's sound resisted classification, causing them a few marketing problems along the way. Their roots rock/reggae/Latin funk style has attracted a longstanding, loyal following on concert stages across North America and the globe, earning them a Road Gold Award. While 500 Pounds, their third album from 1995, resonated with Yank audiences, they had already been winning over Canadians for half-a-decade with an intense, raw, but musically sophisticated live show during which they never played the same set list twice. By the time they split for the first time in 2003, they were a sell-out attraction, and had released half-a-dozen albums on several labels, including the widely celebrated, squalling 2001 effort Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready? After reuniting in 2010, they delivered Revolution Per Minute the following year that showcased the band's sound filtered through Johnson's ever-evolving production aesthetic.
Johnson, who hails from Winnipeg and was raised in Windsor, Ontario, honed his guitar chops in clubs in his hometown and right across the river in Detroit, which, at the time, hosted a vibrant blues scene. After relocating to Toronto, he recruited bassist Terry Wilkins and drummer Al Cross to play local shows. Johnson, long a devotee to guitar rock and dub reggae in addition to blues, sought to create a sound that encompassed all three as core elements. They woodshedded for years, and spent their formative ones as a backup band for jazz singers. They played blues and rock gigs on the side and built a fan base as they explored musical boundaries. They didn't release their self-titled debut for Hypnotic Records until 1992, by which time they were an SRO attraction all across Canada and in Detroit and Chicago. Thanks to the then-burgeoning college radio scene in the U.S., the album was an independent success. 1993's gold-certified Five Hundred Pounds saw Wilkins missing from the lineup; a number of guest musicians fleshed out the recording, among them multi-instrumentalist Kelly Hoppe. In addition, the band got a new bassist in former Leroy Sibbles sideman and Jamaican emigre Garry Lowe, who learned to play his instrument at the urging of fellow Canadian immigrant and Skatalites' keyboardist Jackie Mittoo. Drummer Walter "Crash" Morgan replaced Cross during Big Sugar's subsequent tour of the U.S.; sadly, Morgan died of a heart attack on-stage in Iowa, and was replaced by ex-Odds drummer Paul Brennan in time for the 1996 release of the platinum-selling Hemi-Vision, whereby the band was completely adopted by jam band fans and shared stages with everyone from Blues Traveler and Gov't Mule to Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band, and Toots and the Maytals. A French version of Hemi-Vision's lead single "Open Up Baby" was recorded for radio stations in Quebec, titled "Ouvres-Toi Bébé. The song gained widespread airplay in the province, dictating that for 1998's platinum-selling Heated, Big Sugar recorded a French version of each single; the French songs were collected on the 1999 EP, Chauffe à Bloc. Gavin Brown assumed Brennan's drum chair duties on the label; it also went platinum and charted higher than its predecessor. The band also added a new rhythm guitarist, Mojah. In July the band performed at Woodstock 1999. After extensive touring and a breather, they reemerged with Brothers & Sisters, Are You Ready? in 2001. The release was matched track-for-track with a French-language version titled Êtes-Vous Ready? The English version contained the band's popular version of the national anthem "O Canada" that often closed their shows. Their lineup continued to evolve, gig by gig, sometimes hosting an entire horn section. 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, complete with horns. Johnson was increasingly dividing his time between Big Sugar and a number of other bands, as well as increasing his work as a producer and recording engineer. In 2003, he relocated to Austin, Texas, and the band split. That same year, Gibson guitars honored him with a limited-edition production "SGJ" model.
Shortly after moving, he formed the "cowboy metal" band Grady, with drummer Chris Layton and bassist Ben Richardson. They cut three albums at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio — 2003's Y.U. So Shady, 2007's A Cup of Cold Poison, and 2010's Calling All My Demons. In 2010 Johnson filled in on bass for Wide Mouth Mason for a ZZ Top tour, and became a permanent member. He and Big Sugar officially reunited at the Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival in Whistler, B.C. in April of 2010 with a new member: keyboardist/percussionist/rapper DJ Friendlyness. The following year, Big Sugar issued Revolution Per Minute, (its vinyl edition contained bonus tracks in the form of Alkaline dub remixes and additional songs). The album's single, "Roads Ahead," was a Canadian radio hit. In 2012 Big Sugar issued Eliminate Ya! Live!, an audio/video package. That same year, Johnson experienced various health challenges, including surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. These didn't keep him away from music, however; he birthed another side project in the blues/dub/gospel duo Sit Down, Servant!! (named for the Staple Singers' nugget) with drummer Stephane Beaudin. Interestingly, Johnson sang and played a triple-neck guitar/lap steel and Moog bass pedals simultaneously. The duo toured Canada opening for George Thorogood and released their debut record, I Was Just Trying to Help, that same year. In 2014, Big Sugar released Yard Style, containing unplugged reggae versions of nine tracks from their catalog as well as four previously unreleased songs. Frequent collaborator Willi Williams (a reggae legend known for penning the Clash-covered "Armagideon Time") sat in on album highlight "Messenger Man." The album was followed by an acoustic, three-month tour of theaters with a rotating ensemble from the studio recording — often ten to twelve players were on-stage. That same year, Sit Down Servant!! issued its self-titled sophomore outing.
Big Sugar's lineup changed again for 2015's Calling All the Youth. Alex Johnson, Gordie's wife and a vocalist/percussionist, had been part of the band's operation in an administrative role since the '90s, and had occasionally appeared with them on-stage and in the studio. DJ Friendlyness amicably left the group as well; his work as a guest, producer, and sideman had found him increasingly busy and he formed the band Human Rights as a side project. 2017 saw the departure of Hoppe, who retired. Austin-based conguero Rey Arteaga, joined the band as their sound evolved once more, leaving the horns behind to explore a hybrid blues, rock, and reggae combined with Latin grooves. The following year, Big Sugar experienced a major loss when Lowe succumbed after a long fight with cancer. That November, Universal issued a Big Sugar compilation in its ICON series. In December, in honor of Lowe's birthday, Big Sugar hosted a tribute concert in Toronto. Along with the band, guests included members of Barenaked Ladies, Bedouin Soundclash, Broken Social Scene, Danko Jones, Dream Warriors, Leroy Sibbles, Mojah, Wide Mouth Mason, and many more. ~ Thom Jurek