The top 10 Toronto folk and roots bands of all time
The top Toronto folk and roots bands of all time emerge from a rich history. At the height of Toronto's folk scene in the 1960's there were over 40 coffeehouses and clubs featuring folk music. The Riverboat Cafe (now the location of the Hazelton Hotel), open from 1964-1978, was the most famous: Canadian greats including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, and Neil Young were gracing Toronto stages regularly.
The Penny Farthing was also on Yorkville, where Joni Mitchell both waitressed and played. Further through Yorkville was the Village Corner where Ian and Sylvia Tyson had played, and Gordon Lightfoot recorded his first album. At the Purple Onion on Avenue Road, Buffy Saint-Marie wrote "Universal Soldier," and while the scene has died down, the city continues to be the home of many top Canadian folk and roots acts old and new, with a wide variety of venues hosting live performances throughout the city.
While the city has a rich history of singer-songwriters, I've chosen to focus on bands in the proper sense of the word - let me know your nominees for folk and roots solo artists and singer-songwriters in the comments.
Here are 10 of the top Toronto folk and roots bands of all time.
Jerry Gray, Sid Dolgay, Helen Gray, Jerry Goodis, and Oscar Ross formed the Travellers in 1954 at Camp Neivelt outside of Brampton. From early CBC appearances they would go on to play at Mariposa 1961, tour the USSR in 1962, open at Expo 70 in Osaka, and a royal command performance 1964. They remain best known for their version of "This Land Is Your Land." Jerry Gray said of The Travellers, "at that time a Canadian folk group traveling across the country wasn't even a rarity, it was a first."
The Stormy Clovers
Around only three years, 1965-1968, the Stormy Clovers were very much a part of the Yorkville scene, and were influential for Canadian electrified folk-rock. Originally the Stacatto's from Galt, Ontario, they moved to Toronto where Susan Jains joined the band. With Susan's connection through Mary Martin, they were introduced to Leonard Cohen (then only a poet) and would be the first to perform Cohen's "Suzanne" (they later backed him for his first singing performances). Apparently Neil Young visited their rehearsal space and nearly joined the band.
The Irish Rovers
Story has it that in 1963 Northern Irish emigrants George Millar and Jim Ferguson grabbed Joe Millar as soon as his plane landed in Toronto to join them in singing traditional Irish folk ballads. Claiming to be a "part-time" band at first they played coffee houses and Hootenanys throughout the city, but The Irish Rovers later went on to Calgary, then California, signed with Decca, had a 1969 Grammy nomination, starred in three network series including the CBC's The Irish Rovers, produced 25 albums, and performed at five world expos.
The band that would "Crash Into the 90's" first started out in 1988 with shows at the Cameron House, Horseshoe Tavern, and the Rivoli. Michelle McAdorey, Greg Keelor, Jocelyn Lanois, and Colin Cripp were Crash Vegas until Keelor left the band (or was agreeably fired) for Blue Rodeo in 1989. They would go on to release the gold-selling album Red Earth. While the band broke up in 1996, they remain an important part of Queen St. West's folk-rock/country history.
Leslie Spit Treeo
During the late '80s through early '90s, Laura Hubert, Pat Langer, and Jack Nicholsen put themselves and several Toronto locales on the Canadian music map. The Leslie Spit Treeo band was named after a landfill site at the Harbourfront, and their third album Hell's Kitchen was named after a Kensington Market restaurant. After years of busking, Bruce McDonald cast them in his film Road Kill, and on the film's soundtrack. A Juno Award, an unpleasant EMI contract, another McDonald film, conflict with Nabisco, packaging bonfire, and band breakup followed.
If there's a story about a truly independent Canadian folk band, it belongs to Stringband. Marie-Lynn along with Bob Bossin were its main members from 1971-1986. The band's songs were and remain a "Canadian Sound." Semi-hits like "Dief Will Be the Chief Again," and "The Maple Leaf Dog" proved not commercial enough for a label deal and the band felt they could make more income selling on their own, going on to be one of the first to entirely finance an album (Thanks To the Following) through advance sales orders from fans.
The Flying Bulgars
Under the leadership of David Buchbinder, The Flying Bulgars (previously The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band) have played their original dance-twist on Jewish and Eastern European folk music in Toronto and abroad since 1987. Credited with being a key part of the '80s Klezmer Revival (Klezmer translates to Jewish musician), they have three Juno nominations, five albums, and had video play on MuchMusic. Their 2007 name change reflects not being a Klezmer band, with Bulgar referring to dance, not ethnic group.
Childhood friends Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson formed the duo West Montrose in 1984. Looking to move away from the loud, rock 'n roll noise of previous bands, they would play Andrew Cash's Acoustic Meltdown show at the Spadina Hotel regularly. With the addition of Peter Cash (Andrew's brother), Wayne Stokes, and Ron Macy, and Andrew's departure from the Spadina Hotel, they became the Skydiggers. From their folk-based sound they've become one of Canada's most recognized roots-rock bands.
Bobby Kris & the Imperials
Bobby Kris & the Imperials' move to a more folk-rock was one of the many changes the band went through in their varied history. Starting as The Imperials with a jazzy sound, they became Bobby Kris & the Imperials after Bob Burrows (Bobby Kris) joined. The band successfully charted on CHUM in January 1966 with an R&B version of "Walk On By." They went on to record their (non-charting) folk-rock version of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me," and capitalize on their popularity playing the local circuit. At their peak they opened for Wilson Picket (with Hendrix on guitar) at the Masonic Temple.
The original vinyl pressing of the acid folk band The Folklords "Release the Sunshine" remains a rarity among Toronto collectors, selling for upwards of $400. Tom Martin (Tom Waschkowski), Paul Seip, and Martha Johnson signed to Allied Records in 1968. Johnson's autoharp on the LP (their only one) was also a rarity to psychedelic music at the time. The 2007 Lion Productions vinyl re-release was a 700 copy print, selling out within a week.
Skydiggers photo by Kevin Lamb via Facebook
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