Joseph Kim Mitchell, guitarist, singer, songwriter, broadcaster (born 10 July 1952 in Sarnia, Ontario). A talented, imaginative rock guitarist and a pop songwriter of considerable craft, Kim Mitchell has been a fixture on the Canadian music scene since the mid-1970s. He began as the manic front man of the quirky, progressive hard rock band Max Webster, and gained prominence as a solo artist in the 1980s with radio-friendly rock anthems such as “Go for Soda,” “Patio Lanterns” and “Rock N Roll Duty.” He later established himself as a popular radio personality and a mainstay on the summer festival circuit. He has sold more than 1.5 million records in Canada, earned 17 Juno nominations and won three Juno Awards. He was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2020.
Kim Mitchell performs at Bullen Park in Esquimalt, British Columbia, 28 August 2012.
Early Years & Max Webster
Mitchell grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, and began playing in bands while he was in high school. At age 17 he moved to Toronto, where he played in bar bands and studied guitar under the renowned Tony Bradan.
After touring briefly in Greece, Mitchell returned to Toronto and formed a band with Sarnia keyboardist Terry Watkinson, bassist Mike Tilka and drummer Paul Kersey. They were joined by an unofficial fifth member, the poet Pye Dubois, who served as the band’s chief lyricist. (Mitchell has always written most of his own music, but has said, “I hate writing lyrics...I speak through my six strings.”) Inspired by the idea of using a person's name, like Jethro Tull, and by a song called “Webster,” which Tilka had recorded with his previous band, they took the name Max Webster.
Max Webster’s eclectic blend of energetic bravado and Zappa-esque eccentricities made them one of the most original and popular Canadian rock groups of the 1970s. They also earned an international cult following. Their first three albums — Max Webster (1976), High Class in Borrowed Shoes (1977) and Mutiny Up My Sleeve (1978) — were each certified gold in Canada for sales of more than 50,000 copies.
The band built a reputation for its magnetic live performances, due in no small part to Mitchell’s bizarre, often androgynous attire and hyperactive onstage antics. They opened for Rush on their 1977 tour and seemed poised for a major breakthrough when their 1979 album A Million Vacations went platinum in Canada and their single “Paradise Skies” reached No. 43 on the UK singles chart. They enjoyed a successful tour of the UK and Europe in 1979, and their live album, Live Magnetic Air (1979), achieved gold status back home. However, lack of promotion and poor representation from their label, mixed with the stress of touring, took its toll on the band. Watkinson and bassist Dave Myles, who had replaced Tilka prior to Mutiny Up My Sleeve, left in 1980. Mitchell dissolved Max Webster in 1981.
In collaboration with Dubois, Mitchell wrote such popular Max Webster songs as “Hangover,” “High Class in Borrowed Shoes,” “Diamonds, Diamonds,” and “Paradise Skies.” A greatest hits compilation, The Best of Max Webster, was released in 1989. The band’s first three albums were re-released in England by Rock Candy Music in 2011 and 2012.
Solo Career: 1982–99
After a brief period spent working as a session guitarist and producer, Mitchell accepted an offer from Alert Records to release a solo album. He formed a band that included the singer and multi-instrumentalist Peter Fredette (rhythm guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums). Pye Dubois continued as Mitchell’s lyricist, bringing an increasingly wistful edge.
Mitchell’s solo career saw him abandon the quirky eccentricities of Max Webster and embrace a pop rock sound coloured by garage rock flourishes. Still, Mitchell retained his goofy, almost clown-like image, typified by a scruffy face framed by long hanks of hair and topped with an Ontario Provincial Police cap. His more mainstream sound resulted in broadened success. His eponymous 1982 EP earned him a Juno Award for most promising male vocalist. His first LP, Akimbo Alogo (1984) — which included the hit singles “Go for Soda,” “All We Are” and “Lager and Ale” — sold more than 100,000 copies. “Go for Soda” gained considerable exposure in the United States, where it was used in PSAs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and reached No. 12 on the Billboard rock chart.
Mitchell then hit a career peak with Shakin' Like a Human Being (1986), which included the popular singles “Alana Loves Me,” “Patio Lanterns,” “That’s the Hold” and “Easy to Tame.” The album sold more than 300,000 copies and received
the 1987 Juno Award for Album of the Year. He followed that success with Rockland (1989), which earned him the 1990 Juno Award for Male Vocalist of the Year. The record went double platinum in Canada on the strength of the
autobiographical “Rock N Roll Duty,” and the lesser hits “Rocklandwonderland” and “Expedition Sailor.” The album I Am a Wild Party (Live) captured the raucous energy of Mitchell’s popular live shows, sold more than 100,000 copies and
had a hit single with its title track.
Mitchell’s career experienced dry spells after his 1980s heyday. The recording of Rockland created a rift between Mitchell and Dubois when Mitchell, for the first time, decided to not include Dubois in the recording process. Mitchell worked with lyricists Jim Chevalier and Andy Curran on Aural Fixations (1992), which achieved gold status but had no hit singles. He then reteamed with Dubois on Itch (1994), which peaked at No. 55 on the Canadian charts — the worst commercial response to any of his albums until Kimosabe (1999), which did not chart at all. His Greatest Hits compilation went platinum in 1995, and that year he began touring with a reformed Max Webster, who had reunited briefly for a performance at the 1990 Toronto Music Awards.
Retirement and Radio
Mitchell retired from recording in 2001 and for a time wrote commercial jingles. From August 2004 to August 2015, he broadcast for Toronto rock radio station Q107 (CILQ-FM) as its afternoon drive-time DJ. He also recorded dozens of instructional clips, made available on the radio station’s website, titled “Kim Mitchell’s Guitar Lessons.” In 2007, he came out of retirement to record Ain't Life Amazing; he also opened for Def Leppard at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto and undertook a cross-country tour. He suffered a heart attack in January 2016, but continues to perform regularly in Canada, where he has been especially popular on the summer concert circuit. He was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2020.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.