John Fenton, an Ottawa musician who’s been a fixture of the local scene for more than 40 years, is gearing up for what may be his final gig — on a day the City of Ottawa plans to proclaim “John Fenton Day.”Diagnosed with terminal liver cancer this spring, the eldest of Ottawa’s musical Fenton Brothers has been resting at the family cottage in Quebec, managing his pain and conserving his energy for one last jam, to be held Aug. 2 at Overflow Brewing Company.His good friend of the last 45 years, Fab Gear 64 owner and veteran drummer Bob Cabana, is recruiting many of Fenton’s bandmates from over the years to join him on the Overflow stage. The title of the event, I Ain’t Dead Yet!, was coined by Fenton himself, inspired by one of his favourite Monty Python movies.For the 66-year-old musician, the attention is overwhelming.
Photo of John Fenton, the Ottawa musician in the final stages of liver cancer.
“It has a very large emotional impact on me to know that somebody loves me enough to do something like that,” Fenton said in an interview. “I’m really touched. It makes me feel good and bad at the same time.”Fenton and Cabana have been playing in various bands together since the mid-’70s, when Cabana responded to an audition notice seeking a drummer. That band morphed into The Action, one of Ottawa’s first punk bands and the first of many musical groups to feature all three Fenton brothers — John, Paul and Mike.Another early act was an AC/DC cover band that also featured Cabana on drums.“I’ve always called John the Malcolm Young of the Fenton Brothers,” says Cabana, referring to the late co-founder of the Australian hard rockers. “He’s a very solid rhythm and lead player who never got overly excited about anything. Just a nice guy and rarely did he get into any hassles.”Fenton was the first of the brothers to pick up a guitar as a teenager. The sons of a U.N. diplomat and a stay-at-home mom, the family was living in Switzerland when 16-year-old Fenton went on a school trip and tried out a classmate’s guitar. He was hooked.They soon moved to Ottawa and, with his very own guitar, Fenton figured out the chords to Beatles songs. He played in bands during his time at Gloucester High School, and also “subverted” his younger brothers.“It’s a way of communicating non-verbally with people,” Fenton said, explaining the appeal of playing rock n’ roll on guitar. “You get up on stage and they have to listen. Because I’m sort of a soft-spoken guy, it’s a way of getting my ya-ya’s out basically without yelling at people.”Although he never felt the lure of moving to Toronto, Fenton got fairly serious about music, dropping out of university to tour with a band. Eventually he started his own landscaping business. Married twice, he’s the father of a 28-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, and has a steady girlfriend.As for the upcoming jam, the musical guest list reads like a who’s-who of the Ottawa music scene, including Les Emerson, the Cooper Brothers, Lucky Ron, members of Bone, The Action and many more. Proceeds will be donated to Fenton.“John is extremely well respected by the musical community and I had no problem getting any of those guys,” says Cabana. “They stepped up to the plate right away because they have respect for John. He’s one of those Ottawa musicians who’s a bit of an unsung hero because he never wanted to be in the spotlight.”This time, however, he’ll take it. “Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away,” Fenton said, quoting another Rolling Stones song.
Ottawa band, Bone.