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. We listened to George, Hound Dog Lorenz., the Hound, on radio station WKBW in Buffalo. The first notes of his theme, an instrumental called the Big Heavy, filled us with anticipation of the 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 Lymen 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.
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".
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 and how we sounded; 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 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 Ave.in Parkdale, two months after Elvis hit the Gardens in a shiny gold suit.
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.
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