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Big Sugar officially formed in 1991 in Toronto, Ontario, consisting of vocalist and guitarist Gordie Johnson, bassist Terry Wilkins, and drummer Al Cross, though the three musicians had already played together for several years as an informal jam band with members of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, and as a supporting band for Molly Johnson's jazz performances. After Molly Johnson returned to rock music with Infidels, she helped her former bandmates to secure a record deal; their eponymous debut album was released in 1991 on Hypnotic Records.
After Wilkins left the band in 1993, Big Sugar recorded the album Five Hundred Pounds with the help of guest musicians; including harmonica and tenor saxophonist Kelly Hoppe, also known as Mr. Chill. Hoppe brought a blues and old-school r'n'b influence into the band's sound. Hoppe would become an official member of the band in September 1994. He would later add keyboards and melodica to his sideman responsibilities. In July 1994, bassist Garry Lowe joined the band. Lowe had moved to Canada in the mid-1970s from Kingston, Jamaica. Soon after arriving in Toronto, he became an in-demand bass player for touring reggae recording artists. He often accompanied them at Toronto's famed Bamboo club on Queen St.W., among other venues. Lowe was a founding member of "Culture Shock", a popular Toronto reggae band. Johnson, an avid reggae maven (and one-time bass player), had been a fan of Lowe's and was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to join Big Sugar as a full-time member. Also in 1994, Al Cross left the band and was replaced by Stich Wynston, formerly of The Shuffle Demons.
Big Sugar had slowly built a reputation as an outstanding live band, and Five Hundred Pounds consolidated it; the album sold 10,000 copies in Canada without any real publicity or radio airplay. During this time, Gordie Johnson also recorded an album as Don't Talk Dance, with Tyler Stewart of Barenaked Ladies and Chris Brown of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.
In 1995, the band released two EPs; Dear M.F., which featured a cover version of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy"; and Ride Like Hell. Following the release of these EPs, Stich Wynston left the band and was replaced by Walter "Crash" Morgan. During the band's tour that year, however, Morgan suffered an aneurysm, collapsed, and died on stage during a show in Iowa. Longtime band associate Raffa Dean was enlisted to finish the tour, and former Odds member Paul Brennan subsequently joined as the band's new drummer, appearing on their most commercially successful album, 1996's Hemi-Vision. Brennan left in 1997, and was replaced by Gavin Brown.
Hemi-Vision's single "Opem Up Baby" was a notable first for the band, who recorded a French version of that song, "Ouvres-Toi Bébé", for radio stations in Quebec. The song gained widespread airplay in the province, and for their next album, 1998's Heated, the band recorded a French version of each single they released; the French songs were collected on the 1999 EP Chauffe à bloc. Also that year, Johnson and Hoppe performed several acoustic shows as a duo under the names "Little Sugar" or "Two Fools on Stools".
Gavin Brown left the band in 1999 and Cross returned as drummer. The band also added a new rhythm guitarist, Mojah.
In 2000, the band released a dub album, Extra Long Life, under the name Alkaline.
In 2001, Big Sugar released Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready? Taking their interest in writing and performing French material to its logical conclusion, a complete track-for-track French version, Brothers and Sisters, Êtes Vous Ready?, was released the same year. Both albums concluded with a blistering blues-rock rendition of "O Canada". Towards the end of this tour, Al Cross again left the band to pursue percussion studies in New York state. He was initially replaced by Marks Lockhart (formerly of Big Rude Jake), and finally by Eric "Speedstick" Paul.
The two-CD compilation Hit & Run, featuring a greatest hits disc and a live concert performance disc, was released in 2003.
The band broke up in 2004, after, according to the band's website, Johnson became frustrated with Canadian radio programmers who claimed his single "All Hell for a Basement" was "too Canadian" (as the song makes reference to the province of Alberta). Johnson, a staunch nationalist, was disgusted and angry and left Canada to pursue music in a more "open, welcoming" environment. Big Sugar's last concert was December 31, 2003, at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton. The newly re-named "Grady" Johnson can now be found in the Austin, Texas-based band Grady. Kelly Hoppe performs with Mr. Chill & The Witnesses, a roots music group. Mojah and Garry Lowe went on to form Truth and Rights Revue, a reggae band, and have released one album to date. Eric Paul played with Truth and Rights, but has recently joined Ian Thornley (formerly of Big Wreck) in the newly-revised lineup of Thornley.
Gordie Johnson is also a producer and session musician. To date, he has produced albums and tracks for Three Days Grace, Thousand Foot Krutch, Billy Talent, Thornley, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Gov't Mule, Taj Mahal, Wide Mouth Mason, Big Rude Jake, BTK, The Trews, Chris Duarte, John Ford and Ashley MacIsaac, as well as playing with Molly Johnson, Jonny Lang and Double Trouble, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Big Rude Jake and many others.
1 Sleep in Late
2 Come Back Baby
3 Motherless Children
4 So Many Roads (For Clive)
5 Bemsha Swing
7 Groundhog Day
8 Just About Sunrise
9 Goodbye Train
10 Nowhere to Go
11 'Round Midnight
12 Devil Got My Woman
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