The Brown Derby Tavern

The Brown Derby Tavern on the north east corner of Dundas and Yonge still is for me the emblem of the Toronto club scene; when it declined so did Yonge Street as the hub of everything that made downtown Toronto exciting.

I still see those gigantic photos of show bands that lined the length of the Derby's Dundas Street exterior from the ground to the roof, the nattily suited bouncers greeting customers entering the dual entranceway, one for men only the other for ladies with escorts, and visits by the impeccably attired Lou Arnold, the Derby's owner.

The bar starting near the entrance separated the men's bar room and ladies' lounge almost to the back wall. The stage was above the midpoint of the bar where the entertainers positioned themselves to face audience on either side.

An image which is a close second to my memory of the show band photos outside is of Frank Russeau on stage facing the men's entranceway, strapped into his accordion, above a bass drum singing an endless variety of requests including Danny Boy & You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You, every afternoon until dinner time.

As Frank signed off and Joe King's Zaniacs took over, the daytime regulars on the bar side were met by increasing numbers of evening patrons moving into the ladies' lounge to enjoy Joe's Don Rickles-like antics and his group's Louis Prima-like show-band shuffle. That two bar shuffle rhythm carried by drums and bass seemed incessant once Joe hit the stage and continued through his introducing the group, song titles and signing off each set, almost as if each 45 minute set presented one none-stop shuffle.


The Zaniacs:


Joe on sax facing brothers Nat on bass, & Harry on sax (*)

Recently I heard the theory that Joe King's outrageous comedic antics influenced Don Rickles, and not the other way around as I had assumed. I've come to understand that when I was introduced to Joe King in the late 1950's, I did not know there was a Don Rickles. Rickles, however, might have seen Joe in Las Vegas where Joe used to perform between engagements at the Brown Derby during the 50's and 60's. Who Knows?

I also have learned the reality behind one of Joe's favourite jibes at hecklers: "I don't bother you when working at the fish market. Why are you bothering me while I'm working?" As I had always suspected Joe himself had once worked in a fish market. But Joe's fans did not attend his performances at the Derby to heckle; they came to enjoy his making fools of others even at risk of themselves becoming targets of his comic abuse.

Almost nightly, Joe would call up to the stage, one of the Derby regulars, a dwarf with a grand baritone voice (like the 17 lb 2 foot dwarf, Lycius, with the tremendous voice, on stage during the reign of Caesar Augustus): when he arrived on stage Joe would shout, Hey! I asked for the quarterback, and "they sent me the ball". The little man with the big voice would then sing "Okalahoma", and each time he sang the crescendo-ing o-O-Oklahoma lyric someone would goose him from behind with a microphone stand as if to raise him off the floor.

The audience never tired of this zany routine, and the dwarf whose name I can't recall loved the attention and Joe.

But Joe did not pick on just the little guys. I remember the night that he displayed the kind of provocative insulting that intermittently sent him back to work the following evening with a black eye.

Bull Dog Brower, a Canadian wrestler, famous during the 1960's was in the audience. Joe began informing the crowd that there was a famous gentleman in the house. As Brower began rising to acknowledge the anticipated applause, Joe continued, a great man, ladies and gentlemen, "Porky The Pig." Joe then began to apologize with feigned nervousness, but as though his urge to insult overwhelmed his fear of reprisal, he blurted out "Sorry- - ugh -err-Porky"! The audience roared.

He again seemed about to apologize, but once more after an agonizingly long pause of feigned nervous stammering, out came "Sorry- Porky."

As the stammering and the pause between sorry and Porky grew longer the audience hung on each sorry in a kind of frenzied anticipation of the next "Porky" which crescendo-ed in a gleeful roar of laughter as Joe for the umpteenth time blurted "Porky " in place of the apology that he seemed to promise but never gave.


* This photo was sent to me by Jeff Albert, Joe's son in law. It shows Joe and the Zaniacs performing in the Brown Derby. To the left behind the bassist are the doors to the north east corner of Yonge Street leading to the bar on the men's side opposite the stage placed between the bar and the ladies lounge from where this photo seems to have been taken. After examining the Louis Prima video link I've discovered that the Zaniacs not only resemble the musical style of Prima's group but also their numerical proportions and staging. Each group has 7 musicians; both Joe and Prima perform up front in a 3 + 1 arrangement. The bass, and drums are visible in both groups; although the Zaniac's pianist is not visible, I recall that in a sense the Zaniac's pianist was the most conspicuous player to anyone listening in the audience: he seemed to be playing an incessant up tempo boogie shuffle (ba doom ba doom ba doom ba doom ba) from the beginning to the end of each set, sounding like Prima's pianist appears to be playing in the video link above.

My own attraction to this club that I'd always believed to be a quaint survivor of an era before rock and roll came to attract teenagers and eventually even people of their parents' generation, the kind of music that Ronnie Hawkins a few doors up was calling "racket" as he introduced each of his and his Hawks' arrivals on stage by drawling that it was "racket time". The music that Ronnie and his band performed' in tone and rhythm seemed inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis' rockabilly antics which in those early days were simply part of the blend of styles making the rock and roll puzzle that included both rockabilly's staccato, eighth note rhythm and the swinging dotted eighth and sixteenth jazz blues rhythms that you can hear in some early Elvis recordings like "Heart Break Hotel" and the country swing of Bill Haley. And there was that other style with neither conspicuous rockabilly nor swing elements performed by Fats Dominoe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and folk- like troubador Bo Diddlie whose "Hey Bo Diddly" and Chuck Berry's "Forty Days" became Ronnie's hallmark climaxing his shows.

But the kind of tunes one might hear in the Derby at any time between noon and midnight sounded nothing like the southern drawling Hawks' fevered rockabilly style, Elvis' early softly swinging tunes or Bo Diddlie's haunting imagery. Songs such as "Your Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" or "When You're Smile'n" tunes the Zaniaks performed in an old fashioned hip Louis Prima-like swinging shuffle seemed left overs from an earlier era, tunes that might have been been orchestrated and performed in dance halls for "jitter bugs" as popular music during the swinging era of the big bands when jazz and popular music seemed to intersect.

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