Over 30 years ago, Alton Best gathered his love for music and created something that has become cherished by many- The Flummies.
Sadly, Mr. Best passed away on May 11 in Happy Valley-Goose Bay from a short fought battle with cancer, but his memory and musical talent are sure to live on for years to come. He played along side his colleagues and buddies Richard Dyson, Eugene (Tunker) Campbell, Simeon Asivak, Leander Baikie and Raymond Montague.
Those who have had the privilege of knowing him and working with Best over the years have remembered him for his love of family, friends, the musical arts and his contribution for encapsulating the cultural and historical roots of life in Labrador.
Mr. Best was born and raised in the small community of Mud Lake, Labrador where he married his wife Ena and raised three children. He later moved to the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area.
Last September, The Labradorian had the honor of speaking with Mr. Best after he received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador – the highest honor of the province.
He explained then how music had become a part of his life at an early age while watching his family members play a variety of traditional instruments such as the accordion, harmonica, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Alton was the youngest of 10 children and started out by playing guitar while his father played the fiddle at the local dances in Mudlake.
Eugene Dyson who played alongside Best since The Flummies band formed said he met the founding member in 1977. A year later, Best invited Dyson to jam with his band at a talent show at the Billy Bishop Centre on the base.
“I went out and went on stage and here we go, 37 years later,” said Dyson.
The bond that has been created through The Flummies is something Dyson said has went above and beyond the music.
“We’re a band that’s been together for the longest time- some 30 some odd years and you don’t do that by not getting along with people and stuff like that. We’re a very close-knit band and you can tell that on stage I think and a lot of people have said that to me. This is devastation in one way – he has been the oldest member and it’s no doubt we’re going to miss him. Being the oldest and one of the founding members it’s going to be a job to carry on.”
The Flummies have been credited for not only their homely music style but also their togetherness as a group.
“You spend a lot of time practicing, you get together with each other and become one large big family, that’s what it is- there’s no difference than being a part of a family,” said Dyson.
In the years he played along side the boys, Dyson said the band always looked up to Best and often times turned to him for guidance, support and advice.
“I lost my dad and he was here for that, and I lost my brother and he was there for that, so he was not only a good friend, you know, but a father figure and someone that I am sure going to miss I will tell you that,” says Dyson.
When thinking back to the times he spent with Best, he said there are so many memories that come to mind, but one of the proudest moments of his friend was when Best received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. Best had called Dyson to get his opinion about traveling to receive the recognition award.
“I said ‘of course you should go do this, it’s well deserved and you are the oldest member of the group and the founding member of the group so go and do it buddy,” Dyson told Best, “After all of these years it was well deserved and I thought it rather fitting and at that time he was in good health. It went really well I figured.”
Dyson says Best was a well-respected, multi-talented artist but very modest. “Every instrument that he played, and he played several very well, if you would tell him about it he would say, “Nah by I am not very good at that but I will try it I suppose,” recalls Dyson. He added that Best loved every minute on stage, and as the band grew in fame, Best ‘never ruffled feathers sort of speak’.
“Music was a great big part of his life,” says Dyson.
Dyson said one of Best’s last wishes was that the band would carry on the tradition of music created by The Flummies.
“We are going to try to do the best we can when the time comes but we are not right there yet, it’s going to take healing time.”
Best was also known for his great sense of humour. “He made a joke of almost everything and some of things that went on in his life he joked about it and that’s they way he was – carrying on all the time like that. When we were on the road it was the same thing.” Dyson recalls.
The last show the band all played together was this past winter in northern Quebec community of George River.
“He’s been an inspiration to me right from the get go,” remembered Dyson.
The Flummies were formed out of the Best White band and the first recordings came in 1986 with the album, “Four Songs of Labrador.”
Since then, The Flummies released several other records including their latest -“The River”. The group has received several awards and nominations including the 2009 Aboriginal Recording of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards. They also were featured in a 2007 documentary titled, ‘Lab-Originals’ produced by Best Boy Productions and aired nationally on Bravo television.
Alton and the band traveled extensively over the years entertaining the masses.
And while there had been various artists who have joined and left the band, Mr. Best had been described as the “glue” that held the Flummies together.
Labrador musician and Vice President of the Board of Directors of Music NL, Donna Roberts, said she recalls as a young child first hearing her father speak about Mr. Best as they had met through the musical ties.
Roberts said as an adult and becoming a musician herself, she too had the opportunity to get to know Best at various music events and ceremonies.
“I always looked upon Alton as an uncle, he was like that kind-hearted uncle, and when you performed and he was there, he always had something encouraging to say to everybody. He was a wonderful man with a great sense of humour,” she said
The last time Roberts spoke with Best was at the Music NL conference and awards show in which she recalled sharing lots of laughs and memories with the musician whom she says will not only be missed by family and friends within the Labrador community but in the music industry in general.
“I look at Alton as one of the pioneers of music in Labrador. He is definitely somebody whose always been considered on his own, and certainly a member of the Flummies, as one of Labrador’s finest ambassadors,” says Roberts.
“Anywhere he went he always sang the praises of Labrador; that was the most important thing to him- was his home and his family and the people who lived here.”
Roberts said on behalf of Music NL, Mr. Best was indeed one of the most respected people in the provinces music industry. “His career was long and everybody looked up to him – he inspired the young people too. It wasn’t just about people who knew him that were his age there was younger people that were inspired by him.”
Reg Windsor, Executive Director with Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council told the Labradorian he was saddened to hear of Best’s passing.
“We did the annual arts awards show in Happy Valley-Goose Bay two years ago, and the Flummies were inducted into the Arts Council’s Hall of Honor. I still remember the guys coming up from their seats and going up on stage to accept the award and they were so proud and so honoured, we all were,” recalled Windsor.
“No doubt he was a great guy and a great ambassador,” Windsor said of Best. “My heartfelt condolences go out to the family and to the band as well.”
The folk stories and tales that resonated from the raw Labrador voice of Best in the songs he sang like Old Mokami and Comb your Hair Flat Down and many more will be cherished for years to come.
The lyrics and music created by the Flummies instills a pride that can be unmatched.