Mapping Our Music: Before 1960
The venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that have created the sound of our city and shapedits music history.
In this installment, we look at sites that provided music to our ears prior to the 1960s, ranging from 19th century concert halls to suburban record companies.
1 Palace Pier (Humber Bay)
Originally envisioned during the late 1920s as a massive entertainment complex but not opened until 1941, Palace Pier was one of the city’s premier big band venues during the 1940s. Among the bandleaders who appeared on its stage: Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, and Stan Kenton. Used for private functions, political rallies, and boxing matches in its later years, the venue was destroyed by a fire in 1963.
2 Columbia Graphophone Company (363-369 Sorauren Avenue)
The Canadian branch of one of the early giants of the recording industry, Columbia Graphophone operated out of at least two plants in Toronto. Faded signs for their Sorauren Avenue location, used during the 1910s and 1920s as a pressing plant, remain on the condo that currently graces the site.
3 Concord Tavern (925 Bloor Street West)
A west-end jazz haunt which was later frequented by rock acts during the 1960s. The site is currently occupied by Long and McQuade music.
4 Casa Loma
Unoccupied for several years following the departure of its builder, Sir Henry Pellatt, Casa Loma was opened to the public as a hotel in April 1927. Though financial troubles led to its closure just over a year later, the Casa Loma Hotel left a mark on the music world through its house band. Under the leadership of saxophonist Glen Gray, the Casa Loma Orchestra became one of the first successful swing groups, though their first big hit, “The Casa Loma Stomp,” came after they moved south of the border.
5 CHUM (1331 Yonge Street)
One of Toronto’s weaker radio stations since signing on in 1945, CHUM had little to lose when it introduced the top 40 radio format to Toronto on May 27, 1957. That day saw the debut of the CHUM Chart, which became the most influential hit listing in Canada. Thanks to its playlist and energetic DJs, CHUM quickly rose in the local ratings. The station ended the 1950s by moving into its landmark building on Yonge Street, where passing drivers were urged to “Dial 1050.”
6 Edison Hotel (335 Yonge Street at Gould)
Originally known as the Empress Hotel, by the early 1950s it was one of Yonge Street’s jazz venues—and by the end of that decade, it brought in R&B performers like Bo Diddley. The building, which later housed Music World and Salad King, burned in January 2011.
7 Le Coq D’Or (333 Yonge Street)
Arkansas rock n’ roller Ronnie Hawkins first played this Yonge Street tavern circa 1958-59. Little did he know that during the following decade, it would become his home base, and he would be dubbed the unofficial “Mayor of Yonge Street.”
8 Massey Hall
Opened on June 14, 1894 with a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” Massey Hall became the city’s top concert venue and served as the original home of the Mendelssohn Choir (which first performed there in 1895) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1923). Among the performers who appeared in its first decades were Enrico Caruso, Sir Edward Elgar, George Gershwin, Glenn Gould, and Oscar Peterson. One of its most legendary concerts took place on May 15, 1953, when jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach played together for the only time in their careers. When a recording was made of the performance, Parker was credited as “Charlie Chan” due to contractual problems.
9 Town Tavern (16 Queen Street East)
Another key club of the 1950s local jazz scene, whose sound was preserved on Oscar Peterson’s 1958 album On The Town with the Oscar Peterson Trio.
10 St. Michael’s Choir School (69 Bond Street until 1950; 66 Bond Street thereafter)
Established in 1937, graduates of the program included members of two popular 1950s pop acts, the Crew Cuts (“Sh-Boom”) and the Four Lads (“Standing on the Corner”, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”). When “Sh-Boom” hit the charts, school founder Monsignor Edward Ronan dryly noted that “not all the boys can find their vocation in church music.”
11 George’s Spaghetti House (290 Dundas Street East, at Sherbourne)
Premiere jazz venue from the 1950s through 1980s, with a house band led by flutist/saxophonist Moe Koffman (whose music graces every episode of CBC Radio’s As It Happens). Koffman hit the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in 1958 with his instrumental “The Swinging Shepherd Blues.”
12 Maple Leaf Gardens
Besides sporting events, the home of the Maple Leafs was a major venue for all musical genres. Elvis Presley performed his only live Toronto show here in 1957, one of only three cities the King appeared in outside of the United States. Legend has it that Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker (born in the Netherlands) feared being exposed as an illegal immigrant while applying for his American passport.
13 Arc Sound (20 Cranfield Road, near Bermondsey Road and O’Connor Drive)
Launched in 1959, Arc Sound became known for producing Canadian artists and cheap cover version albums. Anne Murray launched her career on Arc, which also recorded many of her fellow cast members from CBC’s Singalong Jubilee. Other acts which recorded for Arc and associated labels like Yorkville Records included Catherine McKinnon, Ronnie Hawkins, Harry Hibbs, Gordon Pinsent, the Travellers, the Ugly Ducklings, and the cast of CTV’s popular pub singalong program The Pig and Whistle.
14 CNE Bandshell
Built in 1936 and inspired by outdoor venues like the Hollywood Bowl, the Art Deco-styled CNE Bandshell has played host to all genres and served as a focal point for the summer fair’s opening and closing ceremonies. A sampling of acts that appeared at nightly free concerts at the Bandshell during the 1955 CNE: the Leslie Bell Singers, the Diamonds, Priscilla Wright, the United States Navy Band, Cliff McKay and his Holiday Ranchers, and 12-year-old fiddler Graham Townsend.