Co-founder, guitarist, vocalist and song-writer of the rock-combo band 54-40, Neil Osborne thought he might become a teacher or a music producer, but never a musician. Born in Regina, he currently lives in Victoria, but has lived coast to coast across Canada, including Ottawa.
In 1973, he attended Henry Munro Middle School in Ottawa’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, along with actor Tom Cruise and Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. The school lays claim to many notables and teacher Brad Strong of Henry Munro MS says, “It is hard to believe that one school has had so many famous alumni including Neil Osborne, Bryan Adams, Tom Cruise, Tom Green, Glenroy Gilbert, Corey Cowick, Jordan Tannahill and Elizabeth Manley, all of whom have gone on to excel in remarkable and diverse fields.”
Neil’s family moved to Vancouver a few years later where he became interested in music. He met Brad Merritt in high school, and after graduating went to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. Brad persuaded Neil to quit after just six months and return to Vancouver to be part of the post-punk scene, inspired by British bands like The Clash and The Cure.
In 1981 Neil and Brad launched their own band at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret in East Vancouver. History buff Brad named the band after an 1844 campaign slogan “54-40 or Fight", created by an American Democratic expansionist candidate who wanted to remove control and joint occupancy of a portion of the U.S./Canada border from Great Britain. It would have made all of present-day B.C. part of the U.S.
Their music evolved from grunge, alternative rock, folk, pop and 60s rock and roll, and they debuted their first album Set the Fire in 1984. In the mid-90s their song I Go Blind was covered by Hootie & The Blowfish, and was later featured on the first soundtrack of the popular television show Friends.
Royalties enabled the band to build their own recording studio in Vancouver. In 2017, thirteen albums and forty years later, the band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at both the 17th Annual Independent Music Awards (The Indies) and the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards.
Intuitive and emotive song writing that everyone can relate to is the most important thing for Neil. He credits his wife Geanine Robey for contributing to the band's accomplishments by spending time on the road with them. He's also grateful for the trustworthy company he has kept, including band-mates Brad Merritt, Matt Johnson and Dave Genn. All have played essential roles in shaping the pure quality of their musical journey. Neil has also produced and recorded an album with his daughter Kandle, stressing the importance of being a musician for the right reasons.
What was your big break? In the early 1980s we were doing it all and paid for it ourselves. We had the gumption to write songs and make our first album on our own. We drove down the coast to Los Angeles several times, and record labels in the U.S. started to notice us. We signed with Warner Brothers, which wasn’t the greatest situation in the end, but it was what launched us.
How great is it seeing the reaction of your fans? We feel good because somehow, some way we created a song and got it out there, and it became a hit. A hit song hits people! We are then stewards and caretakers of the song and ensure it is delivered properly. When people come to our shows, many are seeing us live for the first time and they tell us after that they knew every one of the songs we played, but did not know that it was our band who originally wrote them.
Which venues do you enjoy performing at? Every Thanksgiving weekend we play the legendary Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver and are already sold out for this October. In Toronto it is the Horseshoe Tavern. On Lake Muskoka it is the dance hall The KEE to Bala. These are all annual events. We have played at Bluesfest and Barrymore's Music Hall in Ottawa. Our fans like the radio hits that we always play and start singing as soon as we start. I Go Blind and Ocean Pearl are popular favorites.
Is the best yet to come? I’m working on a double-album solo project, which I have never done. I am looking forward to playing more shows with my daughter Kandle. The band is rallying up for our summer shows. We are going to record another album to celebrate our 40th anniversary. It is an amazing feeling to create music that inspires, stands the test of time and touches so many.