Toronto has always had a vibrant music scene. The 2011 documentary directed by Bruce McDonald, Yonge Street: Toronto Rock’n’roll Stories described Toronto’s early rock’n’roll scene of the 1950’s and 1960’s as being centred on the Yonge Street downtown strip.
In 1957 Elvis Presley played two shows at Maple Leaf Gardens to a crowd of 38,000 screaming fans. A year or two later Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins played the Criterion movie theatre at Queen and Bay Streets, reportedly on a stage covered with straw and cow dung. Peter De Remigis, drummer for the Suedes and Consuls, has some great recollections from those early days of rock’n’roll.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Toronto had Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Little Caesar and the Consuls, Johnny Rhythm and the Suedes, Richie Knight and the Midknights playing a mix of rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll. In September 1964 The Beatles played two shows at Maple Leaf Gardens, sold 35,500 tickets and made $93,000. In 1965 the Hawkes (eventually becoming The Band) were backing up Bob Dylan when he made the switch from acoustic to electric. That same year Neil Young was playing with Rick James in the Mynah Birds before James got arrested for being AWOL from the US navy.
Throughout the 1960’s there was a lesser known Ontario garage scene. Toronto’s The Ugly Ducklings were one of the few that experienced some success with their singles “Nothing” and “Gaslight” breaking the local Top 40 music charts. Other notable bands included Luke and the Apostles, The Paupers, Jon and Lee and The Checkmates, Mandala and Bobby Kris and the Imperials with styles ranging from garage-psychedelic to r’n’b – soul. The successor band to Mandala was Bush which featured Prakash John who later toured and played with Lou Reed on his Rock’n’Roll Animal album, as well as playing on some of Alice Cooper‘s albums. There was also Jackie Shane, an openly gay cross-dresser whose soulful vocals not only got him on the music charts but also on CBC television, complete with make up and all his effeminate ways.
The main clubs during the 1960’s were the Brown Derby, Blue Note, Club 888, Colonial, Devil’s Den, Edison, Le Coq d’Or, Hawk’s Nest, Friar’s Tavern, Rockpile, and Zanzibar (which is now a strip club).
In 1969 the Velvet Underground played a big hippy festival at Varsity Stadium. In the early 1970’s the New York Dolls, Mott The Hoople, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Iggy and the Stooges played Massey Hall or the Victory Burlesque Theatre at Spadina and Dundas St. West. For his Rock’n’roll Animal tour, Lou Reed came to Toronto and enlisted Prakash John (originally from Bush) and Michael Fonfara (originally from the Checkmates) to play and record with him. Many of the people who made up Toronto’s orginal punk scene were at those shows.
David Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, was a also a big influence on Toronto’s early to mid-1970’s glam scene. One of the focal points for the scene was a clothing store called Long John’s, located at Yonge and Wellsley streets. It was owned by John Gibb, a future member of the Battered Wives. Soon to be members of the Viletones, Diodes, Existers, Deserters and others, as rebellious teenagers, were probably hanging out or shopping at the store or at Juicy Lucy’s or getting their shag hair cuts at the House of Lords.
There was a bit of overflow into the early punk scene with some of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s psychedelic bands. For instance Bob Bryden from Reign Ghost and Christmas produced the first Forgotten Rebels album. And Simply Saucer, the Velvet Underground / Pink Floyd influenced band from Hamilton, was a key presence in the Hamilton punk scene and opened up for many a punk band in the late 1970’s.
In her 2009 book Treat Me Like Dirt, Liz Worth gives a great account of those pre-punk days of the 1970’s Toronto and Hamilton scenes.
Michael Fonfara, who played with the Checkmates in the 1960’s and Lou Reed in the 1970’s, performed a special show at This Ain’t Hollywood, Hamilton, in 2010 with Mickey DeSadist and Chris Houston (both from the Forgotten Rebels) and Gord Lewis (from Teenage Head) on guitar performing the Lou Reed song “Satellite of Love.”