Johnny Favourite: San Miguel is his kind of town
By Fredric Dannen
Photos by Sean Adrián Reagan
In 2011, Johnny Favourite, the vocalist and bandleader of Canada’s once most popular swing orchestra, had reached a turning point in his career. A year after releasing his aptly named Troubadour album on the Sony label, he had indeed become a wandering, seafaring minstrel, playing six shows a day, seven days a week, aboard cruise ships. That winter, back in Canada, his mother Kathleen was recovering from surgery, and Favourite took a sabbatical from his backbreaking schedule to look after her. Exhausted and dispirited, he says his greatest solace was logging onto the Internet to read about, and dream about, visiting, a place of which he’d so often heard: San Miguel de Allende.
Favourite’s wandering days appear to be over. This past January, one month after finally arriving in San Miguel, he became the proprietor, host, and a regular performer at La Noche Piano Bar, at 101 Mesones, near the corner of Hernández Macías. La Noche, which in a short time has become one of the hottest nightspots in town, is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 8pm to 2am. On any given night, Favourite, a Sinatra-style crooner, and his guest performers, sing a variety of tunes, largely from the canon of the Great American Songbook – from Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington to Kander & Ebb.
Born Stuart Duncan Hanlin in 1969, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Favourite says he was “doted upon by aunts and uncles, my mom and my grandparents. I was the master of the house.” His absent father had been ejected for habitual philandering when Favourite was a year old, and his early exposure to popular music came, in part, from his mother’s record collection. Though he attended Prince of Wales College, Favourite never formally studied music nor anticipated a career as a singer.
That all changed one night when Favourite was in his mid-twenties and living in Ottawa. Having just lost his savings in a bad business venture, Favourite went to a restaurant with a piano bar, proceeded to get good and drunk, and began singing. And, he recalls, “some woman asked me for my autograph.”
Favourite introduced himself to an Ottawa lounge entertainer who called himself Johnny Vegas and sang with Vegas’s band. (Favourite’s own stage name was partly taken in homage to Vegas, who became “a dear friend.”) Favourite soon moved to Halifax, and was invited to sing with a jazz combo made up of conservatory-trained musicians. They were an instant sensation, and Johnny Favourite’s Jazz Orchestra was born.
Recording contracts followed. In 1999, Universal released Holiday Romance, a best-selling jazz album of 15 tracks, including a whimsical swing version of a Led Zeppelin song, along with standards such as Them There Eyes. It won a Juno – Canada’s equivalent of the Grammy – and the prestigious East Coast Music Award for jazz recording of the year. On the heels of that success, the Johnny Favourite Jazz Orchestra became, Favourite says, “the hardest working band in Canada,” playing over three hundred shows a year, from the Supper Club in New York City, to the Red Room in New Orleans, to crowds of 60,000 people at the Pam-American Games. The band opened for acts such as Duran Duran and Natalie Merchant.
Favourite says he does not miss the heady days of stardom and incessant touring, and has discovered a new level of contentment in San Miguel. “My first morning here,” he says, “I got up at 7am, found the Jardin, and by lunchtime I knew I wanted to stay here forever.” He adds, “All I ever wanted was to make music. Now, for the first time in my life, every note I utter, every person I greet when they come in, I’m doing it just for me.”