While today’s Yorkville is known for its toney boutique shops, hotel towers and posh eateries, its history as the centre of Toronto’s counterculture and fast-growing folk music scene in the 1960s and ‘70s will not soon be forgotten.
Three new Heritage Toronto plaques – one denoting the area’s history as a whole and two marking the sites of once-famous coffeehouses The Purple Onion and the Penny Farthing – were unveiled at the Masonic Temple on Friday, May 6 at a special ceremony that featured a concert by Yorkville mainstays Luke & The Apostles and presentations by Jerry Gray of the Travellers and legendary singer Gordon Lightfoot.
Yorkville’s bohemian past served as a launching pad for the careers of several famous musicians, including Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. At Friday’s plaque unveiling, Lightfoot reminisced about what made the area so special to him when he was starting out as one half of the Two Tones with partner Terry Whelan.
“The first time (Albert Grossman, who would become Lightfoot’s manager) ever came to listen to me play…he came to the Purple Onion,” he said.
“You’d do three sets a night in the Riverboat (a coffeehouse at 134 Yorkville that was commemorated with a Heritage Toronto plaque a few years back) and it was not a big deal. You’d play until your chops were almost falling off.”
Music historian Nicholas Jennings noted Yorkville was once considered a blight on the city by City Hall, with politicians hoping to quell the growing counterculture and quiet the bustling bohemian scene. Despite their unpopularity with politicos, Yorkville’s coffee houses – which famously served harder stuff than just coffee – were vital in Canada’s emergence on the international music scene.
“Those clubs were pivotal to the rise of music culture in this city,” he said. “David Clayton-Thomas (of Blood, Sweat and Tears fame) said he went to high school on Yonge Street, but he went to university in Yorkville.”
As much as musicians cut their teeth on Yorkville stages, they were also able to meet and form bonds with fellow performers. Jennings noted the dozens of clubs and coffeehouses were so close, artists could take a break between sets and catch some of a fellow singer or band’s show at a nearby venue.
While it is credited with playing a vital role in forging Canada’s music scene, Yorkville was also a literary hotspot, a place where a young Margaret Atwood would hold readings and where the poetry of Leonard Cohen was first turned into songs.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam was pleased to see Yorkville’s musical heritage remembered.
“(The scene) laid the groundwork for what was going to be a musical revolution in Canada,” she said.
Heritage Toronto worked with a number of partners, including the Greater Yorkville Residents’ Association, music store Long & McQuade and Info-Tech Research Group – the current owners of the Masonic Temple – for the unveiling of the new plaques.
For more information on Heritage Toronto and its plaque program, visit www.heritagetoronto.org