Toronto’s Secret, Introduction,
Some time ago an old friend sax player, poet and founding member of a group known as “Ritchie Knight and The Midnights” reminded me that we’d fallen into the vortex of the war that had ended about ten years before. The war that’s been characterized as the war to end all wars and for most of us exposed to media marketing prognostications, the war that birthed the “baby boomers” and their economic needs but which one medieval scholar writing about England-France’s Black Prince and 14th century Europe’s black death concluded: that war to end all war was the worst catastrophe in recorded human history, described by a writer of contemporary history as the time Asia learned to make the things we buy. But in the now of rock and roll innocence that war that ended the lives of millions in battles and in beds, its sirens and its black outs became a Life magazine photo of a sailor and a girl celebrating its end by kissing it away. Perhaps if we’d been literate and aware of the hobo-like experience of Jack Kerouac surviving “On The Road[s]” of America after the war on a veterans pension with friends more destitute than himself, we might have behaved more deliberately, less instinctively. But we didn’t.
The writing that follows as far as I can recall was provoked by telephone inquiries I have been receiving since the 1970’s about groups with whom I’d played drums. The first call surprised me because I didn’t think that anyone could be interested in bands I’d played with. But as time rolled on and interest in my drumming experience through the years when downtown Toronto had become a destination for musicians and pop songwriters continued, I came to realize that these calls concealed an implicit confirmation that I’d participated in something important that made Toronto itself seem important. The calls continued for almost 30 years into the present millennium.Inquiries by authors researching material for books about Toronto’s early rock and roll days cautioned me to keep reminding myself that I was writing about my own experiences, recollected facts about people I’d met and our performing experiences, a memoir validated and vitalized by the interest of others. Though the inquires were surprising, the information requested was also unexpected; it was “The Suedes”, my second group of eight months tumultuous longevity and not the more stable, still performing, “The Consuls”, now “Little Caesar and the Consuls” that callers sought. The most recent inquiries were mostly about possible interviews with Robbie Robertson of “The Band” and people like myself who Robbie had played guitar with. The interest in Robbie did not surprise me as the inquiries about “The Suedes” did because for years after Robbie and the Band had left with Bob Dylan whenever I walked south on Yonge between College and Dundas I kept seeing images of those old Yonge Street times and Robbie’s trance like grimace, shrilly humming as he stretched his Telecaster strings . The planned interviews with Robbie were cancelled apparently because Robbie could not make it to Toronto. I was never certain about who was actually in charge of organizing these interviews; I simply assumed that the interest in Robbie implied an interest in telling the story about the early days of rock and roll music in Toronto. But when I looked up the name and website of one of the people who had been contacting me I was surprised to see that the interest in Robbie and his associates was really motivated by a desire to learn more about Robbie’s association with Bob Dylan and “The Band”, and its forebear “The Hawks”, not the early days of rock and roll in Toronto. It seemed that Toronto musicians of the 50’s and early 60’s needed some connection to Ronnie Hawkins to be taken seriously, as though none of us could have existed without Ronnie. I once saw a video image probably in a documentary that showed people camped in the desert sands of North East Africa unaware that the ground on which they sat covered a magnificent Egyptian structure that convinced me of how easy it is for people to not know who they are and what they had done. Ever conscious of my nearly two years of playing drums with the Consuls among their Toronto competitors: The Gems, “The Wildwoods”, “The Spices”, “The Silhouettes” ; The Blue Bops, a rockabilly group I’d seen on Queen Street before I started playing drums, several years before Ronnie and the rockabilly Hawks, whose notoriety in a way came to resemble those North African sands about to obliterate a bloom from Toronto’s past. Recently I was asked whether Ron and “The Hawks” were not the first big name to enter Toronto’s entertainment scene. I said you’d have to ask that of someone other than me because I had developed a perceptive prejudice through my immersion in learning and playing music with many native born Canadian musicians before I even knew “The Hawks” existed, musicians who kept arriving to play on Yonge Street and who eventually became “The Hawks” then “The Band”.
In a sense Ron’s success here was as much the result of that very unusual time when audiences were as enthusiastic about celebrating each new rock and roll happening as musicians were in performing.This photo illustrates that blurring of the line between stage and audience. Though it is a band photo of “The Silhouettes” of 1960 sent to me by one of its members, pianist Boyd Sarney, it takes some careful viewing to identify Boyd and 5 other band members from among the 12 people, musicians and their girl friends who are not in the band but who appear to be sharing the limelight. Marshall Sterns in his book The Story of Jazz made me realize that this blurring of the division between audience and performer had happened before in the early days of jazz when the “distinction between performer and audience was shadowy” because musicians had day jobs. Ronnie of course was likely never aware of the Hawk legend that somehow Torontonians needed him to teach them pop music, though he probably knew that everyone was copying his and his band’s style, but likely never had reason to think about Canada’s pop music performers who’d preceded his arrival on Yonge Street; and I heard him say more than once that Elvis showed us all the way. It’s Canadians themselves who had allowed the Hawks to supplant the memory of famed Toronto pop vocal groups The Crew Cuts, The Four Lads, The Diamonds, vocalist song writer Paul Anka, and the many little R&B/R&R groups playing at teenagers’ dances from one end of Toronto to the other.
Of course most of what we and other Toronto groups were playing was learned from recordings made by Americans in the USA. What we produced was a blend of materials we had acquired at live R&B/R&R shows, and recordings before “The Hawks” arrival or “The Band’s” inception. And we were all concentrating on learning to play our instruments, forming and rehearsing (in garages) groups and anticipating how we might sound and be received on stage. We were busy with the nuts and bolts of this new music style and our own instrument learning. Success was making a sound like we’d heard in a performance we’d attended, or a record we’d heard. There wasn’t time to imagine beyond capturing that magic something which for me had to do with that dominant incessant two and four beat and displaying our version of it in public.
Today with the expression “rock star” a cliche and everyone selling their latest album, it is difficult for anyone to imagine that music making could ever have been an end in itself. Anyone not engaged in, and not aware of this kind of almost experimental music making might have seen only its results in the concentration of musicians and performers around us, from both Toronto, and rural Ontario, from Canada’s east and west coast, and British Islanders in downtown Toronto through the late fifties and sixties. And the characteristics of the places whence these individuals and groups originated were as integral to their performances as were the contents of their music itself. I remember a guitarist, probably before I’d met Gene or played in The Consuls. I don’t know how he knew about me, all I remember is that he was a relative of someone from my parish, from an eastern province I believe, but when he started playing his acoustic guitar he came alive, illuminated with a benign smile like I’d never seen before, and have never seen since, with an earthy presence that may have resembled Stompin’ Tom Connors whose performances opened a vista you hadn’t known was there, like Jerry Lee Lewis down South or Little Richard.
The globalist inspired notion that one cannot distinguish local and national music style differences may obscure the witnessing of this kind of image, for those for whom what is produced electronically and invisibly in a studio is all that music is. But even electronic mixing of sound, though it has been removed from the concrete acoustic origin of music, cannot eliminate what may be typical of a local style or sound, for even a recording is influenced by a technician’s applying the taste and outlook of his or her geographical locale .
In fact the idea of local or national difference may be as fundamental as music making itself. The easily perceived contrast between eastern and western music is almost tangible. Only one who refuses to learn anything about music composition cannot see the contrasts between a Chinese pentatonic scale and the diatonic scale that we in the west so take for granted that we might not know of its uniqueness. Through the European baroque era musicians were fully aware of the varied technical characteristics of compositions created in Italy, Germany, France and England, qualities of rhythm, dynamics, notation, and ornament, and in the more recent Romantic era, how can one overlook the compositional and nationalist differences between Wagner and Verdi both born in 1813? Even motion pictures can convey national characteristics that may be detected by noting pace of acting, and editing of photographic images. For there is something about the rhythm and tone of a Canadian movie that makes it recognizable as not American. Millennia ago difference existed among Rome’s ancient conquests and became more pronounced when it declined, and national languages developed. Contrasts between English Canada and the USA however are less obvious because the English language is common to both nations, still cultural attitudes solidified by geographic factors maintain perceptible differences.
The tune, “The Weight”, performed by mostly Ontario musicians of The Band is Canadian in mood and content as are the American civil war lyrics of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for lyrics are not just words; they are also sounds and moods arranged in rhythms expressing the place and time out of which they were born. Perhaps I would have never noticed the Canadian aspects of these pop works if I hadn’t known its performers had roots in Ontario, Canada. These ponderingly serious songs with a “laid back” air more reminiscent of blues than American pop jazz, country or hip hop, are so unlike anything that could have originated from the angrier and more aggressively flippant, more vibrant high strung energies of the USA .
In a sense such difference of music style is like inherent differences among individual human beings which we may over look in our musical or socio-economic groupings though even those groupings will begin to acquire characteristics that distinguish one group from another. There are still individuals from Canada’s east and west coasts whose manner is strikingly different from each other and from central Canadians. Difference is everywhere in physical movements accented rhythmic speaking and in even ways of thought. I remember once when I was shopping in the produce department of a grocery store a clerk pointing out the difference in broccoli pricing elaborated by saying there are all kinds of broccolis all different just like people.
Why the issue then concerning whether or not there is anything that distinguishes Canadian music from any other music, particularly American music, and why law might have a place in protecting music’s nationality? For me the answer is simple: there is a need to ensure taxation of incomes whether from Canadian entertainment or Canadian manufacturing and mining. Performers themselves know that their products at inception are scarcely the results of a business arrangements, subject to trade laws and international agreements; only when entertainment becomes a business product does it become subjected to the debate of whether one product source can be identified as characteristic of one country or another.
On reading Canuck Rock I recalled its author’s asking me about whether we as Canadians were conscious of “systematic disadvantages hampering Canadian performers.” My emailed response on page 47 of his book was based on the recollection that in those early days of the Consuls we were too busy competing with other Toronto bands, to worry about surviving outside our own city, or country. In my mind our rock and roll playing was still so experimental, so like groping in the dark, that most of our swing inspired predecessors said it wouldn’t last because of its simplistic chord progressions. I was not confident that our music could be taken seriously enough to be disadvantaged as Canadian musicians; nationalism came later, after “The Consuls” after “The Suedes”. For from our perspective back then everyone playing as we were, American, Canadian, or British was too busy figuring out what it took to sound good “here and now” to worry about how an end product that at most was a vague image inspired by performances we’d attended and records we had heard might succeed financially in a world market.
And feeling disadvantaged because of systematic or personal constraints suggests a kind of frustration akin to helpless inferiority which I think would have inhibited our getting started in the first place. I think that we really saw ourselves as part of what was happening in this global village in which we couldn’t wait to participate and contribute to the pop music scene, making it, as that became a concern, was getting attention in the U.S.A. maybe like American Idol contestants thinking that going to Hollywood was important to their careers simply because they believed that there was a place where things happen; no matter where you’re from you had to get there like pilgrims on the road to a promised land. And we must have known deep down if we even had time to think of it that our mellow doo wop predecessors like “The Crew Cuts”, “The Four Lads”, “The Diamonds” from up here seemed at times to outnumber all similarly styled pop music singers like Americaâ€™s Four Aces regardless of nationality; and even Canada’s Paul Anka had become so popular that in the United States I was asked more than once if I as a Canadian knew Paul Anka. And lest we forget“Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians” had become synonymous with America’s ringing in the new year.
And of course our music making came from close to home, near to neighbours and family: Robbie’s mother used to phone my mother about Robbie’s whereabouts whenever he and I and others would disappear into the world of playing music. Gene got to know my mother when he came over to my house on Close Avenue whenever the Consuls’ predecessors rehearsed with Willie and Norm at the Redman’s house on Dunn Avenue where Willie had a room. And there were other musician visitors over the years Bobby Dean, Brian Kirkwood, Paul McCallum, and Judi Jansen from across the street. And years later when Kelly Jay started showing up at Juno awards my mother would tell me about seeing him on television, and always asked if I’d seen him lately, or heard anything about his daughter. Apparently back in Arkansas even Ronnie Hawkins’ family expressed their concern about Ron’s and Levon’s trip to Canada when they journeyed up here without knowing what they might encounter like 10 months of winter maybe. And there were parental influences from Bruce’s family on the Consuls especially through rehearsals at his parents’ and sister’s homes. Strange how so many families seemed connected to offspring whose music was considered so rebellious. In fact my first major appearance on stage as a gyrating lip singing Elvis impersonator was arranged by a catholic priest who telephoned to ask me to do my “Can Can” at a ladies club meeting.
I once saw a movie about an Irish rebel that depicted a home where conspicuously displayed were oversized photos of both the Pope and Elvis Presley as though the two had something in common despite moral condemnation of Presley’s early performances, confirmation perhaps that something fundamental in rock and roll had arisen from society’s masses, eventually to manifest itself as a force that would shape ensuing social history.
One of my favourite early Elvis’ tunes has been “Milk Cow Boogy Blues” I recently learned of its originator, Kokomo Arnold, who quit the music business in 1938 and wouldn’t return when the old blues legends had become popular among white pop musicians preferring to keep working in a factory during the last of his 67 years rather than come back to the music business. I’m going to guess that for Kokomo there was something in music making better and more real than the business of music: getting better known, selling yourself to share in the limelight something concrete like things that people do, like working in a factory. That’s what I think people in Toronto and maybe individuals throughout America were doing in those early days blinkered by their locale and its people before anyone had much time to think about records or notoriety: first things first, what you did was who you were, and if others liked it well, we’ll see.
* Dio’s Roman History Volume I, Book III, line 8.
My role in this tale about the early days of whatever we thought we were playing R & R or R & B in a way began before I knew that I had a role, just as I became aware recently that the instrument I spontaneously picked up was in its earliest stages. I’m referring to the drum set: bass drum snare high hat and cymbal, not tympani or the typical array of symphonic percussion implements, but the complete drum set that everyone including me believed had existed forever but had probably not been around even 35 years when I started trying to play attempting to determine which things I needed to hit; I learned in time that the wood block, the triangle and the cowbell, hold- overs from the concert orchestral era of percussion sound effects, had no use to a drummer whose job I eventually learned was to keep time like a metronome or a conductor or maybe both. And I learned that the study of the drumming art: measured rhythms, rolls and stickings were the basis of understanding and executing the most difficult element of music, time and the relation between the dots in an orchestration and the time melodies and harmonies should be played, and the ways these things communicate how music should feel.
Yet that impulse to be a drummer back then seemed just like a Willie or a Harry unexpectedly taking up guitars, a teenager who’d caught the bug of recreating the thing that most involved teenagers back then, not just as party guests or audience listeners, but as performers, responding to the sirens’ song out of nowhere to everywhere, not seeing the patterns and invisible links created by like musical interests that were spreading secretly throughout Toronto, in places such as the high school classroom where I ran for Students’ Council with a person soon to gain notoriety as a folk singer, a person I saw only as a class mate making posters for my campaign. Only when I was on stage with the Consuls did I learn from a visitor who seemed to appear like a kind of messenger from the gods whenever I performed in Parkdale that this person working on my campaign had become the subject of Time magazine stories about her folk song writing and singing performances. Today I wonder why back then I had kept receiving these reports from this mysterious Hermes-like messenger who I’ve always assumed had been just another high school student who had recognized me from my student activities a few years before, and why he kept reporting to me about Bonnie’s surprising musical successes almost as though I had asked him to keep an eye on her. That reporting of Bonnie Dobson’s musical exploits now seems a kind of premonition of how things would expand into an ever broadening host of ordinary Torontonians churning about and gaining notoriety for a time as musicians, song writers or singers, even radio broadcasters or disc jockeys.
Some of these performers might not have played the bars of the Yonge Street strip but all shared the creative energy that moved through 1950’s Toronto. And during those days vocal groups resembling Toronto’s Four Lads & The Crew Cuts from St. Michael’s Choir School, and The Diamonds at times seemed the sole representatives of popular music, often performing a cappella in four part harmony at school dances. Some time after my school years perhaps the early 1960’s I learned of a vocal group, The Imperials, accompanied by a piano player and saxophonist, Larry Green, later a D.J. for CHUM FM during its early years, and more recently for Jazz FM.
Then there were the Blue Bops, a rock-a-billy group, whom I once saw performing on Queen Street, just east of Dufferin Street, several years before I knew of the Arkansas Hawks, maybe before I owned my first drum set in 1957. The name Smitty seems to have been connected to the Blue Bops, but in all the years since I began playing I never again was aware of their existence.
Of those whom I knew directly from playing experience there were of course Willie and Harry, perhaps typical of Torontonians of the 50’s willing to contribute, try something new. It is difficult to appreciate the enormous influence Willie had in communicating the latest music and bringing together individuals such as Gene MacLellan, Norm Parish (Sherrat), and Bruce Morshead the Consuls’ leader, and eventually Little Caesar.
And during the Consuls early days there was pianist singer Bobby Dean and his group, The Gems, with drummer Roger Farr, guitarist Jack Snow, and bassist, vocalist Bobby Lenthal. When the Consuls disbanded along came pianist Scott Cushnie (Professor Piano) Robbie Robertson song writer & guitarist; bassist Pete Traynor of Traynor amps fame, then Johnny Rhythm singer & actor. As time moved along there was Kelly Jay pianist singer & visual artist, Scott Cushnie’s Oakville neighbour.
And Kelly introduced me to fellow OCA student recording artist, singer, guitarist Buddy Burk. And some time after that there was recording artist Terry Roberts, John Till, a guitarist from Stratford, Ontario. Then David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears was sitting in at the Zanzibar on Yonge Street a few doors up from Steeles Tavern where I’d see Gordon Lightfoot performing upstairs. And about those days in the early 1960’s I got to play with local guitarist Pete Michaud who played on most of Webb Pierce’s 1970’s recordings and eventually with Willy Nelson.We both played together with Bobby Dean of The Gems and then with recording star Max Falcon who apparently started out as a waiter at the Brass Rail on Yonge near Bloor Street, and another former Jem, Bobby Lenthal. And Toronto’s R. Dean Taylor who I think I recall hearing was also associated with the Brass Rail was hired by Motown Records as songwriter and singer in 1964. The evening of March 2, 2017 guitarist John Till called from Stratford, Ontario. He illuminated a part of the musical web that spread magnet-like from Toronto all the way down through the U.S.to Arkansas. John and I had played together in a variety of Toronto based groups often at Yonge Street’s Zanzibar; but what I hadn’t known was that John had been introduced to the Toronto scene by Max Falcon and that John had appeared on the Woodstock, New York stage with Janis Joplin at the same time as Richard Manuel, another former member of the Stratford, Ontario band, “The Revols”, had performed with Bob Dylan’s “The Band”. As John put it: two people from Stratford, Ontario, himself and Manuel, had participated in the most significant happening of pop culture – “Woodstock”. And I shouldn’t fail to mention another Canadian guitarist friend on that Woodstock stage, this one from Toronto’s east end, Robbie Robertson.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here; when Willie, Harry and me started about 7or 8 months before there’d be a Consuls Willie and I were avid listeners to the latest 78 RPM records and in audiences enjoying the entertainers whose records we listened to. There was a record store on the north side of Queen Street east of the Green Dolphin restaurant not too far from Dunn Avenue where Willie and I visited to audition the newest 78’s in the record booths; the stores proprietor would greet us with the names “Willie the Rock” and “Sand Stone Sam”; He obviously knew Willie’s name, his first name, “Willie”, about the only name I was ever certain of; and I’ve often wondered if he knew me other than “Sandstone Sam”. And as I now recall Willie “the Rock” and me seemed most interested in performers who played in mostly the rhythm and blues style that I first became aware of in a Catholic church basement at junior young people’s meetings whence I still hear echoes the Drifters singing an R and B barbershop-like rendition of White Christmas. And just recently I’ve recalled my impromptu display of drumming ignorance pounding out a rhythm on turnstiles under exhibition stadium that seemed to have attracted a larger audience than the high school foot ball game above. Recalling this strange outburst has after years of wondering why I took up drumming and did not continue on trumpet or even piano has convinced me that I had been a born drummer. I remember the quotation on an old Red Prysock 33 1/3 record jacket describing the infectiousness of that “Beat [as] old as man” that kids were dancing to “from Hoboken to New Orleans;.. ” the same beat that carried Honkey Tonk Part I and made me listen and try to imitate it so that I could make that same sound in my first faltering attempts to be a drummer, that same beat as in The Hound Dog’s theme, Onzy Mathews “Big Heavy” and Red Prysock’ s swingin’ Hand Clappin’ conveying a magnificent energy, perhaps, as grand as the overture to Handel’s Messiah.
And I think that was my experience trying to be a drummer, like trying to catch something in the air pull it down to earth and piece it together to resemble what we’d heard and what we’d seen, never knowing where our creations might lead, motivated simply by a desire to make something as beautiful as the sounds we’d heard, and always wondering whether what we were doing would work. At first we were “imitators”, without consciously trying to replicate what we copied, but rather immersing ourselves in sounds imagining that we were actually making the sounds that caught our attention, and making them ours, our own unique version of how what we had heard had sounded, perhaps like Ezra Pound was doing in his Cantos echoing lines from ancient poets and making them his own.
Trying to recall what led my journey through the early days of R and R or R and B I’ve been coming up with two things, one that out-of-nowhere impulse to drum bare handed on turnstiles at exhibition stadium, and the church where my pop music education began; for it was in the basement of a catholic church where I started to listen and dance to what we would eventually characterize as Rhythm and Blues as distinct from what came to be known as Rock and Roll and then Rock. And all I remember of those dances were R and B tunes especially the R and B version of the Drifter’s White Christmas that I was just reminded of in the 1990 movie Home Alone.
There must have been pop tunes other than R and B played at that dance but I just keep thinking R and B, maybe because for me R and B was everywhere: Annie Had a Baby and Work for Me Annie, and Annie’s Aunt Fannie seemed to play incessantly on an out door juke box at a Sunnyside pavilion near the shores of Lake Ontario; “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, and “Riot in Cell Block 9” friends played on 78 RPM disks; certainly Hound Dog (George Lorenz) must have played them and other R and B tunes; even his signature intro the “Big Heavy” with its big heavy beat and bluesy soulful strut and his “Dig man:the Hound’s around” said here comes more of that kind of music. And the Hound’s lyrically hip commercial promos for ‘Big Bob and Pal Al, the happiness boys”, and “Man Oh Manischewitz fine wine” seemed to’ve been expressions of that early R and B/ R & R era, expressing a cross-cultural mix only the dauntless would espouse before today’s media magnifiers.
Several evenings ago Jan. 30 or 31, 2016, my wife was watching a televised live performance of Grease; I assumed it was about the early days of rock and roll when everyone wanted to be a teenager as in “Chinese Rock and Egg Roll” and sock hops where a barber shop inspired cappella quartet like the Four Lads might be the stop-spinning-the 78 RPMs and watch the show group. But because of the concern expressed by school administrators in Grease that students not do anything overtly sexual at their dance, an admonishment they ignored by unambiguous impossible to overlook aggressive sexually explicit dance poses, I wondered if Grease was about a time other than the “Happy Days” fifties, that I’d experienced: perhaps it was influenced by later more aggressive social developments, a kind of academically imposed theme denying the reality of the cutesy “Bye Bye Birdie” “Happy Days” silliness of the rock and roll fifties, soon replaced by the aggressively disgruntled anti-war “School of Rock”, the sex drugs and rock and roll era of pop that came to pervade post-fifties pop journalism.
So despite my inability to see that Grease is in fact about the fifties I’d lived through, I started thinking that since I couldn’t recall the kind of sexually explicit intense “West Side Story”- like behaviour of Grease, maybe I’d missed it because of a too sheltered life style. But I really wasn’t that sheltered because as soon as I was old enough to get around especially as a drummer about to turn seventeen, I spent a great deal of time socializing from Long Branch west of Toronto downtown to Yonge Street then further east to Broadview. But there was perhaps one real bit of Grease’s sexual theme that I do recall from my early rock and roll fifties experience, and it was those Midnighters tunes like “Annie Had A Baby”, though for me those lyrics “Annie had a baby; can’t work no more” and “That’s what happens when the gettin’ gets good.” (subtle by today’s standards) easily got lost amidst the rhythms and lyrics of numerous other tunes about teenage naivety, fools falling in love, going steady with “my first love” invited to “come over and meet my folks” lyrics conveying a kind of childish romance of a “Teenager in Love” with scarcely a wisp of the overtly physical displays of sexuality performed in Grease.