Toronto’s Secret Yonge Street Stories

Ronnie had been performing in Yonge Street’s Le Coq d’Or Tavern for some time before Robbie, Scott, Peter, John and me set up in the Brown Derby, just a few doors down from the Hawks, believing that we were the first and only Toronto rock and roll type group from the teen dance halls to perform in a bar on Yonge Street – the big time. And I still see Ron standing in the Derby doorway   watching our brand new rockabilly, Hawkins imitating Suedes, perhaps sizing up Scott and Robbie as prospective Hawks. And Ron’s image magnified by Canadians, not by Americans or Ron himself has clouded the perception of Canadians’ awareness of Canada’s pop musicians, like a ghostly aftershock of the old 1812-14 war. I believe perspective affects factual accuracy and so when the camera keeps returning to Ron and his anonymous friend throughout the Bravo video it’s as though they were narrating memories that they were central to, enhancing the distortion that Ron from Akansas was central to Yonge Street’s, Toronto’s Rock and Roll Stories. But from my own perspective on the Derby stage looking out from the drums past Robbie, Pete and John I saw Ron standing down in the Derby doorway, an image that he recreated when I spotted him in the doorway of a club in Grand Bend as I sang “Who Put The Bomp…” with Don Steel and John Armstrong, as though Ron was picking up something from the Canadians he’d learned of on Yonge Street. Still the American challenge continued with one more incursion into Canada’s local pop music adventures with Yonge Street’s “Rock and Roll” stories surprise mention of trumpeter Frank Mottley like Ron an American who must have appeared on Yonge Street near the end of my Yonge Street career well after the rockabilly Hawks had made Le Coq d’Or Tavern on Yonge Street their home away from home. Frank Mottley, if I was aware of his existence back then it was at most as a name on a sign on a club on the South side of Queen near Bathurst that I’d pass twice a day riding the Queen streetcar to and from the Brown Derby and the other clubs on Yonge where I played for about ten years. Many years have passed since then and some time since I first wrote of Mr. Mottley, but I now remember that the club with the dual trumpeted Mottley sign was the Holliday Tavern whose somber interior, which I eventually experienced from its stage with two western Canadians, bassist Larry Mathias and Wayne on guitar, was so unlike that exhilarating sign and “the strip”, as my Yonge Street career was winding down. Again I must remind myself regardless of how limited its perspective that “Toronto’s Secret” is about personal experience;  though I sometimes feel the evidence of researchers I’ve spoken with over the years is sometimes embellishing my narrative with facts and perceptions not my own. Today trying to understand the interest in Frank Mottley whom I’ve never seen perform I ‘ve come to realize that his style conveyed to me, perhaps, by Jackie Shane, (who I hear has gone back to work in the U.S.) may have been like the Rhythm and Blues Rock and Roll style that invigorated the Consuls, Gems and the Spices way back in the 1950’s before the  Yonge Street bars exerted their attraction. Though from my own perspective my awareness of Mr. Shane probably didn’t occur until the Blue Note after hours club opened, a pop music generation after the arrival of the Consuls and the Gems.

After the Derby and the Suedes I continued performing on Yonge Street up to the Brass Rail near Bloor then down to the Zanzibar a block up from the Derby with Terry Roberts from out West. Some time about then I drummed in the Zanzibar with Kelly Jay of Oakville, of Kelly Jay and the Jamies. Soon I worked with Don Steele from down east in a trio at the Bermuda Tavern a few doors up from the Zanzibar, and Steeles Tavern where I’d relax between sets at The Zanzibar and watch Gord Lightfoot performing to mostly empty chairs and me. And I kept coming back to the Zanzibar from road trips up north and down south until 68 to drum and sing with various musicians and groups. And through the years (59 to 65) I thought I’d met and known of every musician who played in clubs between Dundas and Bloor. Of all the musicians on that strip of Yonge Street, I knew the Hawks best, not the Arkansas troop excepting drummer Helms, but their Canadian replacements: Robbie Robertson on guitar,Garth Hudson on organ and sax, Rick Danko, on Bass and Manuel on piano whom I’d meet regularly during intermissions in the Edison Hotel beverage room from about 1960 until they all left Ronnie as the Band under Bob Dylan. Some time about when the old Zanzibar transformed itself into the Zanzibar Circus I recall the arrival on Yonge Street of one of my old musician friends from the Consuls early Long Branch dance hall era, Bobbie Dean of the Gems. I think it was about then that Club Blue Note opened across the Road from the Zanzibar. The Supremes just out of the Blue Note joined Kelly Jay, me and the Jamies to perform just up Yonge Street at Davenport and Yonge. About when it first opened, I joined Bobbie at the Blue Note; then left in the summer of 63 I set out for Flint Michigan with Bobbie’s, the Gems’, bassist and vocalist Bob Lenthal and recording star Max Falcon of New Brunswick. With the passage of time it’s become difficult to confidently recall my comings and goings afterI left Flint to return to Toronto. But I do remember being back at the Zanzibar with John Till of Stratford, Brian Kirkwood of Long branch and Grant Wilson of Hamilton. Some time later I joined Hamilton’s Dell Fires with Bob Bouchard, Kenny Kunz, Grant Wilson and Brian Kirkwood. After several Harold Cudlitz booked road engagements, The Dell Fires appeared on Yonge Street at Ronnie’s base Le Coq d’Or Tavern. In the mid 1960’s. Some time later I joined “We Three” led by Roger Vekeman who a few years before the War Measures Act remarked that Quebec was his country.That “We Three” trio took me back to The Brown Derby where my Yonge Street career had begun. In the Derby, “We Three” played opposite Joe King mostly in afternoons and at suppertime, and early mornings with vocalist Rudy Valentine of the “Crew Cuts”. And again I was meeting in the Edison Hotel draft room with some of Ron’s musicians sneaking off for a beer between sets just after his first Canadian-member band had left to become “The Band”. Then I used to meet Ron’s new guitarist and my old friend John Till, a former Jamie, and drummer Dave Lewis.

Ronnie of course seemed to be taking root here in Canada to such an extent that a story persisted from the time before Robbie joined the Hawks that Ron was really from Hamilton Ontario, a story that Robbie returning from meeting Ron’s family in Arkansas abruptly shot down.

As is obvious in what I have recalled of my nearly 10 years playing Yonge Street ’till about 1968 or 69, I knew the musicians who I performed with on Yonge Street, and wonder if there were any Yonge Street performers I did not know. Guitarist George Willis who played with Joe and the Zaniacs in the Derby through the late 1960’s became a friend whom I saw intermittently until 2 years before I migrated from downtown Toronto to east Scarborough. George often mentioned Al Manning a former Zaniacs’ guitarist whom I believe George replaced. And George often liked to talk of his origins in North England, Hadrian’s Wall and the “venerable” Bede, the near mythic historian of early Early England. It is likely that when I stopped performing in the Yonge Street bars between Bloor and Dundas that musicians of another era populated that same entertainment strip especially the Zanzibar where cousins Bobby(Dean) and Billy Blackburn performed much of the day with musicians from all over North America, even while I was still playing the supper time shift with McKenzie, Versage, Sarney, Saint John and Ray Harrison. Perhaps the era from 1968 on was a time when I no longer could know about characters like Frank Mottley and Daniel Lanois and many others listed Online as artists highlighted in the Bravo television presentation of several years ago called “Yonge Street Toronto Rock and Roll Stories”. There were many names I didn’t mention even though I’d often shared the stage with guitarists Peter Michaud and Eddie Bastien, Bassists Don Saunders and John Armstrong, saxophonist Douggie Richardson ready to play magnificently anywhere, and there were others I’ve needed thinking time to recall, like Trinidad born Selwyn Sello Gomez who performed in the Zanzibar with me on organ, and on pan drums at the after hours Calypso Club south of Dundas on a second floor above a clothing store near the now defunct Imperial theatre, where drummer Paul McCallum and me jammed on conga drums into the early morning; there were also other drummers: drummers Gerry Summers and Rick Cameron seemed to be on the street playing in other groups including the Hawks for as long as I remember, but the names and images of those I didn’t perform with on Yonge Street and never got to know are likely those who arrived on the strip after I’d left some time during 1968/69.

Preparations for the Bravo presentation of Yonge Street’s Stories seemed to have begun way back about 2005 or even earlier when I received a call from Jan Haust the televised Stories narrator who asked if I’d participate in an interview with Robby Robertson when he got into town. I telephoned Scott Cushnie to ask if he knew anything about the upcoming interview; I think he said that he’d already been interviewed, but the next time I heard from Jan was when he called to tell me that Robbie couldn’t make it. It was probably 2006/2007 when he called again to tell me he would be coming to my home to interview me. Jan appeared with a camera man to record my responses to questions mostly about my time with that short-lived group, the Suedes, and Robbie Robertson. He introduced one of his questions by repeating Robbie’s telling him about the time when I’d pawned my cymbal so that we could buy a bottle of wine and cigarettes. Jan seemed to be genuinely enjoying reminding me of that incident which was one of the many amusing anecdotes about experiences that I assumed all musicians have had that I thought no one but another musician would be interested in. Still I had no idea why Jan was interviewing. Most of the people I’ve spoken to about my early Rock and Roll days seemed to be writing books. He seemed just another person gathering information whose interest surprised me because I’ve never been able to appreciate how anyone other than musicians themselves would want to hear about our old band tales, our “Rock and Roll Stories”, especially the personal anecdotes that in a way have nothing to do with music, and none of which do I remember seeing developed in the Bravo production. Yet that Bravo video that inspired the feeling that something was missing also reminded everyone that the Yonge Street strip was like a magnetic pulse which from the late 50’s to the mid 1970’s attracted performers from the U.S.A, Britain, western and eastern Canada and audiences from everywhere to stroll its sidewalks and crowd its clubs’ entranceways.

The Yonge Street “Strip”

Thinking about “Yonge Street Rock and Roll Stories” I’m recalling the term “strip” that once seemed a metaphor for the string of night clubs and theaters running north and south on the east side of Yonge between Bloor, more precisely College and Queen Streets. When I first began visiting the “strip” it seemed to be a nice place to walk when I used to take the King or Queen street car east from Parkdale. I think that back then Yonge Street to me was nameless, simply “downtown”, with maybe more activity and variety than Parkdale with its Chili Grill, Queens Tea Room, Dairy Dell, and Green Dolphin restaurants; and the church down the street’s Minstrel shows which I never had a chance to see. I recall that my interest in “downtown” may have been sparked by my desire to view first run movies in the palatial confines of The Imperial, Lowes Uptown at Bloor and Yonge and Lowes Downtown at Queen and Yonge, steps south of The Imperial. I recall that I often found myself walking between Queen and Dundas; maybe after I’d viewed a movie at Lowes, The Imperial or even the first run B movie theater, The Downtown. There were then a number of vacated stores on the east side of Yonge near the movie theaters where people would gather to watch the live shows of men like barkers at the CNE demonstrating the latest chopping, slicing or blending kitchen devices. In a way these fascinating live shows, free of charge with no scheduled starting or ending times, that I had to pull myself away from to catch the Queen streetcar back home in time for supper, now seem more compelling than the movies that I had paid to see. These downtown impressions of Yonge Street began several years before I thought of myself as a musician, and eventually The Suedes’ drummer in the Brown Derby within walking distance of destinations of my early adolescent aimless meanderings downtown which some years after my arriving at the Derby came to be known to me as the Yonge Steet “strip”,a term that I believe expressed musicians’ feeling that Yonge street where they played was like a midway where people lined up to see what’s inside, performers live on stage not just at Ron’s Le Coq d’Or , but the Derby, the Zanzibar and sometimes even the Edison Hotel at the corner of Gould and Yonge almost next door to Le Coq d’Or; then south of Dundas on that same east side of Yonge came Friars that seemed to disappear like the wisp of a willow with its mixed musical bag of Oscar Peterson’s Bop and Toronto’s Sugar Shop’s pop. Further down on that same side of Yonge, just north of Diana Sweets and the Lowes Downtown with its archaic Little Garden Theatre on an upper floor that I don’t think was ever known in the days I played the strip, was the Colonial Tavern that for some years I associated with Dixieland music: a kind of New Orleans hot jazz that predated swing and the cool Bebop still in vogue in after hours clubs and the Town Tavern with Joe Williams and Oscar Peterson around the corner east of Yonge and Queen, while I playing Kansas City and the Hawk Forty Days, Bebop the style that for some time seemed to obliterate my Colonial traditional jazz impressions with performers like the sophisticatedly suited MJQ’s, Modern Jazz Quartet’s airy harmonics and whispering drum rhythms, Thelonius Monk carving audible abstractions through the smoky bar room, then Miles Davis’ Bithches Brew changing everything, starting a newer simpler style incorporating rock reggae rhythms helping the hip hop baby, more funk than the cool swing of his Birth of The Cool, Seven Steps to Heaven, or his more recent abstractly symphonic Concierto de Aranjuez.. That Colonial Tavern with its old dixiland memories and its more recent bop era performers got linked in my memory to “twist’s” pop icon, Chubby Checker,to whom I was formally introduced on the sidewalk in front of the Colonial’s entranceway.

There were of course other bars off Yonge where musicians played in Toronto most of which I became aware of only after I’d performed as a drummer on the “strip”. These places such as the Saphire Tavern, The Holliday,The Silver Dollar, The Warwick and RonDun hotels; and others I did not play until my interest in full-time playing had begun to wane as I believe the importance of The Yonge Street “strip” had been declining, while areas like Yorkville were arising with British inspired music replacing the North American styles of the “strip”.

Those two parts of Yonge Street, between Dundas and Bloor/College and the more southerly Dundas to Queen were of course one street stretching North from Front Street to Eglinton where it faded into the suburbs as I think I recall divided the City’s East and West Ends. The West end: Bloor Ossington and Dufferin is where I started before my family moved to Parkdale whence I found myself wandering further west to New Toronto and Long Branch. I don’t think I knew anything about the East End. But as I began venturing downtown to Yonge street, even before I discovered Long Branch, I had begun uwittingly touching the invisible gateway to the East End. It was not until I began playing drums that the East End started to come into focus, perhaps when Gene McClehlan began rehearsing with our little group that preceded the Consuls. Gene as I learned, when I was with the Consuls, was from as far east as I could ever have imagined, Westhill, Scarborough on the way to Pickering. I guess it was the Consuls’ birth at Playter’s hall that finally made the East End real even though most, if not all, of our performances were in the West End. Bruce, the Consuls leader, was from Swansea in the West End, Harold, our chicken walking birth-of-the- Consuls guitarist was from Bloor-Ossington where I grew up in west Toronto. Norm as I recall must have been from the East End because whenever the Consuls had a gig, usually at a Longbranch dance, our band mobile had to drive somewhere off Broadview to pick up his friends Tom and Ted and fit them into the car with our instruments. Luckily in those days, the only instruments we had to carry were drums and Norms Sax, Gene’s guitar and his less than 3 feet square amplifier.

When I finally bought my first brand new set of drums it was in a store just east of Yonge called Drummer’s Paradise, replacing my Longbranch purchased second-hand set with a “downtown” purchased white lacquer set. And when Robbie became a Consul, then a Suede Gerrard East, Broadview, and Danforthcame to replace Longbranch and West Toronto as music related destinations. But central to East and West Toronto, to me at least, was Yonge Street; the “strip”, my performing base where I kept returning from road trips down to the Mississippi and way up near James Bay.

Playing on the “strip” not many months after the first version of the Consuls folded at an Oakville dance beyond the western confines of Toronto and Longbranch meant being downtown at the city’s center. When travelling to work and back home I walked between Dundas and the King or Queen streetcar past The Imperial and Lowes theaters, the area of my early adolescent visits to downtown Toronto. It was then that I used to see on that east side of Yonge a bearded man who I then believed was Toronto’s first and only homeless person, sometimes loudly snorting as if doing some strange exercise clinging to a fire hydrant. One day during one of those times when everyone was on edge about a likely clash between the U.S.A. and Russia he said loud enough for me to hear as I passed “Every thing will be okay”. I believed him; and as it happened, everything turned out okay.

Back then drumming seemed my only reason for being on “the Strip”; perhaps my mother’s cousin’s visiting the Zanzibar to see Art Larmand performing was a clue to another kind of reason, a sort of metaphysical pattern that needed completion, the reason that once prompted my Peterborough born mother talking about Italians she had known over the years to blurt out something like Oh they’re from Elm Street. To me Elm Street across from the Zanzibar was barely visible running west from Yonge through Bay Street, whose only significance was as the place where Barbarians steak house is located. But to my mother it was a community of Italians, a kind of little Italy which as I learned was the first such enclave in Toronto, like the locale of my father’s family’s Grace Street home paralleling the Yonge Street Strip between Dundas and College, where I first got to know Lou Miles whose first store on Yonge’s west side was just around the corner from Elm Street. Perhaps my blinkered experience drumming on the strip was the sort of experience that T.S.Eliot meant when he wrote in “The Dry Salvages” of his Four Quartets. : “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” which “Is not the experience of one life only/But of many generations”.

The City of Toronto After the “Strip”

WEDNESDAY, 16 JANUARY, 2008

Torontonians

When people ask me where I’m from, assuming I’m from somewhere else, and I tell them I’m from Toronto, they respond incredulously as though they had never met anyone actually from Toronto, “Yeah’ but where are you from?” They ask again. I repeat; I was born in the city of Toronto but moved to Scarborough to avoid the unpleasant changes in Toronto of the 1990’s.

For most people Toronto is what Toronto’s become, a place where people migrate to, not a place to be born, and raised.

A place passed through, but never a home.

But before 1970 Toronto was somewhere to be, not because of its simple architecture, but because of its stability, its cleanliness, and its citizens.

Young and Dundas for instance obtained its character from the Torontonians who congregated there from the east and west ends of the city. Some had originated in small towns up north in Ontario or Quebec. Some were native Canadians but regardless of their origins everyone seemed to be a Torontonian. And the proof was that if any of us wanted to confirm our status all we needed to do was go down to Yonge and Dundas, stand on the corner, have a drink at the Derby, a shoe shine or pressed pants at United Deforest, a hot dog surprise or smaltz herring at Tops 24×7.

We would see young & old acquaintances of various backgrounds and notoriety, and talk about the recent exploits of fellow Torontonians without ever looking up at the signs on the hodge podge of buildings that surrounded us to remind us where we were, or to confirm that we were all Torontonians.

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