Saturday, March 9, 2013

Canada’s Yorkville Village Scene: A Birthplace of Indie Songwriters

Canada’s Yorkville Village Scene: A Birthplace of Indie Songwriters

We danced around in the snow when my band, James and the Sinners, had our first booking confirmed at “Charlie Brown’s Coffee House” in Toronto in January 1966. This rock club was in the Village district known as Yorkville. When we announced it from the stage at our high school dance gigs, it drew a few screams from the girls in the audience. We didn’t get to play there again after our debut for several reasons I won’t go into. However, I was asked to join the club’s house band, The Ugly Ducklings, by their lead singer, Dave Bingham. It was my last year of high school. I chose to graduate rather than to run away from home with a rock and roll band from the Village. I used to wonder if I made a mistake turning them down. I found out they still enjoy a cult status today; their CDs are available again online.
John McHugh opened “The Penny Farthing,” one of the first coffeehouses in Yorkville, in the early sixties. McHugh’s coffeehouse featured live jazz and blues music as well as folksingers. You could hear bluesman Lonnie Johnson, or the Latin folk of Jose Feliciano. But McHugh’s club wasn’t the first one. “Club 54” was probably there before his. The coffeehouses established Toronto’s “Village,” as we all called it, as a strong contender for the prestige of New York’s larger and older Greenwich Village. Yorkville was actually a real incorporated separate village in 1853 before it was annexed by larger Metro Toronto 30 years later. The bohemian coffeehouse district of the 1950s originated in an area further south at Bay and Gerrard streets but was pushed farther north into Yorkville by higher rents in downtown Toronto.
Another early club in Yorkville that launched Canadian folk music stars was the “Village Corner” at number 174 Avenue Road. Canadian cowboy Ian Tyson and his partner Sylvia Fricker first performed there in 1959. With their unique folk repertoire and distinctive blend of harmonies, they saw potential to make money and formed the duo Ian and Sylvia. They had just met a few months before. They were married a couple of years later. Memorable songs of Ian’s that are frequently covered are “Four Strong Winds,” and “Someday Soon.”
“Toronto the Good” with its leftover Victorian morality and predominant British heritage (at least in my memory—Toronto is multiculturally diverse now) was offended by the bohemians. They also looked down their noses at the later arriving hippies. But Yorkville was much more than a grunge hangout. It became an important breeding ground for songwriters learning their craft. There were as many as 40 clubs and coffeehouses offering live entertainment every night of the week. Music lovers could catch a seemingly endless number of acts within just a few city blocks, a pedestrian’s paradise of things to do and see. Night after night, the sidewalks were packed. “City light time, must you get ready so slow. There are places to come from and places to go” (“Night in the City” by Joni Mitchell)

In the fall of 1965, my friends and I would take the Greyhound bus into the city from our small town of Oakville, 25 miles away.

In 1966, before I’d written my first song, Joni Mitchell had just written “Night in the City” as a tribute to Yorkville, “Stairway, Stairway, down to the crowds in the street.” She wrote it on a return trip to Yorkville from New York City where she then lived. Mitchell first performed at the Riverboat in November 1966. It was there where her most famous song, "Both Sides Now," just one of her many great songs, had its debut. It is where I saw Joni sing in 1968.
By the 1960s, folk music shared the stages (yes, these places usually had a real stage) with folk-rock, then psychedelic rock. By 1967, there were as many electric as acoustic performances. 

Walking westward along Yorkville from Bay Street, you might have stopped in at Chez Monique, at number 88, where the house band was once the blues-rock band The Sparrows. They later became world-famous as Steppenwolf. A later incarnation of my “soul” band from small town Oakville known as “Lee James and the Sinners,” played the tough Rhythm & Blues scene at Chez Monique with its methamphetamines, “greaser” thugs and sexy Go-go dancers.

The St. Raphael Nursing Home, “the old folks' place,” as we called it was still a quiet spot located at number 100 (the elders were eventually moved out in 1977). Beyond that was the “Penny Farthing,” number 112, and then next door, at number 114, was “The Mynah Bird,” where one could view go-go dancers gyrating in a glass booth outside the second floor. Future funk star, “Super Freak” Rick James first got attention as a blues-rock singer there. He put together a band, The Mynah Birds, in 1965 that included Neil Young

At the corner of Avenue Road and Yorkville, number 35 Avenue Road, was “The Purple Onion,” where Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote her famous Vietnam protest anthem, "Universal Soldier." Next door was the Gate of Cleave, which featured such folk stars as Zal Yanovsky. “Zallie” went on to fame as the guitarist with the Lovin' Spoonful. Dip down a block to Cumberland Avenue which ran parallel to Yorkville Ave which is where I had my first booking in Yorkville in 1966 at “Charlie Brown’s.”
Bernie Finklestein once told a reporter that, “I had become smart, working my way up in Yorkville.” He helped Bruce Cockburn make his name in the United States after the single “Wondering where the Lions Are,” became a hit for him in 1980. I was first awestruck by Bruce’s guitar playing when I saw him at the Riverboat in 1969.

By far the most famous of all Yorkville's clubs was the club “Bernie and Bernie” managed, “The Riverboat” coffeehouse, at 134 Yorkville. Owned by Bernie Fiedler, partner of Bernie Finkelstein, who managed many Canadian music acts, the Riverboat opened in October 1964. Situated below street level, the club provided seating at tables close to the stage, an intimate experience with musicians who went on to play much larger concert halls.  

“The Riverboat” was home to many of the biggest names in Canadian music, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, and more. Many beginning songwriters got their first taste of performing there and wrote songs in the club's tiny rehearsal room. Lightfoot, who played to four full houses a night in 1965, said he wrote his song "Steel Rail Blues" there. "For me," Lightfoot once said, "the Riverboat was my first taste of the big time. It indicated that you must be really doing something."

After being inspired by a visit to Greenwich Village in New York, singer David Clayton-Thomas left his bar bands behind, and the successful R&B career singing blues classics like his hit single, “Boom Boom.” The future Blood, Sweat & Tears’ (BS&T) lead vocalist was bit by the singer-songwriter bug. He played in Yorkville with his group “Combine.” They released a single featuring the first recording of David’s song, the original version of “Spinning Wheel.” As everyone knows now, it later became a huge hit for BS&T.

Before Neil Young found fame south of the border with his friend Stephen Stills and their folk-rock group, Buffalo Springfield, he once appeared as a solo folksinger at one of the Riverboat's "Hoot nights" (see photo). When Neil returned to Toronto as a rock star in 1969, he again performed solo for a week at the Riverboat. He paid tribute to the club in his song "Ambulance Blues," in which he sang "back in those old folkie days, the Riverboat was rockin' in the rain."

With the lowering of the drinking age and the stiff competition from bars offering live entertainment, Bernie Fiedler was forced to close the Riverboat in June 1978. Dan Hill (“Sometimes When We Touch”) and other Riverboat alumni performed at the emotional wake, saying their goodbyes to a tiny club that had served as the birthplace of Canadian popular song.
Yorkville became gentrified and got an investment banker’s makeover in the 1970s. Today, the bohemians are gone, pushed out by posh restaurants, expensive boutiques, and a fashionable shopping district for tourists. Where the Riverboat once stood is now a high-end sports collectibles shop. As writer/pop culture historian Nicholas Jennings says, “The building at 134 Yorkville Avenue is a major cultural landmark and should be treated as such.” 

It is a sad fact of history that Toronto didn’t recognize the true value of its famous artistic enclave and make some effort to preserve it for future generations. In an interview with MSN news, Bernie Finkelstein regretted the transformation of Yorkville: "To me, what it is now is just a haven for the richest people in Canada," he said. "I think it would have been better off if it had stayed the way it was."

Nicholas Jennings, journalist/author of Before the Gold Rush, a history of the Yorkville era of Canadian music in the 1960s and 1970s.
Neil Young picture is from blog site: 
PHOTO: Music producer, Bernie Finkelstein, and Bruce Cockburn from

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