Toronto’s Secret

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Peter De Remigis Toronto’s Secret

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Tinder (secret seeds)

Between 1952 and the arrival of Elvis in Toronto in April, 1957 my friends and I were becoming immersed in the sounds of “Rock and Roll’s” parent, “Rhythm and Blues”. I was told recently by a researcher that musicians I’d have thought of as “Rhythm an Blues” performers said that the naming of their show depended on the audience. Black audiences heard rhythm and blues; white audiences listened to rock and roll – an interesting view. But given my audience experiences before I started playing drums I’m certain that what we called “R & B” differed from what we thought was “R & R”; though both exerted the same attraction with that big bottom heavy rhythm driven by the repeatedly accented second and fourth beats of each bar that challenged harmonic rhythms and diluted melody, both existed in a kind of chicken and egg relationship. I knew very early in my career that Presley’s “Hound Dog” covered an R & B version, and much later I learned that one of my favourite Presley tunes, one I thought of as one of his most authentic sounding – “Milk Cow Boogie Blues” – was also the creation of a blues singer. And if I ever doubted my recollections about the distinctiveness of the two styles with the same beat my old “The Consuls” business cards highlighting both “Rock and Roll” and “Rhythm and Blues” extinguished all uncertainty. I think “Rhythm and Blues” was what made us want to listen to George, Hound Dog Lorenz., the Hound, on radio station WKBW in Buffalo. Most people might think of Dick Clarke, but the reasons we listened to The Hound had to do with the attention he gave to that bluesy sound with the rock and roll off-beat and how he sounded as though he was trying to be a part of it, something like, but more authentic than, the humorous attempted cultural immersion in “Get Hard”. The first notes of Lorenz’s theme, an instrumental called the Big Heavy, filled us with anticipation of a world of new sounds that he would be introducing by artists such as Little Willie John, Bo Diddley, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, names as exciting as their music which we would run on down to Eddie Chow’s Records Unlimited to be the first to own. In them days rock and roll, and rhythm and blues were indistinguishable to us: any popular music with a heavy off beat was rock and roll. Little Richard and his orchestra, Bill Haley’s country swing band,the Comets; Red Prysock’s swing orchestra; Elvis Presley’s country-like quartet of acoustic bass, guitars and drums, and chicken walkin’, guitar pluckin’, Chuck Berry all played rock and roll. Before the name rock and roll became prevalent and before the appearance of Elvis, rhythm and blues shows were held at Mutual Arena where we enjoyed performers such as Bill Doggett, Bo Didley, Fats Dominoe, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. As the phrase “rock ‘n roll” came to dominate pop music, artists such as Little Richard, the Platters, and the Everley Brothers all performed on the same stage at Maple leaf Gardens to the accompaniment of large swing orchestras such as Ilinois Jacquet’s big band under the banner,”Rock and Roll Show”.

A movie theatre on Queen St. just west of Bay also provided opportunities for us to enjoy artists such as the rockabilly, Gene Vincent, performing leg-in-a-cast on a stage covered with straw and cow dung, Bo Diddley; and the tuxedoed, and top-hatted, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins leaping up and down the narrow isles of the theatre waving a sparkling baton and screaming the lyric, “I’m gonna put a spell on you”. I recently learned that one of Toronto’s first R&B/R&R performers Bobby Dean (Blackburn), Bobby Dean., whom I met some years later had also attended that Hawkins show which he says had inspired him to become an R&R performer.

The Secret Spark

Rhythm and blues’, and the newly arrived rock and roll’ s greatest fan was Willie Page who lived at Mrs. Beattie’ s tourist home on King St. W. at the five corners overlooking the Sunnyside roller coaster. He was always the first to hear of upcoming rhythm and blues/rock and roll shows;so when news broke that Elvis would be coming to Maple Leaf Gardens on April 2,1957, Willie made sure he got tickets for those of us who wanted to participate in this historic event. And did Willie participate: his photo appeared the day after the show in a newspaper article with the caption,”long-haired youth dances on his seat”. Willie never got over this sudden taste of fame; in conversations long after the fact he would pose as he stood in that newspaper photo, shoulders hunched, neck craning forward, snapping his fingers with a swagger chortling “long-haired youth”.

Secret Embers

This taste of fame made Willie want more. About a month after the Elvis show he approached me with a plan to start his own band in which I would play trumpet, Harry Owen who lived up the street from me on Close Ave. would play drums, and Willie himself, guitar. I immediately rejected the idea that I would play trumpet despite my experience playing trumpet with the Parkdale C.I. orchestra and band; I not Harry would play drums: besides Elvis’ group did not have a trumpet. Within a week of this discussion I had purchased a bass drum, metal snare drum high hat wood block, triangle and ride cymbal from Phil Exton a swing drummer from Longbranch/New Toronto area just West of Parkdale. Willie and Harry ordered electric guitars from Eaton’s catalogue.

As soon as the guitars arrived we began rehearsing in my third-floor bedroom on Close Avenue. None of us was concerned that we knew nothing about how to play our instruments. I wish I could recall what we rehearsed when the guitars and drums arrived and how we made them sound; I guess I can’t because we were really incapable of playing anything on these newly acquired instruments. I think we felt that if we kept rehearsing together eventually we would be able to produce some sort of music. When we weren’t rehearsing, all the instruments remained in my bedroom. I devoted much of my spare time to experimenting with the drums and guitars in order to make our rehearsals productive. I had a recording of Bill Doggett’s blues instrumental,Honky Tonk; I played the introduction over and over again, and picked out the drum offbeat and imitated it by hitting my high hat, cymbal, snare and bass drum simultaneously. I then ran to the guitars and located the two top strings and the frets needed to play the first 12 bars of Honky Tonk. At our next rehearsal I taught Willie and Harry the “Honky Tonk” figures: we were all thrilled that our first few attempts to play together sounded very much like the record.

This humble success encouraged us to prepare for a public performance. After rehearsing a number of times in someone’s garage, we felt ready to perform even though we were still struggling to learn how to play our instruments. Both Harry and Willie had been playing their guitars tuned/untuned as they were when delivered by Eaton’s. Willie knew of someone teaching guitar at a music store who tuned the guitars. The newly-tuned guitars were a disaster; Willie and Harry were forced to relearn Honky Tonk and whatever else we had been rehearsing since we had obtained our instruments in May. I cannot recall how we managed to adjust in order to perform at a friend’s birthday party on Cowan Avenue a few blocks west of Close on June 8. Perhaps the guitar player who replaced Harry just before that performance took care of the guitar problems. I still am not certain of his name; Gibbie is the only name that comes to mind. But I do remember that he knew how to play his guitar.

And this is how we looked sporting white buck shoes on June 8, 1957 performing on Cowan Parkdale, two months after Elvis hit the Gardens in April wearing a shiny gold suit.Willie in a suit jacket is up front on guitar Gibbie also on guitar is at the back; I am singing at my first drum set.

Soon after this first performance,Willie managed to book a spot at the Gem theatre on Dundas Street just west of Brock Avenue where bands played at Saturday matinee movie intermissions. I don’t recall all the tunes we played on that summer afternoon in 57, but I’m certain that our scraped-together rendition of Honky Tonk was our opener. Although the audience’s reaction seemed generally receptive during our performance, I have never forgotten the comment of an individual who approached me as I walked away from the stage, and asked derisively: “Where did you learn to play drums?” Despite this embarrassing reminder that we knew almost nothing about our instruments, especially Willie and I who had purchased ours only weeks before, the euphoria of having played together on stage in a theatre, and our desire to perform again in public made us ignore our shortcomings, and prepare for our next performance.

Within days of our Gem debut Willie located an experienced tenor saxophonist, Norm Parish, who in later years became Norm Sherrat of Little Caesar and the Consuls. We began rehearsing immediately for our next performance at the Gem. With the saxophone we sounded more like a band, and were able to play part two of Honky Tonk. Norm expanded our repertoire and the excitement of our performance with sax solos such as Red Prysock’s handclappin’and Leapfrog, swing/jive tunes which he played kneeling on stage the back of his head nearly touching the floor as he held his sax overhead honking and bleating to a thundering offbeat. Our second performance at the Gem was a complete success. Our new sound, the varied styles of our tunes; and Norm’s showmanship would produce in January, 58, the distinctive features of the Consuls.
From Norm’s arrival in June of 57 until the birth of the Consuls in December of that year,we rehearsed at 208 Dunn Ave. where Willie had been renting a room. Some time in the fall Willie discovered another guitarist,
Gene MacLellan, soon to become a major figure in the Consuls. I never understood why Willie recruited Gene; Willie was our guitarist. Perhaps Norm had played with him in previous groups and recommended him; Gene was obviously more experienced than any of the guitarists we had worked with since our group started in May. Gene was a vocalist as well as a guitarist; he added a different style of repertoire which included Buddy Holly and Bo Diddly tunes and some country songs. We soon discovered that Gene was also a song writer. He wrote a ballad for me to sing; all I can remember of it is the lyric “poor little fool”(probably a take off on a Ricky Nelson song with similar lyrics).

The Secret Flame

Several months after Gene’s arrival

The events that led up to our coming together have never been clear to me. All I remember is being told that we would be going to a hall,

at Danforth and Broadview to meet some new musicians. But when I walked into the hall, I was overwhelmed at the sight of an entire band larger than the one I had been with the past eight months, on stage and performing for all they were worth to the empty auditorium. A guitarist was chicken walking across the stage like Chuck Berry; a bass player was slapping and spinning a big bass fiddle in the style of ” Bill Haley and the Comets” as a pianist stood pounding the keyboard singing and swaying like a jovial Fats Dominoe. I quickly set up my drums and played along without missing a beat. We were all so high on excitement for this dynamic group that introductions seemed unnecessary. As we concluded our impromptu jam session I learned that someone in that vacant auditorium had heard us and booked us to play there at a dance on New Years day for five dollars a man, a grand total of thirty-five dollars for our seven piece group whose members came from all over Toronto and beyond: Willie from Parkdale on maracas, Norm from the Danforth area on tenor sax, Len Stubbs a recent arrival from England on bass, myself on drums from Parkdale, Bruce Morrisehead of Swansea on piano, Gene MacLellan, of Westhill and Harold Connell on guitar. Harold, our chicken- walking guitarist had left the group before the photo below was taken. *
I think that Playter Hall has increased in importance to me now because it was where the Consuls were born during Christmas week of 1957, and the place of the Consuls’ first performance, a Playter Hall 1958 new years dance; and it was where, without a thought for the future I took my first fateful steps into some twelve years of drumming. I don’t think I ever knew who the organization or person was who hired us; all I’ve ever known was that when Willy, Norm, Gene and I arrived from our Parkdale rehearsals and started putting our instruments on stage to perform with Bruce on piano, Len on the doghouse and Harold chicken-walking his guitar; a faceless someone heard and hired us before I even knew the names of the three onstage musicians. The Consuls’ becoming a group is still a mystery; even the location of Playters at Broadview and Danforth is puzzling, for considering my approximately seven months of drumming experiments in Toronto’s west end, Playter Hall was well east of my drumming territory; and I don’t think I ever had any interest in knowing that Norm’s and Gene’s homes were actually east of Yonge. All I knew was that they’d rehearsed with Willy and me on Dunn Avenue in Parkdale; even Bruce of Swansea and Harold from my old Ossington Landsdown and Bloor neighbourhood came from well west of Yonge. And despite my hearing that Norm might have performed with some of the three on stage musicians before that Christmas time meeting, I still have no personal understanding of why we all came together at Playter Hall a few days before Christmas of 1957.

In preparation for the Consuls’ first performance at the Playters new years dance, we rehearsed at Bruce’s house in Swansee. I’ve always enjoyed recalling Bruce’s white haired father tuxedoed and strolling about the living room conducting as though we were the Glenn Miller Orchestra or the Toronto Symphony, and not the rather noisy and at times disjointed group of amateurs playing music so unlike anything in mankind’s previous cultural experience, and so new to the majority of young and old that as late as 1959, most experienced club musicians would not attempt to play it referring to it disparagingly as “rock”(not rock and roll). Most mocked its simple three chord structure, and said that it could not last. next page: The Consuls


* Roger Farr the Gems drummer recently reminded me that the chicken-walking guitarist was Harold Connell. Though for years I couldn’t think of his name, I’ve always remembered that Christmas time visit at Harold’s parents’ home in the Bloor and Dovercourt area where I’d lived until I was 10, the same neighbourhoood where, some years ago, Chuck Daniels the Jamies’ bassist told me he had also played as a child. But what I think is important about Harold’s style is that it demonstrated the excitement we felt for this new music even before seeing Elvis at the Gardens when we used to attend R&B shows at places like Mutual Arena where we’d see Chuck Berry the original chicken-walking guitarist and Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers.*

** This envelope posted somewhere in Toronto on December 18, 1957, by a neighbourhood friend at 210 Dunn Avenue a few doors up from 200 ( I’ll assume?) whence we’d recently moved to Close Avenue was brought to my attention these latter days of January 2016 by my wife when we were watching a live presentation of “Grease”. To me the December 18 date indicates that I probably received the envelope within days of the Consuls’ Christmas week inception at Playter Hall. It also reminds me that people must have known I had drums( “Pete the Drummer”) which I’d started on only about 7 months earlier and couldn’t really play even though whoever sent it surely knew me years before that 7 month period when I had no drums and was just Pete De Remigis.*