Last Updated: October 21, 2014
Prism began as an amalgamation of two Vancouver bands. In the late 1960s, “Seeds of Time” formed the basis for what would become the Prism lineup, while other key players who shaped Prism came from the early ’70s Vancouver jazz band “Sunshyne”, yielding trumpeter-producer Bruce Fairbairn plus songwriter & multi-instrumentalist Jim Vallance.
The Seeds of Time’s bad-boy image was evinced in a regional hit single on the Coast label, “My Home Town” in 1969, with a follow-up single “Cryin’ the Blues” scoring modest success in an infant Canadian music market. Ten years later bandmates Lindsay Mitchell, John Hall, Al Harlow and Rocket Norton would find themselves together again, riding international charts as Prism.
But the discovery of vocalist Ron Tabak, recruited from the local scene for a recording session with Fairbairn, Mitchell and Vallance in July 1975 was the magic ingredient for the synergy that became Prism. Ron’s voice had a unique brilliance and stunning high range. While that first session was a loose experiment in jazz, R&B and rock, one Jim Vallance song, “Open Soul Surgery” stood above the rest, becoming the template for the future Prism style, and vehicle for Tabak’s vocal range.
The studio personnel were a cross-section of the Vancouver music community at the time:
- Ron Tabak – Lead vocals
- Lindsay Mitchell – Lead guitar, vocals
- Tom Lavin – Rhythm guitar, vocals (later forming Powder Blues Band)
- John Hall – Keyboards
- Ab Bryant – Bass (soon to join Chilliwack and Headpins)
- Rodney Higgs, aka Jim Vallance – Drums, keyboards (moving to global success, songwriting with Bryan Adams, then solo, writing hits for Aerosmith, Rod Stewart and others)
- Bruce Fairbairn – Horns (subsequently producing Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Yes and others)
- Tom Keenlyside – Horns (moving to Powder Blues and solo career)
Displaying the hard-rock leanings of Tabak and Mitchell, the “Open Soul” recording led to a showcase gig as “Under Construction” at Vancouver nightspot The Body Shop, where several record company representatives bid for the band. With Fairbairn and BTO manager Bruce Allen handling negotiations, a contract was signed with GRT Records. The group deliberated over a band name until the 1977 self-titled album “Prism” was chosen to reflect their musical influences of blues, rock and R&B.
At the time, Jim Vallance was attending the University of BC, not willing to risk his musical reputation in the event the Prism project failed. He assumed the pseudonym “Rodney Higgs”, on his writing credits for Prism anthems “Spaceship Superstar”, “Take Me to the Kaptin” and “It’s Over”, all Billboard chart singles from the album. The resulting success suggests Jim had little to worry about. Following a concert tour of the US and Canada, Vallance decided against road work, replaced by ex-Seeds of Time drummer Rocket Norton in September 1977.
Around the same time, the departures of Ab Bryant and Tom Lavin led Prism to recruit final Seeds of Time alumnus Al Harlow, fronting his own band at the time. As both guitarist and now bassist, Harlow brought songwriting and outgoing flair to the quintet as they entered the studio in January 1978 to record their second album, “See Forever Eyes”. The album was a platinum seller, spawning several singles and furthering the band’s US touring cache. Harlow’s compositions “Take Me Away” and “Flying” were chart successes, along with Hall & Mitchell’s title track. “Flying” was a US Top 10 radio spin that year.
An anomaly was a live US album, “Live Tonight” recorded at Detroit’s Royal Oak Theatre in July ’78, intended for US radio broadcast on the Superstar Network. Ariola America, the band’s US label at the time, issued a limited press run on blue vinyl, still traded and bootlegged today on eBay. The band became a force onstage with extensive tours of the US and Canada.
The “definitive” Prism lineup from 1978-1981:
- Ron Tabak – Lead vocals
- Lindsay Mitchell – Lead guitar, vocals
- Al Harlow – Slide guitar, vocals, bass
- John Hall – Keyboards, vocals
- Rocket Norton – Drums
1979 saw Prism making expanded musical statements with the “Armageddon” album and tour. Lindsay Mitchell conceived the title song during August 1978 in Memphis, where Prism performed on the first anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. With city police on strike, the National Guard controlled the Presley hysteria. As Prism flew over Graceland by helicopter with crowds swarming Elvis’ shrine below, Armageddon’s lyrics took on an apocalyptic tone. Also noteworthy were contributions by 19-year-old Vancouver songwriter Bryan Adams, in “You Walked Away Again” and “Jealousy”, reworked on a later Adams album. Prism manager Bruce Allen quickly signed the burgeoning star.
Armageddon soon earned multi-platinum status. But despite the success of both Prism and label mates such as Dan Hill, executive problems at GRT resulted in the label going into receivership in 1980. Capitol EMI signed Prism to one of the largest worldwide contracts of the era, as Armageddon’s sales exceeded a million. “Night to Remember” took the SOCAN Song of the Year award, while the album provided epic material for Prism’s live show. One critic described the band onstage as “the most bombastic entrance since Cleopatra’s.”
Prism’s arena-scale touring included a record-breaking crowd of 18,000 at Ontario Place in Toronto, with a return to Maple Leaf Gardens; 120,000 at the Mosport Canada Jam, and a general habit of setting attendance records in major Canadian arenas. Their US tours with major acts of the day were punctuated by breakout headline shows in Atlanta, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles.
In 1980 the band returned to the studio for a fourth album, “Young and Restless”, with Mitchell and Harlow as writing partners. That year saw Prism win Juno Awards for Group of the Year, the title track “Young and Restless” nominated in the Song category, while Fairbairn took Producer of the Year for his work on Armageddon.
But internal creative battles began to fracture the group. A falling out between Ron Tabak and Mitchell became a flashpoint for all of the band’s tensions. Tabak was fired in late 1980, with John Hall departing soon after. The last recording featuring the two was the single “Cover Girl”, recorded after the death of Vancouver starlet Dorothy Stratton, who had presented platinum awards to the band the previous year. The song was a bonus track for the greatest hits album “All the Best From Prism”, conspicuous in a switch of producers. Bruce Fairbairn quit the studio team following Young & Restless, replaced by Los Angeles-based John Carter, his track record with Tina Turner and Sammy Hagar deemed a good fit for Prism.
In June 1981, with hastily recruited vocalist Henry Small, Prism entered Sunset Sound in Hollywood to record “Small Change”. Actually a major change from the Tabak vocal sound, the album nevertheless had merits, including standout singles “Don’t Let Him Know” and “Rain”. The former won writers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance Japan’s prestigious Yamaha Award for Song of The Year, with the duo performing the song on the Japanese TV ceremony.
But Prism fans could not accept the change in vocalists; indeed Small himself admitted his aspirations lay in a solo career, with Prism a mere vehicle to that end. The original members of Prism disbanded in 1982, with Small, Prism’s management and Capitol recording “Beat Street”, essentially a solo album under the band name. Prism fans weren’t buying, and the project soon dissolved.
In 1984, the five original members of Prism began to put the pieces back together, discussing a reunion, with Ron Tabak refreshed for his return, renewed in his Christian faith. Then disaster struck on Christmas Eve, 1984. Tabak was cycling across Vancouver to visit bandmate Al Harlow. The two had planned to spend Christmas together, with Harlow driving twenty-six kilometres on the afternoon of December 24th to pick up Tabak and his luggage. He instead insisted on bicycling to Harlow’s Kitsilano apartment as part of his fitness activity. A passing car brushed Ron’s bicycle, causing him to fall, striking his head on the pavement at about 8:PM. He was brought to Burnaby General Hospital by ambulance and told there were no injuries. In fact pressure from an anneurism in his brain was causing Tabak to behave erratically, and police attending the ER arrested him. After several hours in a jail cell, proper diagnosis and a transfer to Vancouver General Hospital for emergency surgery, it was too late. Early Christmas Day, Tabak’s mother was advised that her son’s condition was grave: A scan revealed a blood clot on the right side of his brain, as neurosurgeons prepared to operate. Ron did not regain consciousness and died December 26, 1984.
With the death of their lead vocalist, Prism remained silent until 1988 when Norton, Harlow and Mitchell entered the studio with singer Darcy Deutsch and keyboardist Andy Lorimer to record a new single, “Good to be Back”. The track, co-written by Harlow, Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams, outlines the history of the band including a lyrical tribute to the late Ron Tabak. The strength of the single spawned the 1993 album “Jericho”, a critical success, curious for its pastiche of writers. Rick Springfield and Randy Bachman song credits stood alongside Vallance, Harlow and Mitchell compositions. The album remains a singular statement of Prism’s ’90s output.
The band toured steadily, attracting first-class sidemen along the way. At various times Darrell Mayes and Johnny Ferreira of Colin James’ band, among others worked in Prism. The untimely death of Bruce Fairbairn in May 1999 gave pause to not only mourn a comrade on the long road traveled, but also to salute Bruce’s stellar achievements as producer for AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and others.
Over time Norton, Deutsch and Mitchell departed, Rocket moving to TV and stage musical production, Mitchell touring the blues circuit in Europe while a music journalist, John Hall remaining active as a pianist in Vancouver, breeding purebred Afghan hounds.
Meantime Harlow kept the flame. Always the high-harmony voice, in 2003 Harlow took over lead vocals, emerging again as showman. The 2008 album “Big Black Sky” re-established Prism’s creative force.
With decades-long membership of Gary Grace on drums, keyboardist Marc Gladstone and bassist Tad Goddard, Prism tours regularly, headlining festivals, sports arenas and theatres. The road is long, but Prism continues to rock with energy that suggests much more to come.