Canadian Performers of 1950's Toronto

Some of these performers might not have played the bars of the Yonge Street strip but all shared the creative energy that moved through 1950's Toronto.

Going back to my student days at Parkdale Collegiate, I remember Bonnie Dobson on my Student Council Campaign, who I learned after I had begun drumming was a folk singer which Time Magazine articles about her performances confirmed. And during those days vocal groups resembling Toronto's Four Lads & "The Crew Cuts" from St. Michael's Choir School, and "The Diamonds" at times seemed the sole representatives of popular music, often performing a cappella in four part harmony at school dances. Some time after my school years perhaps the early 1960's I learned of a vocal group, "The Imperials", accompanied by a piano player Conny Kay(?) and saxophonist, Larry Green, later a D.J. for CHUM FM during its early years, and more recently for Jazz FM.

Then there were "The Blue Bops", a rock-a-billy group, whom I once saw performing on Queen Street, just east of Dufferin Street, several years before I knew of the Arkansas Hawks, maybe before I owned my first drum set in 1957. The name Smitty seems to have been connected to "The Blue Bops", but in all the years since I began playing I never again was aware of their existence.

Of those whom I knew directly from playing experience there were of course Willie and Harry, perhaps typical of Torontonians of the 50's willing to contribute, try something new. It is difficult to appreciate the enormous influence Willie had in communicating the latest music and bringing together individuals such as Gene McClellan, Norm Parish (Sherrat), and Bruce Morshead "The Consuls"' leader.

And during "The Consuls" early days there was pianist singer Bobby Dean and his group, "The Jems," with drummer Roger Farr, guitarist Jack Snow, and bassist, vocalist Bobby Lenthal. When the Consuls disbanded along came pianist Scott Cushnie (Professor Piano) Robbie Robertson song writer & guitarist; bassist Pete Traynor of Traynor amps fame, then Johnny Rhythm singer & actor. As time moved along there was Kelly Jay pianist singer & visual artist, Scott Cushnie's Oakville neighbour.

And Kelly introduced me to fellow OCA student recording artist, singer, guitarist Buddy Burke. And some time after that there was recording artist Terry Roberts, John Till, a guitarist from Stratford, Ontario. Then David Clayton Thomas of "Blood Sweat and Tears" was sitting in at the Zanzibar on Yonge Street a few doors up from Steeles Tavern where I'd see Gordon Lightfoot performing upstairs. And about those days in the early 1960's I got to play with local guitarist Pete Michaut who played on most of Webb Pierce's 1970's recordings and eventually with Willy Nelson.We both played together with Bobby Dean of "The Gems" and then with recording star Max Falcon who apparently started out as a waiter at the Brass Rail on Yonge near Bloor Street, and another former Gem, Bobby Lenthal. And Toronto's R. Dean Taylor who I think I recall hearing was also associated with the Brass Rail was hired by Motown Records as songwriter and singer in 1964. And I don't Know how I'd forgotten about Ray Hutchinson until someone put in a search for the "entertainer with a cane" to reignite and expand my recollection about his regular appearances at Le C'oq D'Or whenever Hawkins went on the road.

Guitarist Gene MacLellan, who though he didn't play Yonge Street was important to the development of the Toronto Rock and Roll scene as a founding member of "The Consuls" in 1957. After leaving "The Consuls" in 1959 he became known for his song writing, especially his "Snow Bird" made popular by Ann Murray. And there was Robbie Robertson who became a "Consul" for a few spring time months of 1959 and came to be known as the first Canadian string-bending Telecaster guitarist, a rock-a-billy-blues style he picked up from the Hawkins Hawks in late 1959 and early 1960, about when he began showing his song writing talents that made him famous with "The Band" in the 1970's. But what few are aware of is Robbie's almost devout interest in progressive jazz; whenever he and the Hawks came 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. .Another guitarist, John Till of Stratford, Ontario, played with me on Yonge Street in 'The Jamies" and the Terry Roberts group in the early 1960's and with Ronnie Hawkins, then Janice Joplin in the late 1960's/early 1970's. A few years ago I saw him playing guitar with Janice Joplin and narrating a film, "Festival Express", about Canadian musicians traveling across Canada.When I spoke to John this spring of 2017, I hadn't talked to him in ten years, and before that maybe back in the 60's when he was with "The Hawks" just before he went with Joplin and "The big speckled bird" and performed at Woodstock.. He made me aware that Max Falcon was responsible for bringing him from Stratford to Toronto. Even though I got to know both John and Max through playing in various groups formed on Yonge Street, I was surprised that they knew each other. John also revealed that Jerry Penfound a former Hawk they used to call "Ish" who'd played sax in our 70's one nighter group out of the Zanzibar used to live in the other half of John's Stratford, Ontario duplex.

As the 1960's wore on the intense concentration of Yonge Street performers began to dissipate reaching a sort of climax as I experienced it sometime after 1965 , about when Ronnie Hawkins' U.S. originated Hawks were becoming the Canadian group, "The Band", who by 1968 had left Toronto with Bob Dylan, with Robbie on guitar, Garth Hudson on sax and organ, Richard (Beak) Manuel on piano & vocals, bassist Rick Danko, with the only American remaining from the Hawks, drummer Levon Helm. It was about then guitarist Pete Michaut/Mitchell began playing with Web Pierce and Ernest Tubb on The Grand Old Opry. Guitarist,John Till , soon to play with Janice Joplin, joined the remnants of Ronnie's Hawks. And about that time Canadian performers such as jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and Peter Mann's vocal group, Sugar Shoppe, played the short lived Friars Tavern at the south-east corner of Yonge and Dundas . It was about then that I had started an extended late afternoon engagement at the Zanzibar Tavern with organists Wayne McKenzie, another former OAC student & Cello Gomez, guitarist/recording artist Wayne Versage, and pianist Boyd Sarney. But The Zanzibar's main groups with drummer Billy Blackburn, and singer, pianist Bobby Dean/Blackburn and Terry logan on key boards continued to play and attract famous jazz jammers such as organist Jimmy Smith,and Bill Doggett of Honky Tonk fame who recruited Billy Blackburn.

And the Brown Derby Tavern where I had started playing almost 10 years before finally disappeared with construction of the Eatons Centre across the corner of Yonge and Dundas. Gone with the Derby were Joe King and performers I have always imagined had maintained old showbiz traditions rejuvenated by Joe's regular performances in Los Vegas but that dissolved like Yonge Street's Elgin theatre's vaudeville about 40 years earlier.

It's funny though how "change" happens and you don't even notice it's happening, and sometimes how things happen by surprise like a sudden lifting of a curtain behind which a forgotten show returns to life. We'll that's how part of the "beyond" of "The Zanzibar and Beyond" came back when Ronnie Russell, Roger Far, and Bruce Staubitz visited over a month ago. Ron gave me a CD of an old performance at the RonDun tavern then owned by Dave Cooper of the Zanzibar. When I played it I was amazed at how well we'd been recorded live on a stage amidst a bar crowd, obviously not where you'd expect ideal recording acoustics; but as far as I was concerned we sounded better than we could've sounded in any of the studios I'd been in. And this was an unrehearsed performance, almost a jam session, even though Wayne and I'd been working together for some years and Ronnie and Wayne had also worked together. I still don't recall who was on saxaphone. I 'd all but forgotten The Blue Moon Band at the RonDun in what seemed an impromptu get together, a "jam session" even; some time around when Versage, Sarney, Penfound and me were playing one nighters and rehearsing in Sarney's rec room. I realize now that leaving Yonge Street with Boyd and Wayne and playing one nighters again after having graduated to bars even before I was old enough to play in them was not what one does when one stops playing full time. I now know it was what was happening. Guitarist George Willis once complained that the union was unable to help; musicians again had to struggle to find places to play. For some reason the well had begun to dry. Today musicians get paid no more for a one nighter than Boyd, Wayne, and Gerry and I got in the 1970's. But back in the rock and roll 50's we felt lucky to be on stage getting $5.00 each time we were allowed to play like a kind of icing on the cake of getting to play before an audience.

Where we played

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Yonge Street Bars

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Yonge Street Stories


Grant Wilson's old band pictures