Stuart McLean captured the best of Canada

Stuart McLean. Photo: Vinyl Cafe

Stuart McLean. Photo: Vinyl Cafe

Stuart McLean was a Canadian treasure. The creator, host, and imagination behind The Vinyl Café died on February 15 at age 68. The Vinyl Café aired for 21 years on CBC Radio One, and 80 Public Radio International affiliates, including NCPR. McLean’s start in radio broadcasting was in documentaries; he won a major award in 1979 for his documentary on the infamous Jonestown massacre—an event completely opposite from the stories he later told on air.

The Vinyl Café had its beginnings in a segment McLean regularly presented on Morningside, the legendary three-hour morning show hosted by the late Peter Gzowski.

Sunday’s at noon became a weekly listening appointment for Canadians of all walks of life. I used to try to get home from church as quickly as possible when I was in my teens and early 20’s to listen to The Vinyl Café. The familiar theme song felt like a welcome to Stuart McLean’s living room or front porch, not a radio studio in downtown Toronto.

The premise behind the playlist was that Stuart had selected all of the songs from albums he bought from his imaginary friend Dave, who owned an imaginary used record store called The Vinyl Café somewhere in Toronto. In between the songs, we were told funny or inspirational stories about the daily life of Dave, his wife Morley, their daughter Stephanie, and son Sam. Over the years, we were introduced to Dave and Morley’s extended family, friends, and neighbors. Every character was wonderful because they were each someone listeners could relate to. Their unspecified Toronto neighborhood, or Dave’s fictional hometown in Nova Scotia could have been any community across the country. Canadians saw themselves in the characters and stories created by Stuart McLean’s imagination.

One of the many books of Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe stories.  Photo: James Morgan

One of the many books of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories. Photo: James Morgan

The Vinyl Café concerts became one of Canada’s biggest traveling shows, especially the Christmas concerts. I’m happy I got to see one of these at a packed hall in Kitchener, Ontario one evening. They featured topnotch talent, and Stuart McLean had an amazing ability to connect with local audiences. He always seemed to understand whatever city or town he was visiting. He knew their histories, their people, and their culture in a way that made them the star attraction. That ability to connect with small towns was at its strongest for me in November, 2014. In honor of Remembrance Day, he told the life story of David Kilberg, a late, former Mayor and businessman in my hometown of Listowel, Ontario. Mr. Kilberg and his wife Jenny were both Holocaust survivors. Stuart McLean was a friend of their grandson, and met Mr. Kilberg when his wife died. The program was a wonderful story of remembrance, forgiveness, and hope.

English speaking Canadians have often struggled to define themselves culturally. We’re something in between British and American, but we can be fickle about how much of either of those we want to be. Stuart McLean and The Vinyl Café helped forge an independent Canadian cultural identity. He captured the best of our human spirit.

Program Note: NCPR will broadcast a one-hour special remembrance of Stuart McLean and his work, produced by CBC, Sunday, February 19 at 3 pm.

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2 Comments on “Stuart McLean captured the best of Canada”


    I hope we will be able to listen to the program after Sunday as I will not be able to listen to it on Sunday.

  2. Tara says:

    Stuart McLean will be deeply missed. He was a national treasure:) His work captured the most salient facets of our national identify and reflected the best of our Canadian values. I have been listening in to his program since my university days, throughout my years spent as an expatriate living in foreign lands. His voice, storytelling and musical curation always brought me home. Over the past twenty years, his cozt nostalgic programming has offered a sense of comfort and familiarity. Deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

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