The band Lighthouse was born a little more than 50 years ago out of a chance meeting of two Canadian musicians on a Toronto-bound flight from New York.
Jazz keyboard player Paul Hoffert and rock drummer Skip Prokop met in a rock club in New York in 1968. Coincidentally, they found themselves seated side-by-side on a plane next day.
That’s when Prokop first talked to Hoffert about his idea of putting together a rock band made up of a jazz quartet, a string quartet and a rock rhythm section.
“If that happened, he (Prokop) would likely need a partner because he knew all the rock ’n’ roll people, but he needed someone who could get the horn players and string players and write arrangements. I said, ‘If you want to do something that’s based in Toronto, I might be interested,’ ” Hoffert recalled.
The original band of 13 musicians got a recording contract a few months after it was formed in 1969, which wasn’t unusual at the time. “We were at the right place at the right time,” Hoffert said.
Back then, most of the rosters of major record companies were dominated by early rock ’n’ roll artists like Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Fats Domino, he said.
The record companies were aware that the music coming out of concerts and festivals, like the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, was emerging as a huge cultural phenomenon that young people were embracing, according to Hoffert.
“They wanted to adjust their recording offerings to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of people that were flocking to hear bands like Lighthouse at festivals,” he said.
Lighthouse made their debut in 1969 at the Rock Pile in Toronto, a club that presented some of the biggest rock acts of that era. They played Carnegie Hall, collaborated with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on the first rock ballet and performed with the Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Philadelphia symphony orchestras.
“We did a lot to help market classical music to a younger audience, who at the time were turned off of it, as kind of old-fashioned and not really with it,” Hoffert said.
Lighthouse attracted a large following and sold out venues on a cross-Canada tour, but by 1970, they hadn’t produced a hit single because AM radio wouldn’t give them airplay. As a result, their record company dropped them.
AM radio programmed songs that were three to 3½ minutes long and the average Lighthouse song was about six minutes, Hoffert said. To get airplay, the band released several AM radio-friendly singles, including “Sunny Days,” “One Fine Morning” and “Pretty Lady,” all of which became runaway hits.
Lighthouse won Juno awards for group of the year in 1972, 1973 and 1974. They broke up in 1976 and reunited in 1992, with most of their original members. Prokop died in 2017 and his son, Jaime, replaced him on drums. Lighthouse sold out Toronto’s Koerner Hall months in advance of their 50th anniversary concert last May.
Lighthouse is able to replicate their sound in performance, unlike the Beatles, who had to stop touring because they were unable to give live performances of the music on their studio albums, from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band onward, Hoffert said.
At their concerts, Lighthouse plays their hits and members perform extended solos. Today’s technology has enabled the band to reduce its size to 10 members. The string part of their arrangements is produced using samples of strings and synthesizers, and they’ve added a second keyboard player to play that, Hoffert noted.
“We’re a bunch of old guys, but we do it because it’s still fun,” Hoffert said. “We still practice, we work hard at it and we never take an audience applause for granted.”
Lighthouse is playing at the Kensington Market Jazz Festival in Toronto on Sept. 14 at El Gordo’s Backyard, 214 Augusta Ave., at 9 p.m. For festival information, visit kensingtonjazz.com.