Yonge Street – Toronto Rock & Roll Stories premieres March 21 on Bravo

From a media release:

Bravo! Uncovers the Heart and History of Toronto Sound with Original Canadian Documentary Series

  • YONGE STREET – TORONTO ROCK & ROLL STORIES, Premiering March 21-23

When the boisterous, sexy sounds of rock ‘n’ roll burst on the staid, conservative, “waspy” city of Toronto in the mid-1950s, “Toronto the good” would never be the same. Commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the JUNO AWARDS and premiering exclusively on Bravo! on Monday, March 21 at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT, the original documentary series YONGE STREET – TORONTO ROCK & ROLL STORIES recounts the early days of the Yonge Street music scene like never before. Directed by acclaimed outlaw film director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo 1 & 2, This Movie is Broken), the three-part, hour-long series reveals the untold, trail-blazing first steps of how Yonge Street became the leading destination for musicians, singers and music fans not only in Toronto, but across Canada and beyond.

Before Toronto-based, multiple JUNO Award-winning artists like Barenaked Ladies, Drake, Broken Social Scene, Rush and k-os rose to international stardom, “devil music” burst on the scene in the mid-1950s, shocking the conservative, white-bread town and transforming Toronto’s – and Canada’s – musical and social history forever. Soon referred to as “The Yonge St. Strip,” Yonge Street – Toronto’s main drag from Lake Ontario up to Bloor Street and centering around Dundas and Queen Streets – became Toronto’s musical Mecca. Many musicians, including Robbie Robertson, David Clayton-Thomas and Johnny Rhythm, learned their chops in Toronto, left, and returned as megastars.

Directed by Bruce McDonald, produced by film and television veteran David Brady (The Grey Fox, The Pagan Christ), and drawing on executive producer/creator/host Jan Haust’s (Neil Young and The Sadies with Garth Hudson, Viletones) treasure trove of archival audio and video footage, YONGE STREET stars a parade of talented performers who defined our rock ‘n’ roll beginnings and inspired the music makers of today. The series profiles, among many others, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Rhythm, Robbie Robertson, Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, Jackie Shane and Bob Dylan, in addition to a host of remarkable and talented African Canadian performers like Bobby Dean Blackburn and Kay Taylor.

Other revealing interviews include Daniel Lanois, world-renowned producer of Neil Young, U2, and Bob Dylan; John Brower, one of Canada’s pre-eminent music and festival promoters; and Duff Roman, influential DJ and later executive at Toronto’s 1050 CHUM radio station. Exclusive footage is also available on the YONGE STREET Facebook and Twitter pages.

“I didn’t know much about Toronto music pre-Yorkville days and so it was a revelation to discover the gold mine of dirty rhythm and blues, rock and roll and soul music,” said Director and Co-Writer, Bruce McDonald. “Meeting and talking with characters like Mouse Johnson, Curley Bridges, Duke Edwards and John Finley were as dazzling as our conversations with Daniel Lanois, Gordon Lightfoot and Robbie Robertson. And of course hanging out with the grand ring master Ronnie Hawkins was its own hilarious trip.”



Monday, March 21 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT

Rumour has it that in sleepy 1950s Toronto they used to roll up the sidewalks when the sun went down. There was no rock ‘n’ roll or R&B music until the fateful day when Arkansas wildmen Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm pulled up in front of Le Coq d’Or Tavern and unleashed the “devil’s music” on unsuspecting Toronto. Travelling back to those colourful days, Part 1 reveals the city’s appetite for the popular and rebellious new sounds reaching up from the border. Between the exodus of African American performers like Curley Bridges and Mouse Johnson to Toronto, and Elvis performing at Maple Leaf Gardens, a whole generation of young local performers like Ronnie Robertson and Bobby Dean Blackburn were inspired to begin making their names on the flourishing Yonge Street strip.


Tuesday, March 22 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT

By the early 1960s, the Toronto music scene spilled into Yorkville. Folk music began to thrive and young performers like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell found a home. But Yonge Street was still the headquarters of the more raucous, wild rock ‘n’ roll bands. Part 2 sees Robbie Robertson, and The Hawks, create a distinctive guitar style that became synonymous with the “Toronto” sound. Then, as the Toronto music scene exploded, white bands were soon jamming with black musicians, heavily influenced by R&B and creating a distinct new sound all their own


Wednesday, March 23 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT

By the mid-60s, Yorkville had become the mecca for folk music until Dylan went electric and everything changed. Clubs for rock ’n’ roll and psychedelic music became part of the same lineup as the folk music of coffeehouses. Artists like Neil Young, Rick James and The Myna Birds, John Kay and The Sparrow, John & Lee & the Checkmates, and The Paupers were all big names playing the Yorkville clubs, but Canadians didn’t have the airtime support needed to sustain them. Toronto musicians had outgrown Toronto, so they left to find fame and fortune in the U.S. The Rock Pile, at 888 Yonge Street (now CTV’s Masonic Temple studios and home of MTV) became a focal point for great bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jeff Beck, and Frank Zappa on their pit stops to Toronto. Finally, Part 3 looks at the early 70s and how the proliferation of strip clubs drove the final nail in the coffin of the Yonge Street music scene.


3 thoughts on “Yonge Street – Toronto Rock & Roll Stories premieres March 21 on Bravo”

  1. Bobby Dean played the Zanzibar for many years and a lot of the muxicians playing at other bars would come there on Sat. afternoon and jam. I know because I was there.

    1. It was a great time. I saw Frank Zappa at the Rockpile a couple of times and Paul Butterfield too. Saw Jimi Hendrix too at the CNE. Those two at Varsity were amazing though. The Doors, Steppenwolf, Clapton, Lennon, Little Richard, Chuck Berry.

  2. I was watching the third episode and there was a lot on the concerts at Varsity. I attended both of those and it was great to hear the story and see the footage of the famous trip in from the airport with the Vags escorting the Doors and John/Yoko and Clapton into the stadium. We used to spend a lot of time at the Rockpile too. Great bands played there! Those were the days!

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