Russ was born at the end of the footbridge, in a small log cabin in Priceville,
New Brunswick Canada. He was one of six children born to Edith Dell (Price) and Melvin Munn.
Canadian country music fans came to know him as Russ Wheeler.
Russ started singing and entertaining fans in the early 1950s. But in 1952, he was called upon
to wear the uniform of the Royal Canadian Air Force. His tour of duty took him most
of Canada, the Yukon Territory, the United States, and several countries overseas.
When his tour of duty was complete, he decided he wanted to settle back in Fredericton,
the capital city of New Brunswick. He wanted to resume his musical endeavors and
joined up with Earl Hitton and his Valley Rhythm Boys. He stayed with them for two
years or so, with numerous radio and television shows as well as personal appearances
all around the Maritime provinces. This appears to be about 1954 to 1956.
During the year of 1956, Russ decided to move to Toronto, Ontario and formed
his own band, The Echo Valley Boys. The group gained in popularity as they appeared
on many of the top venues in the area.
Those efforts led to his own radio show over CJRH in Richmond Hill, Ontario, due north
of Toronto. Russ Wheeler and the Echo Valley Boys also appeared every second week
over CKVR-TV in Barrie, Ontario.
A 1961 article notes the group was a regular Saturday night fixture at the Junior Farmers Building Hall
in Brampton and had been doing so for nearly three years. Plans were being made to broadcast
a segment of that Saturday night show over radio station CHIC in Brampton.
In 1958, he signed a three year contract with Rodeo International Records of Halifax,
Nova Scotia. The album had many traditional favorites that he had sung for his audiences
for many years. The title of that album was "Tragic Romances". The first single
from that album was "The Death of Johnny Horton" b/w "A Sinner's Sweetheart", the latter
which was a tune that Russ wrote.
Russ' wife, Elizabeth, tells us that the picture at the top of the page was
taken on an old Kodak Brownie camera about 1964, and was one of the pictures selected
for that first album, Tragic Romances. The album was sold in the United States,
Australia, and the United Kingdom. It was a big launch pad for Russ and
he went on to have a 30-year career in Canada.
A 1965 article tells us more about
that first recording. A copy of "A Sinner's Sweetheart" was said to be in over 10,000 Canadian
homes. The album was still selling consistently well, even seven years after its first release.
Russ also had another side of his on-stage persona. He developed
a character called "Squeeler McCoy", which one article described as "...a corn-fed
country hick comedian who usually keeps the audience doubled up with laughter." It was
said to be quite opposite the serious side he showed fans when singing on stage. So much
so that one fan decided she wanted to get Russ' autograph and then proceeded to try
and find Squeeler McCoy to get his autograph. She may still be looking for him if
know one told her that Russ and Squeeler were one and the same.
One of Squeeler's favorite routines centered around a monologue simply entitled, "Maggie".
Squeeler McCoy would tell the audiences, "Maggie came from a big family...most of it
was Maggie." Then he would go on telling a few more chapters from Maggie's life. That
would lead to a tune or two, sung a bit off-key and a specially-written parody
of one of the hit tunes of the day. He would then back off the stage and of course
the audience wanted an encore, then he would turn around and on the back of his ragged
pants would be a white patch with a simple note in big black letters - Thanks.
Things continued to happen for Russ. He was signed to the Sparton record label
in Canada. His first release was "Atlantic Lullaby" b/w "When A Love Affair Ends".
Russ also had a fan club at one time, headed by Geraldine Copeland. His manager
was Fred Roy, who later began writing about the "Canadian Scene" for Country Song
In another issue, Fred writes of a new country and western television show
that was being developed for the CBC network. The series was to feature
the popular Canadian country music acts such as Russ Wheeler, Gary Buck,
Stu Davis and Bud Roberts, however, nothing was firm at that date.
The series was to run a minimum of thirteen weeks.
The filming was being done by Sid Banks In Television Limited of Toronto.
When Russ wasn't busy doing personal appearances or his radio show, he could usually
be found in his den, where he would tinker with radio-electronics equipment. Most
of his taping and P.A. equipment was self-built, including the set that lined
the wall of that den.
Russ had additional popular albums - Walk Right In; Chaser for the Blues;
Home to the Miramichi; and Heart of NB (meaning New Brunswick, Canada)
Russ was also a prolific songwriter. He always found time to help someone trying to get
established in country music. He setup a small recording studio to record local talents
that needed a way to get started and heard.
Mr. Wheeler appeared in several TV programs, not just as a singer or performer, but also as an actor.
In one role, he appeared as God in the God Shuffles His Feet video.
He was a member of the New Brunswick Film Co-op;
He also passed along his electronics knowledge to the members on lighting, wiring, etc.,
as well as acting in some of their projects.
In 1965, Russ and his wife, Betty (Elizabeth) and their daughter Lenore,
were living in the Toronto suburb of Downsview in what was described as an L-shaped
bungalow. It was described as painted white, fronting a grassy, tree-studded two acre plot
of land, with a stone-floored, vine-covered patio. Each spring saw fruit trees blossom which
would lead to a later harvest of apples, pears and cherries.
A November 1964 article notes that Russ and his wife had bought a 10-acre
farm near Bolton, Ontario.
Russ' wife, became his bass player, female vocalist and harmonist
around the time of his second album. Russ and Elizabeth had two beautiful daughters, Lenore and Melissa,
both very talented but have not chosen a musical career.
But mom and the girls still have regular jam sessions so that they can keep enjoying tunes of their
husband and father.
Elizabeth recalls a story of the magical spell that Russ could cast over children
when he met them. In his later life, Russ grew a beard and it go to the point
where he could easily pass for Santa Claus right down to the jolly manner and was often asked to do so.
He also had a few little tricks such as the disappearing coin which
fascinated children. Once they were enjoying a meal in a restaurant
in Brampton, Ontario. A girl of about 8 years old was absolutely
fascinated by Russ that day - she was thinking he was Santa Claus.
It was in the summer and it was also the girl's birthday. He fell right
into Santa's demeanor, even if he didn't have his Santa costume on. He told
her he was on a summer vacation. Russ then proceeded to do his coin trick
and a few others, and the little girl was absolutely beaming as was the
maitre d' and the other customers. Elizabeth says that little girl went
home thinking that she had Santa Claus as her own personal friend.
Now isn't that what it's all about - being able to make people feel good?
Unfortunately, Russ died of throat cancer in March 2004. It was a great loss to the family.
His memory lives on however as his albums still sell through local outlets in the Maritimes;
proceeds from the album sales are used to fund a scholarship program for students
entering arts programs.
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-music.com wishes to express its appreciation to
Elizabeth Munn, wife of Russ Wheeler for providing us with information and photos
from the musical career of her husband. We also thank his daughter Melissa
who also provided several photos as well.
- Cowboy Songs No. 67; Fall 1961; American Folk Publications;
- Country Song Roundup; No. 85; August 1964; American Folk Publications;
- Country Song Roundup; No. 86; November 1964; American Folk Publications;
- Country Songs and Stars; Vol. 16 No. 78; June 1965; American Folk Publications;
- Country Song Roundup; No. 90; October 1964; American Folk Publications;