In Any Night of the Week, Jonny Dovercourt shares the history of how Toronto became a music mecca from 1957-2001. Any Night of the Week takes readers from Yonge Street to Yorkville to Queen West to College, the neighbourhoods that housed Toronto’s music scenes, and features Syrinx, Rough Trade, Martha and the Muffins, Fifth Column, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Rheostatics, Ghetto Concept, LAL, Broken Social Scene, and more!
Catch Jonny Dovercourt and Kevin Drew, from the Broken Social Scene, for a live chat on Instagram (@brokensocialscene) at 5PM EDT on Friday, May 22nd as they talk about Any Night of the Week.
And, on Friday, May 22nd, for one day only, get your copy of Any Night of the Week for 25% off when you use the promo code ANOTW here.
In the meantime, learn more about Toronto’s DIY music history in the excerpt below and read Jonny’s thoughts on the passage.
JAMAICA TO TORONTO 1967–75
The birth of Canadian reggae in Toronto – and Mississauga.
August 13, 1967, was a record-breaking day for the Toronto Island Ferries. Thirty-five thousand people made the journey across the inner harbour to attend the final day of a brand-new festival called Caribana. Nine months in planning, the week-long festival, modelled on Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, was Toronto’s growing Caribbean community’s contribution to Canada’s centennial celebrations. Montreal might have had the futuristic marvels of Expo 67, but we had a real party: calypso steel bands, sunshine, dancing, spicy food, colourful costumes, and, of course, a parade. It was a success beyond all expectations, and Caribana ’67 started an annual tradition that has defined the August long weekend in Toronto ever since.
Live music at the first Caribana included Trinidadian calypso titans Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow, as well as a local band, the Cougars, fronted by Jay Douglas, who had moved to Toronto from Montego Bay, Jamaica, in ’63. They were one of several bands with members who’d been ‘drafted’ to come play in Toronto’s proliferating Jamaican clubs. Though at first these groups played Black American–style r&b to appeal to the expectations of Toronto audiences, they started to slip in some of the new sounds emanating from the studios and sound systems of Jamaica.
Canada had become an attractive destination for many Jamaicans fleeing political violence and economic uncertainty. racist immigration policies started to become a thing of the past in the mid-fifties, at first to allow more Caribbean women to come to Canada as domestic workers. The 1962 Immi- gration Act, which focused on skills and education over race, helped liberalize entry, as did the point system, adopted in ’67. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s policy of official multiculturalism made the country look progressive and welcoming. People steered clear of the US to avoid the draft. And there was work here, especially for musicians.
Karl Mullings was one of the organizers of Caribana ’67 and the booker of the wif (West Indies Federation Club) at Brunswick and College. He was also a talent scout and manager who coaxed Jamaican musicians to make the flight north to Toronto. The Cougars were the wif house band, while the Sheiks held it steady at Club Jamaica on yonge Street.
Reggae, ska, and rocksteady were almost completely unfamiliar to white Canadian audiences. Little did Torontonians know they were in the presence of greatness: this exodus included some of the real innovators of the Jamaican sound.
Jackie Mittoo was a musical genius, an astonishingly talented keyboardist and organist who had been a member of the Skatalites and the musical direc- tor at groundbreaking Studio One, the label/studio considered the ‘Motown of Jamaica.’ In 1969, he moved to Toronto. Despite his accomplishments in his native land, he worked some pretty thankless gigs. He was a solo enter- tainer at Fran’s restaurant in the early seventies, performing seven hours a day (!) all by himself. Later on, he moved over to Dr. Livingstone’s lounge at the Bristol Place Hotel, out by the airport. But he also got to open for Barry White at Massey Hall.
Another talented Jamaican musician didn’t have such a happy experience. Wayne McGhie was a singer/guitarist and, unlike many of his contemporaries, also a songwriter. In 1969, with the help of many of his Jamaican friends, he recorded an incredible album of stirring soul music that may be Canada’s finest contribution to the genre. Wayne McGhie & The Sounds of Joy was released the following year by Scarborough-based Birchmount records, but it was poorly promoted and didn’t make much impact on its release. To make matters worse, a warehouse fire destroyed all of the remaining copies.
Beset by mental health challenges, McGhie dropped out of music and out of sight, ultimately cared for by his sister. Meanwhile, Sounds of Joy became coveted by crate-diggers and hip-hop artists. In 2004, it was reissued by Seattle record label Light in the Attic as part of a series called ‘Jamaica to Toronto.’ In 2006, the series made waves with the titular compilation, Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967–74.
Reggae music in Toronto was crucially diy, driven by the passion of its creators and fans, who had to build much of the industry infrastructure themselves. By the early eighties, Jamaican-Canadian music was one of the city’s most important forms of musical expression, and reggae’s influ- ence on everything from post-punk to hip-hop can’t be overstated. And it began in just a few clubs, booked by Jamaican musicians, who booked Jamaican musicians.
In 1974, Jamaican-Canadian music would get its first studio, the first Black-owned studio in the country. reggae fan Jerry Brown moved to Toronto in 1968 and got a job in an auto body shop. He bought a house out near the airport, amidst the sterile sprawl of Mississauga. And he built a studio in the basement. His wife suggested the name Summer Sounds.
A community of musicians developed around Summer. People liked the vibe, that you could smoke weed inside, that Brown wasn’t afraid to push his gear into the red to get that big bass sound. Jackie Mittoo became Summer’s unofficial musical director, and a house band developed, named Earth, roots and Water. Like Studio One, it became a label as well. The first Summer records release was a roots-reggae single by Johnny Osbourne in 1974. Brown sold it by taking it around to the several Jamaican-owned record shops that had begun to crop up on Bathurst and Eglinton West, a district becoming known as Little Jamaica.
But people weren’t that interested in Canadian-made reggae. To get the records to sell, he had to add a sticker that said ‘Made in Jamaica.’
One of my aims when I set out to write Any Night of the Week was to build more widespread appreciation for homegrown Toronto music. It’s really a story about the local bands that made up the music scene, and steers away from talking about all the famous visitors that have performed here over the years. But even when it comes to homegrown talent, it’s often our famous exports who steal the limelight: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and The Band all got their start in Yorkville’s coffeehouses and Yonge Street’s bars in the ‘60s, but they didn’t become household names until after they packed up and moved to the USA.
Any Night of the Week instead shines a light on the many uncelebrated musical pioneers who called Toronto home – many of whom were forced to go “DIY” (do it yourself) and remain independent, either by circumstance or design, due to lack of support from the Canadian music industry. And no scene or genre fits this description better than reggae music, which got its start in Jamaica in the ‘60s, but quickly established Toronto as one of the key locations of its musical diaspora. In part thanks to Pierre Trudeau opening up Canada to a wave of newcomers, Caribbean immigrants made a huge impact on the cultural life of Toronto, which until then had been overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and uptight. The Caribana festival came to define the August long weekend in the City, and Toronto hip-hop has set itself apart from its American cousins through incorporating Jamaican patois.
I first learned about the early years of reggae in my hometown, when I heard a compilation CD in 2006 called Jamaica to Toronto. It was incredible to discover artists like JoJo Bennett, Wayne McGhie, and Jay Douglas & the Cougars, who had recorded world-class reggae, soul, and R&B in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – and also to find out that internationally renowned artists like Jackie Mittoo had lived here – and lived fairly humble existences. Mittoo played solo in hotel lounges and helped build a recording studio, Summer Sounds, out in the drab suburban sprawl of Mississauga. The scrappy, DIY spirit of the early reggae scene inspired the punk rockers of Queen Street, who in turn laid the groundwork for the indie music scene that we now know and love.
To continue reading, purchase Any Night of the Week here!
Jonny Dovercourt (aka Jonathan Bunce) is a veteran Toronto indie musician/writer and the co-founder and Artistic Director of Wavelength Music, the influential nonprofit independent music organization and concert series. Visit Jonny’s website. Connect with him on Twitter.