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Old 03-19-2011, 11:31 AM   #5
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Default Re: Yonge Street - Toronto Rock & Roll Stories
.Special to the National Post Mar 19, 2011 – 8:30 AM ET | Last Updated: Mar 18, 2011 2:40 PM ET

By Mike Doherty, National Post

In the ’60s, when animated billboards were the stuff of science fiction and the Eaton Centre was just a gleam in a department store magnate’s eye, the stretch of Yonge Street from Queen to Gerrard was lit by the dazzling neon signs of live music clubs.

Imagine Ronnie Hawkins playing bluesy rock ’n’ roll among go-go dancers in golden cages where HMV now stands, cross-dressing soul phenom Jackie Shane crooning on the site of a Thai Express, Bob Dylan rehearsing with The Band upstairs at the Hard Rock Café, and visiting R&B musicians sitting in with organist Bobby Dean Blackburn’s black-and-white house band at The Zanzibar. Apart from a plaque inside The Hard Rock (formerly Friar’s Tavern), this part of the city’s history has been all but swept aside, existing only in the memories of musicians and fans, as well as some rare archival footage.

In his three-part documentary Yonge Street — Toronto Rock & Roll Stories, director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, This Movie Is Broken) uncovers an era when, as executive producer Jan Haust puts it, “The truth [was] stranger than the publicity.”

Sitting in a booth at the Hard Rock Café with McDonald and two veterans of the Yonge Street scene — folk and R&B singer Cathy Young and soul/gospel singer George Olliver — Haust opens his satchel and pulls out two of the original reel-to-reel “Basement Tapes” recorded by Bob Dylan and transplanted Torontonians The Band at their Woodstock, N.Y., home studio, Big Pink; he encourages everyone to “snort” a piece of history (they smell musty). Haust, a larger-than-life character like the musicians whose work he celebrates, has a huge archive of rock memorabilia that, as he told McDonald when pitching him the project, is a “goldmine” of Canadian history.

McDonald isn’t old enough to remember the strip’s musical heyday — when he and his suburban friends would go to Yonge Street in the mid-’70s, “you’d get your David Bowie poster and buy a cool hash pipe and feel like you were really happening.” But when he filmed the Robbie Robertson documentary Road Songs in 2001, his subject regaled him with tales of what McDonald would come to see as “the coolest scene. The style, the clothes, the clubs — it’s very inspiring.”

Yonge Street traces the history of the strip from the ’50s, when African-American musicians, fed up with segregation, would find welcoming audiences at R&B clubs such as the Edison Hotel, to 1975, when the legalization of full nudity for strippers made live music passé in the eyes of club owners.

Sharing their memories in the documentary are musicians of varying stripes, from lifelong sidemen to legends such as Daniel Lanois (who learned to play pedal steel at the Edison) and Gordon Lightfoot (who got his start playing to patrons at Fran’s Restaurant before Hawkins convinced him to move to the nearby Steele’s Tavern).

Also appearing are Young and Olliver, both of whom are energized by their memories of the scene. For Olliver, a natural showman who fronted The Five Rogues and Mandala before going solo in 1967, “The magic that happened in the ’60s on this street is still in my heart, and it keeps me going in 2011.” Says Young, whose big-production R&B album Travel Stained garnered her a Juno award in 1973, “There was nothing before us like that. We didn’t go, ‘Oh, we’re part of a movement; let’s do something different!’ We were just living our lives, but our lives were special.”

Striking out along Yonge Street, the musicians reminisce about an organic scene where barriers between locals and legendary performers were easily breached. Young peers past a fence at a vacant lot where jazz and blues club The Colonial Tavern once stood, and avidly recounts how she sneaked in as a 20-year-old in 1970 (the drinking age was then 21) and introduced herself to her hero, Willie Dixon; she’d covered his song Spoonful on her debut album, and he invited her onstage. “I was a little nervous; when you’re with the masters, you gotta get the butterflies. But they turn into the eagles that soar out your mouth. So, it was wonderful! … We turned Sweet Home Chicago into Sweet Home Toronto.”

Outside the billboard-topped Adidas store on the northeast corner of Yonge and Dundas, where The Brown Derby once stood, Haust remarks on how “this is where Miss Montego would shake her 44-inch breasts in a teenage Daniel [Lanois]’s face when he was playing guitar, and force him to the floor, playing on his knees.”

Olliver looks fondly up at the former site of the Blue Note, a 70-seater where he and The Five Rogues played from 1962-64. “Of all the innovative clubs for R&B/soul, the Blue Note was the place to go. So many of the hit artists who used to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens came here after hours — people like Stevie Wonder, The Righteous Brothers.” In those days, he says, “It was all mohair suits and flash and silk. And the girls used to dress up with gowns onstage. It was a different way of performing back then.”

It was also the birthplace of the Toronto Sound, which fused R&B with rock, although the city was slow to celebrate its own sons’ and daughters’ accomplishments. In 1965, folk fans mercilessly booed Bob Dylan at Massey Hall, and a Toronto Star reviewer dismissed his local backing band, The Hawks (later The Band), as “a third-rate Yonge Street rock ’n’ roll band.” Olliver recalls that when Mandala recorded their 1967 single, Opportunity, radio wouldn’t play it “because we were a Canadian band, even though we had an American deal.” The band’s manager had to round up 500 fans to picket the offices of CHUM-FM; the single ended up at No. 3 on their chart.

Despite its musical influence, the Yonge Street scene wasn’t as heavily documented as others in San Francisco or London — another reason why it has disappeared from the city’s popular consciousness. It wasn’t a self-sustaining “promotional factory” like Motown, Haust says, but the result of “natural evolution. It was the genuine article, and it [involved] people from all over the world. That’s something to respect.”

Part of the impetus to make Yonge Street, he explains, was to inspire young filmmakers and storytellers to celebrate the city’s, and country’s, musical past and chronicle the future. Says McDonald: “Just going down to Nashville recently, I was amazed at how amazing the Americans are at telling their own stories. We’re part of a growing crowd that’s getting to be pretty good at it ourselves.”


From 1958-1965, Robbie Robertson played guitar in clubs along the Yonge Street strip, the bulk of that time spent with Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, The Hawks (later to become The Band). Their regular gig was at Le Coq d’Or (at 333 Yonge Street, where HMV now stands). Robertson tells the Post about his experience of Yonge Street’s rock ‘n’ roll scene:

“Because I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins, although I was underage, somehow or another I never got caught. Ronnie was really good at that diplomacy with whoever could have gotten me in trouble. We would be playing at Le Coq d’Or, and next door at the Edison, Bo Diddley or Carl Perkins could be playing. The doormen would say, “Let me see your ID,” and I’d say, ‘Oh, I play with Ronnie Hawkins,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, go ahead.’ It worked in other places too, so I thought, ‘Well, this is great!’ It would be between sets; you’d only have a few minutes. I’d go down to the Brown Derby and there’d be somebody funny playing there, and further down the street at the Colonial, there’d be some amazing jazz artist playing: Cannonball Adderley and his band, Joe Williams – on and on and on. It was never somebody not good. Then somebody like Ray Charles would be playing at Massey Hall, and you’d go in and hear a few minutes of that. And then there was all kinds of after-hours places up the street, and it was just fantastic. I thought that that’s the way things are and would be. I didn’t think that that would melt away.

“There should be more of an effort to preserve the centre. Yonge Street was this Mecca of talent, and it isn’t just about the music – it’s about the whole community, and the characters. It was the centre of Toronto’s nightlife and entertainment, so I feel somewhat nostalgic about it, because it probably meant more to me than it would have done to a lot of people today. Yonge Street shouldn’t become a discarded part of the history of the city.”

Yonge Street — Toronto Rock & Roll Stories runs from Monday to Wednesday on Bravo! at 10 p.m.

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