The Globe and Mail : Storytelling singer Jake Hiebert combined a punk attitude with a retro swing sound
When Jake Hiebert got up on stage to play as Big Rude Jake with his guitar, slicked-back hair, suit and retro-looking tie, he grabbed his audience right away.
“Watching Jake take over a room with a new audience in a new city was always my favourite thing to watch. Within a few songs or a few words, he’d completely win over a room,” saxophonist and friend Alison Young says.
Mr. Hiebert became a sensation in the mid-1990s with his swing-punk sound – a fusion of swing, jazz, blues and other styles with a punk sensibility.
“This band will redefine what you consider to be alternative,” Chart magazine wrote of Big Rude Jake and His Gentleman Players in 1995. His tight performances and polished, retro fashion were the antithesis of grunge, which was big at the time. He went on to have a long career as a jazz bandleader.
Mr. Hiebert died on June 16 from complications relating to bladder cancer. He was 59.
“He could cross bridges. He could play the dingiest place or he could play Koerner Hall,” musician and radio personality Jaymz Bee says. Mr. Hiebert played the distinguished 1,135-seat concert hall in 2010. “It was fantastic to see a full house just totally getting into his music,” Mr. Bee recalls.
Mr. Hiebert had guitar chops and a great growl of a singing voice, but was best known for his onstage charisma and witty lyrics.
“Jake was a lyricist, first and foremost. The lyrics were very well-educated, very anti-establishment,” friend and former bandmate Michael Louis Johnson says. Mr. Johnson has plans to put together a book of Mr. Hiebert’s lyrics, including the epic ballad Seventh Avenue, which includes the lines: “By one and all let it be said, that while alive I surely lived/And lay my bones to rest on Seventh Avenue.”
His song Let’s Kill All the Rock Stars often brought the house down with its catchy, bold sound and profanity-laden, cheeky lyrics. (There’s a raunchy verse about Elvis.)
Bradley Harder, a friend and fellow musician, adores the words to The Girl in the Pink Canoe, which are full of sexual innuendo. He thinks Mr. Hiebert’s true gift was storytelling and creating worlds with his lyrics. “You felt like you were transported to another place, you’d feel like you were in an old speakeasy in New York. That’s the magic of Jake.”
The writing stemmed from a deep intelligence and curiosity. “Jake was super kind and very funny and very smart. He knew a lot about a whole lot of different things,” Ms. Young says. “I loved taking long drives with him. He could talk about anything.”
Mr. Hiebert committed fully to his life in music. Mr. Johnson recalls a jam-packed, cross-Canada tour during which the band showed up in Nanaimo, B.C., to hear that the club owner had an unexpected plan for promoting the show. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hiebert found themselves bungee jumping off a bridge to a river below, with local media all around.
“Jake was really scared,” Mr. Johnson says. “He went first, as the band leader. It was a great moment, watching him jump off that bridge so we could get people to the show.”
Mr. Hiebert adopted the persona of Big Rude Jake in the 1990s and, indeed, in those early days, he had a brash way of talking.
Mr. Harder recalls that his friend did not like mainstream music. Once, when asked to play a Frankie Valli song, he snapped back that he would rather let a rabid pit bull chew off a certain sensitive part of his anatomy than sing a Frankie Valli song.
Over the years, his personality softened. “He constantly grew, he always wanted to become a better person. He became more kind year after year,” Mr. Bee recalls.
Sometimes when Mr. Hiebert played live, Mr. Bee’s parents would come to Toronto and Mr. Bee and Mr. Hiebert would visit them in their hotel room before the show. Mr. Hiebert guzzled their whisky, prompting them to say he had earned his moniker. “He is rude!”
Years later, Mr. Hiebert would greet the family with a gift of a bottle of high-end whisky. Mr. Bee’s mother then dubbed him “Thin Polite Jake.”
Mr. Hiebert was raised as a Mennonite and studied religion in university. He became interested in Zen Buddhism in his later years. He would run ad-hoc support groups in his home in Toronto, friends recall, helping people going through a rough time talk through their problems.
In 2014, Mr. Hiebert heard that the Red Door Family Shelter, which was near him in Toronto’s west end, was about to be evicted. He approached Lorraine Johnson, a charity event organizer whom he had worked with for years, to launch a benefit concert.
“He came up with the concept, which was an all-female house band with male singers. He wanted to show the wonderful women holding up the night,” Ms. Johnson says of the concert, called Blues for Red Door. “I jumped at the idea and have been with it ever since.”
The event has been held almost annually ever since, raising $20,000 in total revenue and drawing in about the same amount in in-kind donations.
Andrew Jacob Hiebert was born on March 1, 1963. His parents, Jacob Frank and Amelia (née Morhach), lived on a farm outside Niagara Falls, Ont., and ran a locally revered chip truck. There were four kids: Schelley, Paula and David, along with Jake.
Mr. Hiebert studied religion at the University of Waterloo and filled his time outside of class playing clubs in the area. “He was a force of nature,” recalls Daryl Purdy, who played around Waterloo at the same time.
Mr. Hiebert was performing as Rockabilly Andy when the pair first met. “It was kind of a country-swing-rockabilly,” Mr. Purdy recalls.
One night, out of the blue, Mr. Hiebert showed up at a club dressed in a suit with fringes and rhinestones and declared himself Chet Valiant. “It was a whole new show, the patter, everything.”
After a stint in Paris, Mr. Hiebert moved to Toronto and took on the persona of Big Rude Jake. In 1993, Big Rude Jake and his Gentleman Players recorded Butane Fumes & Bad Cologne and followed it up with 1996′s Blue Pariah, which featured the single Swing, Baby!, which did well on college radio.
Mr. Hiebert got a record deal in the U.S. with Roadrunner Records, living in Brooklyn for a few years in what Mr. Johnson recalls was a sublet from a squatter. He later returned to Toronto with a modified sound.
At one point he attempted to revive Chet Valiant, but soon returned to Big Rude Jake, the persona his Toronto fans knew.
Mr. Hiebert recorded seven albums as Big Rude Jake and three more with side projects Tennessee Voodoo Coupe and Blue Mercury Coupe.
Mr. Hiebert married later in life to Anna-Lisa Seeliger and they moved to Hamilton. Their seven-year-old daughter, Hope, “was the light of his life,” Ms. Young says.
Friends remember Mr. Hiebert as a witty, intelligent artist with a strong sense of spirituality and generosity. Upon receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he called Ms. Johnson about Blues for Red Door. “I need you to promise to carry this one on,” he said.
Mr. Hiebert was predeceased by his father, who died in April. He leaves his wife, daughter, mother and three siblings.
Editor’s note: This obituary has been corrected to state that Blues for Red Door has raised $20,000 in total revenue and about the same amount in in-kind donations. An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect figure.