Roxanne Tellier: My Toronto – Part One

Roxanne DBAWISCam Carpenter’s recent DBAWIS column on Toronto venues reminded me of how impressive the city’s music scene was back in the day. In the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, the city was awash not only in great clubs, but in terrific musicians working six or even seven days a week, entertaining delighted, enthusiastic  crowds.

You couldn’t toss a rock without hitting a working musician back then. We were everywhere, making a decent living, doing what we loved to do. Demand for live music was high, and most of us tried our damndest to rise to the listener’s expectations.

cilq_q107_homegrown_album_vol2_bigLocal radio stations did their part, by not only regularly playing local musicians’ records, but by broadcasting live showcase concerts, and running ‘contests’ where up and coming bands could send in their demos for a chance to appear on a compilation disc. Many young players got their big break after landing a spot on Q107’s Homegrown LPs, including Honeymoon Suite, Boys Brigade, Santers, Sylum, Reckless, Regatta, and The Jitters.

We’d play front ends (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) or back ends (Thursday, Friday, Saturday,) and still be ready to jam out with friends on a Saturday afternoon matinee, or a Sunday night jam. We’d hit the road for Northern tours, playing the bars in Kirkland Lake, Kapuskasing, North Bay and Sudbury and points even northier, and then head back into town to start the Toronto circuit all over again. A professional musician could, and often did, work 51 weeks a year, with Christmas week off if you were lucky.  When we did get a day or two of down time, we generally wanted to get out and see friends perform, hillbilly reunionand catch up on who was doing what, where, and to whom. Genres were not quite as strict, either – you might be pop, but hang with blues, folk, or new wave players … didn’t matter. A good player was a good player, and he or she might wind up sitting in, or even asking you if you wanted to start up another band formation. The musical scene was so incestuous, it was worse than a backwoods family reunion.

The key to enjoying life and music is to never become too ingrained or in love with any one form of expression. So I’d spend my free time exploring venues that I hadn’t yet played, or that brought in acts that I’d heard about, but hadn’t yet experienced.

Which is how I came to know and love the Cameo Lounge at the Isabella Hotel. Somewhere, I’ve got my old button that says, “I Get Dizzy At The Izzy.”  The Cameo Blues Band were the house band, but everyone in the Toronto and North American Blues music scene passed through their doors. At the time, The Izzy was a sleazy old hotel on Sherbourne Street, just off Bloor. Every player, from Jesse Winchester to Ellen McIlwaine to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, did time at the Izzy. I had the pleasure of seeing  Downchild Blues Band there, when the wonderful Jane Vasey was on keys. (here with Peter Appleyard on xylophone.)

Saturday afternoons were all about the Dixieland Jazz Matinee at Grossman’s, on Spadina, south of College.  I’ve never been to New Orleans, but here I could get a sense of those lazy, southern blues. Kid Bastien’s Camelia Band, the Happy Pals, and a host of hot touring bands set the mood. The beer was cheap, the rooms kept dark on purpose, and the bathrooms had some of the best graffiti in town.

Over on Bloor, just up from the University of Toronto, Ye Olde Brunswick House, aka “The Brunny,” is one of the oldest taverns in Toronto. Upstairs, at the Albert’s Hall, you might find a local blues band, or maybe someone a little more impressive – like Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, or Muddy Waters. Downstairs, however, just about anything could happen.

“people like Mr. Entertainment, who played the sticks and wore rhinestones; Miss Eve, who sang country tunes off-key; and Ivy the Honky-Tonk Queen, a middle-aged piano-playing pixie who always kept the stage alive. Godin’s verse tells of the outrageous contest nights, and the Ballad of the Glass Eating Frenchmen – wherein some French patrons raised hell and, well, started eating the pint glasses.” (

“The front area consisted of pool tables and other games. The much larger back area had consisted of concrete floors with benches next to long wooden tables, which the bouncers would walk on top of to quickly reach the many fights. At the end of this hall was a low stage for dancing. The Brunny was known for its cheap beer. The only food served was $1.00 burritos sold by a short man in a sombrero who would travel through the hall selling them. One of the best known fixtures was “Rockin’ Irene”, an elderly woman who would perform old bar songs and raunchy tunes much to the delight of the drunk patrons. “ (Wikipedia)

The old Chick n Deli, now known as 744 Restaurant and Lounge, used to have a terrific Sunday afternoon matinee. A Toronto landmark known for its wings and jazz, the room was large, and the talent even larger. I’ll never forget seeing the sublime Louise Lambert whip up a placid brunch crowd into a mass of   enthusiastic fans.

the gasworksSetting aside the Yonge Street/downtown core clubs (Hotel California, Piccadilly Tube, the Gasworks, the Chimney, The Forge and Nickelodeon) there were other clubs to the east of the city that drew a heavier rock crowd. I lived off Coxwell, near Gerrard for a while, with three other members of Performer. On one unexpected night off, the drummer and bass player heard there was a hot young guitar player at the Shammy (Shamrock,) so they toddled down the street. Hours later, they returned, utterly blown away by the new guy … he did pretty well for himself, I’d say.

If you could handle the altitude, you could go all the way to Scarborough. Tony’s East catered to a dance and pop crowd, while hard rock and metal ruled at the Knob Hill Hotel. We often played there, or went to check out friends in Triumph, Zon, The Hunt, Goddo, Max Webster or Cleveland. It was a huge room, so terrific for bands that could not only draw, but entertain the rowdy crowds.

Out in the west end of the city, you might head for Spats, in Rexdale, or the Mad Mechanic on Bloor West. As some of the new music crept in, the Queensbury Arms showcased acts like Sylum. Strippers during the day, wild acts at night …

I’m running out of space, and there are so many other venues and acts I wanted to include! Can’t seem to wrap this one up with a bow – maybe I’ll just call this “Part One,” and continue next week. Any suggestions of places I’ve missed?

= RT =

Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

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DBAWIS ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. After years of doing things she didn’t want to do, she’s found herself working with a bunch of crazy people who are as batshit crazy and devoted to music as she is, and so she can be found every Monday at Cherry Cola’s, completely unable to think of anything funny to say, as the co-host of Bob Segarini’s The Bobcast. Come and mock her. She’s good with that. And she laughs. A lot. But not at you.

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