In the mid 1960s, the biggest selling Manitoba-based recording act was not the Guess Who but Ukrainian language country duo Mickey & Bunny. Their recording of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, sung in both Ukrainian and English, sold over 70,000 copies making them one of the most successful recording artists in Western Canada.
Mickey & Bunny recorded for local V-Records established in 1962 by Alex Groshak who operated out of his home on Fleury Place in Windsor Park. Groshak was a visionary who saw a vast untapped market in the Ukrainian-Canadian community for ethnic music. “I feel that Ukrainian music is very unique and one-of-a-kind given to us by previous generations. It should be preserved for future generations,” he stated in a 2005 radio interview. The inability of Ukrainians in Canada to import Ukrainian-language recordings due to the Cold War created a significant demand for that music to warrant Groshak starting his own record label.
V Records featured artists such as Tommy Buick, Jim Gregrash (no relation to Joey Gregorash), Peter Hnatiuk, John Yuzyk, The Royal Polka Kings, Peter Lamb, the Primrose Trio, Mae Chwaluk, Joe Jedraski, Anna Kraichy, and Peter Picklyk, all well-known in the Ukrainian community, playing and singing popular Ukrainian songs. But the most consistently successful V-Records artist was Mickey & Bunny.
Ethelbert-born Mickey (Modest Sklepowich) and Bunny (Orysia Ewanchuk) from Rosa met serendipitously. “We actually met in the middle of the Arlington Bridge,” chuckles Bunny. “I was in a car with a friend who knew Mickey and when we saw Mickey coming in the other direction we stopped in the middle of the bridge. Mickey asked for my phone number and called me the next day.” Playing guitar and singing since his early teens, Mickey was a pharmacist by trade while Bunny was a school teacher (she would later teach Ukrainian language classes). They married in 1957. Under the name Mickey & Bunny Sheppard they began performing in bars where Groshak spotted them and signed them. Their debut album, Mickey & Bunny Sing Ukrainian Country Music, in 1964 sold over 10,000 copies. “Mickey was the driving force,” Bunny insists. “He had so much energy.” Mickey understood the entertainment business and how to make money. At their peak in the mid ‘60s he boasted that the couple earned $60,000 to $75,000 annually and purchased a brand new Cadillac every year.
Mickey & Bunny’s success was based on an ability to sing songs in both languages, a style known as “half na piv”, half Ukrainian, half English. Their big hit, This Land Is Your Land, was presented in that style. “We were helping preserve the Ukrainian language for young people,” states Bunny. “That song really connected with younger people. We also introduced them to traditional Ukrainian music they had inherited but didn’t know about.” Their success came quickly. “We were playing the Winnipeg Auditorium and Mickey looked out the window at all these people standing outside waiting to get in. He thought there must be someone else performing next door.”
The duo released 13 albums for V-Records and toured Canada more than a dozen times, selling out Toronto’s Massey Hall for three nights and appearing at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium. They even played in Las Vegas. But their strongest base remained rural Western Canada where they toured often, appearing on television and radio. “They were cultural ambassadors unifying the mostly isolated rural Ukrainian communities as well as generations,” notes musicologist Brian Cherwick.
Early on, Mickey & Bunny recruited Winnipeg’s D-Drifters 5 as backing band on the road and for recordings. Formed by the Roman (aka Romanyshyn) brothers, Dave on accordion and bass and Tony on guitar, originally from Fraserwood MB, plus Ihor ‘Yogi’ Klos on fiddle, Mike Klym on drums, and saxophone player Andy Pokolinski, they auditioned for Mickey and were hired on the spot. “I made more money the first night with Mickey & Bunny than I did in a whole month working as a draftsman,” notes Dave Roman.
Besides working with Mickey & Bunny, the D-Drifters 5 also recorded on their own for V-Records, releasing five albums of Ukrainian dance music including On Tour, At A Ukrainian Concert, Traditional and Original Ukrainian Songs and Ukrainian Dance Favourites. “The albums came about because Mickey Sheppard had his own studio in his house at 11 Gillia Drive in West Kildonan,” says Dave. Versatility was the band’s calling card. “We always thought of ourselves as a rock ‘n’ roll cover band but we could play anything,” states Dave. In 1965 the D-Drifters 5 released an album of Beatles and British Invasion pop songs sung in Ukrainian. It was a hit. “Yogi and I and my mother translated them,” notes Dave. Groshak dubbed the band “the Ukrainian Beatles”.
Mickey & Bunny divorced in the early ‘70s but continued to perform and record for a few more years. Mickey then went out on his own (at one point employing future blues guitar great Billy Joe Green) while Bunny embarked on a teaching career up north for several years. Their hit version of This Land Is Your Land received official recognition with inclusion in the National Archives in Ottawa.
“We couldn’t believe how two small town people could create such a big ta-do,” reflects Bunny. “The Ukrainian community loved us and loved that music. It was a glorious 8 to 10-year run.”