Throughout his 40 years in the hurly burly of the music business, Don Tarleton has retained his humanity and his passion for the Canadian music industry that he continues to shape

“I’ve always been fascinated by show business and the performing arts – even as a teenager.” This was the opening statement by Donald Tarleton, who has enjoyed success as Montreal’s – and indeed Canada’s – most successful impresario. It explains Donald’s passion for all aspects of the rock ‘n’ roll music business, which over time came to include other types of music and performing arts, including plays.
We had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours at one of Donald’s favourite restaurants, Anubis, located in on Mont Royal in The Plateau. “I like it so much that I named one of my record companies after it.”

It’s a few steps from the offices of Donald’s corporate headquarters, Dekeland Investments and his various enterprises which include; Evenements Donald K Donald Events, Aquarius Records, and Tacca Musique. In addition, Donald is also a partner in Last Gang Records, Indica Records, Arts and Craft International, and country label, Mensa Records. Donald drew an organizational chart of his companies that filled the back of an Anubis place mat.

Many of our readers in their younger years have attended high school dances organized by Donald K Donald; and then attended shows at The Forum promoted by Donald; still go to see the Rolling Stones performances at the Bell Centre and organized by Donald. Still more have become fans of Céline Dion, whose career has been directed in a major way by Donald. Many of our readers are active volunteers and do charitable work for The Lakeshore General, The Missing Children’s Network, Cancer research and so on…Donald has lent his name and tremendous organizing skill to all of these worthy charities. In a way, we have grown up and matured with Donald K Donald.

To gain a perspective on his amazing career and accomplishments, let’s go back to the beginning. “I was the teen editor for neighbourhood weeklies in Rosemere, and a contributor to a couple of music magazines. I worked in a youth club where we put on dances, and plays. I found that my organizational skills were my strength, and started moving in that direction.”

Donald continues, “It positioned me at a very early age – with the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll – to move into the music business.” Donald began providing DJ services at dances, and then also included bands performing – with him acting as the Master of Ceremonies. “I found that a lot of bands weren’t very well organized, so I realized that there was a niche for me to act as their agent – to look after their business affairs. This would also give me a reliable supply of bands to perform at the dances I was organizing in schools and church halls.”

And then this little business grew. “All of a sudden, bands started using big sound systems, lighting and staging. It was beyond what high school students on dance committees could take care of. I became a promoter, using larger venues that could accommodate these larger productions.”

“I won the contract to provide the entertainment for the outdoor shows at Expo ’67. This gave me an introduction to all the acts across Canada. Eventually, I took those same acts all across Canada.”

Keith Brown has been with Donald since the beginning (with the exception of a 5 year hiatus in the late 90s) and is now President of Aquarius Records. He has an interesting observation on Donald’s success. “In addition to his charismatic personality… Donald isn’t hampered by any kind of negativity. He has an unsinkable optimism. Brown continues; “In the early days, he could dish it out with all the New York agents. He’s a flamboyant character, perhaps more so that most of the acts he represents – even today”.

Donald’s wife Ann worked briefly for the fledgling company in the early days. “When I was engaged to Donald, he asked me to come in and help him out. There was just the three of us; Donald, Robert Ramaglia, and me as the secretary. After two weeks, I said I’d never do this again. I couldn’t believe the hectic pace they kept. Fortunately, the original secretary returned and I was able to go back to a normal working environment.”

Brown continues his description of his friend and employer. “Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, and the Rolling Stones work with promoters all over the world – but Donald K Donald is the one they remember! We started our record labels with a secret weapon that other traditional companies didn’t have – we had a ‘Donald’ in our pocket”.

Donald’s wife Ann commenting on the subject of entertaining the stars; “We certainly met some very interesting people. We’d go out for dinner with The Bee Gees, Elton John, and many of the artists he did concerts with. I know they appreciated this extra effort on Donald’s part to make them feel welcome and to show them more of Montreal than the inside of their hotel’s restaurant.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the rock ‘n’ roll industry was just beginning. Donald K Donald Productions promoted shows in Montreal, expanded to the Atlantic Provinces, and then exploded across Canada. “For 35 years, my niche was producing shows across Canada.” All the while, Donald was building his business relationships and depth of knowledge.

“My promotion business culminated with my relationship to Céline Dion, where I was involved with her career from the time she started taking English lessons, enabling her to record and perform to a larger audience.” Beginning in the early 90’s, Donald worked as Céline Dion’s tour producer and promoter from the she recorded her first English album. It didn’t get off to an easy start. At her first concert in Calgary the attendance was just 117 people. However, the rest – as they say – is history.

The close relationship between Céline, her manager husband Rene Angelil, and Donald would reap a different kind of dividend in 1996. In July 1996, The Saguenay region was ravaged by flooding, causing billions of dollars in damage and the virtual destruction of the local economy.

Donald went to work organizing a concert at the then Molson Centre, with Céline Dion as the headliner of a show of acts that read like a Who’s Who of Canadian talent. Aired on August 25th, the show was complemented with a nationally broadcast telethon – and the combined efforts raised over $4.3 million for the Canadian Red Cross and their relief efforts in the region. At the time, this was the largest single donation in the history of The Red Cross. “I was really proud to be a part of that event – when all of Canada came to the aid of the people of The Saguenay. It’s the highlight of my public service. I had a phenomenal sense of accomplishment.” Donald adds with a chuckle – “I also thought it was a pretty good TV show.”

Donald’s benevolent contributions didn’t go un-noticed. His contributions in time and expertise to various charitable and civic organizations such as The Lakeshore General, The Missing Children’s Network, and his massive efforts for the Saguenay flood victims have resulted in Donald Tarleton being presented with the Order of Canada. “Unfortunately, because I have such a high profile, I’m the number one candidate for a whole variety of fundraising efforts. All the causes are valid – but I have to be selective and careful with my time.” Donald continues; “The greatest thing I’ve learned about saying ‘No’ is that it enables me to say ‘Yes’ effectively to those causes that I can help.”

When it comes to his home life, Donald’s answer is always ‘yes’. His wife Ann says, “When he comes home, he calms down from his hectic work pace. When it comes to a family vacation or a reunion, he’s always there.” Continuing on the family theme; “Donald’s father initially preferred that he get a normal 9 to 5 job like his older brother. But he still supported him when Donald decided to go into business for himself. His dad was very proud of him.”

Donald sold his concert promotion business in the 90’s. “The business was centralizing in New York and L.A. – and at that point in our lives, my wife Ann and I decided that we didn’t want to relocate”.

With non-compete clause in the concert production business, Donald would retire. That lasted for an entire weekend. His wife Ann notes; “We went golfing on Saturday, drove up to the mountains on Sunday, and left for the office at 7am on Monday….”. Keith Brown observed; “Donald said to himself – ‘wait a second; I have a non-compete in the concert business, but I still own a record company’; and he immersed himself into making that business grow and flourish.”

On the recording side of the business, Donald is his usual enthusiastic self; “I’m a passionate Canadian, and passionate about the Canadian music industry. I’ve decided to focus on records. I want to leave a print – and helping artists with my 40 years of experience is a way to do that. I get as excited as the artist when their career develops.”

In addition to Aquarius Records for English artists and TACCA for francophone performers, Donald has two independent record labels, Indica and Last Gang Records. Then there are joint venture agreements with other labels where Donald’s companies provide infrastructure support (everything from distribution to accounting) and the all-important funds for investment.

Aquarius boss Keith Brown observes; “In the record business, people tend to think too much. Donald acts, trusting in his own instinct and his years of experience. The result is that we’ll be in the marketplace with an artist while a major label will still be in meetings.” He continues; “Donald has an interesting melange of people running the different labels and business units – each person bringing a personality to complement their talent.” Commenting on Donald’s mission to promote new talent, Brown confirms; “our labels are band-centric. We’ll stick with an artist as long as they believe in themselves and continue to work. Sometimes it looks almost impossible…but then all of a sudden it clicks! The so-called major labels just don’t work that way.”

While he’s a very high energy individual, Donald enjoys some leisure time. “I’m a golfer. I try to play on Friday afternoons, and on Saturday and Sunday. I have a home in Florida, and we try to get away for long weekends 5 or 6 times a year, plus an extended Christmas vacation.”

I asked if he had any regrets. “If I have a slight regret, it’s that I didn’t investigate the film and television business. However, I was so involved in the music business that I really didn’t have time to think about those other businesses. I guess I was having too much fun with rock ‘n’ roll!”

Moving forward, Donald says; “I’m going to try exceptionally hard to pull back. I can be a mentor, an overseer providing direction and vision. I need to learn how to get out of the way and let our talented people do their thing.”

In addition to his own career, Donald has brought a lot of people along with him and they have enjoyed their own success as performing artists or executives in one of the many enterprises under the DKD umbrella. Impresario, recording mogul, philanthropist, and humanitarian – a long way from the kid organizing dances in Rosemere to being an internationally recognized and respected force in the entertainment industry.

As his wife Ann noted at the end of our conversation; “Life has been good to him, and he likes to return some of that good fortune – to give back.” Bravo!

Author’s Note: After graduating from university, my first job was booking bands for Donald K Donald. I was involved in a serious car accident, and Donald called my mother almost daily to see how I was progressing. He made arrangements so that I could continue to work from home while I convalesced. I then went on to a 6 or 7 year stint as a rock ‘n’ roll performer. My band, Sam Slick was represented throughout that time by Donald K Donald. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, but I found that we are still friends after all those years.

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