'Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories' recalls 1960s
Published Thursday, March 17, 2011 12:25PM EDT
TORONTO - Back when the Maple Leafs were winning Stanley Cups -- many, many years ago-- Toronto had another enviable reputation. It was seen by many as Canada's heart of rock 'n' roll.
Years before the Guess Who came rocking out of Winnipeg, or Bryan Adams exploded out of Vancouver, Toronto's Yonge Street strip was producing a sound that would someday rock the world.
The vitality of that '60s musical scene comes vividly to life in "Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories," a documentary from director Bruce McDonald ("Hard Core Logo" 1 & 2) and producer David Brady ("The Grey Fox," "The Pagan Christ"). The three-hour special premieres March 21 at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo! and continues over the following two nights.
Brady and McDonald, together with producer/archivist Jan Haust and creative consultant and former CHUM radio personality Duff Roman, reconstruct Toronto's rock roots. They explore the strip from its white bread beginnings in the mid-1950s right up until 1970, when clubs like Le Coq d'Or Tavern, Club Blue Note and the Brown Derby were replaced by strip clubs and shopping malls.
They heyday lasted but a decade, says Brady. When the strip clubs went completely nude, that was the end of music on Yonge Street.
Strange to think that, in Toronto at least, sex killed rock 'n' roll. The evidence remains today, with the last remaining music club from the '60s -- the Zanzibar -- still operating as a lap dance palace.
Things were very different in 1955, when Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm arrived from the southern U.S., bringing with them what was seen then as "devil music." Hawkins, one of many key players featured in the documentary, saw Toronto as the promised land. Within a year, Elvis Presley was making his only concert appearance outside the U.S. at Maple Leaf Gardens.
One Hawkins fan was Robbie Robertson, a young guitarist who jammed his way into Hawkins' band The Hawks. The future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer later came into his own with Bob Dylan and The Band. In the documentary, he speaks reverently about Hawkins' showmanship, praising his animal spirit and exciting, violent style.
Brady, 63, witnessed Hawkins in action back in the day and says Torontonians were extraordinarily lucky to have this front seat on the exploding rock 'n' roll scene. A key part of the experience was the many talented black musicians who came to Toronto from as far away as New Orleans, as well as Detroit and Chicago. Mouse Johnson and Curley Bridges, both interviewed on the series, were a vital part of building the Toronto R&B sound. As Brady suggests, "radio waves and the border back then were colour blind so all these guys could come and play."
The documentary also looks at Toronto's folk music scene which flowered in the midtown Yorkville district. Here, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Murray McLauchlan emerged along with Ian and Sylvia Tyson and Neil Young.
Although they were just a few subway stops apart, the two scenes were so distinct that when Dylan came to Toronto in the mid-1960s to check out the Hawks, Robertson had barely heard of him. Yonge Street was for rockers, Yorkville for the college crowd.
McDonald makes great use of archival film clips of Toronto in the '50s and '60s to tell these rock 'n' roll stories. Much of the narration is told from the back seat of a limo or on a stool in a bar. At one point, former Blood, Sweat and Tears frontman David Clayton Thomas takes viewers on a walking tour in search of Toronto's lost club scene.
Looking back is important says Daniel Langois, the world-renowned producer of U2, Dylan and others. Seen improvising on a slide guitar, he mourns the fact that most of the landmark Toronto clubs are gone and sees that as a blow to Canada's cultural heritage.
While he saw the special as a way to salute great Toronto bands like the Mynah Birds (featuring Young and Rick James) and the Sparrows (with Steppenwolf founder John Kay), Brady says it was important to explore "some of the back stories nobody knows." He wonders, for example, how many Led Zeppelin fans know the British band's first gig was at Toronto's Rockpile at Yonge north of Bloor. The old Masonic Temple, now the home of MTV Canada, also had the Who, Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa rock its walls.
One of the most astonishing "Yonge Street" stories centres on the efforts to bring John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band -- including guitar legend Eric Clapton -- to Toronto's Varsity Stadium in the summer of 1969 for the famous Live Peace in Toronto concert. As Brady tells it, the event was funded by two of the least likely of concert promoters, local socialite Lady Eaton and local biker gang the Vagabonds.
"The Eatons were one of the few people with a credit card back then who were able to put John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman and their support team on an airplane from London," explains Brady.
It was Lady Eaton's limousine that whisked Lennon -- then still officially with the Beatles -- from the airport (escorted by 80 bikers). The whole enterprise, recalls concert promoter John Brower, was nearly scuttled when John and Yoko decided at the last minute that they'd rather stay in bed.
An irate Clapton apparently got on the phone and shamed Lennon into hustling to the London airport. This was much to the relief of Brower, who feared crossing the Vagabonds much more than Lady Eaton.
That two such opposite factions should come together for a Toronto rock concert was, as Brady puts it, "all part of the Yonge Street legend."