June 16th, 2024

Juno Awards honouring Ron Sakamoto

By Lethbridge Herald on March 10, 2023.

Ron Sakamoto will be honoured with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the Junos Saturday in Edmonton. Herald photo by Al Beeber

Al Beeber – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – abeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

Nobody believed Ron Sakamoto could establish a successful career as a music promoter based in Lethbridge.

It’s too small, the doubters said. It’s too far away from major centers.

But Sakamoto had faith in himself and he has proved  the naysayers wrong in a lengthy career in which he’s worked with the biggest names in the music business, many of whom have played shows here in Lethbridge. Some of those shows have been at the smallest venue on a tour but out of respect for Sakamoto, the artists have played them.

KISS, Bryan Adams, Johnny Reid, Shania Twain, Keith Urban, The Guess Who, Old Dominion, The Bee Gees, Heart, The Doobie Brothers, Lighthouse, the Washboard Union and so many other iconic music acts have played Sakamoto shows on stages here from the old Exhibition grandstand to the Enmax Centre in the promoter’s long career running Gold and Gold Productions.

He has been oft-honoured, his most enduring perhaps having the Canadian Country Music Association promoter of the year award named after him after he won it 17 consecutive times. Before his own business partner won it four times after him!

Tonight in Edmonton, the recently turned 80-year-old will perhaps be given the biggest honour of his life as he accepts the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award on the Juno Awards opening night.

The event will be live-streamed at 6 p.m. on CBC Gem, CBCMusic.ca/Junos as well as on CBC’s Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube pages.

The award “recognizes individuals whose work has significantly impacted the growth and development of the Canadian music industry,” says the Juno Awards of the honour which is named after the Juno’s co-founder.

Sakamoto’s come a long way from Coaldale where he was born in 1943 to parents who were relocated to southern Alberta from the B.C. coast during the Second World War.

Sakamoto’s long achievements will be discussed tonight by his long-time friend and Canadian music legend Bruce Allen who has managed artists such as Adams, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Anne Murray, Michael Buble, Prism Loverboy and Jann Arden.

The first act Sakamoto booked for Allen, in fact, was Adams back in 1983. Sakamoto got his start in the music business after a hockey injury sustained at the old Calgary Corral. He was watching “American Bandstand” on TV in the hospital and figured he wanted to do something for the youth in Medicine Hat where his family had moved after leaving Coaldale.

He talked to his father, an astute businessman in his own right, as well as the Hat’s mayor and in the early 1960s opened Honeycomb-A-Go-Go, a venue that was open on Fridays and Saturdays. He expanded to Lethbridge with the Ron Sakamoto Varsity Club, the idea being he could give bands a second weekend gig – at a cut rate. This gave them two shows and Ron more income.

As his business grew, the need for bigger venues did as well and in time Ron created his company Gold and Gold Productions, promoting shows in arenas and such places as the Exhibition grandstand.

“People thought ‘no way you can do this from Lethbridge. You have to go to Vancouver or New York or Nashville,’” said Sakamoto over green tea this week.

But Sakamoto – a singer himself – took to heart words of wisdom told him by his father – “it’s not where you’re from that counts, but what you do.” And after 40 years of marriage, which has produced three children and a beloved grandchild, Sakamoto is glad he stayed here.

Lethbridge, he says, is a fantastic and safe place to raise a family. It’s a city that gave his family stability for as his wife Joyce told him, they may have been married 40 years but he’s only been at home for 20 of them because of the demands of his work. And he wasn’t willing to have his family face sacrifices for his career, Sakamoto said.

During his career, he’s had many fond memories including bringing the Doobie Brothers to the former Canada Games Sportsplex when it first opened up. The parking lot wasn’t even paved, he recalled, and the concert sold out.

He talks about bringing Ricky Nelson, the star of the old “Ozzie and Harriett” television show to the Exhibition grandstand when he was gaining stardom as a singer.

“I think it’s the only place in Canada he ever played and we sold out,” Sakamoto recalled.

 Of all the artists he’s heard, Sakamoto says the late Roy Orbison had one of the purest voices.

When the disco era took root in the late 1970s, Gold and Gold left the rock world behind and turned to country.

He recalls going to Nashville in 1992 to meet with the head of renowned artist agency Creative Arts Agency when it set up an office there to discuss promoting shows by country performers on that company’s roster.

When the agency boss considered the idea that a Japanese guy from a small city in Canada wanted to promote his artists, “he said ‘it’s so crazy it might just work’” and introduced Sakamoto to staff as their new Canadian promoter, he recalled with a laugh.

Sakamoto says Joyce has played a key role in his success. Coming from a business family – the Vanees – “she thinks outside of the box,” he said.

“She’s really helped me,” said the promoter.

Over the decades, his business has expanded and he now also runs Sakamoto Agency, Sakamoto Management and Sakamoto Records. And he owns Paradise Canyon Golf Resort where he can be found hitting the links several times a week during the season. When he’s not golfing, Sakamoto keeps in shape at his home gym.

His accolades have been numerous over the years, one of his latest being the awarding of the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Award in Calgary.

He was also recently honoured by the City of Lethbridge with a special wall dedicated to him at the Enmax Centre paying tribute to his many accomplishments which include induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and international honours such as CMA International/Talent Buyer of the Year and International Entertainment Buyers Association International Buyer of the Year Awards.

He’s also a person who gives back to his community. In 2010, Ron and Joyce donated $200,000 to the University of Lethbridge to start the Joyce and Ron Sakamoto Scholarship for the Digital Arts and Music program, money which was matched by the province. In 2013, he and Joyce donated 28 guitars to Galbraith Elementary School to help start a music program there.

And as he steps into a new decade, Sakamoto has no plans to retire. 

“I’ll keep going as long as my body lets me,” says tonight’s special honoree who always makes clear to anyone who will listen that “I have the greatest people working for and with me.”

Follow @albeebHerald on Twitter

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