Mark Denington may be a renovator by trade but he is a blues guitarist at heart. The Beach contractor spends his days taping drywall and nailing trim, but at night he sits down with his six-string Martin guitar and sings the blues.
When Denington was growing up in Birch Cliff Heights, there was always music in the house.
“My dad was a musician,” said Denington. “He played guitar and drums, so I grew up listening to my dad play guitar and sing and entertain people.”
When he was a student at Birchmount Park Collegiate, Denington played guitar in rock bands.
Then life took over. He got married, had a son. He became a teacher in 1970. There was no time for making music. But he never abandoned it. In the mid 1970s, he enrolled in a guitar course at Centennial College. There, he learned how to fingerpick. After the course ended, Denington was keen to keep going. He found a private guitar teacher who introduced him to ‘acoustic blues,’ a genre of music played by African American musicians during the 1920s and 30s. Called ‘race records,’ the music was both recorded by and marketed to African Americans.
“I fell in love with the raw energy of it. That’s the best way I can describe it,” he said. “It’s something you have to hear and experience. I just gravitated to it.”
But over the next 30 years, life again got in the way and Denington had to put aside the guitar and pick up the drills and hammers. He got remarried, and he and his wife Mary bought a house in the Beach that was falling apart. He quit teaching because he wanted to devote more time to renovating. He had always loved to work with his hands and decided to try contracting as a new career. But his musical hobby was never far from hand.
“About five years ago I was jamming with some guys I knew, but it was more of a pop/rock thing,” said Denington. “But that got me playing my guitar again and realizing how much I enjoyed it. So I thought, I want to get back into my real love which is old blues.”
These days, Denington can be found on any given evening playing and singing at an open mic night in cafes throughout the city. Recently he performed at Winterfolk, a premier folk roots festival in Toronto.
Denington credits local folk music legend Mose Scarlett with giving him the confidence to perform in front of an audience.
As fate would have it, Denington one day opened the pages of Beach Metro News and saw Scarlett’s ad offering guitar lessons.
“I gave him a call and I was really unsure of the whole thing,” said Denington. “I talked to him a while and said, maybe I’m a little old for this. But he was more than happy to help me get back into learning the music I loved. The stuff I’d learned 30 years ago, I just picked it up 30 years later.”
Denington’s first solo performance was at the Bain Co-op’s Lazy Cat Cafe. He was nervous, but determined. He played tried-and-true tunes by James Taylor and Elton John, safe songs that he knew well and had been playing for years.
“I didn’t feel comfortable playing the blues yet,” he said.
But the performances went well and after a while, he was asked to be the feature performer. This gave him the impetus to seek out more open mics and begin to sing and play the music he loved most.
“My first high point was at Sarah’s (on Danforth Avenue) when Dan MacLean Jr., the host, asked me to be part of a showcase called The Best of Sarah’s Acoustic Afternoon at Winterfolk,” he said. He got to play three songs, all acoustic blues. He appeared again just recently at this year’s Winterfolk. And last fall, Denington took part in a fundraiser for the Friends of Glen Davis Ravine, held at the Delta Chelsea Hotel.
“It’s nice when you get an opportunity to play somewhere, like Winterfolk or the benefit, where there’s an audience who’s never heard you play before, because then you really get an honest reaction,” he said. “I feel I’ve been successful if I’ve entertained the audience.”
For their 25th wedding anniversary, Mary told him to go buy a new guitar. It was to replace a vintage 1928 Martin he had sold years before, when times were lean. His new guitar is now a cherished possession.
Denington is loving every minute of his musical hobby, but he has no plans to give up his day job.
“I’m not interested in whether I make money,” he said. “I’m doing it because I love the music.”