Sherman Doucette grew up surrounded by music. Born and raised in the small Canadian town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, he recalls the sounds of his dad on guitar or banjo, his brother on guitar, his mom, sisters and aunts dancing and singing along, and his grandfather giggin’ and jiggin’ on the harmonica.
“My grampa played harmonica and fiddle,” he says. “He played French jigs, where they dance with their feet, and even though they’re sitting down they’re jiggin’. He had such good rhythm; I’d sit on his lap and he’d keep time with his feet. And the rhythm went right through me.” Doucette says he happily inherited his grandfather’s harp hand-me-downs. “It was just kind of really cool that he had played them.”
In the summer of 1969, Doucette and his best bud hitchhiked to Vancouver. “I didn’t have to leave home,” he says, “it’s just that we had that adventurous spirit.” And so thumbs pointed west, they took to the road.
Once in Vancouver, he played when and wherever he could. “Most were stripper bars,” he says, “but it was a great experience. Some of the emcees were really good, and I picked up stuff from them.”
When he returned home for a visit some two years later, his dad sat him down for a “man-to-man” talk. “He had his Canadian Club, and he bought me a bottle of vodka, and he said, ‘Okay son, what are you going to be when you grow up?’ And I told him. And he said, ‘Kid, you’re a dreamer.’ I didn’t realize that he was a frustrated musician. He had played in bands in the 1940s, but with seven kids, he had to pack it in so he could support us. Later he became a fan, and was very supportive.”
Back in Vancouver, things were jumping. “All of the big bands were coming through, and I went to see as many of them as I could. When I was seventeen I went to see John Lee Hooker. I had worked a 24-hour shift on the docks, and I had my ticket to see him at the Commodore Ballroom. The lights were low, and I was starting to fall asleep in my chair when he came on stage and proceeded to take me and twelve hundred other people to another place. I couldn’t believe how much fire and power and energy the blues had.
That’s when I realized how it can move an audience. When you see the performer or band, and they’ve got the audience ― that’s the moment we all live for.” Years later, he would play with Hooker on five different occasions ― the highlight, he says, of his career.
Over the next five years, Doucette continued to perform around the city, supplementing his income at a local lumber mill. Things were rockin’ along until one April day in 1977, when everything changed with the flick of a switch, and Doucette literally got the shock of his life.
He says he remembers walking into a paint shed, where, unbeknownst to him, there was a buildup of fumes on the ceiling. “When I flicked the switch on it ignited the fumes, and the building blew up. I was the only one in it at the time. It changed my life.”
Two months later he awoke from a coma to find himself in the burn ward of a Vancouver hospital, fifty percent of his body covered in third-degree burns. He would spend another four months in the hospital healing from the ravages of those burns, and putting in some hard time learning to walk again, after lying still for so long. The fact that he had beaten the odds and survived earned him the nickname Sherman Tank.
The name stuck, but the accident had changed him. “I lost my girlfriend, because I wasn’t the same guy,” he says, adding, “Music saved me.
“As soon as I got out of the hospital my musician friends started calling to have me sit in with them, and then they hired me. And I went back to playing music. And every time I got sidetracked ― too much fun at a party ― I’d say, ‘I just want to play music. I’ve done my share of partying; it’s business now.’ I was twenty-three.”
After a short stint with the Water hole All-Stars he joined the Grand Slam Blues Band, which was heavily into soul music. Playing along with the horn players, he says he wanted to pick their brains and learn from them. “I didn’t want to just play the harmonica like everyone else. You live to get that tone, but once you get it, you try to get your own style.”
Back on his feet, he formed his own band (Incognito), sharing the stage with the likes of Albert Collins, Sunnyland Slim, and Pinetop Perkins before moving on in 1999. “My wife and I had a daughter, and she turned five, and the big city was just too scary,” he explains. “My wife’s parents lived five minutes east in Kelowna, a way better place to raise our daughter.”
Once there, he formed a band that would become known as Sherman Doucette and his Tankful of Blues. “We play upbeat music,” he says, “Sonny Terry and all the older blues stuff, and keep ’em dancin’.”
Doucette also works as a studio musician, backing artists and performing on commercials for the likes of Labatt Beer, McDonalds and Growers Cider. He’s also appeared on the CBC and CTV and hosted a number of Vancouver’s blues rooms.
When he’s not performing, he’s collecting, amassing a staggering number of antique harmonicas. The collection took root in the early 1980s, when a fellow musician gave him what would become the first of many. “He had a beautiful bass harmonica that was made in 1910,” he recalls, “And he gave it to me. And I was just blown away.” Seven hundred diatonics, chromatics, crank and “weird shaped” harmonicas later, along with a dazzling display of vintage cases and displays, Doucette is short on room, but long on enthusiasm. To say that he’s got rhythm is an understatement.
To learn more about Sherman Doucette, go to shermandoucette.com