From his home base in Clarkson, Tommy Hunter helped rocket Canadian country music to the stars. 

Between 1965 and 1992, Canada’s Country Gentleman travelled the QEW to CBC’s national TV studios in Toronto to host The Tommy Hunter Show. 

With a weekly audience at its peak of 3 million people, chances are if you grew up in the 60s, 70s or 80s and your family owned a TV set, it was tuned to The Tommy Hunter Show. 

Tommy’s show wasn’t just a launchpad for his career; it was a national spotlight for many Canadian artists, including country music icons such as Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, k.d. lang,  

It’s also helped launch careers, giving Canadians their first glimpse of Alanis Morrisette and Shania Twain, the latter performing under her real name, Ellie (short for Eilleen) Twain, as a 14-year-old. 

It also brought the biggest names in American country music north. Stars such as Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Allison Kraus, The Judds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Garth Brooks and Marie Osmond. 

Tommy Hunter with Marie Osmond, The Tommy Hunter Show, 1986 (photo credit: Dick Loek/Toronto Star)

The Tommy Hunter Show gave country music a national profile in Canada. The show was so popular it was also broadcast in the U.S. on The Nashville Network, which raised Tommy’s profile and also shone a bigger spotlight on Canadian talent. 

Tommy’s approach was different from other shows, like Hee Haw, which wore its hick country badge with pride. 

Inspired by the U.S. variety shows hosted by classic crooners such as Andy Williams and Perry Como, Tommy Hunter sought to create a country music show with class. Standing there in his neat, fitted suit, hair coiffed, and looking directly into the camera, Tommy Hunter was like the friendly neighbour in the sequined suit.  

At its core, the “Tommy Hunter Show” was about wholesome family entertainment. 

 It was a program that families could watch together, and it carried messages and values that resonated with a broad audience, emphasizing family, community, and kindness – and Tommy took his show on tour. 

He was among the first artists to tour the Arctic; he visited and performed on every major military base in Canada and performed for United Nations forces around the world. 

Tommy Hunter and all-star choir for recording of Mississauga song, 1974 (Region of Peel Archives, City of Mississauga)

Tommy was the bridge between generations. Tommy’s traditional country sounds appealed to older fans, while his modern television presence and embrace of emerging artists drew in younger audiences. 

That balance reflected Tommy’s music style, which was honed by playing strawberry socials, local legions, fairs and garden parties. 

In 1956, he got hired as a regular on CBC’s Country Hoedown, where, in addition to playing, he had to write his own scripts – a crash course in learning how to write and produce music on a weekly schedule, including adding some rock and roll influences to his country compositions. 

Then, in 1965, he got the offer to host his own show. What began as a 30-minute black and white program would become one of CBC Television’s longest-running shows. 

Over 27 seasons, Tommy Hunter beamed into Canadians’ living rooms. Tommy’s desire to create a country show with class created opportunities for creative Canadians in front of and behind the camera. 

People such as Canada’s Got Talent director Joan Tasoni, Stan Jacobson, who produced The Johnny Cash Show and the 1988 Calgary Olympics, and future Oscar-winning director and fellow Order of Canada recipient Norman Jewison. 

Then, in 1972, Martin Dobkin, mayor of the then-Town of Mississauga, came to Canada’s country gentleman with a special request. The Town was about to become a City with the addition of Port Credit and Streetsville, and the council wanted to commemorate the moment with a song.

Tommy Hunter, 2013 (photo credit: Michael Hurcomb/Corbis Entertainment)

Tommy pulled out his guitar and obliged, penning The Mississauga Song, which was released as a single – both the A and the B side – in 1974. 

Recorded at the RCA Victor Recording Studio in Toronto, Tommy bused in a gaggle of Mississauga residents, athletes and personalities to join him and the Laurie Bower Singers on backup, including the outgoing mayor of Streetsville – Hazel McCallion. 

In 1990, country music paid Tommy Hunter one of its most significant honours, inducting him into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars in Nashville. 

Celebrate Ontario’s biggest names in country music June 1-2 at Country Music Association (CMA) Ontario’s Festival and Awards Weekend in Mississauga. 

Enjoy free concerts in Celebration Square on June 1 and 2, and get tickets for the CMAOntario Awards Show on June 2 at the Living Arts Centre. 

Have your own story to share? We’d love to here it! Click here to submit your story. 

Continue reading Chapter 5: Mississauga Road

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