Russ: With a lot of encouragement from my blog partner, Gary, I have agreed to try to write about some of my experiences performing as a musician and contributing to the Toronto Sound of the 60’s. I am pleased to say that for a decade I was really active in this scene, performing and recording music as a young sax player.
On Yonge Street, I played the Zanzibar, the Club Bluenote, Club 888 and the Hawk’s Nest. During those days, the saxophone was a very popular instrument and I also enjoyed the opportunity of recording with some of these bands – no earth shattering top hits, but one song made Toronto’s CHUM charts and I have recording credits on several LP albums. I also got to appear on television.
This post will touch on various venues where music was happening during this era as I take you through three time periods of my own musical journey.
- The Early 1960’s on The Yonge Street Strip
- 1963-1966: Club Bluenote and “The Regents” Years
- 1966-1970: “The Majestics” Years
The Early 1960’s on the yonge street strip
In 1960 I played on what was known as Toronto’s “Yonge Street Strip”.
This was a stretch of Yonge Street heading South from Gerrard Street down to Richmond Street, with a high concentration of popular and very active music venues all along the way. I think it is fair to say that a few of these places specialized in providing music of a certain type or genre, so there was something for everybody.
Live bands were hired to deliver entertainment that often went well beyond just singing or playing musical instruments. It was all about keeping the patrons amused so they would stay all evening, drink lots of alcoholic beverages and perhaps eat some food.
Toronto bars stopped serving Liquor at 11.00 p.m., but were allowed to continue serving alcohol if customers entered a part of the club where food was served. Sometimes the food was merely a little plate with some celery sticks and carrots.
Of course, the drinking laws were radically different then. I have heard it said that you could get tanked up during a night on the town and then drive home with very little chance of getting into trouble, mainly because there were far fewer cars and people on the roads back then.
359 Yonge Street – The Zanzibar Tavern
The Zanzibar was (and still is) located downtown on the east side of Yonge right next to Ryerson University.The city landscape is totally different to what it was back in the 60’s
Back then, I went to Ryerson Institute of Technology (RIT), a block away from the Zanzibar, with the O’Keefe Brewery in between, spewing out the odour of hops every Monday morning as I sat in classes.
But as it grew from being RIT, it gradually expanded its boundaries, gobbling up these familiar landmarks of taverns and other hot spots, and morphed into the highly regarded University it is today.
In 1960 I was enrolled in the Electronic Technology program at RIT and FM radio station CJRT was right on our campus. (RT = Ryerson Technology).
With Ryerson’s expansion, gone are places once occupied by “Sam The Record Man” and other spots along the city block down to Gould Street.
The “Zanz” is one of Toronto’s oldest nightclubs, having survived Ryerson expansions, and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2010.
The Zanzibar originally operated by the Cooper brothers as a live music venue, featuring jazz, pop music, and blues. By contract, today there are not too many places where you can have a drink or a meal while enjoying some good live music.
At the Zanzibar, I signed contracts with Dave Cooper and was the front man for a group called “The Ramblers”. I think a lot of pop groups back then named themselves after cars.
We played there 6 nights a week with a Saturday afternoon matinee for 6 months from about March to September of 1960, doing tunes such as “Honky Tonk”, “Raunchy” and “Harlem Nocturn”. I can remember singing a song called “Linda Lu”.
We rotated every half hour with another band, “The Swing Kings” so the venue could offer continuous entertainment. Other groups in rotation were “Terry Roberts & The Deans” and “Sonny Bright & The Sequins”.
“Tommy Danton & The Echos” also appeared there at that time. This was before the place became a strip joint.
Tommy Danton & The Echos / Oh Yeah
“Echos” bass player, Nick Bassel, is a great guy. I used to play with him back in the late 50’s. It was in a suburb north of Toronto called Thornhill, and this band was the first one that I got paid to play, “Al Hepburn & The Houndogs”.
Nick had perfect pitch and could tell you the name of any note he heard, and whether it was in tune or not. Nick started out playing a violin and went on to (acoustic) bass fiddle as well as electric bass. He would later also play in other show bands a thing called a Theremin, an electronic tone generator that he made himself. Nick was an electronics wiz.
Another piece of Toronto trivia… Nick Bassel’s uncle owned and operated a fantastic restaurant called Bassel’s, nicely located at the north part of the strip, at the S.E. corner of Yonge and Gerrard St.
Heading south down Yonge Street, here are some other places where a lot of great live music prevailed.
349 Yonge – Steele’s Restaurant and Tavern
A few doors South of the Zanzibar, sandwiched between two legendary record stores, “Sam The Record Man” and “A&A Records & Tapes”, was Steele’s Tavern…
… where you could walk in and see folk/rock/country music artists such as Ian & Sylvia, and one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, the brilliant young Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Lightfoot / “Remember Me” / 1962
335 Yonge – The Edison Hotel
A little further down the East side, I remember at the S.E. corner of Yonge and Gould St. the Edison Hotel. They seemed to feature a kind of showy “Vegas” style music, but with a Toronto flair.
Versatile jazz drummer Alex Lazaroff played rock style in the Edison House Band along with a few other great Toronto professionals, including Darwin Aiken (piano), Don (DT) Thompson on tenor sax, and my guitarist/singer friend, Kenny Hepburn.
Kenny also happens to be the brother of Al Hepburn, who I played with (my first paying gig) in “Al Hepburn & The Houndogs”. Nick Bassel (re. Tommy Danton group) played bass in that group. You can see how we all knew each other as this “Toronto Sound” unfolded.
During the time Kenny was working at the Edison, he recorded an album called “Twangy Guitar”, which was in keeping with the popular sound of the day, as made big by Duane Eddy.
I had the honour of playing sax on that recording. Here’s one of the cuts: “Honky Tonk – Part 2“
333 Yonge – Le Coq d’Or Tavern
Right next door to the Edison was Le Coq d’Or. Now, this was considered to be one of the hottest places, and I think they featured Rockabilly music with a lot of great entertainers such as Ray Hutchinson and Ronnie Hawkins.
Ray Hutchinson was very popular back then.
A bit of history about Ray’s group – they were the first in Canada to write, arrange, totally finance and record their own music, all in Canada. This had not been done until that time.
They started out as the “Del-Tones” and recorded “Moonlight Party“. Then they changed their name to “The Beau Marks” and recorded “Clap Your Hands“. This would have been in 1959, but it was not released in the US until 1960. The Floodgates opened after that; they appeared on American Bandstand, Peppermint Lounge & Carnegie Hall.
Ray Hutchinson’s group deserves more recognition then it received. People were lining up to get into the Le Coq d’Or just to see them. My blog partner, Gary, was there when the Beau Marks recorded a live album in 1962. Here is an old standard from that “live” performance at Le Coq d’Or.
Beau Marks – When The Saints Go Marching In
Joey Frenchette was the leader of the Beau Marks and Ray Hutchinson was really the spokesman for the group. Ray started to become more recognized later and then went with “Dave Nichols and The Coins”.
Another popular Rockabilly artist to appear on Yonge Street was Ray Smith
Ray’s big hit was “Rockin’ Little Angel“
But probably the most successful entertainer to make Le Coq d’Or his “home” was Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins.
Ronnie also played the Concord Tavern on Bloor Steet and that was like his Toronto base when he first came from Arkansas.
Ronnie Hawkins / Thirty Days / recorded in Toronto at a studio on Kingston Road
I remember one afternoon when I was walking past Le Coq d’Or during a break in our Saturday afternoon matinee at the Zanzibar, Ronnie was standing on the sidewalk having a cigarette. He said to me in his Southern drawl as I was about to walk passed him, “Hey boy, I like the way you play, would you like to play in my band?” At that time, I said No, thank you, because I was already committed to a few other things… I don’t regret this decision, but sometimes wonder about it.
On another occasion, one evening when the Ramblers were on a break at the Zanzibar, I walked down the street to see Ronnie’s group and as I walked in, Robbie Robertson waved at me from the stage with a big smile. Funny, some of the little things about people you remember.
There was a popular legend going on back then that might have been put out by Robbie himself – about how he was able to bend his notes on the guitar, by soaking his guitar strings in turpentine. Now this could have been just a joke, I’m not sure.
Ronnie Hawkins, in his book, stated that the best musicians he ever found were on Yonge Street in the early sixties.
311 Yonge – The Brown Derby Tavern
The Brown Derby was right on the N.E. corner of Dundas St. and Yonge. They used to have a food promotion, “All the spaghetti you can eat for 99 cents” and I tried to take them up on it once… very filling.
One of the very entertaining groups at the Derby was “Joe King and the Zaniacs”. They were really zany for sure, carrying on in the same way as Sam Butera.
279 Yonge – The Friar’s Tavern
The Friar’s was another stop for bands gigging along the “Strip”. This location is now the site of the Hard Rock Cafe and there is a plaque inside commemorating the morning of September 15, 1965 when Bob Dylan caught a performance by Levon and The Hawks. For the next two nights, Dylan and the group that would ultimately become known as “The Band” rehearsed at the Friar’s before going out on Dylan’s first electrified tour.
One of the great groups of the day at the Friar’s was “David Clayton Thomas and the Shays“
Other regular attractions at the Friar’s…
Many other great acts held forth at this spot such as Robbie Lane & The Disciples,
Robbie Lane & The Disciples / 1964 / “Fanny Mae“
225 Yonge – The Silver Rail Tavern and Restaurant
The Silver Rail was located on the N.E. corner of Yonge and Shuter Streets.
The Silver Rail was one of Toronto’s first licensed cocktail lounges. It has remained at the same location on Yonge Street since April 2 1947. The interior has remained almost unchanged for 50 years while the face of Yonge Street has changed dramatically.
Not a lot of great entertainment there, in my opinion. Please enlighten us by Comment, if you have information to the contrary.
201-203 Yonge – The Colonial Tavern
Situated just North of Queen Street between two historic bank buildings across from the present-day Eaton Centre, the Colonial Tavern once attracted a steady stream of blues, jazz and rock acts during its existence. It was one of the most famous jazz venues in Canada from the 1950s till its closure in the late 1970s.
The Colonial had an awesome looking entrance with huge Romanesque pillars of the neighboring buildings on either side. Today a little park graces the site.
Jazz artists played on the ground floor, on a raised stage along one wall. The stage could also be watched from a balcony and dining area that wrapped around the second floor. I can remember seeing Stan Getz play there.
Stan Getz / Desafinado / Girl From Ipanema
Concerts at the Colonial were often recorded by CJRT’s jazz disk jockey, Ted O’Reilly, for broadcast on Saturday mornings with hundreds of full interviews of jazz artists discussing their performances and memories. Some of these interviews are in the Ryerson University archives (my old Alma Mater).
Toronto Sound Venues Beyond the Yonge Street Strip
The Holiday Tavern Queen & Bathurst
Of course, live music scenes were not restricted to Yonge Street. They were happening all over downtown Toronto. “Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers” with Jackie Shane often appeared at a bar at the S.E. corner of Queen Street and Bathurst Street, called the Holiday Tavern.
I went to the “Holiday” one time to see a group called “Andy Wilson and The Cosmos”. They asked me to sit in with them, I guess because their regular sax player was having some issues.
As it turned out, I won an “audition” and they invited me to play a few gigs with them for a short time. Andy Wilson was a one-hit wonder; with a song called “My Love, My Love” he sounded a bit like Little Richard.
Andy Wilson & The Cosmos / My Love, My Love
Ascot Hall – Corner of Keele and Annette
Talk about the Toronto Sound, this was an absolutely amazing, rocking soul venue for all kinds of R&B acts, from the States and local, yet I am surprised that very few people of our generation remember Ascot Hall at all.
I was there on several occasions and heard Red Prysock and his band, Shirley & Lee, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Shane with Frank Motley and the Motley Crew.
Jackie Shane / Any Other Way
“Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers” with Little Jackie Shane also appeared regularly at the Sapphire Tavern at 14 Richmond Street E. just off Yonge, South of Queen St.
“Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers” recorded a live album there called “Honkin’ At Midnight“. Here’s the title track:
Another great track recorded earlier with his previous group, “Frank Motley and the Motley Crew” was called “New Hound Dog” and featured pianist Curley Bridges on vocal.
So many other places I have not mentioned. Let me know what you think should be added.
1963 – 1966 : club bluenote and the Regents Years
I think it was in 1961 Steve Kennedy asked to join the House Band at Club Bluenote. It was called “The Silhouettes”.
There were some really fine musicians in the Silhouettes; for example, organist Doug Riley. I remember when I first met Doug in the band, he was around 17 years old.
During my Bluenote days, we backed up many really fine artists.
Diane Brooks, Jack Hardin, Jason King and Shirley Matthews were regulars on during our shows.
Shirley Matthews struck gold with a hit she recorded in New York, with funding by the very generous Al Steiner, who was the founding owner of the Bluenote. The story of how Shirley got to record “Big Town Boy” is described in another of our posts. Check out: https://strathdee.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/big-town-boys/
1963 / Shirley Matthews / Big Town Boy
Veteran Toronto Singer George Olliver looks fondly up at the former site of the Bluenote, a 70-seater where he and The Five Rogues played from 1962-64. “Of all the innovative clubs for R&B/soul, the Bluenote was the place to go. So many of the hit artists who used to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens came here after hours — people like Stevie Wonder, The Righteous Brothers.” In those days, he says, “It was all mohair suits and flash and silk. And the girls used to dress up with gowns onstage. It was a different way of performing back then.”
1975 / George Olliver / Mandala/ Opportunity /
Doug Riley would later go on to get a degree in music from University of Toronto, and in 1969 he formed a 16 piece group called “Doctor Music”.
This moniker became the title of a very successful vinyl album in 1971.
Dr Music track 1 / Long Time Comin’ Home
Dr Music track 2 / On The Road
The lineup for “Dr. Music” was like a Who’s Who – the cream of Toronto talent. Doug Riley (keyboards) Laurel Ward (vocals), Rhonda Silver (vocals), Brenda Gordon (vocals), Terry Black (vocals, harmonica), Diane Brooks (vocals), Trudy Desmond (vocals), Michael Kennedy (congas), Steve Kennedy (vocals, tenor sax, flute), Brian Russell (vocals), Terry Clarke (drums), Kenny Marco (guitar), Doug Mallory (vocals, guitar), Don Thompson (bass, vibes, percussion), Bruce Cassidy (trumpet, flugelhorn), Gary Morgan (clarinet, baritone sax, alto flute), Keith Jollimore (vocals, baritone, alto & tenor sax, flute), and Barrie Tallman (trombone).
Another great musician from the Bluenote days was saxophonist Steve Kennedy. Steve played some blistering solos on the “Doctor Music” album.
Steve was also a key member of the group “Motherlode”. Other members in 1969 were William “Smitty” Smith (organ, piano, vocals), Ken Marco (guitar, vocals), and Wayne “Stoney” Stone (drums).
Steve and Smitty co-wrote the song “When I Die“, which eventually reached #5 on Canadian charts.
1969 / Motherlode / When I Die
Here’s a promo video of “When I Die” that shows the four members of Motherlode:
Steve Kennedy also joined Paul Hoffert and Skip Prokop (from the Paupers) in a magnificent group called Lighthouse. I would say this group is a shining example of the “Toronto Sound”.
That’s Steve Kennedy upper right playing tenor sax in the horn section. Paul Hoffert on keyboard (lower left) and Skip Prokop centre (drums).
Lighthouse / Sunny Days / 1072
Lighthouse are still performing to this day.
After playing at the Bluenote, it was around 1963 I was invited by Bob Andrews (formerly of the Regents at the Bluenote) to join the next generation of that group.
One of the places I remember we played a lot was Club 888, which was in the old Masonic Temple at the N.W. corner of Yonge Street and Davenport Road. This was a few blocks north of the vibrant Yonge Street Strip.
A few years after our time of playing “Club 888”, the name was changed in 1968 to “The Rock Pile” and it catered to a younger generation of Rock Music fans.
I will cut to the chase and present a hit single recorded by this group, It got recognition on Toronto’s CHUM Chart.
The Regents / Me And You
We also produced a vinyl album called Going Places With The Regents, which included that hit single.
What Some Other Toronto Bands Were Doing
While I was with the Regents, a lot of other Toronto groups were also quite busy. It was hard to keep track of it all.
Little Caesar & The Consuls released “If” on the Red Leaf label.
If…(I Found A New Girl) / Columbia
Bobby Kris & The Imperials
For a brief moment in 1966 Bobby Kris & The Imperials were arguably the most popular group in Toronto and one of the best paid on the southern Ontario circuit.
Their tasteful rendition of the Dionne Warwick classic, “Walk on By” was a single produced in Canada in 1965 and it became a significant hit on Toronto’s CHUM chart in January of that year.
Bobby Kris & The Imperials / Walk On By / Columbia
The Canadian Squires
After leaving Hawkins in 1964, this group toured on their own, usually billed as “Levon and the Hawks”. Personnel changed periodically, but by the time of this recording, all the members of the group that would go on to become the Band was in place, four of the five from southern Ontario.
The Canadian Squires / Leave Me Alone /
This young lady was seen more on Television more than at live venues. At an early age, during a performance at an amateur variety show she was spotted by disc jockey Al Boliska who lined her up with CBC-TV in Toronto. They liked her so much she became a regular on the weekly network shows ‘While You Were Young’, ‘Holiday Ranch’, ‘Club Six’ and ‘Country Hoedown’.
Pat Hervey / Pain
Pat Hervey / Tears of Misery / #11 on the Chum chart, March 1963
Ritchie Knight and The Mid-Knights – “Charlena”
I had the pleasure of playing with these guys at the Don Mills Bowl in 1963 and we did this song. They hired me to take the place of their regular sax player, Mike Brough, who was unable to make the gig.
Jack London & The Sparrows
They were a British Invasion-style group playing as part of the rock scene in Yorkville in the 1960s — first as “Jack London & The Sparrows” and then later just “The Sparrows”. They were best known for playing a residency at Chez Monique (a club on Yorkville Avenue near Bellair) and for regular gigs at El Patio (down the street, closer to Avenue Road).
You probably know “Jack London & the Sparrows” as the band they would later become “Steppenwolf”. But they were “The Sparrows” before moving to California and becoming famous for songs like “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride”.
Jack London & The Sparrows / “Take It Slow” / a track off their self-titled record released in 1965
Patrician-Anne was the stage name of Patrician Anne McKinnon, sister of singer and actress Catherine McKinnon, and wife of Brian Ahern, a long-time producer and musician. Brian was a producer at Arc Records.
I did a sax track for one of her recordings at Arc Sound.That would have been when she was just starting out.
Patrician often appeared on Frank Cameron’s TV show, Frank’s Bandstand. An Arc LP Do You “Wanna” Dance (The Best of Frank’s Bandstand) has covers of “I Only Want to Be With You” and “As Tears Go By”, credited to Patrician McKinnon.
Patrician Anne McKinnon / Blue Lipstick / P.F. Sloan /Arc 1113
1966-1970: The Majestics Years
Around 1967 I joined another group, The Majestics. I was invited to join by Chris Vickery, their bass player. The drummer was Wes Morris and the musical director was a very young guy, just 17 years old, who was already the organist and choir director at Humberview United Church. I’m talking about Eric Robertson.
Now, this group had a 4-piece horn section and in those days that was very special. Eric arranged the horn parts in beautiful harmony and voicing that had a real punch.
Eric’s age was really not an issue because of his obvious maturity. We never thought anything of it, except that he would amaze me once in a while with abilities. For example, he wrote out all the horn parts for a new song we were doing, while traveling on a bus.
Personnel of the group were:
- piano/organ – Eric Robertson;
- electric bass – Chris Vickery;
- drums – Wes Morris;
- trumpet – Brian Lucrow;
- trombone – Orlando Guerrari;
- tenor / alto sax – Russ Strathdee;
- baritone sax – John Crone
- singer – Shawne Jackson
Later on, we added another singer, Shawne’s brother Jay Jackson, and then a guitar player, Dave Konvalinka (who had played with Bobby Chris & The Imperials). During a later time of the band, Freddie Keeler became our guitar player.
The Majestics played many places throughout Southern Ontario circuit. Here are just a few that I can recall:
- The Avenue Road Club, Toronto, Ontario
- The Gogue Inn, Toronto
- The Jubilee Pavilion, Oshawa, Ontario
- The Broom and Stone, Scarborough, Ontario
- The Beacon, Wasaga Beach, Ontario
- Hidden Valley, Huntsville, Ontario
- The Pavilon, Orillia, Ontario
- West Hill Collegiate, Toronto
- The Dardinella, Wasaga Beach
- Neil McNeil’s High School, Toronto
- The Hawk’s Nest, Toronto
- The Met Club, Toronto
Shaune & Jay Jackson and The Majestics at the Gogue Inn
This dance spot was located on Danforth Avenue East, at the end of the street car line, the Luttrell loop. It had 3 floors, each having a different live group. The main act was always on the main floor.
Shawne & Jay Jackson and The Majestics at The Hawk’s Nest
The Hawks Nest (above Le Coq d’Or) – 333 Yonge Street
King Curtis happened to be playing downstairs at Le Coq d’Or and he came up to check us out during one of his breaks. I asked him if he’d like to try out my new 1965 Selmer Mark VI tenor sax.
Wow! I’m still trying to find some of those notes he was able to produce… totally mind-blowing and amazing to hear MY HORN sound so great.
Recording Sessions With The Majestics at Arc Sound
The Majestics got heavily involved in a number of recording sessions at a place called Arc Sound in Scarborough, Ontario, where they produced 5 albums and a couple of 45 rpm singles.
- 1968 Album: Instrumental R&B / ARC732 Track #3 Land Of 1000 Dances
- 1968 Album: Funky Broadway / ARC752
Track #2 Soul Serenade
- 1969 Album: The Soul King / Otis Redding / A Tribute / ARC770
- 1969 Album: Here Come Da Judge / ARC780
- 1970 Album: Heads Of Our Time / ARC790 / Goodgroove 7001
Toronto’s CBC Television Show “Where It’s At” with the Majestics
Around 1970 the Majestics with Jay Jackson appeared on about 6 TV shows. It was all so surreal for me. This was around the time television in Canada was just starting to have colour and some of the shows were quite colourful for sure.
Remember this “colour presentation” logo?
Just for fun, I’m presenting a little bit of audio from one of those TV shows.
Majestics / Where It’s At / Opening Theme and Jay… /
Other Toronto Artists (While I Was With The Majestics)
It was like being caught up in a storm and not knowing all that is being affected in the bigger picture. I guess it was around 1961 I opted to remain a part time musician because I wanted to build my career as a computer programmer.
But it was great to see how some of my friends went full-time into music, making hit records, getting radio play and developing big names for themselves.
When I look back on it now, I feel blessed to have been involved. I had a great ride; it’s 2016 and I am still enjoying playing.