Christmas means many things to many people. I love getting together with family, the hustle and bustle of last minute shopping, but most of all the music.
Festivities leading up to Christmas are just not the same, without the crooning tunes from Irwin Smith. Many of you know Irwin, who has been singing and playing the piano for many years, and I always make a point of catching his Christmas concert, as well as seeing him in the Santa parade. I know Christmas is close when suddenly I hear a beautiful voice croon the words to ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.
Irwin is known to many because he has been entertaining in our town since he was fifteen, when he, along with a few friends, played the high school dances. Today his voice is just as mellow and the tunes he sings are just as enjoyable, whether it is on a hot summer day in Palmer Park, or on a wintry night during the Santa Parade in Port Perry or Sunderland.
“My younger sister and I attended a one room school house in Prospect, a small hamlet which is now only a memory.” He smiled, as he reminisced about those early days. Irwin is extremely talented. At five years old he began piano lessons, and quickly moved to grade eight piano. He also took singing lessons with Grace Hastings, and reached grade nine vocal in two years.
“My parents were very supportive of my music, which made it easy for me to practice.” During his days at Port Perry High, Irwin worked as a lifeguard at a Greenbank swimming pool. He also worked at the family farm, which along with the dairy cattle, had a thriving apple orchard. Irwin used to take apple cider to Locust Hill, near Markham.
Farming however, was the family business, and in those days a young man was expected to follow in the tradition. Irwin took agriculture at University, but never gave up his music. From the early concerts in the Prospect Country Church, when he was ten, to the Caesarea dance hall, where he played from midnight until three and was paid per customer. “Some days we would make five dollars,” he chuckled.
As a teenager in 1969, Irwin decided to branch away from the dance hall, and secured a gig with the Port Perry Curling Club to play at one of their bonspiel dances. The next day he received a call from Bill Beare, owner of the Chevrolet dealership located where the Royal Bank is now. Bill was part of the Curling group’s organizing committee.
Irwin was expecting praise for his concert, but instead received a tongue lashing. “If you want to play big events you have to turn the volume down, and sing what people want to hear, not what you want to play!” Bill told Irwin. Harsh words but probably the most influential criticism he had ever received. It led Irwin to change his style and to this day, he still asks what people want to hear before he begins to play.
Today, encouraged by his wife Alissa, a musician in her own right (Alissa is the music director for the Scugog Choral Society), Irwin plays nearly non-stop every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “When I see the smiles on the faces of my grandchildren, it makes it all worthwhile,” he beamed.
In 1978 Irwin and his father made radical changes to the Farm. They sold the cattle and concentrated on the orchard. That same year Irwin opened a successful music store on the corner of Queen and Simcoe (now the home of the Vision Clinic). When he sold it after 17 years, he had more than 1,000 instruments out on rental. “The store was great, but it took all my time. It really cut into my playing music and my parents were getting on in years, and the farm required attention.”
Irwin purchased grape vines from Niagara in 1992 and, after a year of studying wine making and reorganizing the farm, Irwin opened Ocala Winery, producing some fine vintages from the apples they grew. In 1995, instead of constructing a new building, he revamped the century old barn.
Today it is one of the most sought after venues for exhibitions, small parties and large meetings.
“In a good year we produced more than 45,000 bottles of wine with 25% being non-alcoholic. In 2008 we did 25,000, which was still quite respectable,” Irwin said. Most of the wine was sold privately to the many bus tours who make Ocala Orchards part of their treks.
In 2017 it was time for Irwin to move on. He and Alissa sold Ocala Wineries for several reasons, the most important being his health. His knees were giving him real problems, and he ended up having them replaced.
Irwin and Alissa moved into Port Perry, in the house his parents built in 1990. “It gives me a chance to play music as often as I like,” he said, smiling. He also tunes pianos, when time permits.
Irwin practices his piano and singing every day and also helps with the musical productions at SCS (Scugog Choral Society). He spent a dozen years on the Fairgrounds Board, and chaired the Scugog Hydro Commission. In 2000 Irwin chaired the Town Hall Theatre’s fundraising committee, to complete a major renovation.
He has over 250 songs committed to memory, and plays them with his piano or sound system as accompaniment. This Christmas, if you haven’t had a chance to hear Irwin play, make sure you do. His mom is turning 100 next spring and although she doesn’t want a party, Irwin has been hinting for people to drop by the Villa next March the 5th. Who knows, maybe Irwin will crank out a few tunes.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.