The Most Hard-Rocking City Of Its Time by Adam Bunch

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 became smoke-filled coffee houses and poetry clubs. Then, as the '50s gave way to the '60s, the Beats gave way to the folkies, who took over the venues and opened their own. Before long, there were dozens within a few short blocks. You could head south to watch poets like Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen reading at the Bohemian Embassy, walk north across Bloor to the Riverboat and catch a Gordon Lightfoot set, then head down the street to the Penny Farthing where Joni Mitchell waitressed 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  in Toronto had really started around the time when Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks moved here from the States in 1958. They were from Arkansas originally, but migrated north in search of gigs and as one Hawk after another eventually returned home, Hawkins hired new, Canadian musicians in their place. They—especially guitarist Robbie Robertson—inspired Toronto's teenagers to pick up their instruments and head downtown, joining the other aspiring musicians who were arriving from across the continent. Within a few years, there would be so many that people started referring to "The Toronto Sound". Bruce Palmer, who lived here before co-founding 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, plenty 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 arrived, trolling clubs like the Mynah Bird (on Yorkville Ave.) and Friar's Tavern (at Yonge and Dundas in the building that's now a 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 and later ended up on the famous  Nuggets compilation. The Paupers played the Monterey Pop festival and got signed 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., launched a solo career and recorded "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 own 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 Toronto 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 doors shut behind them.

We've put together a bunch of MP3s by Toronto Sound artists, which you can download here. Some of them were a bit hard to find, so the quality may not be great at times. If you're a copyright holder and would like us to remove a song, just let us know here.

"Shotgun" by John and Lee and the Checkmates, live at Friar's Tavern:

Photo: Bobbi Lee Justice and the Scepters

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of The Little Red Umbrella and the creator of The Toronto Dreams Project. You can read the rest of his posts here or follow him on Twitter here.

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto, including tales of bank robbers, duels and 100 year-old fish. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


Lorne S. Jones said...

Good article. Your statement that "there was more than just folk music and poetry" rings quite true for me. There was a serious conflict going on against the authorities who acted like bullying thugs, and that opposition is what polarized so many and ultimately created the anti-establishment movement that city hall was trying to squash with force --- a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

CodyMcGraw said...

This is such an amazing story.

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