Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
As Canada prepares to say goodbye to the beloved Tragically Hip with their nationally televised Kingston show on August 20, it’s an interesting time to reflect on Canada’s homegrown talent and famous jam spots.
The Riverboat Coffee House was a hopping hangout for hippies in cool counter-culture Yorkville during the 60s. Yorkville was the place to be and the Riverboat was the basement to check out if you wanted to hear up and coming musicians, sometimes even playing new compositions they’d put together in the venue’s rehearsal space.
Bernie Fiedler opened the Riverboat in 1964. The small underground space could seat around 120 people. According to the Toronto Daily Star, in December 1964, Fiedler and his partner Pat Hancock had done well with the Mousehole coffee house and spent $10,000 renovating the Riverboat.
The Riverboat became popular for hosting musicians and groups, such as Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan, and Gordon Lightfoot. A Star review of a Lightfoot performance at the Riverboat in March 1965 says, at 26, he was “on the threshold of a very promising career as a performer.”
At his 1965 show at the Riverboat, Lightfoot discussed his switch from jazz to country-inspired folk, which came about partly because he was offered a job on the CBC program Country Hoedown. At first, he told the crowd, singing country made him “so sick.” But he came to realize he didn’t fit in in the jazz world. “Man, I couldn’t talk that language,” he said. “Those guys are awful smooth.”
By 1968, he was famous and the Star heralded the Riverboat as the venue where he became established.
Some locals complained that Yorkville was too noisy, with all the coffee houses playing music late into the night. A group of city politicians went to tour the neighbourhood one evening to investigate the noise, and ended up at the Riverboat during a set by singer Anita Sheer. The aldermen were hushed by the audience there as they whispered during the performance. They generally agreed that it wasn’t the the coffee houses causing the late night noisy revelry.
According to music writer and historian Nicholas Jennings, who wrote Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of Canadian Sound, a history of the Yorkville music scene, Joni Mitchell first performed what is probably her most famous song, “Both Sides Now,” at the Riverboat.
In 1970, Neil Young returned to the coffee house for a visit, after hitting it big in the U.S. “It’s good to be back,” Young is quoted saying in the Star under the headline “Pop rock superstar Neil Young visits old haunts.” Jennings has noted that Neil Young referenced the coffee house in his song “Ambulance Blues” with the line: “Back in the old folky days/The air was magic when we played/The Riverboat was rockin’/in the rain.”
By the late 70s, the Riverboat was struggling and with the lower drinking age (18, down from 21), and it couldn’t compete with bigger venues with liquor licences (such as El Mocambo). Fiedler, the owner, also said that these other venues could afford to pay performers a lot more than he could offer and that musicians who got their start in the basement, such as Lightfoot, were now filling Massey Hall. The Riverboat’s final concert was on June 25 1978, and featured Murray McLauchlan, with two performances by Dan Hill earlier in the week. The Star quoted McLauchlan saying about his final show, “It was a debt to a scene whose passing I regret—the free-form club scene…The Riverboat was the Cadillac of coffee houses. Once you got a gig there, you had arrived.”
A Heritage Toronto plaque commemorating the coffee house stands out front of 118 Yorkville Avenue, now a condo building.
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