The Suedes

Out of the ashes: Consuls become Suedes

The single memory I’ve retained of that last dance that the recently revised Consuls played in Oakville is of a shadowy figure pounding on a piano beneath the proscenium stage while we performed above, Bruce on piano , Norm on sax, Robbie and Gene on guitars and no Len on bass. That capricious enigma I soon learned was Scott Cushnie who was to be our pianist in a new group comprising Robbie, Gene, myself, and eventually Peter Traynor. That was the last time I saw Norm or Bruce who had wanted to maintain their day jobs and continue playing one nighters. Robbie, myself and Gene were determined to pursue a career as full time musicians.

What I now see was significant about this new group beyond the fact of its graduating to performing in bars a week at a time, rather than teenage dance halls one night at a time is that we’d also given up the freedom to play whatever we liked: what we’d heard on the radio, what we’d assumed our friends and other teenagers were listening to and might like blending white rock and roll and black rhythm and blues. For playing adult bars also marked the beginning of the desire to give audiences the tunes they requested some of which we had to learn regardless of how old or musically uninteresting they sounded or how awkward and insincere were our renditions, and as important we abandoned that old good time early rock and roll/rhythm and blues feeling as we tried to make our band sound like the rock-a-billy Hawks.

This new group, “The Suedes”, performed for some weeks during the late spring/early summer of 59. We rehearsed at the Palladium, a hall on Gerrard Street East * which we treated as a kind of base where we rehearsed daily, and played at several evening dances. Recording star Tommy Ambrose and his band with Paul Robson on drums rehearsed there too. I remember that Paul’s and my drums were stolen from that hall. Paul had a vast collection of drums in his pearl finished set compared to my 4 lacquer finished snare, bass and 2 tom toms. But the police found my drums and not Paul’s.

On one of those weekends that summer we were booked with Ronnie Hawkins: on the Friday at a Scarborough arena, and on the Saturday at an afternoon radio dance club show near the New York-Ontario border, and that evening at a resort location near St. Catherines, Ontario (possibly Meriton,ON) . Our meeting with Ronnie, as I discovered later that summer, had been fateful. It was then that Ronnie recruited Scott, and in January 1960, Robbie Robertson left with him for Arkansas.

Johnny Rhythm and “The Suedes”

But a virtual lifetime of extraordinary happenings and intrigues were to ensue before “The Suedes” ‘ dissolution in that desolate January of 1960. A short while after our meeting Ronnie, our vocalist, Johnny Rhythm (Rutter), joined “The Suedes”. John had been working with Joe King and the Zaniacs, a Toronto show band, at the Brown Derby located at the north east corner of Dundas and Yonge.”The Suedes” lead singer, Johnny Rhythm/Rutter, joined “The Suedes” in the late spring /early summer of 1959. Not only did John perform as lead singer, he was also a very entertaining front man with comic talent, who had gained singing and stage experience with Joe King and yearly performances at the Royal Alexander theatre in “Spring Thaw”. John was lead singer with “The Suedes”until about December 1959 scarcely 6 months, like the year of the four emperors, a reminder that in reality things happen in the blink of an eye, and was replaced by Billy Kent a recent materialization from England, (wearing the first continental suit I remember seeing, a fashion that eventually became the style among entertainers in the early 1960’s).

Soon after his arrival John booked us in the Brown Derby. Our group; now, Johnny Rhythm and “The Suedes” became, it seemed, the first Toronto rock group to perform in a bar. It was as though all the rock and R.&B. musicians in Toronto wanted to be involved; the term “roadie” which I can’t recall hearing until the era of “Rock” and the “Rock Star” hadn’t been invented. I have never forgotten the Spices’ Jay King, a Toronto blues singer in a throng of other well wishers helping us carry our stuff into the Derby where we became the first Toronto musicians to play a role in Yonge Street’s “Rock and Roll Stories.”

When we began at the Brown Derby in the summer of 1959, Len’s hollow bodied acoustic bass and Gene McClellan’s amplified acoustic guitar and vocals, had been replaced by Robbie’s solid bodied electrified telecaster and Peter Traynor’s solid bodied bass, and Johnny’s vocals. Our style and repertoire began changing after our meeting with Ronnie. I’ve still haven’t forgotten Gene’s anxiety about having to perform as vocalist opposite Ronnie during that fateful meeting at Scarborough Arena earlier that summer. Perhaps Gene’s fears marked the occasion of this change from the swing/R.&R./R.&B influences that had been the inspiration of the Consul’s sound and of other early Toronto groups. Playing in Yonge Street bars was an abrupt change for me and probably for bar room patrons who were suddenly exposed to sounds so unlike those old sing along bar room standards like Danny boy or Your Nobody Till Somebody Loves you or swing tunes like Caravan. It’s possible that adopting “The Hawks”‘ rockabilly style was a kind of refuge from having to guess what this audience of adult drinkers wanted to hear because they’d grown accustomed to that more country flavoured rock style in their trips a few doors up at Le Co’q d’Or before we’d ever known we’d be leaving the teenage dances where we always knew what our audiences wanted: which was what we played. And again the local musicians already at home in those bars and with those tunes like caravan and Danny Boy greeted us with: “Do you play rock man? It won’t last; it only has 3 chords”. That was before the era of the “rock star” when pop musicians would come to be known as “artists”.

So we Suedes forgetting our recent “R & B” past with “The Consuls” became Ronnie Hawkins and “The Hawks”. “rockabilly” mpersonators. I twirled my drum sticks like Levon Helm, “The Hawks” drummer; I even padded my snare drum to imitate the whisper-like staccato of his snare drum. Johnny would sometimes adopt a classic Ronnie Hawkin’s pose, and caricature his Arkansas drawl. Robbie had begun bending his guitar strings emulating Ron’s most recent guitarist’s bluesy rockabilly sound. By the autumn of 1959 he was being privately coached by this guitarist.

Robbie seemed to absorb this new style rather naturally. I remember catching a glimpse of his hands while we were on stage at the Derby, and was impressed with the precision and apparent ease of his picking which provided the quick and incessant drive of “The Suedes” ‘ sound perhaps derived from the rhythmic pulse of his Bo Diddley days, as Bruce’s Fat’s Dominoe like rollicking piano style had provided the relaxed, rolling rhythms of the Consuls. But what few if any are aware of is Robbie’s almost devout interest in progressive jazz; whenever he and the Hawks got back to Toronto I remember his invitation: Bear, let’s go listen to some jazz or words to that effect, and we’d head off to the First Floor Club near Asquith and Yonge and silently absorb the scattered sounds of the latest jazz inventions.

Our Suedes’ performances included Johnny’s singing much of Ronnie Hawkins’ repertoire: “Forty Days”, “Mary Lou”, “Hey Bo Diddly”, “Suzie Q”, and anything else we could perform in “The Hawks”‘ rockabilly style. Scott on piano sang a tune or two, and I continued to perform “Laudy Miss Claudy”, and “Jenny Jenny”.

After the Brown Derby, we played at the Brass Rail in London, Ontario, a regular stop on Ronnie’s circuit when he was not at Le Coq D’Or on Yonge St. steps north of the Derby.

There was not much work that autumn; I remember Robbie’s visits with his uncle Abe on Spadina Ave., and with Freddy Carter, Hawkins’ guitarist who was grooming Robbie to replace him as “The Hawks”‘ string bending lead guitarist on the Telecaster.

“Someone Like You” “Hey Bob a Loo”

On one of those late autumn days in 1959 Robbie telephoned me at my home on Close Avenue in Parkdale, a short walk from the Green Dolphin restaurant at Queen Street West just south of the Lansdowne Assembly Hall where I had seen Robbie performing that winter. He said he had an idea for a song and asked if I would come over to his house on First Avenue to assist. When I arrived I was surprised to see that Johnny Rhythm and Scott Cushnie had also been invited. Robbie was strumming an up tempo Bo Didley-like progression, very much like the type he had played with “Robbie and the Robots” when I had first seen him perform.

One of us, suggested that he slow down the progression. The slower tempo changed the rhythm and tone completely. The driving “Who Do you Love?” type of attack became a lyrical kind of Calypso to which words and the title, “Someone Like You”, were added.

Another tune produced that day was “Hey Bob a Loo” which Johnny Rhythm and “The Suedes” recorded at the CHUM studios on Yonge Street. Although I do not recall the exact contributions of each of us, I have always felt that “Hey Bob a Loo”belonged to Johnny because it seemed to reflect his rock-a-billy(Elvis Presley /Ronnie Hawkins inspired) vocal style. Its haunting ballad-like lyric resembled Hawkins’ hit “Marry Lou” and its title echoed Gene Vincent’s early rock-a-billy hit “Be Bop a Lula”. By contrast Scott’s roots were in the boogey woogie era and Robbie’s in the early days of rhythm and blues.

For as long as I can remember Ronnie Hawkins has made sure that no one ever forgot the controversy surrounding the origin of these two songs which he himself eventually recorded with Robbie named as composer. Each time he performed one of the tunes when I was in the audience, he would introduce it as follows:
Robbie said he wrote it, Scott said he wrote it, Johnny said he wrote it – maybe you (Peter De Remigis/Bear) wrote it.

Now years later recalling how Ron would bring up that tale as a reminder of how those tunes might have got written when me Scott and John had met at Robbie’s house on First Street whenever he was about to perform Hey Bobaloo or Some one like you, I’m reminded that Ron was a story teller. I remember when Robbie and I had hitch hiked to London Ontario trying to get Scott back with “The Suedes” where “The Hawks” were playing the Brass Rail, Ron tried to console us about our lost pianist by telling us a story about his coming to Canada and being booked in a Hamilton Club and how his cousin Dale Hawkins of “Suzie Q” fame and Conway Twitty had something to do with his adventures almost as though he was telling a tale about a third person, not himself journeying to Canada and how I a few years younger still had plenty of opportunity for my own once upon a time. Even his recorded hit Mary Lou’s lyric ” I’m gonna to tell you a story bout Mary Lou…” and that other lyrical myth he liked to sing about an old man coming home from a forest confirms he’s a story teller, a kind of bard even.

Perhaps it was this dispute over who had written those tunes, and our lack of employment that sowed the dissent that led to Johnny’s being replaced by Billy Kent, a singer from England, who within days of his arrival in Canada had become Ronnie Hawkins’ most exacting imitator.

John was lead singer with “The Suedes” until about November or early December of 1959 scarcely 5 months, like the year of the four emperors, a reminder that in reality things happen in the blink of an eye, and was replaced by Billy Kent a recent materialization from England, (wearing the first continental suit I remember seeing, a fashion that eventually became the style among entertainers in the early 1960’s. Try as I might I haven’t been able to recall why John had been ostracized from “The Suedes”. Shortly after Billy had replaced John we ended up in the Westover Hotel where “The Hawks” stayed when in Toronto. John was still out there trying to contact us. He reached me by phone and asked to meet me for cofee where he told me he’d fallen for a new love, a woman who was driving to Florida with her kids and he wanted me to go along. I left the hotel without telling anyone where I was going: at least that’s all I recall of my setting out on that strange December journey from snowy Canada through to the warming sunny south. We ended up on a beautiful beach on Miami’s Collins Avenue just over the bluest water from Batista’s Cuba as “The Big Hurt” flowed out over the incoming waves maybe a year before Castro’s communist takeover. I remember John telling me that when I went back to Toronto he’d met a guy who used to fly him over the water to watch night time Cuban bar room shows. Before I left I remember John phoning long distance to Toronto’s Dave Johnson a CHUM disk jockey. When I got back to Toronto whenever I saw Dave I was “the Florida man”. It was nearly Christmas when I left John and got back to Toronto. The band was still in the Westover which had become a kind of base where I recall all sorts of people we knew visited. Billy had a couple of girl friends from Scotland over. Today an old drummer friend reminded me of a conversation he’d had there with Pete Traynor. I still don’t recall ever seeing him there. But that’s the way it was back then so much coming and going; I can’t recall who actually roomed there. The next thing I remember is “The Suedes” next and last performance at Merton Hall depicted on C.H.U.M.’s weekly list of record hits called the
CHUM Chart.
probably in January 1960 with a CHUM DJ and Ronnie Hawkins;This photo appears on a number of web sites that identify everyone on stage including Ronnie Hawkins, though the reference to me clapping is erroneous. Anyone aware of the overwhelming influence Ronnie had had on some of us Toronto entertainers would have understood that in the photo my raised left hand was not clapping, but was twirling a drum stick which I did after every offbeat just as Ronnie’s drummer, Levon Helm, used to do.

I can’t recall whether Billy Kent was on stage with us though as a Suede he should have been. John was out of sight and out of mind. And for want of a point in time to mark the end of the early rock and roll/rhythm and blues era, I’ll choose that Merton Hall January 1960 performance. For not only did that early blend of r&r/r&b end, but also the era when local teen audiences behaved as though they were part of the show, their dance floor a kind of extension of the stage whence came its reason for being.

Levon Helm

But that 1970’s inquiry I received from a person I can’t remember ever having met in person who wanted to know about “The Suedes”, a group I had played drums with for the last 6 months of 1959 to the first days of 1960 started my recollecting some of the incidents I’ve included in “Toronto’s Secret”. The interest in this short-lived group whose name I’d buried under the names of so many other groups I’d drummed with amazed me; I thought that anyone interested in bands I had played in would surely have been most interested in “The Consuls” a group I’d played in since Christmas 1957 ’till I became a Suede in the spring of 1959.

And decades since there are still people trying to get information about musicians I had played with when dinosaurs walked the streets of Toronto. But since just before the Bravo video of Young Street Stories I have begun to notice a broadening of interest beyond the ephemeral Suedes to include awareness of “The Consuls”, a group that Gene McClellan was a founding member of and that Robbie Robertson performed with in its final days ’till Gene, Robbie, and me were joined by Scott, Peter (Robbie’s old friend, Thumper, from “Robbie and the Robots”) and finally Johnny Rhythm.

Today what seems historically note worthy about the Consuls-Suedes transition was a kind of techno development in pop music as acoustic instruments were replaced by electronic ones. Guitars with acoustically structured hollow wooden bodies resembling the acoustic guitar that Elvis Presley strummed for “heartbreak Hotel” on the Dorsey show exchanged their hollow sound projecting structures to become opaque bearers of a pickup mike without which strumming sounded like the scratching of a percussionist’s gourd. The Consul’s large acoustic bass fiddle that Len played like the one that backed Elvis or “Carl Perkins like the acoustic guitar lost its acoustic structure shrinking into a solid pickup bearing non acoustic structure that except for its 4 strings made it appear indistinguishable from the 6 stringed guitar. The old fashioned upright acoustic piano became an electrical keyboard with a fraction of the heft of the thing once called a piano available in whatever tuned condition we found it, again like the one that once accompanied Elvis with that Dog House bass and his strumming his acoustically fashioned guitar . “The Suedes”, unlike “The Consuls”, used an electric bass; and the Robbie guitar was a solid-bodied eclectic guitar that needed an amplifier to be heard, and within a few years portable electric organs, keyboards and even PA systems replaced stationary pianos; and house microphones and speakers.

And all of these changes in musicians and technology developed around me unnoticed, from Willie’s and Harry’s purchase of acoustic bodied guitars with tiny amps from Eaton’s Catalogue to my metal snare drum shell with sand paper rough cow hide heads. Our first group included Willie with his Eaton’s catalogue acoustic looking guitar, then Gibbie with his acoustic looking guitar performed at a Gem movie theatre matinee. Willie located Norm Parish/ Sherrat a sax player who helped make us sound like a real group when we again performed at the Gem movie matinee. And shortly after Norms arrival Willie located Gene McClellan who would become ours and the Consuls’ permanent guitarist and singer. Then about 8 months after I’d purchased my drums, the Consuls formed almost by chance Christmas week of 1957 when Willie told me Gene and probably Norm who had been playing and rehearsing with me and Willie that we should go to a place, Playter’s Hall, to meet some other musicians who with us, Willie, Norm, Gene and me immediately became the Consuls. next pages: Imitators

* Not many days ago I had the good fortune to be introduced to Tommy Ambrose,leader of the other band that rehearsed at that Broadview and Gerard hall in 1959. When I raised this recollection about our rehearsing together in a hall near Broadview Tommy immediately stated, oh! that was Playter’s Hall. But recently re-reading my account of those Suedes’ rehearsals & feeling strongly that I had performed in two different halls near Broadview: the Palladium and Playter’s Hall, I located a photo of the Palladium on Gerard in 1960 that looks much like the hall I remember rehearsing and performing in with “The Suedes” in 1959 close to where Robbie and I rented a flat near the corner of Broadview.