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Tom Carter

Showcasing Vancouver Through Art

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Story by Joe Leary
Photos supplied by Tom Carter

You’d be hard pressed to find someone with a greater knowledge of Vancouver than Tom Carter.

But rather than just knowing our city’s storied history, Tom has preserved it, most notably in the broader field of visual art and entertainment.

As a board member of the Vancouver Historical Society, Friends of the Vancouver City Archives, the Vancouver Police Museum and the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame, he is more than qualified on the subject.

Carter’s love of Vancouver’s rich past emanates from his earlier days in the recording industry.

I started my first studio in my twenties and engineered and produced many albums, he says.

I played piano and Hammond B3 organ on more CDs than I can count — in fact, at the start I’d play for free just to get sessions in the door.

I’ve always been really into older music and at one point I had a record collection of about 10,000 78 RPM records. Word got around the music scene and soon a lot of older musicians were booking our studio as we “got” what they were doing.

Over those years I got to know and even play with guys who had been professional musicians as far back as the 1930s. They told me all about what the scene in Vancouver was like back then, and I just fell in love with it.

Carter’s acclaimed artwork transports one back to a simpler time in Vancouver’s past.

It’s what I feature in my original paintings — Vancouver as people remember it, or as we wish we remembered it, full of live music.

For the uninitiated, Vancouver was viewed as a vital entertainment hot spot back in the day.

We were the ‘try-out’ town. Vancouver was known as the place to work out an act before taking it into the US. Our audiences were considered to be tough-but-fair and representative of audiences south of the border.

If the act didn’t work here, the producers and artists could rework and refine it until it was road-ready, and do so away from the mainstream American press.

It’s what I feature in my original paintings–Vancouver as people remember it, or as we wish we remembered it, full of live music.

In those days, artists would be booked into the city’s hottest nightclub venues: the Cave, Marco Polo and Isy’s Supper Club. Each would book the top recording and touring artists of the day for a week at a time as the city was entertainment-hungry.

Even as far back as the vaudeville era, musical acts would play Vancouver for a week.

Weeks ran Monday to Saturday; everything was closed Sunday so you could attend church rather than be morally corrupted by a variety show, he says.

In the vaudeville years Vancouver had theatres for all the major chains (more than most cities) as we were the terminus of all the railroads (east-west and north-south) and had a population that was very willing to part with their money for entertainment!

This is still true in the rock world today.


Tom Carter’s artistic creations are prized and acclaimed. Typically, he features Vancouver in the 1950s, a clear nod to his love for the city’s history.

The decade following the Second World War (1945-1955) is one of my favourite periods, he says.

It was such an exciting decade of transition and modernization—jazz turns to rock, radio to television and car design goes from running boards and six-window sedans to the sleek, chromed-up tanks of the mid-fi fties. We saw the fi rst of the West End towers and new infrastructure included our current Granville Street Bridge.

At the same time, Vancouver was still very much a working-class, industrial city, and while my generation doesn’t have a personal connection with it, it’s still one that we can identify with and recognize.

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