The Groundbreaking Rock'n'Roll Revival Festival of Toronto '69

Sep 05, 2019

By Gene Stevens

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In the ‘Woodstock Summer of ’69’ there was another – much closer – famous festival, right here in Toronto. It was the ‘Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival’, September 13th, 1969 at Varsity Stadium.  The notion of a ‘rock’n’roll revival’ hadn’t been much thought of yet. 1969 was all about ‘Hair’ on Broadway and its many hit songs on the pop charts, hippies and flower-children hanging out in Yorkville, and exciting new sounds of brassy rock bands like Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Lighthouse. The biggest hit that summer was about a dystopian future thanks to technology – ‘In the Year 2525′.
But something else was happening. Elvis Presley had made an incredible comeback in the public eye with his December 1968 ‘NBC-TV Special’, and was now recording exciting new songs. And a group of Columbia University students singing old rock’n’roll songs made a splash as the second-last act at Woodstock – just before Jimi Hendrix closed the festival. Sha Na Na was on to something. Of course the vast majority of Woodstock’s audience was long gone by that early Monday morning performance, and it wasn’t till the film came out in 1970 most people caught sight of Sha Na Na, and their fun-filled homage to early rock’n’roll.
So the idea of a ‘rock’n’roll revival’ show was ground-breaking, and caught a giant wave just as it was building. The Toronto organizers deserve every credit for sensing the moment. It was time for another look and listen to the pioneers of rock’n’roll over a decade after they first made their mark.  Headliners included Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis.  And further credit to the organizers for their savvy combination of the revival acts, with some of the most exciting contemporary artists like The Doors, Chicago Transit Authority, Motown’s Junior Walker & The All-Stars and upcoming shock-rockers Alice Cooper. But the biggest name was also the most surprising – everyone unsure of his arrival till it actually happened – John Lennon.  It was his first-ever performance without his Beatles – and with what would be called ‘The Plastic Ono Band’ featuring various players including his wife Yoko. One of his back-up players at Varsity Stadium was Eric Clapton. This was undeniably the concert highlight – and likely the main reason for its ultimate fame.
A month later promoter Richard Nader presented the first of his many rock’n’roll revivals at New York’s Madison Square Gardens. Soon the festival scene would regularly feature more of the pioneers, and in a few years, Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson joined Elvis Presley on the pop charts.  ‘Grease’ became a Broadway sensation, then a hit movie. ‘American Graffiti’ turbo-charged the oldies phenomenon and inspired TV shows like ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Laverne & Shirley’.  Fifties rock’n’roll was back – big-time – in the 1970s, and would be constantly revived generation after generation.  And a big part of its rebirth happened right here 50 years ago, at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival.
I’ll play several of the historic live performances from that festival on my next edition of ‘Vintage Favourites’, along with spotlights on The (Young) Rascals and Canada’s legendary Lighthouse. It’ll be a great show – this Sunday from 2:00 to 4:30, on Zoomer Radio.
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