Skip Prokop, Co-Founder of Canadian Jazz-Rock Group Lighthouse, Dies at 73
Skip Prokop, co-founder of legendary Canadian jazz-rock fusion group Lighthouse — often explained to those outside the country as “Canada’s Chicago” with numerous accomplishments of their own, including the enduring hit “Sunny Days” and “One Fine Morning,” and three consecutive Juno Awards for Best Canadian Group — passed away Wednesday (Aug. 30) from heart complications. He was 73.
The noted drummer stopped performing a few years ago after experiencing a series of health issues, including a heart attack, according to a post by his long-time friend and radio personality John Harada. While Lighthouse had an eight-year run, disbanding in 1976 and reforming in 1992, Prokop left in 1974. He also did session work with Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, Peter Paul & Mary and others.
A guitarist and keyboardist as well, he wrote or co-wrote many of Lighthouse’s hits, such as “One Fine Morning" — which reached No. 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1971, “Pretty Slow," "Take It Slow (Out in the Country)," ”1849,” “Hats Off (To the Stranger)” and “Little Kind Words.”
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Prokop, whose given name is Ronald, won the Canadian National Individual Drumming Competition at age 17 and came in third in America. His first taste of success as a professional musician was in psychedelic rock act the Paupers, signed at one point to Toronto’s Roman Records, created by Duff Roman, who went on to become a radio executive and Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame inductee.
“I’m very saddened to hear that Skip has passed,” Roman told Billboard in an email. “Ron [Skip] Prokop and his bandmates Chuck Beale, Denny Gerrard and Bill Marion approached me in early 1965 about producing their 'new sound' rock group, the Paupers (formerly the Spats). This resulted in ‘Never Send You Flowers’ and then ‘If I Told My Baby,’ which were very successful local hits.
“Skip was the driving force — a superb drummer and prolific songwriter — who had the awesome talent and relentless energy to make his mark on the North American music scene. He was both a star and a musician’s musician. He will be sorely missed.”
After working with Roman, Bernie Finkelstein (Bruce Cockburn’s long-time manager and founder of True North Records) came onboard as manager and took the band to New York “where we did extremely well,” he tells Billboard. He then brought in Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman as a partner, before returning to Toronto.
“Very sad to hear of Skip Prokop's passing,” Finkelstein posted to Facebook. “He and the Paupers gave me my first break in the music business back in 1965 when they asked me to manage them. I never looked back from that moment and I owe Skip and the rest of the band a lot.” He added that Prokop had recently asked him to write the forward to his book, but didn’t know if the project had been completed.
“With that being said it always warmed my heart when Skip went on from the Paupers to have such international success with Lighthouse. Skip was one of the great drummers of our time and one the most original artists that I ever had the pleasure to work with.”
After supporting such acts as Jefferson Airplane, MC5 and Cream, and performing at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival with the Paupers, Prokop started Lighthouse after meeting Hoffert on a flight back to Toronto from New York. Their initial demo was “unlike anything anyone had ever heard before — a combination of driving rock rhythms, exciting jazz improvisational solos, and soaring orchestral arrangements. Hardly your average three-minute pop tune,” according to the extensive history on Lighthouse’s website.
“On the advice of friend, folk legend Richie Havens, they took the demo to MGM Records in New York City. Twenty minutes later they had a record deal and a thirty thousand dollar advance. Two days later they had a manager: Vinnie Fusco from Albert Grossman’s office. Now all they had to do was put together a performing band.
“Lighthouse made its live debut at Toronto’s Rock Pile on May 14, 1969, introduced by none other than Duke Ellington who succinctly stated, ‘I'm beginning to see the Light..house,’” it reads. “They were an instant smash. Manager Vinnie Fusco brought them to New York to record their first album at the fabled Electric Ladyland Studios. They were in the middle of one of their sessions when Fusco cheerily popped in to announce that he had just signed the band to a hot deal with RCA records for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
While the band was a popular live draw, the three albums that followed — 1969’s Lighthouse and Suite Feeling; and 1970’s Peacing It All Together — did not yield a hit. “They were at a crossroads and about to lose their recording contract with RCA,” it continues. That changed when Bob McBride came in as singer and Jimmy Jenner (Eric Carmen) as producer, yielding more radio friendly songs and the No. 1 album and title track, “One Fine Morning.”
Several more albums followed, and the band continued to tour non-stop throughout North America and overseas, including the Isle of Wight Festival, Expo ’70 in Japan, the Atlantic City Pop Festival, and the Monterey, Newport and Boston Globe Jazz Festivals. They performed with everyone from the Who to Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell. Elton John’s first U.S. appearance was opening for Lighthouse in Philadelphia.
Starting in 1971, the band won three consecutive Juno Awards for best group of the year, and earned four gold albums (then 50,000 units) in Canada and the country’s very first platinum album (then 100,000 units) for Lighthouse Live! (recorded at Carnegie Hall). Prokop left the band in 1974 after recording and touring behind Good Day. The band broke up two years later, reformed for an anniversary in 1982, and then reformed permanently in 1992, to which Prokop agreed. He remained with them until health problems forced him to retire from performing in 2014.
“So, I went back to see my cardiologist for some more tests and he said, very frankly, my days of playing two-hour concerts and encores and hanging out to meet your fans after the show and your long days of prep and travel even before you play are over,” he wrote on Facebook. His son Jamie took over his role as drummer and the two had been working on a book about his life.