Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
For outsiders and locals alike, Yonge Street has long been Toronto’s main drag. In the 1960s especially, it was the place where all the seedy titillations of the big city were on display under bright lights. The twenty-year-old protagonist from F.G. Paci’s novel Sex and Character (Oberon Press, 1993) described the allure of the Yonge strip upon his arrival from Northern Ontario in the late 1960s:
The Yonge Street strip was my favourite haunt. I like strolling up and down the garish neon emporiums and fast-food outlets, the leather shops and dirty bookstores with the movie booths in the back. There were jazz and rock bars jumping with music. There were triple-bill theatres plastered with gaudy posters where derelicts and bums could sleep in the afternoons. There were strip bars advertising nude women by the breast-load. … Hawkers and pedlars set up shop beside the store fronts and clogged the sidewalks, selling their watches and leather goods. Street kids and panhandlers and prostitutes slunk in the doorways, ready to pounce.
Between the Colonial Tavern (near Shuter Street) and Zanzibar in the north, Yonge was at its liveliest with blues and rock ‘n roll—heavier fare than could been found in Yorkville at that time—bumping out of the Edison Hotel, Friar’s Tavern, and Steele’s Tavern among other bars.
On any given night in the 1960s, Ronnie Hawkins, “the self-styled underground mayor of Yonge Street” (as one biographer described him), could be found serving up his southern brand of rockabilly and blues at Le Coq d’Or.
Image of Le Coq d’Or Tavern at 333 Yonge Street from 1950, prior to Ronnie Hawkins’ arrival. From the City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, Item 49376.
In addition to saddle-shaped bar stools, chintzy western knick-knacks and paintings of rodeo broncos decorated the dark red walls of Le Coq d’Or. When Ronnie Hawkins—who celebrates his seventy-sixth birthday on January 10—played, the bar at 333 Yonge Street was usually packed. The spacious, dark room was partly lit by the enormous glowing letters—Go Go—of a neon sign.
On the stage, Hawkins—in his thirties and 225 pounds by the mid-1960s—was surrounded by much younger men manning the bass, electric guitar, Hammond organ, and drums. The Hawk wore his usual uniform: jeans, a dark denim jacket over a black t-shirt, a kerchief tied around his neck and dark glasses.
Music critic Jack Batten recounted a typical evening at Le Coq d’Or for the December 11, 1965, issue of the Canadian Magazine. The band usually started off slow with a low-key song like Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”
Batten went on to describe the wall of sound produced by Rompin’ Ronnie and The Hawks:
The kind of music he plays, to start with, is filled with a shouting, good-timey, raunchy, jubilant feeling that’s totally infectious. It’s difficult to fix his music absolutely in the scheme of current pop music—it derives from rockabilly … it borrows from folk music, the Bob Dylan kind, and from modern Ray Charles-type blues; even more, perhaps, from the earthy Muddy Waters kind of blues. There’s a touch of jazz in it, and it’s a whole lot more uninhibited than, say, the Beatles’ brand of pop.
As the set picked up momentum—with a faster, more raucous blues number like “Hey! Bo Diddley”—Hawkins is joined by the bar’s other entertainers: go-go dancers. In bikinis or miniskirts with white boots, the dancers gyrated at the corner of the stage or in golden cages suspended from the ceiling. As one 1960s dancer, Susan Swan, later recalled to Toronto Life (November 1996), go-go dancing did not always mean topless dancing. And, for her at least, it represented a form of women’s rebellion. Although many Toronto bars featured go-go dancers, Swan credited Hawkins with having come up with the idea of hiring dancers to complement his rock act.
Ever the showman, at his peak, Hawkins would do back flips, hand-stands, or moonwalk across the stage during guitar solos. For his “passions and directionless energies,” journalist Kenneth Bagnell called Hawkins “the most visceral, primordial rock singer of the country” in The Globe Magazine (March 20, 1971).
Between songs, he’d spout one-liners, poke fun at a prominent person in the audience, or share ribald stories and embellished tales of his roots. Country star Kris Kristofferson said of the man who would become one of closest friends: “He was a legend before I ever met him.”
Born in Arkansas to a barber and a school teacher, Hawkins learned rhythm and blues music from the shoeshine boy in his father’s Fayetteville barbershop. After a stint at university, Hawkins was in the Artillery Corps when he formed The Black Hawks with some black musicians and toured with them across the segregationist South.
The band eventually evolved into the The Hawks. Playing late into the night, the band drove between gigs at dingy honky-tonks and frat parties in a pink Cadillac pulling a trailer with “Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks” scrawled across its side. Stories of Hawkins’ barnstorming days in Arkansas have healthy doses of myth and embellishment mixed in with the history. In one instance recounted in Ian Wallis’s The Hawk (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1996), Hawkins threatened to burn down a club when he wasn’t paid for his show—and then actually set it ablaze before he got his earnings.
Hawkins was, Wallis says, a performer mentioned in the same breath as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He played on the same bill as some of the era’s biggest stars like Jackie Wilson, The Coasters, Lloyd Price, and Brook Benton. He even auditioned for Sun Records.
But it was a hard grind working the southern honky-tonk circuit. There was tons of competition from other bands and therefore never enough paying work. At times, he and The Hawks made barely enough money to survive, and subsisted off baloney sandwiches.
In the spring of 1958, Hawkins ran into his friend Harold Jenkins (soon to attain fame as Conway Twitty). Jenkins told him of the benefits of touring in Canada, where—due to the dearth of talent—gigs at a single bar could last a month at a time.
And so, The Hawks came north. After gigs in Hamilton and London for around $450, The Hawks arrived in Toronto to perform at the Concord Hotel, which Bagnell called “a grim tavern on Bloor Street in the west near Lansdowne.” They soon ended up making $2,000 per week at Le Coq d’Or, the band’s home for the better part of a decade.
A very tight unit, The Hawks played to large crowds (eager for authentic southern rock)—six nights a week at the bar (with a matinee on Saturday) and a one night out-of-town gig on Sundays. It was hard work, but a lucrative living. Hawkins was successful enough to buy a Rolls-Royce (about which his drinking buddy, Gordon Lightfoot, wrote a song).
Initially playing month-long engagements and then returning home to Arkansas, by the early 1960s Hawkins had decided to stay in Toronto full time. He married, invested his earnings in bars and other properties. He bought a house in Mississauga and eventually moved out to a farm near Peterborough.
Hawkins had some minor success stateside with “Forty Days” (which reached number 45 on the Billboard chart) and “Mary Lou” (which reached number 26). But afterward everything he released fell flat. Morris Levy, head of Roulette Records, was effusive with praise. “Ronnie was the one,” Levy claimed. “He moved better than Elvis, he looked better than Elvis and sang better than Elvis, but he left for Canada when he was on the verge of universal acclaim. He just vanished.”
On the other hand, Wallis figured The Hawk’s stunted chart and album success in the United States was due to record labels consistently choosing the wrong tracks to be singles. Others—including a former Hawks drummer—suggested that Hawkins simply hated going into the studio and did just about anything to avoid it.
It seems Hawkins, making a good living off live performances on the Ontario circuit, just turned his back on fame and hit singles south of the border. Hawkins’ band mates, however, had ambitions beyond being big fishes in a small pond. Within a year or two, all of the original members (except Levon Helm) returned to the States. Hawkins replaced them with local musicians.
In an era when pre-CanCon radio echoed American stations and there were few outlets cultivating home-grown talent, Hawkins became a father figure who apprenticed aspiring Canadian musicians. The membership of his backing band over the years reads like a veritable who’s who of Canadian music history.
Postcard of Yonge Street, ca. 1970s, from 10 Different Color Snapshots (IPS [Handicrafts] Ltd. Burlington).
First, Hawkins was backed by the musicians who would later form The Band. In the following decades, The Hawks also included: Rick Bell and John Till (who left to join Janis Joplin’s band in L.A.), all the original members of Crowbar, blues singer King Biscuit Boy, Larry Gowan, David Foster, Stan Szelest, and even Beverly D’Angelo.
The band’s lineup was never stable for long. But Hawkins always seemed to have a young, eager musician waiting in the wings to take over when someone left. That many of these individuals were highly accomplished musicians was credited to Hawkins’ insistence on frequent and strenuous practice.
Despite all the changes on the stage around him, Hawkins never really changed his rockabilly and blues rock sound—save for an early-1970s foray into more straight-up country. Even as he continued to belt out his standards like “Who Do You Love?” he kept his sense of humour about it. “We sung these songs for your grandpappies,” he admitted from the stage.
In January 1980, a Globe and Mail reporter noted, however, that “regardless of how many times he’s performed them…he still cranks them out like it really matters. And, of course, for Ronnie and any one of the millions who have seen him perform, it really does.”
From Le Coq d’Or, Hawkins moved The Hawks upstairs to the Hawk’s Nest, then on to residencies at the Nickelodeon, the Hades Lounge at the Embassy Tavern, and the Town Tavern. According to the Toronto Life in August 1995, he was still playing 150 gigs a year at the age of sixty.
The streetscape outside continued to change, its raucous days as the centre of Toronto rock a distant memory. Riding the wave of gentrification, the Friar’s Tavern was tamed and turned into a Hard Rock Cafe. Zanzibar went further down market by giving up all pretence of staging live music; the go-go dancing sideshow evolved into stripping and became the main attraction. Le Coq d’Or closed, and was replaced by the types of nondescript stores that Yonge is known for today. Although health problems sidelined him for a spell a few years ago, Rompin’ Ronnie is still available for bookings.
Other sources consulted: The Best of Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks (Rhino, 1986), and Amy Lavender Harris, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010).
This article originally listed the address of Le Coq d’Or as 133 Yonge Street. The address was, in fact, 333 Yonge Street and a change has been made to reflect that. Thanks to David Elliott for catching the error.