Cab driver plays spoons to popular songs

Harold Butler scrolled through a long playlist glowing on his iPhone screen in his spacious taxi, which was parked on a downtown street in St. John’s, N.L., on a recent rainy night.

Flo Rida? Not now. Newfoundland folk band Simani? Maybe later.

“Now this one has me blown away,” Butler said, jabbing his finger one more time into his phone. As the opening horn stabs of Dolly Parton and Pitbull’s “Powerful Women” shattered out the speakers, he sat back and hoisted two spoons in the air, ready for the incoming beat.

Butler is a 60-year-old Newfoundland cab driver, made famous on social media by videos of him wailing on the spoons to Darude’s dance song, “Sandstorm,” or Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” posted by his gobsmacked customers.

He used to be known as the cab driver who wore fedoras, of which he owns more than 40, he said. But when he began bringing his spoons into the car, his headwear was promptly upstaged. Butler’s now one of two Newfoundlanders competing this season on the Citytv show Canada’s Got Talent, which premièred last week.

“I call myself the Mad Hatter Spoon Man from Newfoundland,” he said, the words rolling out in a gravelly St. John’s accent.

“I’ve just taken the spoons to a new level, from the old generation to the new generation, to hip-hop and rap,” he added. “If the kids hear it, some kid down the road might take up a set of spoons … and take it to somewhere else.”

He plays ferociously no matter the song, shaking his shoulders, banging his heel and — when the vehicle comes to a stop — using his left hand as a kind of washboard, running the spoons over its fingers. The spoons crash powerfully into his thigh, the resonant slap its own percussive force which acts as a kind of bass drum to the metal utensils’ clinking snare.

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His vehicle sways under the force of his playing and the booming sound system, an impressive feat considering he drives a Ford Flex, a massive two-tonne SUV. Blue-eyed and white-haired, Butler plays with the disarming joy of an expert, of someone so blissfully good at something that their entire being takes part.

It can be hard to get him to stop and answer questions about himself, but when he does he credits Newfoundland and Labrador’s rich musical culture with making him who he is. “We love our history, we love our music, we love the way we are,” he said, adding: “I became who I am because of the people who I be with.”

Butler began playing the spoons about 40 years ago, during one of his father’s parties at his childhood home on Prescott Street, in the heart of St. John’s, he said. His father, grandfather and his uncle played the accordion, and his dad would often have friends over to play music in his kitchen — a classic Newfoundland “kitchen party,” Butler said,

Wanting to join in one night, Butler opened a kitchen drawer and found the instrument that would one day land him on national television.

He’s been driving a cab for about 14 years — he currently works for Bugden’s Taxi — but it is within the last four years that he has started to gain traction on social media, particularly after his daughter posted a video of him playing spoons to Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite.”

Butler now has a solid clientele he knows and trusts, and he can all but choose who he picks up, he said. He works the night shift — all the better for booming tunes. He carries about five different sets of spoons in his taxi, demonstrating each set’s unique sound.

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He said he has always loved working with the public, ever since he sold newspapers at the shoeshine stand when he was a kid. “I’m a people person. I know people, but I got to know them even 10 times better since I drove a cab,” Butler said. “Some people will get in my car and have a conversation and they opens up to me and they don’t know why they did. I say, ‘Because it’s meant to be.'”

And despite the social media fame and the TV spot, he doesn’t see himself as a celebrity — nor does his bank account, he joked. “I got 13 grandkids … and they’re all a stone’s throw away from the house!” he said. “I’m broke!”

Butler says his episode of Canada’s Got Talent, filmed in October, will air on April 9, which is his 39th wedding anniversary with his wife, Debbie. Other than that, Butler said he is sworn to secrecy about his experience on the show.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It was an amazing experience up there.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2024.

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