In the mid 1980s, the hottest of the downtown music clubs was The Rorie Street Marble Club located at 65 Rorie Street at Bannatyne Avenue. And the entertainment that drew the crowds was Winnipeg vocal group The Argyles. The quartet’s brand of superb vocal harmony, clever song selection, and onstage fun was infectious.
Formed in 1983 when two friends, Jeff Skinner and Greg Nordman, who met performing at Rainbow Stage, set about to create a vocal group along the lines of Manhattan Transfer or Toronto’s Nylons. Bob Axworthy, who was running T-Bones restaurant and lounge, offered the two a gig if they could come up with a retro-style musical act. With Ken Stewart and Gisèle Fredette onboard and retro clothing styles in vogue, the four took on the name Argyles.
“We were all fans of vocal groups such as The Manhattan Transfer, The 4 Lads, The Hi-Lo’s, and Brian Wilson’s arrangements with The Beach Boys,” notes Ken Stewart. “We were also fans of vocal groups from the Motown era and the retro movement of the mid ‘70s,” adds Greg Nordman. “The Argyles started out as a multi-vocalist group with eclectic tastes that included jazz, pop and gospel-influenced tunes from multiple decades, sometimes as an a cappella act often with just piano accompaniment or with a full band when the budget allowed. The Argyles were a show band that was as much fun to watch as they were to listen to.”
The group auditioned for local band leader Ron Paley who, enthusiastically impressed, hired them to appear with his big band. They also began a semi-regular gig at the Marble Club over the next four years along with a weekly Sunday night spot at Brandy’s, the lounge at The Old Spaghetti Factory. The group appeared on telethons and corporate events as well as performing on CKND television’s Jimmy King Presents and CKY television’s Live at the Warehouse.
Gisèle Fredette left the group in 1985 to pursue a singing career in Toronto. Her replacement, Brandon-born Angela Kelman, was discovered right next door in the Marble Club lounge. “I remember the night the boys came to my old brownstone apartment at McMillan and Wentworth to ask me to join The Argyles to replace Gisèle,” remembers Angela. “I had been working with Tom Dahl as the house duo at the Marble Club lounge where The Argyles often played on the cabaret side.”
The group was then invited to play a six-week gig at Vancouver’s Expo 86 opening for acts like Tower of Power, The Neville Brothers and Tom Cochrane at The 86th Street Cabaret. Following Expo 86, Jeff Skinner left the group for an acting career (ultimately becoming a respected acting coach in Winnipeg) and Winnipegger Brenda Raynbird joined in his place. While in Vancouver, the group was spotted by an Asian talent agency who offered the quartet a five-week tour appearing at clubs in Hong Kong, Macau and The Philippines. Backing them on the tour was Darryl Havers on keyboards with Ken Stewart playing guitar. They were well-received at every stop. “We played a few nights at Subic Bay US Naval Base where audiences were mostly American and much rowdier than the clubs,” recalls Ken. “We also played as a Top 40 cover band called Mirror Image at the largest club in Hong Kong named Hollywood East.” Ken recalls a memorable interview on Hong Kong radio where the group performed the Everly Brothers’ classic “All I Have To Do Is Dream” a cappella live.
In 1987 Ken was next to leave, returning to television production at CKY Winnipeg. The remaining members decided to carry on as Mirror Image. Relocating to Toronto, the group performed throughout southern Ontario. Angela dropped out to study at the Vocal Institute of Technology in Hollywood, California and was replaced by Maddie Willis. But by 1991, the group had folded. While Brenda Raynbird and Maddie Willis remained in Toronto, Greg Nordman returned to Winnipeg where he worked in the service industry.
Following her studies in Hollywood, Angela Kelman moved to Vancouver where she was spotted singing at the Big Bamboo club and was invited to form a new country music trio, Farmer’s Daughter. During the 1990s, Farmer’s Daughter became one of the most successful recording artists in Canadian country music with gold and platinum albums. But she credits her time with The Argyles as pivotal. “Little did I know when I joined that my time with The Argyles would become the harmony foundation for the rest of my career,” she acknowledges.