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Remembering the Toronto Sound
How could you not get up and dance
Just how does one define a sound on paper when it is something that our sense of sight can only influence marginally? Sound is something that you hear, feel and what you see in a musical presentation is just icing on the cake but does help the total production. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to physically go to see a live performance since the recorded media would be sufficient, and nothing can ever replace being there "in the room", taking in all that hypnotizes the audience.
This article will attempt to define what the “Toronto Sound” of the mid-sixties embodied. It comes from the perspective of a teenager (now a lot older, and maybe more understanding) that grew up in the midst of that era. Having worked at various clubs, running school dances and visiting many of the venues that presented the creators of the Toronto Sound coupled with a more than basic understanding of playing musical instruments, qualifies the writer to comment on the make-up of the sound, in his hands-on opinion.
An important factor in the basis of the sound was that the legal drinking age in Toronto in the ‘60s was 21 years of age and bars were not open on Sunday’s. A lot of the patrons and band members could not set foot in the Yonge Street bars that featured other styles of performance so there were lots of venues that catered to this emerging crowd seeking musical entertainment and a place to find some dance partners. No one sat during a performance of music from any of the groups that played the Toronto Sound. You danced to this music because the beat just enticed you to do so. Some of the locations opened their doors to this crowd on Sunday since no alcohol was being served “legally”. Like many locations the patrons would drift in and out of the venue for various reasons. Also the bands were available to perform on Sunday since their nightclub gigs were suspended for that day.
The patrons were most often very well-dressed. It was more common for them to wear tailored pin-stripe or chalk-stripe stovepipe dress slacks, even suits with tuxedo shirts. Buying your suit or slack material on Spadina Avenue and taking it to your local tailor was quite common. And this goes for both male and female patrons. In fact, few of the female patrons wore dresses and usually appeared in tailored slacks. That didn’t mean they lacked in femininity. Great attention was paid to proper tailoring to get the tailored slacks to fit correctly to ensure that the feminine shape was accented in the desired manner. And many of the followers wore “409’s” which were an inexpensive pair of black suede loafers that were really just a good casual dance shoe. They provided zero arch support and were likely the cause of many future foot problems for the fans of this energetic sound.
So what did this well-dressed and usually well-behaved throng seek out in clubs, arenas, roller rinks, community centres, high school dances, park concerts and other venues that presented the Toronto Sound? It was a band that played mostly Rhythm and Blues music that had its routes in Memphis but also included Motown and Atlantic label songs in its performance. There were two major band styles that performed the Toronto Sound.
The first (and less common) was a band that included a horn section (much like in the Blues Brothers movies). Shawne and Jay Jackson (sister and brother) and the Majestics could easily be considered the top band in this category. Shawne singing the Motown classic “Heat Wave” would get any group up and moving on the dance floor within about two notes of the song. Grant Smith and the Power and the Silhouettes with singers like Eric Mercury, Diane Brooks and Jack Hardin were other noteworthy bands with the inclusion of a solid horn section.
But the backbone of the Toronto Sound was a smaller yet just as powerful sounding makeup that only included a drummer, organist, guitar and bass player and a lead singer (sometimes two). Every fan of that style of music in that era in Toronto knows of The 5 Rogues (aka The Rogues who became The Mandala), R. K. and the Associates (aka Roy Kenner and the Associates), and Jon and Lee and the Checkmates. They all possessed a musical power that was far beyond their early age bracket and number of instruments present on stage. All of the instruments in both bands were analog, of course. Digital music was a far distant concept for the music industry anywhere in the world.
Here is what made the sound its own. The organ was always the huge and heavy (in excess of 400 lbs.) Hammond B3 usually without the bass pedals. It was played with an outboard Leslie speaker that had the front panel removed so the sound that the rotary speakers made was even more powerful than before. Humming tube amplifiers and other gritty sounds were just part of the overall sound.
The guitar (more often than not) was the basic Fender Telecaster with two single-coil pickups with the dust covers removed and discarded. Sometimes it was a ‘Strat (Fender Stratocaster). Either would be played through a tube amplifier providing a distinctive warm sound (there were no transistors back then or they were very rare and expensive). The guitarist would often use a metal guitar pick (usually self-fabricated) and the strings were often set up in such a fashion that 1-5 were moved up to position 2-6 and the 1st string was replaced with an E banjo string. This allowed for easier lead playing but gave a thinner sound to rhythm since the strings were under much less tension and would also result in fret buzzing. It was a badge of this player to be playing on stage with a broken E string pointing directly to the floor like it was disappointed that it couldn’t be part of the performance. Screaming leads played in such a way as to create the gritty fuzztone like effect by turning to the amplifier and creating the feedback necessary were the norm (guitar effects boxes were non-existent in those days as were lots of other tools of today’s music). The sound was literally in the hands of the player.
The writer has fond memories of the best Toronto guitar player of the bunch of that time in Domenic Troiano. He had only be playing for 5-6 years at the time but his unique style was something that every new guitar player attempted to emulate but virtually all never achieved. He could be considered as the primary architect of the Toronto Sound and that is the writer’s opinion, of course. He certainly played an important part in the sound's design along with many others. “Dom” also showed us that there were other chord phrasings that worked in these songs. Things like 6th’s and 9th’s, augmented chords, coupled with timing changes, key changes, stop time and many other musical treatments that were more common in the field of jazz than in R & B. It was music that went outside the box (pun intended). And so it didn’t have a commercial feel to it, which could help explain why it stayed more underground than some other local bands music.
The writer can count himself as one of the thousands of guitar players that asked Domenic this question—“How the hell do you do that?” That was a memorable night since the writer also was his “boss” for the night having the great pleasure of booking The 5 Rogues for the whopping sum of $175 (Two bands that night for $300, also on the show was Just Us. The Big Town Boys had to cancel, likely due to a more lucrative gig, and the booking agency provided this package as an apology—best apology that the writer ever got).
But back to the band structure and on to the bass player. This is one of the two players that formed the important backbone of the sound. Usually, he played the Fender Precision bass with or without pick depending on the song and through the customary tube amplifier which was often a Traynor model (locally built). Domenic Troiano will always be “Domenic” to the writer and mostly not referred to as Don or Donnie since the Rogues bass player was Don Elliot who happened to trust the writer enough to watch out for his girlfriend while he performed one night. Sorry, nothing juicy to report here since the writer was very shy at this stage of his life but the music helped to change that. You just had to dance to it and that meant you needed a partner who just happened to be of the opposite sex. The Soul Circle was the exception and will be discussed in the sections about the lead singer(s).
And the other part of the backbone is the drummer and sometimes drummers (The Power had two for a time), who were powerhouses. Everything was done to ensure that the drum sound would be heard from quite a distance because it was very much like the sound of African drums beckoning one to go to the place of origin for the sound. If you happened to be outside the venue when the band started playing, that only lasted for a few seconds. It was time to go inside and be part of the show because the patrons were also part of that show. The Rogues drummer was a diminutive little blonde Finnish born guy that everyone called “Whitey” because he was never called Penti Glan back then. He must have been 120 lbs. soaking wet but played like he had the power of two middle linebackers. The Kick Drum had a huge presence in the sound as did the snare strikes and the ringing of the bell hits on either the ride or crash cymbal also helping to clearly define the sound.
One of the most defining elements of the Toronto Sound is the rhythm itself which is referred to as a syncopated rhythm by the musical authorities. Simply put is that there is emphasis placed on an off-beat at times instead of the usual 1-2-3-4 (standard downbeats). It can appear anywhere in the usual two bar drum phrase so it could be represented as the + (and) in the phrase 1 + 2 3 4 where the snare is usually the driver for the off-beat. It can appear elsewhere in the musical phrase and can also be in 16th’s. The result is an added energy that was common to the Toronto sound, the Memphis Sound and sound of James Brown in this era. Songs like Knock on Wood, Shotgun, Cold Sweat and The Midnight Hour were standards that most bands played at one time or another. They were not unlike unofficial anthems for the Toronto Sound.
A good drummer has to be “multidextrous or quadridextrous” (not real words) much like being a performing octopus with four tentacles that can function independently on different time measures. A good keyboard player should be ambidextrous and be able to separate the left and right hand playing with ease. The writer is neither and is more of a single task musician particularly since most of his training is on the guitar, but still has a pretty good feel for timing and more than an above average understanding of the underlying structure of North American music. The advent of digital music sequencing and recording allows one to experiment in the areas where one lacks the real playing skill but can sense the “correct” musical outcome in the recording. And one seldom uses quantizing (a software driven assist that forces notes to the exact timing of the note in the musical phrase) which is only used to help start the process. No real musician plays that way. There are subtle time shifts that are measured in milliseconds that add the distinctive colour to one’s playing style (such as before or after the beat).
One of the writer’s future personal projects is to actually attempt a new musical creation that is written in the spirit of the Toronto Sound and is also meant as a tribute to its founders, many of those are sadly not with us any longer and need to be remembered for what they brought to the musical stage in Toronto. These events were a major social happening and not just another reason to pack in a large number of adult beverages.
But we have not visited what would be the primary attraction to the Toronto Sound and that would be the lead singer(s). The band without the singers is strong enough to perform on its own but add the power of vocals and you get what clearly defines one band from another. Roy Kenner, George Oliver and even David Clayton Thomas all performed with The Rogues but each had a different approach to vocals and made the band different because of it. Roy was certainly involved in voice training for clearly he had a very controlled and pleasing voice but it also had raw power. George had a raw power as well but his stage presence is what made him recognizable leading the Soul Circle where individual members of the audience would get to show off their dancing prowess and attempt to mimic George’s dance floor moves. The author tried the splits once but opted for the James Brown foot movement only, in future Soul Circle encounters (too easy to tear the crotch out of those tailored stovepipes). Thomas only played for a short time in Toronto after leaving the company of the Shays prior to his days with Blood, Sweat and Tears. He also had the raw vocal power that made the Toronto Sound.
Shawne Jackson clearly had the most easily identified female voice of the Toronto Sound because of her musical phrasing and strength of voicing alone. Jon and Lee had an almost eerie sound due to their raw harmony. None of the singers ever seemed to use stools to sing ballads even. The stages were often very small and sometimes they had to mix in with audience to utilize their energy.
You seldom ever saw sheet music in the presence of all of these bands. Some certainly could read music such as Charlie Miller (drummer for the Power) since he taught drums at the same music store where the writer took guitar lessons. Sheet music could only provide a starting point for the Toronto Sound anyway. It was a sound that was created by the mix of performers that made up the band at the time. It was a mutual exercise in playing music that you just thoroughly enjoyed. It didn’t return much in the way of income because Canadian music in general was still to be accepted south of the border.
So why did the Toronto Sound disappear? These are all the author’s theories here so take from them what you like and dispute anything that you don’t agree with. Firstly, the drinking age dropped to 18 (since has been reset at 19), The Beatles came on the world music scene, the whole Flower Child culture and now casual clothes appeared (no one wore blue jeans to a Toronto Sound event) and the musicians in these bands became young adults with families and the need for a steady job. Most importantly, there wasn’t a large enough talent pool available that could play this style of music. Up and coming musicians only played straight-8 music and could also utilize some of the aids that were available like fuzztone and the world of itself just changed. They only knew how to play major and minor chords and mostly just loudly.
So the sound became a wondrous memory for the many of us who had the pleasure of experiencing it. If you happened to be at the Gogue Inn, Hawks Nest, Purple Onion, George Harvey cafeteria, Modern Age, 888 Yonge Street, Maple Leaf Gardens, Club Kingsway, Earlscourt Park, Mimico roller rink, The Jubilee, North Toronto Memorial Arena, or Mazarek Hall chances are we bumped into each other. Now I need to go get my guitar and “play like Domenic”. The good news is I’m like 10% of the way there now—Ok maybe 20%. I’m playing around with “Arthritis got a hold on me” (sung to Loveitis). It had me worried for a bit. Turns out it is likely a pinched nerve due to the fact that I haven’t played much in the last 10 years and I just overdid it. It’s healing more every day now. That sound has me intrigued. I have the latest Hammond B3 sound library now, a full set of drum sounds (32,000 samples), and new Seymour-Duncan pickups on my guitar and my digital audio workstation is functioning properly. Today’s music stuff is so technical and computerized but the nice thing is it has become so user-friendly that attempting to mimic the Toronto Sound is now feasible. I need to go practice.
So I hoped you enjoyed our trip down memory lane for the Toronto Sound as much as I did writing it. Funny how something that took place about 45 years ago stands out like I was "in the room" just yesterday. I can see Kenner singing I Can’t Stand It, George doing Beg Me and Shawne showing the girls in Detroit how to do Heat Wave with its “propers” and the sound is just so wonderful even though I really can’t describe it entirely. You were lucky if you were there to hear and feel it, as I was. Sadly, there are limited recordings of any of these events and we haven't discovered how to get that sound out of one's head and onto tracks. You never know. Technology has done a lot of wonderful things over the years. Maybe it will capture the true feeling of a live performance much like it is getting closer to capturing the true colour of those vintage instruments. What an interesting way to share your thoughts don't you think?
You owe it to yourself to read all the comments that have been submitted by so many people that were heavily involved in the making of the Toronto Sound that appear below.It would be very hard to make any of this stuff up. Keep in mind that it is my perspective on the time so I didn't visit all the venues and see all the bands. Perhaps you have some comments that you might like to add as others did so. What a fun time it was.
Listened to WUFO (forgot about it), bought shoes at Clark's hair was styled, had some close from Disney's and Studio 267 but don't remember MItty's so we all the shared the same love of that sound and time, for sure. Apparently ByeGoneRider is like the rest of us, if you shake the brain hard enough there are a ton more fantastic memories sitting there just waiting to be recalled and shared with everyone who glided across the "boards" on dance wax.