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Music Row: a tribute to Bernie Sheaves

Bernie Sheaves (shown here in Apri 2012) was a legend on the Southwest coast’s music scene. – © Nadine Osmond

by RYAN KING

On February 21st, Port aux Basques lost a local music legend, Bernie Sheaves, when he passed at the age of 70. Known as the South Coast Troubadour, his live shows around the Southwest coast were a highlight for many, particularly his performances at Scott’s Cove Park, where his presence will be sorely missed this summer. Bernie’s wife, Marina, and her niece, Nadine Osmond, agreed to discuss Bernie’s music that celebrated life and touched so many.

Bernie grew up in the heart of Mouse Island. He came from a large family, one of six children that lived in a small house. They lived a modest life while his father, Percy, worked on the wharf for CN Rail.

It was at school that Bernie first met his wife. They married very young, when Marina was still 16 and Bernie was 18. However, once they were married, Bernie went on to trade school to better himself and learned the welding trade.

His love of music started at home. His father loved music, and although he didn’t play an instrument himself, he would have music playing in the house. Bernie was quick to take up music and learned to play.

“I remember that he said one time that they didn’t have any drums or something, so they kind of took out their mother’s pots and were beating on them. I think he beat the pots up!” remembered Marina.

Bernie’s talent was evident from early on, as he could listen to the radio and then pick up an instrument and quickly be able to play the tune.

“What he used to do was listen to it, and then he probably would record it on his little machine, and he would know the chords. Then he would learn to play that for next Sunday,” explained Marina.

Moving past pots and pans, Bernie formed his first band, The Starlighters, with his childhood friends so that they could raise money to attend camp with the Boy Scouts.

“They used to go around – even up in the (Codroy) Valley, they used to go around playing to raise money for the Boy Scouts. They were all from Mouse Island, and they were all Bernie’s friends,” said Marina.

The friends were able to gather the money needed to attend camp, and this turned out to be the first of many of Bernie’s fundraising efforts.

He carried his love of music into adulthood, often playing on Sunday afternoons. Bernie was a popular talent and played at a variety of venues on the Southwest coast including the Starlight, the Port Club, the Chignic Lodge, and the South Branch Center. While he played in clubs often, he was not a person who drank or smoked – he was just in it for the love of the music and enjoyed entertaining an audience.

These shows were mostly attended by an older crowd, ages 50 and up, and the venue would often be blocked. Those in attendance would not just be sitting down having a beer, it was about dancing and having a good time.

“He was good with the older people. If he was somewhere and there were older people, he would make them shine. He would let them stand out, and they loved him for that. He used to play for the seniors all the time. It was only the other day I said to somebody, ‘You know what, me and Bernie had more relationships with older people than we did younger people,’” said Marina.

Having become a celebrated live performer, in 2003 Bernie recorded his first CD and eventually went on to record eight studio albums. One of his songs on the album ‘If the Need Should Come’, called ‘On the Internet,’ became quite successful, much to Bernie’s delight.

“That song went far. We even sold copies down in the (United) States. That was a really nice song, and a lot of people, oh my goodness, went crazy,” said Marina.

Partners in all aspects of their life, Marina naturally helped Bernie with the business side of things, going door to door from Margaree to South Branch to sell the albums. She would also help with the creative side as well.

“He would be at his music and he would say ‘Come out here. I need you to hear this.’ So if the grammar was wrong, I used to correct it,” said Marina.

The songs that Bernie wrote would often be inspired by true events from around the Southwest coast.

“Bernie’s songs were all about stuff that happened here in this area. Like a man and his son got drowned, this young guy lost his life in Afghanistan, another young guy in Cape Ray lost his legs. He wrote about a boat that went down, like the MV Barracudina that time, where everyone drowned. That was his thing – he wrote about true stories,” said Marina.

The non-fiction nature of many of his songs may have come from Bernie’s strong connection to the people that lived here, who he loved to entertain and befriend.

“Bernie was friends with everybody. I always said that if you come to Port aux Basques and you’re looking for Bernie, and you can’t find him, if people don’t know, ask the dogs, they’ll bark. Everybody knew him. Everybody knew Bernie,” said Marina.

Bernie would often take the ferry boat down the coast to hard-to-reach places like Burgeo and Ramea. He would go on to write songs about these outport communities also, including a song about the resettlement of Grand Bruit. Travelling to these communities would often cause a stir, and Bernie would enjoy the chance to provide entertainment.

“Oh yes. They thought a big star was coming! Oh my gosh, we used to go to Grand Bruit, and we went to La Poile, played down there for anniversaries and stuff like that. Oh, they loved Bernie down there,” shared Marina.

While performing was always a treat for Bernie, he often played shows in order to support an event or a charity, usually at their request.

“If someone was trying to raise money for something he would go play. He played for a lot of charities over the years, and if anyone called him, he never turned them down. He always went,” Marina said.

While Bernie loved performing anywhere, the venue that was closest to his heart was likely playing in Scott’s Cove Park, where he played on the sail stage since the park first opened.

“When they called Bernie, he was ready to go. ‘Cause I remember after he lost his leg – he was a diabetic – and I remember they called that year and they didn’t know if he was going to play because he was not well, and Bernie said ‘Oh yes I am!’” recalled Marina.

Shortly before his death, while talking to his daughter and her husband about taking a break from performing, Bernie was not ready to let go of Scott’s Cove Park.

“He said to her, ‘You know Lisa, I think I’m going to give it all up this year,’ and he stopped, and he said, ‘But I think I’m going to Scott’s Cove.’ And he used to draw a big crowd down to Scott’s Cove. I mean, people have told me it won’t be the same down there,” said Marina.

“Because there was definitely a difference in the crowd. You could go there Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesday, and there’d be people there, but come Thursday you knew Bernie was playing,” said Osmond about the big crowds drawn to the park to watch Bernie & The Boys.

Bernie also had a great sense of adventure, and Marina shared one from his youth.

“Bernie hitchhiked to Toronto one time. He did, him and his buddy. Left here and went across on boat and hitchhiked to Toronto. Bernie said they would be on one side of the road hitchhiking up, didn’t get a ride, then they’d get on the other side and hitchhike back! And there were times that they’d let him stay in the police station. They would let them stay the police station at night time because they had nowhere to go, right? But he wasn’t up there very long – the guy that went up with him is still up there. But Bernie didn’t stay too long. He came home,” said Marina. “I think he was 16 actually when he hitchhiked to Toronto. He wrote a song about that one time too.”

However, no one feels the absence of Bernie’s music, humour, and vitality more than his family.

“Our house is empty now, because when anyone came, Bernie was the centre of the conversation. And he knew a lot of stuff, because everyone would call him and would say, ‘You only got one lifeline left.’ Because they would call for answers for questions,” said Marina. “And sometimes if he was telling a story he would get up and act it out. It’s so quiet here now because that’s not how our house was, but I’m here by myself. And it was just the two of us here, and that phone was ringing all the time.”

“And I would call sometimes,” agreed Osmond. “If we wanted to know something, we would call Bernie. And Bernie, if he didn’t know, he would say ‘I’ll call you back.’ Because then he would call someone else.”

Shortly after Bernie passed away, the Southwest coast also lost two other musical talents – Walter Gordon Short and Lorne Pearce. Both had performed with Bernie.

Said Marina, “My son said, ‘They must’ve wanted a band in heaven, and they took the best.”

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