“The Toronto Sound”…what? There can be endless arguments about whether or not there was a distinct “Toronto Sound” in the 1960s, in the same vein as “surf music”, “the British Invasion”, or “the San Francisco psychedelic sound”. There is a strong case to be made that the Yonge Street club scene did, for a few years, generate a recognizable sound.
It would be categorized (to the extent that any such sounds can be defined) as intense R&B, featuring strong guitar, organ, and lead vocals. It was grittier than Motown, “whiter” than southern R&B, more danceable than pure blues, and focused on getting club patrons out of their seats and onto the dance floor. The bands would play endless sets night after night, the young audiences would roam up and down Yonge Street, the (relatively few) clubs would be packed, and touring musicians would join in on stage. Of course it couldn’t last, but the 1965-68 heyday of the Toronto club scene was fondly remembered for decades thereafter. No other city in Canada had this kind of scene, and the comfortable racially-mixed environment was a refreshing alternative to the club picture in most US cities.
So, if the scene was so great, the performances so intense, the bands were on fire, the kids were dancing, and the music was so powerful….why does mention of “The 1960s Toronto Sound” garner blank stares now? The fact is, it was the live scene that was the really good aspect, and only a few thousand people ever really experienced what it was like to lose themselves on a sweating, heaving 1965 dancefloor in a dark pulsating club on the Yonge Street strip. Everyone else got to experience it second hand, on records or on the radio. And this is where it falls down.
The struggles of groups trying to make it in the Canadian record industry and on the radio in the 1960s are well documented, and they were real. The bands were focused on live shows rather than on having everything worked out perfectly for a couple of hours in the recording studio. The producers, engineers, and technicians struggled with lack of experience, poor equipment, and minimal budget to create proper big-time recordings. Record companies were trying to create commercial-sounding singles that could get AM radio play and hence sell records. However, the albums and singles were often a very pale imitation of what a band would sound like in a frenetic live situation. In any case, local productions had difficulty competing for radio time with the fire hose of popular, high-quality, heavily marketed releases from famous US and UK stars. And the intense Toronto R&B sound didn’t translate all that well to smaller, quieter cities where the kids were looking for more accessible pop/rock or cooler psychedelia – face it, not everybody is into intense R&B, no matter how good it is. Thus many of the groups didn’t tour outside of the southern Ontario circuit, and record companies didn’t put the effort into making them national or international stars. Another issue was the lack of original music – in playing to their club audiences who wanted to dance to familiar songs, most bands relied heavily on covering American and British R&B hits; consequently, close to half of the “Toronto Sound” hit singles were cover versions, sometimes of songs that had already been international hits for others.
Let’s look at how the all played out on the radio. I’ve scanned the 19,000 lines of my worldwide 1960s music charts for all of the “Yonge Street” performers, and listed every one of their songs that charted on either RPM (Top 100) or Toronto’s own CHUM radio (Top 50 up to 1968; Top 30 thereafter) in the 60s. It comes down to a couple of dozen performers (mostly groups) and just over 60 singles – the tabulation is at the end of this article.
One precursor was the unique Jackie Shane, whose cover of William Bell’s “Any Other Way” made #2 on the CHUM chart in mid-1963 (it would go to #68 in RPM upon re-release in 1966). The hits start coming with R&B-lite (musically speaking) groups like Little Caesar and The Consuls and The Big Town Boys in 1964-65. They were setting the table but it would be a stretch to call pop songs like “My Girl Sloopy” and “It Was I” standout representatives of the R&B-based Toronto Sound. There was some chart action for some pure British Invasion wannabes as well but they aren’t critical to our Yonge Street scene. Shirley Matthews (with backing from The Big Town Boys) created a pure homegrown Shirelles-style girl group record with “Big Town Boy” in 1964 but after getting to an impressive #4 in the CHUM chart there was little follow-up. The girl group sound was fading at that point in any case.
Things really got cooking though with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. Although they were never rewarded with smash hit singles and international recognition, it is hard to overstate how important Hawkins and his revolving-door bands were to the Toronto scene specifically and Canadian 60s music at large. Holding court at his Le Coq d’Or club for hours every night, six nights a week, year after year, Arkansas-born Hawkins whipped his musicians into southern R&B masters that had three direct consequences: the club was popular, packed with wide-eyed kids who got to experience rock & roll at its most visceral; every serious musician in town came to watch and learn how to do it right; and a significant proportion of Toronto R&B groups either spun off from or had members who had been in The Hawks. And yet little of that showed up on the radio. Hawkins had a trio of singles in 1960-61 that got some CHUM airplay, and three more mellow tunes (one a Gordon Lightfoot number) the latter part of the decade. There are two Hawkins / Hawks 45s, however, that stand as landmarks: their version of “Bo Diddley” in spring 1963, and a cover of “Got My Mojo Working” (based on Muddy Waters’ cover) in September 1964. This is where Robbie Robertson’s reputation as a guitar whiz was made, with slashing buzzing chords that outstripped anything that was coming out of pre-British Invasion UK and anodyne 1963 pop in the US. “Bo Diddley” made #8 in CHUM’s chart, while “Mojo” peaked at #33 – all in all not much to show for a group that put in so much work, skill, and time into making music, and which had such an impact on everyone that followed. As that iteration of The Hawks split to the US and become famous as The Band, Robertson’s searing guitar work faded into a memory.
Another pioneering outfit was Richie Knight and The Mid-Knights, who created one of the very first homegrown chart-toppers with “Charlena” going to CHUM #1 in the summer of 1963. Robbie Lane and The Disciples followed with “Fannie Mae” and “Ain’t Love A Funny Thing” as top 20 singles in late 1964 (both on Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawk record label; Lane was an ex-Hawk – see what I mean about Hawkins’ impact on the scene?). David Clayton Thomas introduced his powerful voice to the scene with “Boom Boom” (#16 CHUM, mid-’64) and continued to play Eric Burdon to his backing groups – Quintet, The Shays, The Bossmen – over the next two years.
1965-66 saw the full flowering of the “Toronto Sound”, but it did not really get reflected in the hit singles charts. Jack London and The Sparrows (future Steppenwolf) had a #3 national hit with “If You Don’t Want My Love” to kick off 1965, the Club Blue Note house band The Regents followed to #3 with “Me And You”, and David Clayton Thomas (future Blood Sweat and Tears front man) emerged nationally (coincidentally also #3 in RPM) with “Walk That Walk”, another in the style of Eric Burdon and The Animals. In mid-1966, Clayton Thomas would come up with “Brainwashed”, one of the most powerful singles ever released in Canada, but it crawled to #91 in RPM and only the hippest got to hear it outside of Toronto, where CHUM made it to #6.
There followed a few more minor (top 60 RPM) chart entries from Little Caesar, Robbie Lane, the Big Town Boys, The Shays, and The Sparrows, and in mid-1966 there was the emergence of perhaps the best group of the bunch in The Ugly Ducklings with their Rolling Stones-styled rock. Their three 1966 singles did fairly well on the local radio – “Nothin’” went to #18 CHUM, “She Ain’t No Use To Me” #30, and “Just In Case You Wonder” made #24. They failed to create much of a buzz outside southern Ontario, though; those three singles peaked at #70, #59, and #68 respectively in RPM. Their uncharacteristic smash single “Gaslight” would go to #1 in CHUM in 1967 (and #17 in RPM) but that would be too late for the Ducks who disbanded shortly thereafter.
There were more groups emerging from the Yonge Street clubs in 1967 and onward, such as The Mandala (a couple of top ten CHUM entries), The Jon-Lee Group (who moved to California to join Rhinoceros), McKenna Mendelson Mainline, E.G. (Grant) Smith and The Power, and The Paupers, but they all headed off on their own paths and the “pure” Toronto Sound faded away. Beyond Mandala’s four RPM charters, none of them had more than a couple of minor hits. Of all the songs to come out of the Yonge Street scene, the only one to make any impact outside Canada was “When I Die”, the mellow philosophical gospel song by Motherlode, making the US top 20 in 1969 (and #1 in RPM). Despite many of the players having honed their chops on the Toronto R&B scene, the group and the song were no longer representative of the mid-sixties Yonge Street sound.
In terms of big hit records, however, the whole “Toronto Sound” would be outdone by single international groups like The Dave Clark Five, Gary Lewis and The Playboys, the Beatles, Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Four Seasons, and so on. Dave Clark, for example, had 21 major hit singles in the 1964-66 period, almost all of them Top Ten in Toronto, Canada, and around the world. Even Gary Lewis had ten Top Ten singles in a row in 1965-66. If you look at the CHUM charts for 1965 and 1966, there were only four Top Ten songs from “the Toronto Sound”: “It Was I” by The Big Town Boys (mellow harmony pop ballad), Ronny Hawkins’ folkie ballad “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” which had nothing to do with his live presentation, a cover of The Vibrations’ “My Girl Sloopy” by Little Caesar and The Consuls, and David Clayton Thomas’ mighty “Brainwashed”.
So, not to take away from the fact that there was indeed a vibrant live R&B scene based on Toronto’s Yonge Street club strip in the mid-1960s, the recorded evidence is spotty, the radio results were insignificant, the recognition at an international level non-existent, and the long-term impact on Canadian pop culture much less than would be expected from the work, quality, and skill that went into creating it.
There has been a subsequent reassessment of the scene by fans, participants, and musicologists and its significance is now recognized, but the hit singles charts of the time demonstrate how difficult it was to bring “the Toronto Sound” to the world.