Friday, October 1, 2010

The Most Hard-Rocking City Of Its Time

Bobbi Lee Justice and the Scepters
It all started in the '50s with the Beatniks. Their scene was centered around Yonge and Gerrard, but they also headed north, across Bloor and into Yorkville, where old Victorian homes were converted into smoke-filled coffee houses and poetry clubs. Then, as the '50s gave way to the '60s, the Beats gave way to the folkies and a new generation took over the Beats' clubs and added their own. Before long, there were dozens of venues all within a few short blocks. You could head south to watch poets like Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen reading at the Bohemian Embassy, walk a few blocks north across Bloor to the Riverboat and catch a Gordon Lightfoot set, then head down the street to the Penny Farthing where Joni Mitchell worked as a waitress when she wasn't playing upstairs.

But there was more than just folk music and poetry. Those were also the years when early rock 'n' roll and soul were taking over the airwaves. And in many of those same Yorkville clubs—along with a string of venues stretching down Yonge Street all the way to King—there were countless bands playing raw, British Invasion- and soul-inspired R&B. They were loud and electric, armed with Hammond organs and New Orleans-style drumming, shrieking and moaning through sets peppered with Motown-ish choreography and matching, three-button suits.

The rock scene had apparently started around the time when Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks moved here from the States in 1958. They were from Arkansas originally, but when Hawkins toured Canada he realized that no one else was playing their brand of music here yet, so they came north. And as one Hawk after another eventually headed home to the US, he hired new, Canadian musicians to replace them. The Hawks—particularly their new guitarist, Robbie Robertson—helped not only to inspire Toronto's teenagers to pick up their own instruments and head downtown, but to establish the city as a mecca for other aspiring musicians from across the continent. Within a few years, there would be so many that people started referring to "The Toronto Sound". Bruce Palmer, who played here before helping to found Buffalo Springfield, called it "the most hard-rocking city of its time".

The Ugly Ducklings. The Paupers. Jackie Shane. Bobbi Lee and the Specters. John and Lee and Checkmates. Dianne Brooks. Grant Smith and the Power. Jack London and the Sparrows. They had legions of fans, lots of groupies, and more than enough drugs to, well, fuel a counterculture. One Toronto band after another climbed its way to the top of the CHUM charts. The "Toronto Sound Show" filled Maple Leaf Gardens for 14 straight hours. And the world's biggest labels and managers showed up, trolling clubs like the Mynah Bird (next door to the Penny Farthing, at 114 Yorkville Ave.) and Friar's Tavern (at Yonge and Dundas, in the building that now houses the Hard Rock Cafe) looking for bands to sign.

And they liked what they found. The Mynah Birds (the house band for the club of the same name) signed to Motown Records. The Ugly Ducklings opened for the Rolling Stones. Later they would land a spot on the legendary Nuggets compilation. The Paupers played the Monterey Pop festival and got picked up by the same manager as Bob Dylan. In fact, you could argue the Yorkville scene was too successful for its own good. One after the other, most of the biggest names in Toronto headed to the States, where they would go on to become some of the most famous musicians in the world. The Hawks started playing with Bob Dylan and became The Band. The Mynah Birds broke up and two of them, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, headed out to California to start Buffalo Springfield. Their singer, Rick James, ended up in L.A., launching his solo career and recording "Super Freak". Jack London and the Sparrows went to New York and changed their name to Steppenwolf. David Clayton Thomas headed there too, and started Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Meanwhile, back home, the evolution of Yorkville was mirroring the gradual decline of hippie culture in general. The Toronto Sound was evolving from R&B and soul into folk-rock and funk, and the authorities were actively trying to—in their words—"eradicate" the culture. It seems that the scene peaked in the summer of '67 and started going downhill from there. The drugs got harder and biker gangs showed up. Syl Apps, a former Maple Leaf turned hippie-hating Conservative MPP, called Yorkville "a festering sore on the face of the city". The police parked a paddywagon at the corner of Yorkville Avenue and Hazelton every weekend. And they enforced a 10pm curfew for anyone under the age of 18. Then, when a few cases of hepatitis cropped up, the public panicked. Residents fled the neighbourhood, police refused to walk their beats and the Star started throwing around words like "epidemic". There were only ever 32 cases, almost all of them in people who shared needles. But it didn't matter. Developers were brought in to demolish the clubs and build upscale apartment buildings in their place. Protests ended in beatings and arrests. And when the scene was driven out of Yorkville and down Bloor into Rochdale College, the authorities followed them, shutting the school down, and then literally dragging the last few stubborn hippies out the building, welding the door shut behind them.


I'm going to have to write more posts about some other Yorkville stories soon. Like about when Joni Mitchell gave her daughter up for adoption. Or how Neil Young and Rick James started the Mynah Birds. Or how Bob Dylan discovered the Band. And I've already written a post about Rochdale College, which you can read here.

The Star has a bunch of good photos of Yorkville in the '60s here. And there's a great one of the Penny Farthing (where Joni Mitchell worked and played) here. Plus a couple of John and Lee and the Checkmates here and here. Spacing's got a nice write up on the death of Yorkville here. You can read about how the Paupers eventually fell apart here. The CBC has got a cool video about all those hippies here and there's an NFB video here.

Below, I'll post a video of John and Lee and the Checkmates playing their version of the Jr. Walker and the All-Stars' hit, "Shotgun", at Friar's Tavern. But there are a whole slew of songs on YouTube that, if you like early R&B and soul at all, you should definitely check out, so I've made a playlist of some of my favourites, which you can listen to here.

Update: In the comments section, Dacks has posted a link to a fascinating Radio 2 doc bout Jackie Shane. It's an hour-long and you can listen to it here, which you should, not just because it fills in some of the history of the clubs on Yonge, but because Shane—who was a cross-dressing soul singer who came up here from the States in the '60s—has a pretty amazing story.


  1. Hey! You should check out Elaine Banks' audio doc of Jackie Shane I worked on earlier this year It adds more to the Yonge St. experience at the time.

  2. That was really good, thanks! Having watched the video for "Walking A Dog", I'd just assumed Jackie was a woman. I'll update the post to include the link.