Forty years ago, Toronto saw a lot of the Canadian musical icon, who passed away yesterday.
“People say Stompin’ Tom’s sound ain’t culture, and I say it’s real,” Toronto Mayor David Crombie declared when he handed the Canadian music icon the Best Male Vocalist award at the 1973 Juno Awards. While some critics found Stompin’ Tom Connors corny, devoted fans like Crombie were drawn by his colourful, good-humoured songs and relatable lyrics. For Connors, who passed away yesterday, 1973 was a banner year, with many of its highlights occurring in Toronto.
“If you can’t identify with one of Connors’s work songs because you’ve never picked potatoes or crewed on a coal boat,” Robert Martin observed in the Globe and Mail following a January 20, 1973 Massey Hall concert, “he’ll get you with one about that small town you grew up in or lived in for awhile.” Connors’s work could also evoke big-city life, as in songs like “To It and at It” (later used for SCTV’s classic parody of Goin’ Down the Road) or “TTC Skidaddler.”
Connors spent the early part of 1973 waiting for confirmation of a proposed Labour Day headlining show at the CNE Grandstand. One problem: the CNE board of directors had to approve performers, and half of them had never heard of Connors. As he waited, Connors turned down other potentially conflicting gigs, including a telethon. Depending on the source, in April he was offered either a “Maritime Day” show on August 17 at the CNE Bandshell or the opening-act slot for American country star Charley Pride on August 29. Either way, he would receive $3,500, nearly 10 times less than Pride was getting.
“I must decline this offer as a protest of the way the Canadian entertainers are treated by the CNE and other exhibitions in Canada,” Connors told the press on April 24. “It means something to every Canadian performer to appear at the CNE, but there are a lot of fogeys around who listen to one kind of music. They should make it their business to know what’s going on.” His action signified his ongoing support for Canadian musicians, another aspect of which was his Boot record label, which existed in an office above Gryfe’s Bakery on Bathurst Street.
Two weeks later, metro council’s executive committee asked the CNE to present 60 per cent Canadian headliners. CNE management claimed that its entertainment was as much as 95 per cent CanCon, but that total encompassed all forms of live performance. The political pressure and Connors’s stance worked. That fall, CNE officials agreed that to place more emphasis on domestic headliners.
Meanwhile, a series of concerts Connors played at the Horseshoe Tavern in mid-May were filmed for the documentary Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom. The film captured the strong rapport he’d developed with his audience, and was sprinkled with guest acts, animation, and vintage footage of TTC streetcars. Ontario Place audiences caught Connors in IMAX during a segment of Catch the Sun at the Cinesphere, or in person during an August performance at the Forum.
In early September, Connors announced that he was getting hitched to long-time girlfriend Lena Welsh. The ceremony aired live on CBC television during the November 2 edition of Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date. Around two million viewers watched the wedding, which was broadcast from the basement of the Four Seasons Motor Hotel on Jarvis Street. Connors wrote a song for the occasion, “We Traded Hearts Today.” Guests included Polaroid-snapping New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield and Gaet Lepine, the Timmins bartender who launched Connors’s career in 1964 when he asked the performer to sing to pay off a nickel beer debt. Following a lobster buffet, the wedding party went to the Imperial Six cinema on Yonge Street (now the Ed Mirvish Theatre) for the premiere of Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom. The party moved to the Holiday Inn on Chestnut Street (now a University of Toronto residence) before the newlyweds departed for a 10-week honeymoon. The marriage endured until Connors’s passing.
Additional material from the January 22, 1973 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the January 20, 1973; March 14, 1973; April 18, 1973; May 9, 1973; May 16, 1973; September 3, 1973; and November 3, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.