Remembering The Gogue Inn
It lived for a short time but it was alive
Being president of the student council at George Harvey only meant that I got the letter that the Gogue Inn sent to every Toronto area high school seeking a school ambassador for this about-to-open club in Scarborough which was going to cater to the 16 and overcrowd. It was a no-brainer as to who the rep for George Harvey would be—me, of course. Why would I let an opportunity like this go to someone else? You get to see Toronto’s bands, hang out with some really great people, dance up a storm and you even got paid.
It didn’t matter much that my school was in the west end and the journey to the Gogue was just another great adventure for Friday and Saturday night and sometimes on Sunday for staff meetings. The Sunday meeting usually ended up with a visit to the nearby Modern Age lounge for an afternoon concert. It was nice to see the Rogues up close and talk to them a little. It was quite the experience for a 16 year old kid growing up in western Toronto who had never set foot into Scarborough prior to his first visit to the Gogue.
The journey started with a short walk from my mom and dad’s humble Vaughan Road home that took me past the house where Richie Knight and the Midnights used to practice. It was the Lloyd family home where Barry played his Hammond organ. The band would show up there since the organ was the heaviest thing to move.
I got on the Vaughan Road bus at the northern loop and took the first ride to the St.Clair Avenue streetcar loop and boarded the “red rocket” for the next connection which was the Bathurst Street station on the relatively new east-west subway route. Riding the red rocket was like riding a bicycle for me since it was how I got to high school every day. Now the subway didn’t go all the way out into Scarborough. The east-west line was still under construction so it stopped somewhere along the way (probably Broadview or Pape) at the time. And it was onto the Danforth red rocket to continue the journey which sometimes resulted in a side trip to a small record shop on the north side of Danforth run by a really nice man named Whitey. I think he was of Polish decent like myself but the important reason for the trip is his store had R & B records that you couldn‘t find on Yonge Street at Sam’s or A&A’s.
The final leg of the red rocket ride would come about when the street car would make a sharp right past the nearby ice cream shop on the corner and duck into the Main Street loop. My adrenalin level would begin to rise as the site of the little building that was The Gogue Inn came into view. I would rush to the rear exit doors of the streetcar with my trusty twin-compartment metal 45 box that contained just the special records in my now non-existent 45 record collection. I usually played records on the third floor between sets for the band that would play there that night.
The Gogue was a converted warehouse (paint, I think) but wasn’t particularly big. The entire building had a fire marshal rating of 1,000 patrons for all three floors. When you opened the front door to the Gogue you were presented with a small full-width staircase that rose 5 or six steps to a landing area where the “bouncer” would check ID just like the big bars. The drinking age in Toronto was 21 at the time. To your left was a doorway that opened into the main office where you would often see the owner, Don Little as I remember. The most memorable picture I have in my head of that room was seeing a young Roy Kenner (of R.K. and the Associates at the time) barely hanging onto his perch on those simple metal leg chairs after his final set of the night on the main floor. The office also served as the dressing room for all 3 bands each night.
Roy had left it all on the stage that night as he did pretty much every night. That was as fine a representation of commitment from a performer to his audience as any I had ever seen. These were professionals that performed here. They may not have been very old chronologically but they had the showmanship of performers 2 and 3 times their age. I would have been happy to see Roy perform every night but the Gogue didn’t really have a “house band” more like a list of revolving regulars which included Roy, The Rogues (might have been The 5 Rogues then, once with David-Clayton Thomas), Shawne & Jay Jackson and the Majestics, The Silhouettes (with Diane Brooks, Jack Hardin or Eric Mercury doing the vocals) and the Power (I think) with either Grant Smith or E. G. Smith doing vocals. It’s hard to remember exact details of all the great bands since I also used the Gogue as a sort of auditioning place for the bands to be booked for my high school dances and also mixed in with lots of other great venues in the Toronto scene.
Once you walked past the main office you were presented with a larger landing area that had the washroom doors on the left and a full length cloak-room where the patrons would leave their coats to be taken with loving care by the beautiful young ladies that worked at the Gogue. The Natolli sisters were hot but they had lots of friendly competition in the rest of the attractive gals that worked there. I’m sure I misspelled there last names. Grace and Vicki made my knees weak but they both had boyfriends who were great guys. Everyone who worked at the Gogue had such a friendly and positive manner. How could you not? You got paid to have fun and listen and dance to the best bands that Toronto had to offer (sometimes from Buffalo and other places).
After the visit with the lovely ladies it was usually a fast pit-stop in the washrooms. That was a long ride from the west end to this happening place. You now walked up a series of 3-4 steps that led you into the main room. The stairway to floor three was to your left as I remember. Each floor had such a tiny little stage. Watching Shawne and Jay with the Majestics and all of their sound gear and instruments on stage was more like watching a performance in a Toronto subway car (the square footage would be fairly comparable). But that was the magic of the Gogue, it was more like being at a great party in a friends rec room but more like those homes in the richer part of town where pretty much none of the patrons came from.
The 3 floors were often coordinated in such a way that the basement and top floor had bands playing and records only on the main floor and the feature band would get its turn while the other two floors switched to records. That meant that those of us who played records would have back door duty when the band was playing on your floor. It meant that you got to sit in one of the four chairs that found its way out of the office—one for the back door and one each for the “disc jockey” on each floor. There was no room for chairs for the patrons, especially for the last set on the feature floor.
The back door will always be a reminder to me of the spirit of the Gogue and also for the Toronto Sound, in general. Besides it being the point of entry for all the bands equipment (learned some new swear words from the roadies that had to hustle the Hammond B3’s into the building), some smokers were in the crowd and in the band but not that many (so you went outside) and for a few lucky patrons who knew the guy at the door which would now be a point of entry when the house was full (which was most every night—only Friday and Saturday as I remember). It wasn’t very expensive to go to a lot of venues in Toronto at the time. I remember getting 5th row floor seats for the Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens for $18 each. Mind you I only made $1.05 an hour working at the Loblaws located in the Junction and I never paid to enter the Gogue so I don’t remember what my friends had to pay to get entry. I usually had a dozen or so schoolmates make the journey from the west end every weekend and we became better friends because of the common bond of the Gogue.
But back to the spirit of the back door (I digress a lot when I get into reminiscing about important things). It is embodied in one single individual whose name is Bobbie Ablack (pronounced ab-lack). Bobbie just happens to have a skin tone that makes a recent suntan harder to notice. Yes he was black, but I learned that mattered not at all. So was Shawne & Jay and so were some of my friends in both of our high school football teams. I think I was a terrible quarterback at the time on our junior team because I was just sixteen and a fairly big guy for that age or possibly fullback which was a better position for my abilities, or lack thereof.
Ok so I digressed again. I was breaking out of my shyness and these were all major contributing factors to my personality development. Bobbie had a little Will Smith in him but he was even bubblier than the future actor who wasn’t even born yet. Bobbie lit up a room on his entry. The energy level and mood immediately changed to one that was now upbeat and positive, but that isn’t wasn’t what impressed me the most about him. Bobbie happened to be playing records on the feature floor so he had back door duty and he stopped me on my way to a visit to the bathroom (so maybe the third floor stairs were in the back then). He lifts up his shirt and pulls out a 45 record in its protective sleeve from the Village Record Shoppe which is where Whitey moved his Danforth store to—Avenue Road and Yorkville. It was a copy of a fairly rare pressing of the James Brown song Out of Sight which was a terrific dancing song where one could show off your best moves. I think Whitey rigged the “auction” so I would get the record being that I was a good regular customer. I remember the number he had in his head as being $1.48. 45’s typically cost 66 cents and the imports were 99 cents.
Bobbie showed that I was important enough that he would take care of my treasures that were temporarily in his control. He knew his “friends” couldn’t be trusted with the temptation of the copy of this song making its way into their possession. It was a proud moment for both of us a few years later when he introduced his father to me on Yonge Street during one of my breaks working at the old Eaton’s store in the sporting goods department. Bobbie was the kind of guy that I would want next to me if we had to go to war. I think a lot of the bands were that way too even though they didn’t always get along and break-ups did happen.
The Toronto Sound really had no colour barrier. How could it? Its roots are firmly planted in the soil of black America and Toronto was an extremely tolerant melting pot of all manner of race, creed and culture. Musical groups were often a mixture of more than two or three of those cultures. It was also a time when your dad would give you a proper whack upside the head if you acted in an inappropriate manner to another human being. Racism was just considered extremely bad manners in this subculture. Toronto was a safer, warmer place then, not like it is today.
I think the Gogue Inn only lasted for two years. The second year saw it change where there was a disc jockey kiosk that handled the coordination of the record playing for all three floors so there were fewer employees now and I was counted as one of those. I think the lack of ambassadors would contribute to the smaller crowds since we each did a “selling job” on our schoolmates encouraging them to come to the Gogue. It’s hard to say no to a friend.
But more probable is that the operating costs of the Gogue were quite high compared to its income. Three bands require a larger revenue base to support which means that full houses are necessary to keep the earnings on the proper side of the ledger. I last went there the night after the Wilson Pickett concert, which probably didn’t help the ledger balance a whole lot. And so it disappeared into the memories of those that had the distinct pleasure of enjoying its unique mix of musical and social pleasures. Gone but hardly forgotten.
One of the benefits of working the third floor was that you got to see the all-important final set of the feature band on the main floor. This might have been another contributing factor to the closing of the Gogue. Since the overall building fire rating was 1,000 patrons this would now be a problem. The rating is based on equal distribution among the 3 floors. There were easily still 900 left for the last set. Some patrons had to begrudgingly leave before the final set due to work duties the next morning or travel distance that they now faced. The might miss their last bus. Very few patrons drove.
So all 900 or so would pack themselves in like well-dressed sardines and sort of move together as one big body, since it was next to impossible to dance during that last show. Some disgruntled fire marshal probably entered the building at that time and decided that this was not something that could be tolerated for safety reasons and the license renewal would now be in doubt. Maybe he just had a fight with the wife and wanted to take it out on those that were having more fun than he.
“It was a powerhouse party centre stage at the Inn”. It’s a line from a song I am working on about the Toronto Sound. If I think it is good enough, it will show up on YouTube. The working title is “That Old Fashioned Sound”. It’s much harder to get the right feel in music than it is on paper but it isn’t something I am willing to give up on easily, so it will just have to find a way to make it happen. It might take a few hundred takes before it can do proper justice to the sound, the time and the place. You were lucky if you were there. You were part of the magic and will have everlasting happy memories of a place that made the journey worthwhile. It was sooooo much fun!