Historicist: Steele's Tavern and the Rise of Gordon Lightfoot
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Historicist: Steele’s Tavern and the Rise of Gordon Lightfoot

A Yonge Street institution gives rise to a generation of budding folk stars.

A & A Records and Steele’s Tavern, as seen from the intersection of Yonge and Elm streets, during a street festival in August 1971. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 5, Item 13.

The Yonge Street strip has been many things: retail district, home to the city’s first nightclubs, heart of the music scene, haven for sex shops and strip clubs. For nearly 40 years, through all those evolutions, Steele’s Tavern was a Yonge Street landmark, starting as a restaurant and becoming one of the first to be granted a liquor license. Sandwiched between the iconic signage of A & A Records and Sam the Record Man, the boisterous bar at 349 Yonge was a draw for generations of Ryerson students and movie stars. You could even catch a show by Gordon Lightfoot—before he was famous.

McDonald & Wilson Lighting Studios, right, and Steele’s Tavern at, respectively, 347 and 349 Yonge Street, 1950. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 19.

Steele Basil immigrated to Toronto from Greece in 1923 at age 14. Within three years of his arrival, he’d opened his first restaurant, the Green Lantern Tea Room, near the corner of Bloor Street West and Albany Avenue, where he endeared himself to neighbourhood boys by plying them with ice cream cones in payment for their ensuring the tea room’s tables always had fresh flowers.

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(Right: Globe and Mail [April 12, 1949].)

In 1936, Basil rented the downstairs section of 349 Yonge Street, which had been the Colonial Lunch, a restaurant operated by the Bazos family—founders of the Becker’s convenience store chain. His new establishment, which he named Steele’s Restaurant, was outfitted with “rich upholstery and dark ambience,” as one newspaper writer recalled decades later. Advertised as providing “wholesome food that you will enjoy,” the restaurant’s menu was broad, including barbecue chicken, French-fried shrimp in a basket, Italian spaghetti, roast beef with burgundy sauce, and charbroiled steaks, as well as “unusual relish trays.” In a brief, mixed review in 1965, a Star critic called its extensive menu “devoid of imagination,” but pointed out that each table was set with six condiments—not including salt, pepper, and sugar. “Service,” the reviewer added, was “pleasant, tardy.”

In addition to becoming a leader in the Greek community—through membership in the local chapter of AHEPA—Basil assumed a prominent role in the restaurant industry. As a member of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Restaurant Association, and its president for 1946 and 1947, the restaurateur pushed for improved sanitary standards, more frequent inspections, and more stringent conditions on the granting of restaurant licenses. Moreover, his restaurant was the site of classes which taught wait staff “the correct way of serving, posture, table setting, attitude and approach,” as one newspaper described it. He later played a role in the establishment of a hotel and restaurant management course at Ryerson.

Detail from a view of Yonge Street between Dundas and Gerrard streets, with Steele’s Tavern at right, in 1951. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 33.

When, in the spring of 1948, the loosening of liquor laws allowed restaurant owners to apply for licences to serve alcohol for the first time, Basil was among the first in Toronto to secure one for his establishment, now renamed Steele’s Tavern. Although, in retrospect, the granting of liquor licences is viewed as enlivening the city’s nightlife and cultural vitality, not all observers at the time liked the “New Look [being] given to downtown Toronto.” One 1949 newspaper editorial lamented that on the east side of Yonge, in the two blocks between Dundas and Gerrard streets, no fewer than seven establishments were now licensed to serve booze, including Steele’s Tavern, Bassell’s, the Rosticceria, the Bermuda Tavern, the Edison Hotel, the Coq d’Or, and the Brown Derby. These would be the core of a nascent Yonge Street strip.

Gordon Lightfoot performing at an industry event to launch his single, “I’m Not Sayin’,”, possibly held at Steele’s Tavern. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3405.

Around this same time, Basil bought the building at 349 Yonge, including the second-floor Venetian Room, which he enlarged to seat 180 and renovated to include a small stage. Although everyone informally referred to the entire establishment as Steele’s Tavern, the upstairs lounge was listed as the Venetian Room in advertisements through to the 1970s.

With a smoke-filled upper-floor lounge able to stay open until 1 a.m. according to its liquor licence, Basil introduced live entertainment in 1960. “All of the other bars had country and western, rock ‘n’ roll or were topless,” he recalled years later. “I wanted to create a new image so I chose folk and it seemed to click.” One of the first performers he hired was an unknown singer from Orillia who specialized in folk and country and western songs: Gord Lightfoot.

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A shy, nervous performer in those early years, Lightfoot’s covers of folk and country tunes satisfied the tavern’s typically rowdy crowd. “It was paid rehearsal,” Lightfoot once quipped. The audience was there primarily to drink, and Lightfoot had to compete with the bar’s other entertainments.

(Left: Globe and Mail [February 5, 1965].)

On at least one occasion, a large group fresh from the bowling alley insisted that Basil boot the folk singer from the stage so they could watch the Leafs play the Red Wings on the television, or else they’d take their business elsewhere. Lightfoot, a huge Maple Leafs fan, wasn’t perturbed in the slightest and sat down to watch the hockey game with the patrons.

Gordon Lightfoot (centre) with Ian (right) and first wife Brita Lightfoot (left) at an industry event to launch his single, “I’m Not Sayin’,” possibly held at Steele’s Tavern. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3412.

It was a much different crowd from the emerging scene in Yorkville, where unlicensed establishments could serve nothing harder than coffee or lemonade. “The people who mattered—students and teachers, the young writers and media people—caught your act,” music critic Peter Goddard later wrote of Steele’s.

With its reputation as a “hard-drinking and boisterous and alive” joint, as Dave Bidini described it, Steele’s Tavern suited Lightfoot. He bonded with Ronnie Hawkins, a fellow habitué of the Yonge Street music scene, over their mutual love of drinking and skirt-chasing.

Meekly at first, then with growing confidence, Lightfoot slipped his own compositions into his sets. When, one evening in 1964, Ian and Sylvia Tyson—already a successful folk singing duo—caught Lightfoot’s performance, they were impressed by Lightfoot’s original songs and asked, after the show, if they could record a couple of his tracks on their next album. Later, at Ian Tyson’s behest, their New York-based manager, Albert Grossman, sent a representative to Toronto to hear Lightfoot at Steele’s Tavern. He too liked the music and insisted Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan, sign the folk singer to a contract. Lightfoot went into the studio in late 1964 to record an album’s worth of tracks, and Grossman shopped the tapes around to record labels.

Gordon Lightfoot (left) at an industry event to launch his single, “I’m Not Sayin’,” possibly held at Steele’s Tavern. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3406.

In 1964 or 1965, Steele’s Tavern was the scene of a record-industry party, possibly funded in part by Sam Sniderman, to celebrate Lightfoot’s first U.S. single, “I’m Not Sayin’,” being released by Warner Brothers Records. But when the release failed to make an impact south of the border, Warner dropped Lightfoot within a matter of months. By September 1965, Lightfoot had been picked up by United Artists, which released his debut album, Lightfoot! in early 1966.

Though he’d been doing a decent trade at Steele’s Tavern, earning $125 for four sets a night, six nights per week, by mid-1965 the burgeoning star was soon able to command $1,000 to appear at the Riverboat coffee house in Yorkville, the premiere folk venue in the country. “Lightfoot played over thirty engagements here during the first three years and when he was not known,” Basil once recalled. “But then he became a star and I couldn’t afford him anymore.” He and Lightfoot remained friends.

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(Right: Star [October 21, 1963].)

Basil became a friend and champion of many musicians. As the Yonge Street music scene matured and diversified, Steele’s Tavern stuck mostly to acoustic folk and folk-rock, welcoming singers like Alan MacRae, Tom Kelly, Klas Van Graft, Chick Roberts, Charlotte Vale, and Al Cromwell. Basil personally auditioned all the performers himself, and was willing to give newcomers a stage to play standards and their own material. “He was encouraging us all the time,” Andy Niccols, a folk singer who began playing at Steele’s Tavern in the mid-1960s, recalled of Basil. “He was like a father to us. He wanted to see us all become stars.” If a young performer ever had a bad set, one singer recalled for Peter Goddard in 1981, Basil would take them aside and tell them “how he remembered how Gordon Lightfoot had had his bad sets, too.”

Many observers regarded the Steele’s Tavern patrons—students and working men—to be more interested in drinking than in listening to music. When, in the summer of 1965, jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson took residence at Steele’s Tavern after a stint in a Yorkville coffee house, the Star‘s Frank Kennedy complained that he could barely hear Johnson over the “buzz of conversation throughout the room.” Yorkville audiences, he concluded, went to see the act perform, but the customers at Steele’s “went primarily to have a drink.” On the other hand, during the same series of shows, a Globe and Mail music critic, Patrick Scott, was amazed by the audience’s warm reception, noting how it “marked the first time I have seen a cocktail-bar patron turn to another at the end of a set and remark: ‘You can talk again now.'” Many musicians regarded the Steele’s Tavern crowd as being an attentive audience. “By 1 p.m. Friday they’d be as sloshed as any group of people in the city,” one singer recalled of the late 1960s. “Still they’d listen.”

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Steele’s Tavern was a favourite haunt of students from nearby Ryerson, which was established as an institute of technology in 1948. Lured in by cheap booze, several generations of hungry students gorged themselves on the complimentary breadsticks left on each of the lounge’s tables. Basil tried to keep a measure of class, though, complaining about “undesirables” who came looking for the bar’s stock of imported beer when a month-long strike in the summer of 1968 cut off the local beer supply. “You know, the Jarvis Street crowd,” he told a reporter. “Well, we wouldn’t serve them because they were a loud, vulgar bunch.”

(Left: Star [February 3, 1964].)

Movie stars dropped by on at least one occasion, in early February 1964. Richard Burton, in town for rehearsals for a staging of Hamlet at the O’Keefe Centre, and his soon-to-be-wife Elizabeth Taylor, cancelled plans to attend a Maple Leafs game for a quiet night out at Steele’s Tavern. When they pulled up in their rented Cadillac limousine for their impromptu visit, Basil rushed outside to welcome the stars to the upstairs lounge. “I told them it was an honor,” the tavern owner said. “The drinks were on the house. It was the least I could do.” As the couple sipped on vodka gimlets in a silent, mostly empty bar, a crowd gathered on the street outside, filling the sidewalks on both sides of the street and spilling into the roadway to interrupt traffic. Although Basil had posted men at the door, a few brave onlookers made their way in and up the stairs. Many more followed, until the lounge was packed.

Noticing the change in atmosphere, Burton and Taylor finished their drinks and left. Downstairs, they soon found themselves stranded amid the throng outside with their limousine nowhere in sight. The spectators called Taylor’s name, demanding autographs, and roughly shoved her and Burton this way and that. After some frantic minutes, the movie stars managed to hail and cab and return to the safety of the King Edward Hotel. Taylor was frightened. Burton was furious. “That’s it,” he raged. “That’s the worst mob I’ve ever seen…. From now on we’ll have to go into hiding.”

A & A Records, Steele's Tavern, and Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, ca  1970  Photo from Chuckman's Collection of Toronto Postcards

A & A Records, Steele’s Tavern, and Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, ca. 1970. Photo from Chuckman’s Collection of Toronto Postcards.

In the spring of 1974, word came that Basil, at 65, was retiring. He would shutter Steele’s Tavern—a Yonge Street landmark for nearly 40 years—and sell 349 Yonge Street. Many of the musicians and singers who had started there, as well as other tavern regulars, gathered for a final Saturday night send-off on June 8, 1974.

“It’s a tear-jerker of an occasion,” Alan MacRae, a British-born stalwart of the Toronto folk scene, told Trish Crawford in the Toronto Star (June 10, 1974). “It’s been a place where people could do their own material. I think it’s the only bar in town that has done that.”

“I’ve got mixed emotions tonight,” Basil said with tears in his eyes as he accepted a standing ovation from the capacity crowd there to wish him well. “It’s been a good life. But I couldn’t have done it without these fantastic kids who were all good performers.” Steele Basil died, after a lengthy illness, on November 7, 1981, survived by his wife, Adele, and son, Theodore.

A & A Records, Thrifty’s (in the former Steele’s Tavern) and Sam the Record Man, seen from the Yonge Street and Elm Street intersection, between 1977 and 1998. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 20.

The former tavern, sandwiched between A & A Records and Sam the Record Man, served as home to a Thrifty’s clothing store, a Hi-Fi Express stereo store, and then an Electronic Depot outlet before being absorbed into its neighbour, as Sam’s compact disc shop, in the mid-1980s. Subsumed beneath an expanded Sam the Record Man sign, 349 Yonge was among the buildings demolished to make way for Ryerson’s planned Yonge Street frontage.

Sources consulted include: Dave Bidini, Writing Gordon Lightfood: The Man, The Music, and the World in 1972 (McClelland & Stewart, 2011); Maynard Collins, Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind (Deneau Publishers, 1988); John Einarson, Four Strong Winds: Ian and Sylvia (McClelland & Stewart, 2011); Mike Filey, Mount Pleasant Cemetary: An Illustrated Guide (Firefly Books Ltd., 1990); Alfrieda Gabiou, Gordon Lightfoot (Quick Fox, c.1979); Nicholas Jennings, “Gordon Lightfoot: Master Craftsman of Popular Song.” Liner notes to the Gordon Lightfoot Songbook CD box set (Rhino, 1999); and articles from the Globe and Mail (March 4 & 24, 1948; April 12, 1949; April 6, 1954; February 3 and September 18, 1964; March 10, May 28, July 7, and August 18, 1965; March 18, 1966; July 19, 1968; November 9, 1979; November 11, 1980; March 22, 1983; January 25, 1985; September 2, 1986; and October 31, 2001); and the Star (August 16, 1949; January 9 and August 9, 1952; October 2, 1957; September 12 and October 21, 1963; January 10, February 3 & 8, 1964; August 7 & 21, 1965; January 12, April 9, and June 10, 1974; October 16, 1977; January 11, 1978; November 8 & 10, 1981; May 6 and December 15, 1982; July 19, 1983; June 8, 1984; June 13, 1985; October 3, 1986; August 2, 1987; November 5, 1988; July 21, 1993; November 14, 1994; and July 1, 1996).

CORRECTION: January 13, 2015, 12:45 PM The image featuring Brita Lightfoot, Gordon’s first wife, was originally published calling her Sylvia Tyson. The caption has been corrected.

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