Tonight: Yonge Street Toronto Rock & Roll Stories

The Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins Quartet

If you grew up in Toronto and are old enough to remember the heyday of the Yonge Street Strip–or wish you were–you won’t want to miss Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories. The three-part documentary series premieres tonight at 10e/7p on Bravo! and continues Tuesday and Wednesday.
From director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) and producer David Brady (The Pagan Christ) comes this flashback to the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. Toronto the good was a rock and roll town, a hotbed for R&B and blues in long gone clubs such as The Edison, Le Coq d’Or and the Brown Derby. Cats from the States like Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm were packing those clubs by the late ’50s and turning on a whole generation of Canadian rockers.
I missed that whole “Canadian Graffiti” scene by several years but have vague memories of the outside of the old Brown Derby on Yonge Street with its black and orange images of classic comedy stars in bowler hats–Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and others. That place was torn down in the early ’70s to make way for The Eaton Centre.
The documentary, which unfolds as a series of conversations from Hawkins (always entertaining), Duff Roman, Jan Haust, Robbie Robertson, hit record producer Daniel Lanois (particularly moving) and others who were in on that scene shares stories that deserve just this kind of attention.
One performer who deserves his or her own movie is Jackie Shane, a transvestite who worked the strip as a she and built quite a following as a Motown-sounding R&B singer. Too bad the producers could not track her down today.
I go into more detail about the highlights from the series–including the incredible story behind John Lennon’s 1969 visit to Varsity Stadium for the Live Peace in Toronto concert–here is this feature for The Canadian Press.

Yonge Street in the ’60s: hey, where’s the Eaton Centre?

Besides those few clubs on Yonge between Dundas and King the other big music scene in Toronto in those days was uptown on Yorkville, where Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell drew big folk crowds to the coffeehouses. There’s an archived clip in Yonge Street of cars crawling along Yorkville Avenue in the ’60s and I swear one of those cars could have been driven by my dad. My parents would toss me into the car on a warm summer night to go downtown to “look at the hippies.” We’d head in from Etobicoke and keep the doors locked and the windows up as we gawked at long-haired Yorkville crowd. This is, I tell my children, is what people did before xBox and Nintendo.
If you miss it Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on Bravo!, Yonge Street will also air Sunday March 27 starting at 1 p.m. on /A.

2 Responses to “Tonight: Yonge Street Toronto Rock & Roll Stories”

  1. I was part of the scene from 65 to 70 and hung with a lot of the people interviewed and showcased on the documentary. Worked as a DJ at CKFH and CFTR begore going to vancouver for a few years in 1970. My best story is how I lost my car for three days. We were club hopping up an down Yonge St in the summer of 68 and I kept parking in alleys behind the clubs. Eventually got too drunk to drive and walked until I took a cab home! Came back next day and couldn’t remember where the car was, so I searched every alley and side street from Queen right up to the Embassy on Bloor and my friend Murray Cambells Avenue Rd club.
    Finally found it three days later when the cops phoned. It was in the priests parking spot at the back of Trinity church in Trinity square!
    Rock and Roll revival in 69 was a hoot too. Yoko screaming from a potato sack, and Little Richard trying to put the moves on me!
    Allan Janssen
    London ON

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  2. One of my favourite memories was dancing to Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at the Concord Tavern on Saturday afternoons. Somehow the Concord got permission to allow under 21’s into the club by dividing the room into under and over 21 zones. It was a very righteous scene in the very early sixties, and a great place to meet babes..
    Ernie Olivo

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