Billie Holiday and B.B. King played there, so did Stevie Wonder and Bryan Adams. No, we’re not talking about Greenwich Village. We’re talking about Yonge Street, which was a hotbed of musical activity during the 50s and 60s. Musical artists of all genres graced the stages of the popular Yonge Street clubs including Le Coq d’Or, The Colonial, the Friar and the Town Tavern. If you want to learn more about Toronto’s bustling music scene in the 50s and 60s, you might want to join the Downtown Yonge BIA on one of their music walking tours of Yonge Street. The walking tours, led by local historians, provide a musical history of the famous street beginning in the 1950s, and make stops at the former locations of many of these Yonge Street clubs.
Participants of the music walking tours of Yonge Street will visit the sites of famous clubs including The Friar, The Colonial and Le Coq D’or, and concert venues such as Massey Hall and the Eaton Auditorium. You’ll hear anecdotes about musicians including Ronnie Hawkins, Glenn Gould and Oscar Peterson.
I spoke to Mark Garner, Executive Director and Chief Staffing Officer for the Downtown Yonge BIA, about Yonge Street’s rich musical history.
The Bluenote on Yonge Street
“Toronto has always been a music city,” Garner notes. “Toronto has always been a major stop. Billie Holliday and B.B. King played The Bluenote at Walton and Yonge in the 40s and 50s. The Bluenote was a North American mecca. Stevie Wonder also played there.” Yonge Street was such a buzz of activity that “every fifth building on Yonge Street was a music venue,” notes Garner.
According to Garner, the music circuit for major artists included Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and New York. The largest venue in Toronto during the 60s was Maple Leaf Gardens and…”all the big acts played there including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder…Massey Hall was another large venue.”
“The Town Tavern at the northeast corner of Queen and Yonge featured many blues and jazz artists.” “Buddy Guy and B.B. King played The Colonial.”
When asked about the significance of the music scene in Toronto, Garner notes that “Bob Dylan first heard The Band play at Yonge and Dundas. Up the street, the Eaton Auditorium, which is now The Carlu, was a popular spot in the 60s and hosted Oscar Peterson and Glenn Gould. Garner adds, “Count Basie played The Eaton Auditorium in the 40s.”
Other clubs on Yonge Street during the 60s include The Silver Rail and The Nickleodeon. The Elgin/Winter Theatre and Mirvish Theatre were also popular performance venues.
Ronnie Hawkins played Le Coc d’Or for an extended period in the 60s. The popular club is now the HMV store at Yonge and Dundas and there is a performance venue in the basement where bands often hold CD release parties. The Colonial burnt down years ago and the vacant lot will be turned into condos.
In the 70s, Bryan Adams played all the clubs on Yonge Street before making it big. Rush played The Gasworks, a popular rock club that was frequented by a teenaged Mike Myers.
And if you’re thinking Yonge Street was only about blues, rock and jazz, you’d be wrong. Garner says there was a huge reggae scene at Gerrard and Yonge, as well as east and west along College Street, during the 60s and 70s.
Music Walking Tours of Yonge Street are offered June 3, 17, July 15, 29 and August 5, 19 and September 9, 2015 and begin at 6:30 p.m. Registration is required.