Obituary: Ottawa’s John Alexander Pulkkinen went from would


In the mid-1970s, the musicians who made up the Ottawa rock band Octavian waited impatiently for the break that would catapult them onto the world stage.

Lead singer John Alexander Pulkkinen quit his job as an elementary school teacher in 1974 to devote himself, full-time, to the band’s quest. Others in the band did the same.

Octavian was then Ottawa’s top pop rock group, and in October 1975 they released their first album,

Simple Kinda People

. It produced a single,

Good Feeling to Know

, that broke into top-10 charts in some Canadian markets.

With flowing black hair and a full moustache, Pulkkinen was the band’s frontman and sometimes business manager.

“Other musicians around Ottawa ask us why we’re making it,” Pulkkinen told an interviewer after that album’s release. “All I can say is we’ve worked hard and stayed poor so we can invest our money back in the band.”

Despite the hard work, a breakthrough remained elusive. Octavian’s fate was ultimately decided by a highway accident in May 1979, when the band’s truck driver fell asleep at the wheel. Although no one was seriously injured, instruments and equipment were scattered all over Highway 7 and a nearby swamp.

Like some other members of the band, Pulkkinen took it as a sign. He quit the band, started a management firm and spent the rest of his life as a music industry executive, famously helping to launch the career of fellow Ottawan Alanis Morissette.

Pulkkinen died earlier this month at his home in Redondo Beach, Calif. He was 75.

“He was a real people person,” said his older brother, Walter, of Ottawa. “He could walk into a room with 100 people and talk with everybody.”

Said former Octavian bandmate Warren Barbour of Ottawa: “John was confident and very likeable: You wanted to be near John; you wanted to be John.”

John Pulkkinen was born on Sept. 4, 1947, and raised in Ottawa’s Elmvale Acres neighbourhood. His father was a surveyor with the federal government’s Polar Continental Shelf Program.

Pulkkinen went to Hillcrest High School and was an accomplished athlete. A football player, gymnast and former ballet dancer, he performed in Montreal with the Bolshoi Ballet along with his sister, Victoria, in December 1962.

The purchase of his first Beatles album changed his life. “The Beatles inspired him,” said Walter, 78.

John learned guitar and joined a band, Albatross, as lead singer. In early 1973, his singing caught the attention of Barbour and his Octavian bandmates as they searched for a new lead vocalist who could help them secure a record deal.

“He had charisma, worked really well with the audience, and could hit the high notes we were looking for,” remembered Barbour, who had founded Octavian — it was originally called Octavius — in 1969. (The band altered its name when they saw it misspelled on a concert poster and liked it better.)

During the daytime, Pulkkinen taught middle school classes at Pinecrest Public School and in the evenings poured himself into Octavian’s gigs at places like the Chaudière Club and the Gatineau Club.

“I can’t say the band never affected my teaching,” Pulkinnen once told an interviewer. “There were some mornings when I’d get in at three or four o’clock and have to get up at seven to drive to school. I felt like saying, ‘Copy out the dictionary a few times and leave me alone.’”

He quit teaching when the band interfered too much with his classroom work. Octavian became a mainstay of the city’s high school and university scenes. They also performed sold-out stadium shows at Ontario Place and the Central Canadian Exhibition and went on a cross-country tour with singer Tanya Tucker.

Pulkkinen often travelled to Los Angeles to shop the band’s demo tapes with music industry executives, but a second album never materialized.

“We came really close, but we never quite got there,” Barbour said.

After the band fell apart, Pulkkinen launched a new career as a recording artist manager. He was soon hired by MCA Records to head the firm’s artists and repertoire division in Canada.

Responsible for identifying new talent, he met with one potential recruit in Ottawa, musician Leslie Howe of the band One to One. During that visit, Howe asked Pulkkinen to listen to a tape by a 14-year-old he was working with named Alanis Morissette.

Pulkkinen was intrigued by the young singer’s accomplished sound and signed her to a deal with MCA Records, which produced her first two albums. He later introduced her to Glen Ballard, an acclaimed songwriter and producer in Los Angeles.

Their collaboration led to Morissette’s 1995 breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, which sold more than 30 million copies and made Morissette an international superstar.

Ballard thanked Pulkkinen when he accepted the Grammy award

with Morissette for album of the year in 1996.

“Obviously, it’s the highlight of my career because of how successful Jagged Little Pill was,” Pulkkinen told the Ottawa Citizen in a 2021 interview. “But I’m proud of being the lead singer of Octavian; I’m proud of what I contributed to the Canadian music scene.”

Pulkkinen also served as senior vice-president of membership for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He travelled widely and befriended artists such as the Beatles’ Ringo Starr, Aerosmith’s Stephen Tyler and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey.

Pulkkinen narrowly survived a violent attack in December 2020, when he was stabbed four times in a grocery store parking lot by an assailant who stole his Jeep Cherokee. His health deteriorated quickly in recent months, but the cause of death is not known.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2023

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