Hezakiah Proctor Li'l Andy

Meet Hezekiah Procter, from the mind of Montreal country music king Li’l Andy

“I wanted him to have all the elements that we think of as necessary for a proper and authentic country singer. Like a childhood in poverty, perhaps some kind of disfiguring accident, an apprenticeship in a medicine show or early radio and then becoming a star on records.”

The musician known as “Hezekiah Fortescue Procter” was an obscure jazz-folk, old-time evangelical singer from the mid-1920s who rose to prominence by performing in medicine shows in the American Southwest before the Great Depression. 

He was also a key figure in the Gastonia, North Carolina worker labour strikes — the only strikes ever in American history that were actually started by the Communist Party — and by 1929, he disappeared without a trace, no doubt on the lam from the North Carolina police department. Procter ushered in a new era of music and mystery surrounding celebrity musicians.

His story is one of intrigue; about a talented, self-righteous and destructive man whose recordings were lost in the annals of history. He was a hustler, a man who did what he had to in order to survive a harsh reality — perhaps even murder.

His story is up there with those of country stars like Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb — the only difference being that Hezekiah never really existed. 

Yes, Hezekiah Procter is the figment of someone’s imagination, specifically the imagination of Montreal’s acclaimed country singer-songwriter Andrew McClelland — known in the music world as Li’l Andy. For his upcoming project, a mulit-faceted entity 10 years in the making, McClelland pulled out all of his resourceful creativity. He invented the legend of Hezekiah Procter (down to his mannerisms and way of speech), his biography (a 150-page printed experimental fiction novella written by McClelland himself), found the right period style band and most notably, recorded a double LP — a 29-song box set called The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter (1925–1930).

Hezekiah Procter, by Li'l Andy
Hezekiah Procter, by Li’l Andy

McClelland has been a follower of North American roots music since childhood. He’s read a number of old music biographies, liner notes and newspaper clippings, and is the kind of guy who can throw out a random music history fact — like the true story about Jaybird Coleman having members of the Ku Klux Klan as his booking agents in the 1930s to get into venues restricted for Black artists — like it’s a common topic of discussion. But it never comes off as pretentious, rather coming from a place of pure fascianation and passion.

He recalls that this passion started after buying the Robert Johnson box set on a Boxing Day afternoon when he was 13. The set contained a pile of liner notes about the fascinating, almost mythological stories about the blues singer. McClelland was enthralled and driven to collect these records and box sets of long dead blues and country musicians, now realizing it sowed the seeds for Hezekiah Procter.

“I noticed how I would become obsessed with the singer more than the songs. And so it was like I was creating this kind of uber roots, uber jazz country, old-time musician in my brain, and that’s how this character of Hezekiah Procter kind of came about,” McClelland says as he lights a cigarette on a vintage couch in his grand loft music studio.

“I wanted him to have all the elements that we think of as necessary for a proper and authentic country singer. Like a childhood in poverty, perhaps some kind of disfiguring accident, an apprenticeship in a medicine show or early radio and then becoming a star on records before they even knew that a recording star could be something that existed.”

McClellan wanted the story and recordings of Hezekiah to feel like real long-lost musical artifacts. This is why he would not settle for anything but authentic recording gear that sounded like the period. Each song needed to have that nostalgic hiss synonymous with the time. Even tape recording (used in the ‘50s, but primarily the ‘60s) felt too modern. He needed to go farther back in time. He went to the Smithsonian Museum and spoke with historians, he travelled to England to speak with people recording old 78 rpm records. Still, nothing felt quite right for the Hezekiah project.

As he lamented his woes to his drummer, Ben Caissie, one day, Ben said “Oh, you should use a wire recorder.”

“Ben is just one of those guys who seems to live in a different era and knows things most people don’t,” McClelland says with a smile. “He said, ‘It could work well because it’s steel wire and not tape. Tape degrades.”

Unfortunately, Ben did not have a wire recorder but he put out a Kijiji ad for one throughout Quebec and Ontario. About a year later, a man from Quebec City answered the ad and said he had one for sale. Ben drove out that same day and arrived at a church. It turns out the man was a caretaker of a Catholic Cathedral, and during the ‘30s and ‘40s, the congregation and priests used a Chicago-Webster wire recorder to record every sermon for their parishioners. Ben bought the recorder immediately, and as a bonus, went home with a bunch of reels of recording wire.

“So that’s what we recorded the album over, these sermons from a Quebec City congregation,” McClelland laughs while tuning an old acoustic guitar. “So when Ben would be queuing up a tape and we’d be trying to get some space between the songs, there would be recordings of church stuff in Latin. It was bizarre.” 

But before they recorded what you hear on the album, McClelland spent years experimenting, deciding what sounded best in terms of his voice.

“When I sang in my regular voice, it would sound terrible, but when I sang in a higher, more old-timey, hammy register it sounded great,” he says. “There was just some kind of marriage in between those frequencies, the higher pitched frequencies and the machine.”

It’s not an easy task to just unlearn your modern country singing style you’ve cultivated for the last decade, but McClelland went even farther than that with his guitar playing. He found that he had to play his guitar with a straight strumming style, with next to no flourish or riffery.

“I also had to learn the weird way they would fuck with time signatures and leave beats out of time back then, on top of learning how to sing that way,” McClelland says. “Basically, I had to re-learn how to play music and be an old timey musician.”

But he wasn’t alone. Ben acted as the recording engineer for the project and McClelland essentially joined a band called Sheesham, Lotus ‘n Son — a group revered in the 2000s Canadian folk scene for their old-time roots music. For the Hezekiah project, they are referred to as the Hash-House Serenaders. 

“They are the best. They have done their research and studied old time styles in a way that I could never even hope to,” McClelland says. “The thing is, they all play different instruments. The sousaphone player does a few fiddle solos on this record. They’re all multi-instrumentalists.” 

Along with his band, McClelland plays the character of Hezekiah Procter right down to his Southern drawl and speech. 

“When we would be recording, Sam, the banjo player, would say, ‘Are you Hezekiah now? When you sang that note, is that Hezekiah?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, you’re right, I have to always be him.’ So we kind of ended up just joking around in character all the time. It’s acting and basically performance art.”

During the performance at Sala Rossa on April 21, McClelland will be playing double duty as Hezekiah Procter and the Hash-House Serenaders open for Li’l Andy. The Hezekiah set will feel like a travelling old-school medicine show.

“So when I address the crowd, I will be Hezekiah and I’m going to do it as Hezekiah playing a show in 2022. So he’s going to have a look at how strange the world is now,” McClelland says. “In between songs, I’ll be addressing the crowd and really hamming it up with jokes. I’m going to have a lot of fun with it.” 

The type of performance McClelland is planning ties into the very essence of a 1920s-30s recording artist. Back then, you were expected to be, yes, a musician, but also a comedian and an overall entertainer.

“And then if you were in a medicine show, you were expected to sell a tonic or an elixir to people who were suspicious of doctors,” he says.

There most likely won’t be a show like this in Montreal for some time. So come for the show and stay for the snake oil. ■

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

The Complete Recordings of Hezekiah Procter launch, with a performance by Li’l Andy and openers Hezekiah Procter and the Hash-House Serenaders, takes place at la Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent) on April 21, 8:30 p.m., $17.85. For more on Hezekiah Procter, please visit Li’l Andy’s website.

For more music coverage, please visit the Music section.