Gino Emprywas Canada’s best-known and most flamboyant publicist and talent booker -- and just about everything else in entertainment! Empry passed away on Saturday, October 14, 2006 in Toronto at the age of 83. It's hard to determine Empry's exact age for sure, since he never disclosed it, and looked decades younger than he actually was.
Over the decades Empry booked and publicized all the ‘greats’ in show business. These included B.B. King and Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, as well as Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, Salome Bey and Anne Murray -- all of whom he booked into Toronto’s Imperial Room in the prestigious Royal York Hotel.
Empry ‘discovered’ and made Anne Murray a star back in the early ’70s. He was Tony Bennett’s publicist and business manager for 12 years, and was close friends of 'The Rat Pack' -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. -- as well as Bob Hope, Jack Benny and others. Empry booked Hope into the O’Keefe Centre (now Hummingbird Centre) in Toronto in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Empry also had a close association with Toronto’s ‘Honest’ Ed Mirvish whom he worked with since the early ‘60s publicizing Mirvish’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, and later the legendary Old Vic in England. Empry also organized the talent and events at the now 90-year-old-plus Ed Mirvish’s annual birthday party held outdoors in ‘Mirvish Village’ next to the Honest Ed’s store on Markham St. in Toronto’s Bathust St. & Bloor St. W. area.
Ed Mirvish is Canada’s best-known and most successful entertainment entrepreneur for over four decades. Mirvish, as well as many of the great stars he and Empry worked with, are featured in reminiscences and rare photos from the late Mr. Empry's private collection, in his star-packed and highly entertaining autobiography, I Belong To The Stars available from Empry's website (see link below). Some of the showbiz legends mentioned in Empry’s book, include Jack Lemmon, Lena Horne, Anne Murray, Tony Bennett and Petula Clark.
Empry was involved in booking the late Jane Vasey (piano player in the Downchild Blues Band) into a production entitled Concert in E Flat Major For Piano, Drums and Violence, that took place in the early ‘70s in a long-forgotten Yorkville establishment, Harold’s Stage Door, at the Regency Towers Hotel. Empry was also involved in publicizing Downchild’s 1993 album, Goodtimes Guaranteed.
Empry helped put the word out about the Climax Blues Band’s performance at The Erl’s Court at Hydro Place in Toronto in the ‘70s. He also publicized Scott Cushnie, Doug Riley (Dr. Music) and Joan Besen’s Two Pianos, No Waiting album, and a show featuring The Good Brothers in the ‘80s.
When The Stampeders went on a national tour in 1974 to promote their album No Way, it was Empry who first brought this tour to the public’s attention. Empry also publicized Shooter (formerly The Greaseball Boogie Band) in a 1975 gig. (Jim Jones bassist for 1960s ‘Toronto Sound’ band Luke & The Apostles, and for some time in Van Morrison’s band, was also in Shooter).
Another ‘blues’ show of interest that Gino lent a hand in promoting, was Mabel .. featuring the great Jackie Richardson portraying ‘Big’ Mabel Mercer at Toronto’s upscale Top O’ The Senator jazz club.
Other Empry jazz shows included the Du Maurier Jazz Festival featuring Count Basie, Dizzie Gillepsie, Moe Koffmann and Peter Appleyard. Empry was also involved in a musical production featuring Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet at the O’Keefe Centre in ‘86 as well as Jazz FM 91’s Jaymz Bee in Welcome To The Smirnoff Lounge.
Empry publicized a 1980s Gordon Lightfoot ‘Ontario’ tour, and was instrumental (along with Lightfoot’s business manager Barry Harvey) in having Lightfoot play a concert at an exclusive nightclub called The Dominion Club, in early 2005 in Toronto; as well as another show there shortly afterwards featuring rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins.
Empry was also involved in some unusual, offbeat shows too, like a cartoon fest at guitarist Jeff Healey's Toronto nightclub Healey’s featuring a showing of Popeye and other early, vintage cartoons from the collection of film historian/collector Reg Hart.
Paul Anka was a close friend and client of Empry’s since the early 1960s. Anka, as well as Lightfoot and Hawkins, was scheduled to appear at the Dominion Club (as was Petula Clark), but the club/venture ran out of money before that happened.
I once received an invitation to meet Petula Clark at a welcoming party Empry was hosting for her at his new condo in late 2005, a few days before this quintessential ‘60s pop diva’s Hummingbird Centre concert. I had an enjoyable 10-minute conversation with Petula that night, before she and Gino left the party (catered by a waiter and chef, with someone playing grand piano) going strong, to see their old friend Don Francks (who co-starred in the movie Finian's Rainbow in '69 with Petula, and Fred Astaire). Francks was singing in his jazz combo in one of his frequent appearances at a jazz and blues club called The Dominion On Queen, in Toronto’s Cabbagetown area. (As Gino later pointed out to me, "It wasn’t the ‘other’ Dominion Club at King and Yonge St.")
Francks mentioned to me a few days later, "Petula wanted to sing (at The Dominion On Queen), but I wanted her to save her voice for her show."
Gino was the only person I knew who "drove into Sarstock" as he put it, July 30, 2003, (when there was no parking for miles around, and fans had to walk to the concert for hours to attend, if they didn’t pack the subway to get there). This was a concert attended by 490,000 music fans, and sent the message out that SARS was over, and Toronto was now a safe and healthy place to work in, visit and live in again. It featured the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Rush, Jeff Healey, Dan Aykroyd and many other artists. (It’s on DVD as, Toronto Rocks). I asked Gino a few days later, "Did you go to Sarstock?" He said, "Yes .. I drove in did some business and watched the Rolling Stones for a while .. Then went home!"
On one occasion when I dropped by Empry’s condo/office, he was on his way to the airport to pick up Madonna for her ACC concert. Gino certainly seemed to live one of those 1950s Hollywood-type entertainment lifestyles, epitomized in movies and Life Magazine articles of that nostalgic era. Yet one recent Xmas when I phoned to wish Gino a Merry Xmas, I was disheartened to hear from him that he was spending Xmas alone. I was thinking at the time, "Here’s a man who has many friends -- some stars, some not -- all over the world, and he’s spending Christmas alone?" That was saddening to me, because Gino was truly a nice guy! As eccentric as Gino was at times, he once sent a Xmas card a few months ‘after’ Xmas.
Empry loved publicity, so whenever he was involved in a show or present at one this writer attended, I always endeavored to mention him in my reviews. Some of these included Petula Clark at the Hummingbird Centre, B.B. King at Molson Amphitheatre and Ronnie Hawkins at Massey Hall.
Chris Chown (bassist for rockabilly guitarist Johnny Lovesin; and also 'Monster Beach') once mentioned to me, "Gino went to school with my mom. He’s from the west-end." Empry grew up working in his parents’ grocery store in the ‘30s and ‘40s in Toronto’s west-end, so hard work was always part of his life. He practiced his strong work ethic right to the end -- serving the stars he loved -- making them happy to work with and be with him.
Empry always added a touch of class to any venue or event he attended. Whenever he was present at a show, it always seemed bigger and better because he was there. He had that special kind of charisma one has to be born with.
Empry was certainly ‘Mr. Limelight’ as a publicist and talent booker, and always seemed to look forward to any and every mention he got in the press. He was also a humanitarian, whose fundraising activities included the Hospital for Sick Kids and Variety Club Telethon among several other charities large and small.
I once asked Empry, "What was your relationship to Peggy Lee, besides booking her into the Imperial Room?" His reply was, "I was her ‘Canadian Guru’!" So, when I reviewed Maria Muldaur’s CD A Woman Alone With The Blues, (featuring ‘all Peggy Lee songs’) for jazzreview.com, I made a point of mentioning ‘Guru’ Gino and Peggy Lee.
Gino Empry had many friends in the entertainment business, because he always treated everyone fairly and honestly. These included superstars like Tony Bennett, Petula Clark, The Rolling Stones and Madonna; rockabilly legends like Ronnie Hawkins; blues artists like B.B. King, Donnie Walsh and Jane Vasey; or even writers like myself and others -- as well as the average person on the street.
As talent booker for the Imperial Room, Empry allowed unknown artists in other productions in Toronto, to come by to see the late night show featuring big name acts, without having to pay a cover charge. This generosity on the part of Empry, allowed these artists starting out, to be entertained as well as hone their craft by exposure to legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Tina Turner, B.B. King, Raquel Welch, Ronnie Hawkins, Petula Clark and many others.
Empry was unpretentious and down-to-earth, even though he worked with some of the 'biggest names’ in show business. He treated everyone the same like everyone was an important person like everyone was a star, and like they were family. This didn’t just include ‘stars’ it also included cab drivers, shop clerks and anyone Gino came in contact with.
After Empry's passing, guitarist Buzz Thompson (Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks), had this to say about him: "Gino was a great guy and we'll all miss him!" I think that sentiment sums it up nicely for anyone who knew Gino.
I feel a passage paraphrased from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If describes Gino Empry perfectly: He "Walked with Kings .. But retained the common touch."