Blackburn: Band of Brothers (Part 1 of 3)

An edited version of this feature appeared previously in Living Blues.

Four brothers are carrying their storied family musical tradition into present day and the future. The legendary Underground Railroad, urban r&b and down-home blues all figure prominently in the Blackburn family story. The award-winning Canada-based group – 2010 Maple Blues Award recipients of the Best New Band designation and Juno Award nominees (2016 Blues Album of the Year) – recently released its finest offering yet, SoulFunkn’Blues. The group is based in the blues, but not limited by any perceived boundaries placed around it.

The group’s eldest member Robert Blackburn plays guitar and sings on the band’s studio recordings. He’s also responsible for writing four of the tracks on SoulFunkn’Blues. Second in birth order is Brooke Blackburn; he plays guitar, sings and writes as well. Keyboardist Duane Blackburn is the group’s lead singer both in the studio and onstage. The youngest of the four brothers, Cory Blackburn is the group’s drummer; he also recorded and mixed SoulFunkn’Blues, and as he half-jokingly adds, “made sure that these guys made it to the sessions.”

Cousin Nathan Blackburn plays bass on studio recordings. The band’s live lineup is rounded out by bassist Andrew Stewart, tenor saxophonist Neil Brathwaite, and Ted Peters on trombone. But there’s one more individual whose importance to the Blackburn Brothers can’t be overstated.

Deep Musical Roots
Bobby Dean Blackburn is the patriarch of the family, and he’s also a musical figure in his own right. Brooke provides a capsule history of his father’s life and career. “Our dad was born in 1940, and he started playing rock and roll around 1955. He had a band in Toronto – one of the first rock and roll bands in the area – called Bobby Dean & the Gems.” Bobby Dean Blackburn is still playing live and recording to this day, and he has achieved fame in his native Canada. “He’s got a star on the Music Hall of Fame in Mississauga, where we grew up,” Brooke says. “And he received the Trailblazer award from Ontario Black History.”

The family musical tradition goes back before Bobby Dean Blackburn. “Tommy Earles was part of our family on my father’s mother’s side,” says Brooke. “He had an 18-piece swing band; my father grew up inspired by that.”

“Tradition goes pretty deep in the Black community here,” says Duane Blackburn. “My dad has been playing the blues since 1955. We grew up on rock and roll, r&b, funk and soul. And the blues is the foundation of all that.” Bobby Dean Blackburn had a regular gig at Toronto’s Zanzibar Tavern, where he played organ in the house band. “A lot of musicians came through there,” says Duane. “It was a jazz, r&b and blues community.” He notes that a large Caribbean community developed in Toronto from the ‘50s onward. “But our American roots gave us the blues,” Duane says.

While the Blackburn Brothers are focusing primarily on their own recordings and concert dates, they never miss an opportunity to play with their dad. Father and sons teamed up for select dates in Fall 2023, the continuation of a long-standing musical relationship. “Dad and I put a show together a few years ago called The Soul of Rock and Roll,” Brooke explains. “We had everybody on it – the whole band of Blackburns – and we did our set, and then another one with my dad.”

Kentucky to Canada
The Blackburns are proud of their family history, one that can be documented as far back as the mid 1800s in Kentucky. “Elias Earles was an enslaved person, a freedom seeker who came up through the Underground Railroad, likely by way of Maryland, Delaware, Boston, and then across to the Detroit-Windsor border,” Brooke says. The region of Ontario between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair is dotted with a number of settlements created in the 1800s by former enslaved persons seeking a new life. “Elias Earles came up through there,” Brooke says, “and then he settled farther north.”

The northernmost terminus of the Underground Railroad is Owen Sound, Ontario. Situated on the southwestern corner of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, it lies about 120 miles northwest of Toronto. And it was near there, in a settlement called Holland Centre, where Earles chose to make his new home.

Holland Centre is a place of honor for the Blackburn family. Relatives have gathered there annually every August 1 for an emancipation picnic. Because Canada was part of the British colonies, Black persons were emancipated in 1834, nearly 30 years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. “We picnicked there every year since we were babies,” says Brooke. “It’s the ‘summer’ thing to do.”

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