music history toronto

A history of the Yonge Street music scene

Toronto's municipal inferiority complex is going to get a serious debunking this week when Bravo airs the three-part documentary series Yonge Street: Toronto Rock and Roll Stories, starting tonight (Monday) at 10pm. There have been persistent rumours that the Yonge strip on either side of Dundas once hosted a vibrant musical scene, but we finally have proof, at length and in detail, in the words of eyewitnesses.

Yonge Street's sleazy image is largely self-evident; even recent efforts to buff it up with a public square and a high wall of digital billboards can't quite hide its run-down past, which abides even though most of the remnants of its '70s-to-'80s-era seedy reputation - the porn shops, massage parlours and video arcades - are long banished.

Even in its heyday, Yonge had a hard, decadent, even dangerous vibe, which makes it fitting that the single lingering artifact of the strip's musical renaissance is the Zanzibar Tavern, a peeler bar whose endurance has effectively made it a city landmark.

Director Bruce McDonald's film begins in a Toronto before Elvis Presley, but even then the street was home to places like the Edison Hotel, the Coq D'Or and the Brown Derby - bars and taverns that booked live music, and which would become a new home for Ronnie Hawkins, a refugee from the intensely competitive southern rock and roll circuit who found a home here, building a backing group from a bunch of local boys, anchored around Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born drummer he brought with him over the border.

Hawkins' story is nothing new - he's a local legend and tireless self-promoter who's become the living shorthand for the early days of rock and roll in Toronto, and his backup band's evolution into The Band is practically taught in textbooks. The gift provided by McDonald's film is the context for Hawkins and The Band - the bands and singers who played and even achieved brief local fame at the Coq D'Or and Steele's Tavern, at Friar's and the Bermuda, the Zanzibar, the Colonial and the Blue Note.

You probably knew that Gordon Lightfoot and David Clayton Thomas and Neil Young got their start on stages on Yonge and in Yorkville, the hippie hangout just a walk from Yonge. This is old news, but Yonge Street goes further, documenting Toronto as the northern outpost of the chitlin circuit, where black rhythm & blues groups from the U.S. could get a few weeks' worth of gigs, and even find a relative reprieve from the racial tensions back home. The Blue Note, now a second-floor Thai restaurant on the northwest corner of Yonge and Walton, was a keystone of the local R&B scene, where Stevie Wonder would sit in on drums after playing Maple Leaf Gardens.

If Canadian documentaries have suffered from anything, it's a certain loss of nerve, compounded by lack of time and money. There have been films on Canada's pop music past before, but they've rarely done much beyond sketching a few more lines into the shadows of a threadbare story. McDonald and producer/archivist Jan Haust dig much deeper, with almost three hours to tell their story, and an unapologetic conviction that this story is worth telling, in the same sort of patient detail that I've seen similar music docs give to musical scenes in the U.S. or U.K.

Sure there's Hawkins and his Hawks, but there were also crack white R&B bands like Grant Smith & The Power and Jon & Lee and the Checkmates, and rock bands like the Paupers, working in the shadow cast retrospectively by groups like the Mandala, the Ugly Ducklings, and the Sparrows (who'd later become Steppenwolf.)

And then there's someone completely unclassifiable like Jackie Shane, a phenomenally souful American-born singer who wasn't quite a drag queen, but sported sequins and eye shadow and was an enormous draw on Yonge Street - a living rebuke to Toronto's pathologically self-abnegating insistence on a staid, WASPy self-image that was never more than a part of our story.

Shane might be the great musical discovery of McDonald's film, but the light he's shone on the street and its glorious, sleazy, electrifying and criminal past is just as important. As much as musicians play their part in telling Yonge Street's story, another constant presence is Edjo, onetime leader of the Vagabonds bike gang; affable, bearded and low-key, but a reminder that there was a good reason why your parents worried about you when you went downtown to buy records.

McDonald was given a gift, of sorts, when the building that was once the Edison Hotel burned down earlier this winter, after sitting empty for months after a wall collapsed onto Gould Street. He cuts to the blaze during an interview with Daniel Lanois, a later veteran of the street who learned to play pedal steel guitar in the Edison; Lanois seems genuinely distressed by the news.

It's a sadness and dismay that Toronto viewers might share after discovering that a truly wonderful musical past has been hidden away from them for so long, on the far shore of the dank moat of the Seventies and Eighties and our own self-sabotaging amnesia.

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