A shrine to Yonge’s musical past
Friar’s Music Museum pays homage to club that introduced Bob Dylan to the Band
A drugstore makes for an unusual — though perhaps entirely appropriate — gift shop for a music history museum.
But as a shiny new Shoppers Drug Mart takes over the landmark space at 279 Yonge St. — occupied by the Hard Rock Café from 1978 until 2017 — part of its second floor is now the Friar’s Music Museum, a time capsule snapshot of the famous music venue that stood there a half-century earlier.
The micro museum, at 144 square feet, pays proper homage to the Friar’s Tavern (and its companion space, Nickelodeon), which enjoyed residencies by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and Arkansas rockabilly transplant Ronnie Hawkins, R&B scenesters Jon and Lee & the Checkmates, and Levon and the Hawks, who would eventually become better known as the Band.
The Friar’s Tavern is the club that, in 1965, introduced the Hawks to pioneering troubadour Bob Dylan, who promptly invited the group to accompany him on the road and electrify his previously untainted folk sound, much to the horror and uproar of acoustic folk purists around the world.
But as local Grammy-winning music archivist Jan Haust — who curated the space along with author and music historian Nicholas Jennings — emphasizes, it’s not just the prominent stories that deserve the attention.
“There are hidden and unknown stories of Yonge St. that have a lot of significance,” said Haust, best known for unearthing and assembling the release of Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Complete Basement Tapes, during a recent tour of the site.
“It’s not just Robbie Robertson chasing after Ronnie Hawkins. There are a thousand stories.”
While the Friar’s Music Museum doesn’t cover quite that many stories, it does spotlight a wide variety of musicians prevalent on the scene in the 1950s and ’60s. Produced by the Downtown Yonge BIA for Shoppers Drug Mart, the assembled memorabilia includes:
Reproduced era album covers, among them the Oscar Peterson Trio’s live On the Town, and a couple by the Sparrow, later known as Steppenwolf, among them.
Domenic Troiano’s rainbowstriped stage jacket, his Fender Telecaster and his Fender amplifier, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the Mandala album Soul Crusade.
An assortment of 33s and 45s, including an original copy of Richie Knight & the Mid-Knights’ chart-topping hit “Charlena.”
And several multimedia installations provided by ICON Media, including a fascinating touchscreen timeline that dates back to the opening of Massey Hall and covers many of Yonge St.’s lamented long-closed venues: the Colonial Tavern, the Edison Hotel, the Coq d’Or, the Hawk’s Nest, the Town Tavern and the Eaton Auditorium (now the Carlu) among them.
But it wasn’t just rock ’n’ roll and jazz that were embraced by the city during that time period: R&B, country and even Caribbean music also enjoyed significant followings.
“Yonge St. was a place where Afro-American and Caribbean artists played alongside white musicians, and where female performers such as Shirley Matthews and Dianne Brooks and even a (transgender artist) like Jackie Shane could all become stars,” Nick Jennings noted via email from Berlin.
“It’s the first time a curated exhibit has showcased this little-known side of the city’s rich music history: the bands on Yonge St. that gave Toronto an identifiable sound in the 1960s. More is known about the singer-songwriters of Yorkville, but Yonge had it all — folk, blues, jazz, country, rock and rhythm & blues — and that hasn’t been explored in this way before. Toronto really needs its own music museum and this project is a great start.”
Musicians aren’t the only ones featured in the display, stuffed with contributions from indi- vidual donors, and the archives of Haust and Jennings: there’s a section devoted to CHUM and the numerous DJs — including Duff Roman and the late Bob McAdorey — who played significant roles in the listening habits of Toronto youth back in the day, and even the menus of certain nightspots.
“We try to capture and describe an era, not only of this club, but when this club was around radio was flying,” Haust recalls.
“And the DJ was your friend at night when you’re doing homework, listening to him on a small transistor radio with one earbud.”
Roman’s contributions are particularly crucial to the development of the “Toronto Sound”: as the owner of Roman Records, the future Canadian Music Hall of Fame member recorded the Hawks, the Paupers and future Blood, Sweat & Tears frontman David ClaytonThomas, encouraging them to write their own material, predating the eventual implementation of protectionist Can-con legislation.
“What we have here is a museum statement about prelegislated culture,” Haust explains. “It’s one thing to have a hit record once Canadian radio is required by law to play 30 per cent content and it’s entirely a different thing for Duff Roman to take David Clayton-Thomas to the studio on the money he was making on sock hops, and record Top 10 hits ‘Walk That Walk’ and ‘Brain Washed.’ That’s a pioneering foundation.”
The Friar’s Music Museum, free to the public, may be small, but it’s a big win for preserving local history, thanks to Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, who persuaded Shoppers franchise owner Andrew Yehto pony up a significant amount of this prime downtown retail space, valued at approximately $200 per square foot.
“You’ve got a better chance of splitting an atom in your basement than accomplishing what we’ve accomplished,” joked Garner in an interview.
Garner considers the Friar’s museum the latest step in an effort to boost Toronto music tourism, previously complemented by building murals, Nick Jennings’ walking tours and book Before the Gold Rush, Jan Haust’s documentary project Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories, and numerous historical plaques.
“This is the flagship,” Garner says of the museum.
“We are working on other micro museums all the way along Yonge St. to preserve the cultural heritage. This is a neighbourhood that’s gentrifying quickly. Right now, it’s still living history, so we have to strike while the iron’s hot.”