With the 40th Annual Juno Awards on Sunday, and the airing of the Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories documentary (part 3 airs tonight on Bravo), Robbie Lane joined host Gene Stevens on a special edition of Vintage Favourites to talk about his own stories relating to the ‘Toronto Sound’:
Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks
Robbie’s story began at the age of 16, when he got up and sang with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at the Concord Tavern at Bloor and Ossington in Toronto. Ronnie approached him after, got his phone number and called him about 6 months after when The Hawks were going to be leaving and Ronnie needed a back-up band.
Robbie Lane and the Disciples started playing with Ronnie at the Coq D’or downstairs in the dining room while the Hawks played upstairs. By the end of the summer, the Hawks were gone and Robbie and the Disciples moved upstairs, playing with Ronnie for a year and a half.
Robbie Lane & The Disciples were part of the recording of Bluebirds Over the Mountain (above). Ronnie wanted to record the song (after the Hawks had left and formed The Band) but had contractual problems with Roulette Records. The Disciples recorded the instrumental track, Ronnie came in and put his vocal track on it (with Robbie singing harmony) and then Robbie put his vocals on it. The idea was to release the track with Ronnie’s voice on it for Canada, and Robbie would release the American version. Just after this recording session, the Hawk presented Robbie with a recording contract, but Robbie moved on and the track was never released.
Before Ronnie, Toronto was a pretty quiet place. Ronnie’s arrival in Toronto (on the advice of Conway Twitty) changed everything. He played at the Concord Tavern, which was in a bad situation business-wise. They brought in the Hawk and suddenly the place was booming. Robbie would go Saturday afternoons, order some chips and coke and learn from legends like Ronnie Hawkins, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the rest of the Hawks.
Robbie Lane and the Disciples
Robbie Lane and the Disciples’ first hit was Fannie Mae. By the time their second single, Ain’t Love A Funny Thing, came out, Capitol Records was distributing for the Hawk label. Fannie Mae was on the Hawk label, but with no distributor. A good friend of the Hawk named Jim had a station wagon, which he piled full of Fannie Mae singles and drove all around the province. He would go to radio stations and record stores … but it didn’t work all that well.
In the Toronto market, Fannie Mae got quite a fair amount of airplay. It entered the CHUM chart at around #41. CHUM used to have the “CHUM Dinger“, which was the song that made the biggest jump from one week to the next. Fannie Mae was very close to being the CHUM Dinger, but was beaten out by one point by Julie Rogers with her hit The Wedding.
The Four Lads, The Crew Cuts & The Diamonds
While Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Lane were a major part of the Toronto Sound, it goes back decades. In the 50s, three of the greatest vocal groups from Toronto all came out of the same school, St. Michael’s Choir School: The Four Lads, The Crew Cuts and The Diamonds.
Robbie met The Diamonds while doing work for the CBC on a show called Music Hop, which would broadcast from a different Canadian city each day. The Diamonds were in the studio and Robbie was next door rehearsing. They bumped into each other in the hallway and it was an exciting moment for Robbie, because their song Little Darlin’ was a huge hit, one of those songs that continues to be played years later.
Recording with Moe Koffman and Peter Appleyard
In the mid-1960s, Robbie Lane and the Disciples decided to do an album on Capitol Records and in those days, Capitol had very little budget. They signed the Disciples but the band had to pay for the recording – the label paid nothing. They chose a few songs that required an orchestral sound and the engineer at RCA Studios on Mutual Street brought in musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Moe Koffman played flute and Peter Appleyard played kettle drums – talk about a great mix of amazing musicians! Moe Koffman, a legend, especially in Toronto, was a fixture at George’s, which was at the corner of Sherbourne and Dundas streets.
Another interesting character in the early Toronto scene was Jackie Shane, who Robbie met and worked with. Jackie performed in drag and being the early/mid 60s, it was very unusual to be accepted as much as he was. If people came in to heckle him, Jackie won them over by the end with his performance.
One particular memorable moment was a performance at Don Mills Bowl, where all the Toronto Sound bands played on a Friday or Saturday night, and they hired Jackie Shane to do an appearance and perform 3 songs. The promoter asked Robbie Lane & the Disciples to back him. Jackie showed up with his boyfriend, who had a huge argument with Jackie in the dressing home. Jackie refused to come out so Robbie borrowed a girl’s purse, and stood on top of a piano singing Jackie Shane’s three songs.
Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights
Another big band of the 60s was Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights, who had a #1 hit with Charlena. Nowadays, the CRTC requires radio stations to play a certain amount of CanCon. These rules weren’t around in the 60s, so for the band to have achieved a #1 song coming from a small label was a massive feat. Very few Toronto bands from that era had a #1 hit. Guitar player George Semkiw, among other things, now works as a sound technician at one of Robbie’s regular gigs, and from time to time, George will join in on stage and play Charlena.
Shirley Matthews and The Big Town Boys
Tommy Graham of the Big Town Boys was a record producer/writer/guitar player/singer who worked with Shirley Matthews. The Big Town Boys were her backup band when she recorded in Toronto. ‘Big Town Boy’ was recorded in New York. About 10 years ago, while preparing for an annual oldies dance that Robbie has played for 14 years, he asked Shirley to come out and perform. She is now the CEO of a racquetball and fitness club chain.
Jack London & The Sparrows
Another band bringing back alot of memories for Robbie is Jack London & The Sparrows. Jack was from England originally, so their music enveloped the ‘Brit Invasion’ sound. The band didn’t have much of a follow-up, because a number of the musicians had sights set on doing something bigger. Dennis Edmonton, and other members of The Sparrows, morphed into Steppenwolf. In fact, Dennis wrote Magic Carpet Ride. Jack London is now a real estate agent in the Ajax area.
David Clayton Thomas
Another ‘Toronto Sound’ legend: David Clayton Thomas, who Robbie first saw perform as Sonny Thomas. He was at the original Blue Note Club, an after-hours club on Yonge Street, in a t-shirt and ripped jeans. All he had to do was sing and everybody knew when they heard him that he had a huge huge career ahead of him.
Another closely connected band to Robbie was Mandala, with George Olliver. When Robbie Lane & the Disciples broke up and got back together in 1982, the first guitar player who joined the reformed band was Freddie Keeler, who was the lead guitarist for David Clayton Thomas & the Shays. If you listen to the solo on Boom Boom, you’ll hear a very Robbie Robertson-influenced guitar player, because Freddie was a huge Robbie Robertson fan.
The musical leader of Mandala was Domenic Troiano, who was the first guitar player in the Disciples when the band was originally forming back in the day. Domenic was about a year younger then Robbie Lane, and they first met when Domenic was about 14 and writing songs. He was another individual who was head and shoulders above everyone around him. Domenic moved on to have a hugely successful career, having worked with The James Gang, Bush and The Guess Who.