The man who wrote the ballads that define the Yukon’s colourful history and lifestyle may well have done the same thing in Saskatchewan or Alberta, except for a fateful day in June, 1957.
Al Oster had been touring the Peace River country with another musician when, on a whim, they decided to take a few days off and travel north on the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, just to have a look. At the time, he had just sold his interest in a building supply firm and was living in Langley, B.C.
Al had heard many tales about the Yukon’s colourful characters and stories. The brief visit to Whitehorse did not disappoint him.
When he returned to Langley, Al talked his wife Mary into moving north to explore new challenges. She agreed. The 10-day journey over the very rough, muddy, dusty road ended in Whitehorse on July 30, 1957.
At the time, the town was at milepost 918. Al, who had written country balladssince he was a kid growing up on a poor dust-bowl farm in Saskatchewan in the dirty thirties, instinctively knew the Yukon was the place for a songwriter. The song “918 Miles” was born.
Like most singers of an earlier era, he had come to love country music while listening to old-time country radio stations on his parents “Zenith” battery-powered radio on the Prairies.
Years later, he bought a guitar and learned to chord western songs while working in Alberta logging camps in the winter, and on cattle ranches in the summer.
Al, who had been discharged from the Canadian army in Calgary in 1946, earned the nickname “Calgary Slim” while roaming around with his “dobro”-playing buddy “Ray, playing theatres, restaurants, and dance halls in the Calgary and Edmonton areas. They called themselves “Slim n’ Ray”.
Then Al headed for Vancouver where he met his wife Mary. By 1957, when they moved to the Yukon, they had two children.
In Whitehorse, Al worked briefly at Campbell’s Lumber Yard, and then in Hougen’s Hardware department.
He also played in a country-and-western band with Johnny Hutsul, guitar player John Irwin, steel player Andy Donais, and drummer Cal Waddington. The group sometimes played that new-fangled music called Rock n’ Roll.
One Saturday evening, they were booked to play a dance at the Whitehorse High School. Al always wanted to write a rock n’ roll song especially for the highschool crowd, and the song “Midnight Sun Rock” was born.
Later, while working for Husky Building Supplies, a customer came in to buy some special-size brass screws.
“We didn’t have any in stock,” said Al “so I gave the standard Yukon excuse. They are coming in on the next boat which will arrive next Thursday.”
The unimpressed customer replied that everything seemed to be on the next boat. Al went home for lunch and in 10 minutes wrote the song “Next Boat”.
“Midnight Sun Rock” and “Next Boat” were recorded on a single 45 RPM record, his first release. The first order of 1000 45’s sold out and in 1959, Al re-recorded those songs on his first album called “Yukon Gold”. That version of Midnight Sun Rock was inducted into the Nashville Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 1958, WHTV began a cable service, and manager Bert Wybrew accepted a proposal for a half-hour weekly television program called “The Al Oster Show.” It ran for two years.
Al also worked five evenings a week at WHTV as their first announcer/operator after finishing his regular day job at the RCAF base as a clerk.
By 1961, he had a growing collection of Yukon songs. In December, the CBC offered him a 15-minute radio show called Northland Echos. After a few miscues while taping at the CBC studios, Al began recording the show in his basement. The program aired for three years.
His band played the “Kopper King” and the “Bamboo” on weekends. Al didn’t much enjoy the bar scene but, at the time, he didn’t mind touring. With the release of his first LP, he was invited by Jake Doell’s band from Vancouver to tour through northern Alberta. They developed a routine called the “Yukon Gold Show Tour.”
The group featuring Al, Jack Doell, Ed Isaac and Grant Wilson, staged an hour and half of singing, a magic segment, a comedy routine and Johnny Cash impersonations, while travelling as far north as Hay River, NWT.
The main theme was to promote the beauty and intrigue of the Yukon. Al sold well over two thousand “Yukon Gold” LP’s during the trip, and wrote most of his famous “Paddlewheeler” song while driving between bookings with his bass-playing sidekick, Ed Isaac.
On the way home to Whitehorse after the three and a half month tour, they staged the show in every Alaska Highway maintenance camp.
Al remembers that “they had a ball, but never again for me,” he said. “It’s a rough life for a musician.”
In the mid-60s, Al was a headliner on the first pan-north radio show out of Whitehorse, called Northern Jamboree, with the youthful voice of Les McLaughlin hosting the show.
In 1967, Al, with Hank Karr and his group, performed at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. While there, the CBC recorded an LP, featuring Hank and Al, called “The Yukon Stars.”
In 1968, his ballad “Irena Cheyenne” earned him the first songwriter award ever presented in Canada by BMI.
And what of his other music?
Al’s classic song, “My Book of Yukon Memories" was written "totally from the heart”, he says.
“It still creates a feeling of ‘longing’ when I sing or hear it. The music and lyrics came so easily.”
“Paddlewheeler” is also his favourite because of how easily the lyrics flow together and, says Al, “it’s an easy song to memorize and sing.” Like all of Al Oster’s material, it tells a great story of the historic Yukon days gone by.
His song “Waltz Of The Yukon” is included in the Boy Scout and Girl Guide camp “sing along” song book, and at one time, “My Book of Yukon Memories” reached number 30 on the Billboard charts.
Today, Al Oster lives in Salmon Arm, where he operates a CD and DVD duplication service, but his attachment to the Yukon remains and his collection of Yukon CDs are sold throughout the territory, creating a lasting memory of people, places and events that have shaped the Yukon’s history.
For his role in recording Yukon stories in a musical format, Al Oster was awarded the Order of Canada in 1999.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin