Originally published on Torontoist on January 11, 2016.


Toronto Star, May 2, 1978.

In the days to come, much will be made of how David Bowie influenced other artists. But appreciating such talent takes time, and, especially for someone who confounded mainstream culture when he gained fame in North America during his “Ziggy Stardust” phase, Bowie was initially viewed with a mix of bemusement and disgust by Toronto’s press. As our city’s familiarity with Bowie grew, the fandom that appreciated his many creative aspects and personas resulted in hot tickets for three concert tours here that stopped here during the 1970s, and captured Bowie at the height of his fame.

“The new decadence is not only ugly, it lacks class,” screamed the headline of a 1972 Globe and Mail article criticizing the growth of adult movies and glam rock. “In the seamy wake of Alice Cooper,” the paper observed, “have come drag rock groups with names like Queen and the New York Dolls and singers like David Bowie who, in his lipstick and hot pants and Jane Fonda haircut, is taking a new step in decadence.”


One of the earliest ads we found mentioning Bowie, featuring a giveaway of his 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World at a carpet store. Toronto Star, December 30, 1972.

Profiling several glam rockers for the Star the following year, Peter Goddard felt Bowie tempered some of the shock value of his orange hair and declarations of bisexuality through the strength of the songs on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “By not allowing their audiences to clearly identify their sexual distinctions,” Goddard noted, “the new performers have the freedom to be more bizarre and hence more effective showmen.” Asked about playing glam rockers like Bowie, CHUM-FM program director Bob Laine observed that “we never try to analyze who they are, but just what their music is. There has always been this kind of sheer shock value in the entertainment industry. Only now it’s receiving a greater amount of expression.”


Toronto Star, June 17, 1974.

Bowie’s first major Toronto appearance was a pair of shows at the O’Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts) on June 16, 1974. These performances rounded out a glam-rock-filled weekend in the city, including concerts by the New York Dolls and Kiss (described by the Globe and Mail’s Robert Martin as “a totally plastic band”) at Massey Hall. With no promotion, all 6,400 tickets to Bowie’s shows sold out a month in advance. The stage was filled with elaborate sets inspired by the artwork of Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs, along with touches like a cantilevered chair which positioned him over the front row while singing into a telephone during “Space Oddity.” During “Big Brother,” Bowie sang “from the top of what looked like a space capsule,” Martin observed. “It then opened up into a mirrored room with floor-to-ceiling black lights and a huge hand that folded out into a staircase.”

The audience was decked out for the occasion. “A couple of confusing gender strolled through the crowd, one dressed in a short, frilly pink slip, the other’s mouth smeared with frosted lip gloss.” Goddard noted in the Star. “One girl, otherwise normally dressed, was wearing an enormous pair of bat’s wings. And elsewhere among the jeans and T-shirts you could see lilac lipstick, tangerine eyes, hair dyed Bowie’s rusty-red colour, and the familiar Bowie lightning bolt zigzag painted on people’s faces.”

Some fans probably sensed Bowie’s persona was shifting. Having retired Ziggy Stardust in late 1973, the show’s theme was Orwellian. Bowie’s costume, described as “a powder-blue modified zoot suit,” foreshadowed the scaled-down nature of the latter half of the tour, when he adopted a more soulful presence.

When Bowie next appeared in Toronto, he’d changed personas again. Around 19,000 filled Maple Leaf Gardens on February 26, 1976 to see Bowie in “Thin White Duke” mode. The show began with the presentation of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, then continued with a bare stage lit with amber and white lights. Critics felt the spare setting made Bowie look vulnerable, yet separated from the audience by an invisible barrier. “The music was the most sensual part of the night,” Goddard noted. “And it seemed to be the part that made the most direct connection with the audience…Bowie, somehow, seemed removed, as if he was watching it all from a self-imposed distance.” Martin felt the minimal setting was a letdown compared to the inventive theatricality displayed two years earlier: “The king of glitter rock appeared without his makeup and showed that there is precious little behind it.” Bowie may have started to feel removed from himself; by year’s end, he moved to Berlin to restore his health after a period of heavy cocaine use.


Globe and Mail, February 27, 1976.

Bowie’s last Toronto show of the 1970s saw a crush of fans eager to enter Maple Leaf Gardens nearly push an incognito Lindsay Kemp (Bowie’s mime teacher, who was in town performing Salome at Toronto Workshop Productions) into a popcorn cart. Once inside, those attending the May 1, 1978 show saw a solid two hour performance. Showing a warmer side to the audience than in previous appearances, his set was described by the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Godfrey as “good, old, born-in-trunk professionalism.” Wearing a long green windbreaker and baggy pants, Bowie “looked like a fragile fisherman,” Godfrey noted. “But the looks are part of the one character that Bowie cannot abandon—that of a vulnerable-looking cadaver—but sings and acts with a confidence and bite that make the looks a mystery. As a culmination of his characters over the years, it couldn’t be bettered.”

Bowie returned to Toronto over the years, opening his infamous Glass Spider Tour here in March 1987. The multimedia David Bowie is exhibition made its North American debut at the Art Gallery of Ontario in fall 2013, showcasing the artist’s archive. One thing he refused to do for the exhibition was discuss his legacy, a matter now left to cultural observers and fans inspired by his music.

Additional material from the October 14, 1972, June 17, 1974, February 27, 1976, and May 1, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the April 7, 1973, June 17, 1974, and February 27, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Columbia House

Originally published on Torontoist on August 12, 2015.


Maclean’s, February 16, 1957.

The bait was hard to resist: up to a dozen albums for a penny. Sure, there was a “small” shipping and handling fee. And buy x-number of albums at full price over x-number of years. And mail back reply cards if the monthly featured selection didn’t appeal to you. And endure legal notices in case you didn’t pay up. And, if you cared to dig deeper, support the no or reduced royalties on those bargain albums paid to performers and publishers. And, if you wanted to dump the albums, discover used music stores that refused to accept them, citing inferior pressing quality.

But a dozen albums for a penny! Even with the additional costs factored in, Columbia House and its competitors were an affordable way to build a music collection, especially back-catalogue items you might not have rushed down to the local bricks-and-mortar store to buy. You could kill hours browsing microscopic print to make the right picks.

At their peak in the mid-1990s, record clubs across North America raked in $1.5 billion annually. At the end of the 1990s, Columbia House Canada held the second largest market share among Canadian music retailers, behind bricks-and-mortar retailer HMV. Their power over sales was such that many large chains boycotted the 1996 Juno Awards when Columbia House was named an official sponsor.

Then the Internet came along. The only surprise over this week’s announcement that the American remnants of Columbia House has filed for Chapter 11 is that any trace of the former giant still existed.


Toronto Star, October 17, 1955.

Columbia House’s half-century presence in Toronto began when the Columbia Record Club launched on both sides of the border in 1955. It was promoted via ads through local retailers ranging from Eaton’s to Sniderman’s Music Hall (the College Street forerunner of Sam the Record Man). The original offer was a choice of one free record from a list of 12. After that, you had to buy four LPs at list price over the next year, with a free record tossed in for every two you bought. The offer was adjusted over time: by 1968, the deal was eight free records if you bought nine over the next year.


Globe and Mail, October 15, 1955.

The company experienced pains after purchasing the rival Capitol Record Club of Canada in 1974. “Quite frankly,” Columbia House Canada VP/GM Richard Gurian told the Star, “we didn’t do such a great job in taking over” after discovering how many bad accounts were inherited. Moving its computer services from its Don Mills office to the headquarters in Terre Haute, Indiana created customer invoice problems.

One result: for the rest of the 1970s, Columbia House provoked the highest number of complaints about a single firm received by the Star’s Star Probe consumer-help column. Most aggravating was the steady stream of increasingly threatening notices to pay up in cases where items didn’t arrive or requests to close properly paid accounts were ignored. As Star Probe columnist Rod Goodman put it, “It is a shame that the law allows firms to throw legal notices at customers without making even a token effort to determine the facts.” Readers frequently vowed never to deal with direct marketers ever again.


Maclean’s, February 1968.

Goodman published an example of the form letters complainants received. This one was the first stage in prodding a delinquent customer, utilizing an obnoxious “friendly” approach:

Have you ever tried wishing away your troubles? They just don’t go away. The only way troubles will disappear is by doing something about them. In our case, I mean yours and mine, our troubles could disappear if you would only pay your bill. We would both be relieved of a big burden. Especially since the time is rapidly approaching when I must make a decision whether or not to turn your account over to a collection agency. Send your payment today and breathe a sigh of relief.

That letter may have been signed by “Douglas Mitchell,” the fake name Columbia House used for its friendliest reminder. Not as nice was “Frank Pearson,” who asked if you forgot the bill before demanding payment. If nothing was resolved, “Clark Weatherbee” threatened legal action or harassment from a collection agency. These names helped Columbia House staff determine account status whenever a frazzled customer called in. “Suppose everyone wrote to me and I wasn’t here,” Gladys Perry, Columbia House Canada’s manager of fulfillment, told the Globe and Mail in 1982. “Imagine all the frustration that would build up. And what if I were to leave the company?”

Sometimes the form letter went too far. One Weatherbee form used in the early 1980s advised clients that “we are now fully aware of your extremely poor credit risk status.” While Parry dismissed complaints about that wording, noting that those who supposedly owed Columbia House did “not necessarily have a poor credit rating in the whole community,” lawyers took the company to task. The wording was removed.

Perhaps employees were fatigued by legitimate deadbeats, who made up to 35 per cent of their customer base. Some went far to get their cheap albums: a North York couple was charged in February 2000 for defrauding Columbia House out of $20,000 over the previous year. Under different names (yet using the same address), the couple submitted 28 handwritten and over 1,000 online club applications, yielding a bounty of 900 CDs.

Columbia House soldiered on even when rival BMG Music Service launched with a Boxing Day advertising blitz in 1994. BMG’s promise of no further obligations past the promotional offer was an immediate hit, drawing 300,000 members in 10 months. Both services, and their offshoots, fought it out in mailers, ads, and online until BMG pulled the plug on its Mississauga facility in early 2000. As online shopping cut into its base, Columbia House was sold to a succession of new owners. The end for its Canadian operation came in December 2010, when Direct Brands closed its east Scarborough office.

Additional material from the August 16, 2008 edition of Billboard; the October 15, 1955, April 15, 1982, and August 26, 1998 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 1968 edition of Maclean’s; and the October 12, 1976, March 24, 1977, April 10, 1979, and December 10, 2010 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Oscar Peterson

Originally published on Torontoist on June 17, 2015.


Toronto Star, November 5, 1945.

In July 1945, Globe and Mail record reviewer Dillon O’Leary (in his tongue-twistingly-titled column “Hot Platter Patter”) declared that 20-year-old jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s second single “My Blue Heaven/Louise” was disappointing “but his ideas still show lots of promise.” That promise was fulfilled: over the next 60 years, Peterson earned fame and honours worldwide.

Reviews of his early visits to Toronto, such as this one by the Globe and Mail’s Kay Sanford during a brief appearance at the Royal York Hotel in November 1945, glowed:

This personable young coloured man with the gifted fingers chased the ivories through a varied program and the blues to the lilting Polonaise in a style that left his audience with their mouths agape and pleading “Don’t stop now.” Yes, sir, that man is solid dynamite. But Oscar is a versatile lad who doesn’t just stick to the hot stuff. His long, graceful fingers caressed the piano in a flow of classics as well as chopping a faster tempo to more popular boogie numbers, offering tuneful evidence of the amazing gift which is his.


Globe and Mail, March 7, 1946.

Peterson made his Massey Hall debut on March 7, 1946. “Peterson has technique, imagination and terrific drive, combined with that relaxed self-possession which allows a musician to give his best at all times,” O’Leary observed in his review. The crowd responded enthusiastically, applauding loudly following Peterson’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and demanding encores at the end of the night.


Globe and Mail, August 13, 1960.

Though born in Montreal, Peterson was later based in the Toronto area. One of his most ambitious local projects was the establishment of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music (ASCM) in 1960. Founded by Peterson, the rest of his performance trio (bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen) and clarinetist/composer Phil Nimmons, the school was established to allow professional jazz musicians to mentor emerging talent from across North America. Originally launched in the basement of Peterson’s suburban home, it soon moved downtown to 21 Park Road. The school initially offered courses lasting up to 17 weeks (later shortened to four), which the teachers soon found cut into their touring time. “When we set up the school,” Peterson told the Star in January 1964 after it suspended operations, “it was supposed to be a bit of a holiday activity on our days off. It never worked that way.” Despite the school’s demise, Peterson continued to teach, leading to a term as chancellor of York University. ASCM’s legacy will be honoured this week with the installation of a Toronto Legacy Program plaque on its site on June 18, the same day the Toronto Jazz Festival marks the 90th anniversary of Peterson’s birth.

While Peterson appeared in print ads and television commercials for products ranging from whisky to Coffee-mate, he also lent his presence to public service announcements regarding human rights issues. One such ad, “Together We Are Ontario,” featured Peterson and fellow jazz performers like Guido Basso and Moe Koffman promoting racial harmony in the province. The importance of such work to Peterson is reflected in his autobiography A Jazz Odyssey: on the dedication page, besides mentions of his parents and musical impresario Norman Granz, he gives a shout-out to former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry, “who decisively assisted my efforts to persuade TV companies to feature more ethnics in their sponsorship programs.”

Additional material from Oscar Peterson: A Musical Biography by Alex Barris (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002); A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson by Oscar Peterson (New York: Continuum, 2002); the July 21, 1945, November 27, 1945, March 8, 1946, and September 10, 1960 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the January 6, 1964 edition of the Toronto Star.

The Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience of The Electric Circus (and the story of 99 Queen East)

Originally published on Torontoist on February 18, 2015.


The Telegram, December 21, 1968.

For Torontonians of a certain age, the phrase “Electric Circus” conjures up the 1990s dance show on Citytv and MuchMusic. Its name paid homage to the dance club that Citytv replaced at 99 Queen Street East when the station launched in 1972. The original Electric Circus arrived in town with great hype, and ended as a newspaper auction ad.

“I believe in Toronto,” Stan Freeman, Electric Circus co-owner, declared when he announced the club in May 1968. “It’s one of the grooviest cities in the world for rock, and I’m investing $300,000 in that belief.” Along with business partner Jerry Brandt, Freeman, a Torontonian who once worked for Clairtone, promised a venue over twice the size of his flagship club in New York City’s East Village. The original’s mix of circus performers, electronic music, experimental theatre, light shows, and live bands would be imported, all for a then-stiff $4 cover charge.

The site, whose past tenants ranged from an ornamental ironworks to a Simpsons used-furniture depot, would see its 38,000 square feet of floor space reimagined into a realm designed for the groovy hipsters. Split into seven rooms, it included a strobe-lit dance hall, chambers lined with foam rubber, a boutique, and a restaurant. Unlike the NYC location, the light shows would be programmed via computer.


Left: Toronto Star, January 25, 1969. Right: Toronto Life, April 1969.

Trouble plagued the project from the start. Construction costs doubled as the concept evolved and the city demanded numerous safeguards. The opening date, intended for July, was delayed for months. When the Electric Circus finally opened for a VIP-only fundraiser for the Save the Children Fund on December 20, 1968, it was far from complete. Despite staff putting in 24-hour shifts, little was truly ready for guests like John Craig Eaton, Peter Munk, and Marshall McLuhan to enjoy the full freak-out experience. Plaster dripped and wires were exposed. Carpenters hammered away. Welders sprayed sparks onto the floor. Drinks were served in paper cups because the bar glasses had been stolen. The light show was still in test mode. Amid the chaos, floor staff ran around in lab coats and sweatshirts with “HELP!” written on the back. “C’mon, honey,” one tuxedo-clad guest told his wife. “This is terrible! They can’t have a party in here!” Perhaps prime minister Pierre Trudeau was relieved when he declined his invitation.

The press found reasons for optimism. “If you’ve been mouthing McLuhanisms for the past couple of years without really knowing what things like ‘media barrage’ and ‘total environment’ mean,” the Globe and Mail observed, “you can experience them in their most intense form at the Electric Circus.” The Star’s Jack Batten predicted it would be a “groovy experience” when properly running.

The club closed for a month to complete renovations. Over 2,000 people, many armed with free passes from CKFH radio, lined up when it reopened on January 23, 1969. While the pulsating liquid patterns and strobe lights impressed patrons, many wondered what the hype was about. As one partier observed, “everything else you can do at home.”


Toronto Star, March 11, 1969.

What you actually could do at the Electric Circus, according to Star art columnist Gail Dexter, boiled down to four things: dance, eat, go nude (a practice encouraged among female patrons), and hide in a “womb room” outfitted with flashing lights. It was also utilized by the Ontario College of Art for its annual Beaux Art Ball—in the spirit of the era, its 1969 edition was named after a catchphrase from the TV series Laugh-In (“Look it up in your Funk and Wagnall”).

As 1969 wore on, the club’s troubles mounted. A Sunday night live concert series was discontinued due to performers being late or, in the case of Ten Years After, failing to show up at all. Crowds dwindled to 80 people on weeknights. Tradesmen registered liens as they waited for payment. Creditors were offered shares in the New York club. By 1970, new management contemplated providing an atmosphere that was less plastic and more conducive to young people enjoying live music. “They shouldn’t go to Massey Hall,” manager Bob Cohen told the Globe and Mail in May 1970. “I’ll make them feel at home. I’ll give them a community. I’ve got rid of most of the environmental junk we had, and I’m trying to make the Circus a place just to relax and listen to the music and groove with the other freaks.”

Pandering to draw “freaks” failed, and the Electric Circus’s groovy goods were auctioned off. Less than two years later, over $1 million of renovations transformed the site into Citytv’s first home. The station took advantage of the wiring system the club left behind, while the light-show gondola became Moses Znaimer’s office. The old club’s address is currently occupied by The Carbon Bar.

Additional material from the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969, November 6, 1969, and May 16, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 27, 1968, October 19, 1968, December 20, 1968, December 21, 1968, March 1, 1969, March 11, 1969, and April 26, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.


I wrote about the history of 99 Queen East in the following article for The Grid’s Ghost City series, which was originally published in April 2013.

globe 22-10-28 meyer bros ad

The Globe, October 28, 1922.

Anyone purchasing their heating needs at the Nipissing Coal and Wood Yard in the mid-1870s never imagined that a century later 99 Queen Street East would fuel people’s quest for controversy and entertainment. By the end of the Victorian era the yard was cleared away and replaced by a building which would house a series of industrial business ranging from wrought iron fencing to laundry machines.

ts 35-11-14 star electric ad showing building

Toronto Star, November 14, 1935.

When Star Electric Fixtures moved in during the winter of 1934, it promised consumers the “most up-to-date showrooms in the Dominion of Canada.” They weren’t at the forefront for long, as a two-alarm blaze destroyed the business on Boxing Day 1935. Though a feared building collapse was avoided, firefighters contended with dense smoke and freezing temperatures which turned their streams into sheets of ice. A year of legal sparring between Star Electric and its insurers saw the company’s president refuse to answer certain questions about the incident.

After the damage was cleared, Simpson’s moved in to run a “trade-in” store specializing in used furniture. Following the department store giant’s departure in 1944, other furniture businesses occupied the premises before it was vacated during the mid-1960s.

In early 1968 Jerry Brandt and Stan Freeman, owners of the hip Electric Circus disco in New York City, announced Toronto would host the second in a planned series venues across North America designed to attract an audience in the 14-to-25 demographic. For a stiff $4 cover charge, patrons would be dazzled by a 1,500 capacity main dance floor with live and recorded music, circus acts, and light show, while side rooms offered dining, shopping, and foam rubber walls. Freeman chose 99 Queen Street East because he “liked the sound of the address.” The venue, which was intended to be alcohol- and drug-free, was billed as the “Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience.”

ts 68-12-21 opening night

Toronto Star, December 21, 1968. Click on image for larger version.

The Electric Circus was immediately plagued with problems. Renovation issues delayed opening by six months. Constant design changes and safeguards demanded by the city caused the cost to balloon to over $500,000. When it finally opened for a Save the Children Fund benefit on December 20, 1968, attendees were underwhelmed by the unfinished space—one complained to the Globe and Mail that “they should pay us to come in here.” When the Star’s Jack Batten arrived at 10 p.m., he found “several hundred beautifully dressed people” looking “desperate and mad” as the space was “a shambles of exposed wired, dripping plaster, rough wood floors and a dozen hammering carpenters.” Light show technicians were still in test mode, while welders provided their own sparkling display. Drinks were served in paper cups after the bar glasses were stolen. Despite the hiccups Batten predicted the Electric Circus would “be a groovy experience” once it was properly running.

Finishing work closed the Electric Circus for a month. When it reopened on January 23, 1969, 2,000 people lined up. Only the strobe lights and pulsating liquid patterns impressed the crowd, many of whom had received free passes from radio station CKFH. Otherwise, as one patron put it, “everything else you can do at home.” A Sunday night concert series featuring headliners like Procol Harum and Sam and Dave was quickly curtailed, though local acts and groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Alice Cooper continued to grace its stage. Weeknights drew as few as 80 bodies. Construction workers registered liens against the club. While attempts were made to make the club seem less soulless, and events like the Ontario College of Art’s Beaux Arts Ball were held there, by August 1970 its items were up for auction.

ts 69-03-11 oca ball small

The full article on the OCA’s Beaux Arts Ball, Toronto Star, March 11, 1969.

In March 1972, over $1 million of renovations began to transform the space into Toronto’s newest television station. Managing director Moses Znaimer claimed the light show gondola as his office. The heavy duty wiring system the Electric Circus left behind was a blessing for the tightly-budgeted station “Somebody up there likes us,” Znaimer told the Star.

ts 72-06-10 here comes citytv 1

Toronto Star, June 10, 1972.

When Citytv debuted at 7:30 p.m. on September 28, 1972, a large cardboard poster on Znaimer’s office wall beaming “SEXY TELEVISION BEGINS SEPT. 28” crashed to the ground. “Was the Great Producer in the Sky trying to tell Znaimer that he disapproved of City’s raunchy programming policies?” joked Star columnist Alexander Ross. Sex that fueled the station’s early success thanks to the Friday night Baby Blue Movie. Despite frequent police morality squad visits regarding the airing of soft core flicks, mail praising the show flowed in. Several letters claimed the techniques demonstrated onscreen saved their marriages. By March 1973, the show drew 60 percent of the midnight audience.

Besides Citytv, the building housed one of the station’s first spinoffs, MuchMusic. Both stations honoured 99 Queen East’s heritage when, a year after they moved to 299 Queen West, a new dance show launched in 1988 bore the name Electric Circus.

Meanwhile, the old building became a mixed-use space which lost its historic address when it was integrated into the Queen Richmond Centre at 111 Queen Street East. Disney used the studio to train dancers for its cruise ships. The Grid looked into the space while it was up for rent in September 2011, noting that the location would soon be in high demand due to imminent construction in the parking lot across the street. The parking lot is still there. While the exterior offers no hint of the current tenant, a peak through the window reveals plenty of scaffolding inside.

Additional material from the December 27, 1935 edition of the Globe, the May 18, 1968, December 21, 1968, January 24, 1969, March 12, 1969 of the Globe and Mail, the September 30, 2011 edition of The Grid, the December 27, 1935 edition of the Mail and Empire, and the January 30, 1934, July 27, 1968, December 21, 1968, April 26, 1969, March 18, 1972, September 29, 1972, March 20, 1973, and May 3, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star.

Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, in Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on October 28, 2013.


Toronto Star, June 10, 1967.

“You’ll never see the LP on the pop charts. It’s doubtful whether you’ll ever hear much of it on the radio,” warned Toronto Star rock columnist Ralph Thomas when The Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967. While the airwaves might not have been ready for the album’s most uncompromising tracks about drugs and deviancy, Thomas praised it for creativity, singling out singer/guitarist Lou Reed for his “Dylanesque style.”

Reed, who died Sunday morning at age 71, went on to become one of rock’s most influential figures. His more memorable songs inspired many musical careers, but some of his more difficult works amounted to prickly f-yous to fans, journalists, and record labels (we dare you to sit through all four sides of 1975’s Metal Machine Music). His first solo gigs in Toronto, in 1973, fit this pattern.

Following two local appearances with the Velvet Underground—a performance of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable roadshow at Hamilton’s McMaster University in November 1966 and a spot at the Toronto Pop Festival at Varsity Stadium in June 1969—Reed made his Toronto solo debut at Massey Hall on April 9, 1973. It was not one of the auditorium’s finest moments. Ticketholders were locked out while problems with Reed’s equipment were remedied. The show started about 90 minutes late, to the detriment of opening act Genesis. The differences between each act’s following heightened tensions which, as Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett recalled years later, “deteriorated into a punch-up between the Lou Reed fans who were on downers, and the Genesis fans who were more into Earl Grey tea.” Booing ensued.

The headliner’s subdued set failed to excite the 2,250 concertgoers. “Dressed in black leather, and looking wan and tired, he seemed to be only going through the motions,” observed the Star’s Peter Goddard. “And even the motions weren’t particularly interesting.” The Globe and Mail’s Robert Martin felt the bluesy style Reed applied to songs like “Heroin” reflected the relaxed tone he sensed in the singer’s most recent album, Transformer. “Reed does to song lyrics what Warhol did to art; he records the seemingly artless debris of New York’s demi-monde and presents it without comment,” Martin reflected. “His lyrics are as ambivalent as is his own sexuality.” Soon after the show, Reed fired his backing band.


Toronto Star, November 9, 1973.

Reed returned to Massey Hall on November 29, 1973, to promote his album Berlin. His new touring group included two veterans of the Toronto music scene, drummer Whitey Glan and bassist Prakash John. Tales of Reed’s previous appearance may have affected attendance, as only 1,000 people showed up. Those who did enjoyed a solid, hard-driving set that mixed Velvet Underground staples, new material, and Reed’s recent hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Reed, according to Martin, appeared “both hard and sensuous, a street punk in leather, and chains, but softened by his frequently coy and effeminate gestures.” Goddard compared Reed’s appearance to Joel Grey’s sexless MC in Cabaret and, while not entirely satisfied with the performance, felt it gave a better sense of what Reed was capable of.

Goddard’s fear that the low turnout would discourage Reed from returning to Toronto proved groundless. Reed—joined by surprise guests Alice Cooper and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp—played Massey Hall the following October and would perform here many times over the remainder of his career.

Additional material from the April 21, 1973, and November 30, 1973 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 4, 2011 edition of the Guardian; and the June 10, 1967, April 10, 1973, and November 30, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star.



Globe and Mail, November 14, 1966.

While the Globe and Mail ran a picture but no article regarding the November 12, 1966 appearance of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable show in Hamilton, the Star did the opposite. For some reason, Nico’s name was spelled ENTIRELY IN CAPS throughout Gail Dexter’s review. A sampling:

The films are simple enough–The Underground and Edie [Sedgwick] and NICO and lots of black leather projected on a huge screen to intense rhythmic noise. The action builds to a sado-masochistic climax and then The Underground comes on stage.

The group plays with a persistent heavy beat so loud that the floor of the new gym vibrates, and they play for two hours with lights, films, and optical patterns flashing behind them. Songs like “Heroin” (it’s my life and it’s my wife) to which Gerard simulates a fix, and “Death Song for Hell’s Angels” (shiny, shiny, shiny leather, whiplash girl-child in the dark) through which the dancer flagellates himself.

But NICO is the star. She’s tall and blond and beautiful in a remote northern way. She played herself in Fellini’s Dolce Vita and now she sings with the Underground; and, in her singing, she projects a tragic awareness that becomes almost painful. Her final number, “If I’m late, will you wait for me?” holds the audience enthralled for a half-hour.

And that was one of the problems: The audience, about 800 students, just sat there stunned for three hours. They were supposed to dance but the gym is so big that only a few couples were sufficiently exhibitionist to try–but they went wild. A one-time McMaster student, Charlotte Kennedy, just ran up on the stage and started dancing with Gerard. He flashed lights on her and cavorted for the cameramen.


Globe and Mail, November 30, 1973.

The Globe and Mail‘s review for Reed’s second, less-disastrous Massey Hall show of 1973. Berlin was also placed on Martin’s list of potential Christmas gifts, published on December 8:

Lou Reed, who characterized the life of New York City’s demimonde as a member of the Velvet Underground, has moved to Berlin, where angst is part of the real vocabulary. It’s a concept album about a relationship in the city of the bear that ends in the suicide of the lady, Caroline. It’s a chilling tale told in school of Andy Warhol simplicity that borders on the banal. But Reed’s flat, disinterested vocals lift the story out of melodrama into a horror story of world weariness.

Other albums in that guide? The Rolling Stones’s Goat’s Head Soup (“The disc was recorded in Jamaica. I think the sun got to them.”), John Lennon’s Mind Games (“His best album since Imagine”), Ringo Starr’s Ringo (“As a singer, Ringo makes a great drummer”), Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (“One of the most beautiful records produced this year”), Linda Ronstadt’s Don’t Cry Now (“If you give [this album] to a male, he may never get past the front cover photograph”), The Band’s Moondog Matinee (“The results are so funky as to be virtually skunky”), and Neil Young’s Time Fades Away (“Neil Young writes like a 27-year-old going on 60”).

Vintage Toronto Ads: Byrds and Falcons

Originally published on Torontoist on February 12, 2013.


Left: Toronto Star, May 28, 1966. Right: The Telegram, June 2, 1966.

Joe Peters, president of the Toronto Italia Falcons soccer club, had a brilliant idea to raise the profile of the nascent professional sport among the city’s youth in the spring of 1966: marry a match to a rock concert. “We are introducing young people to soccer under conditions they understand,” he told the Telegram. To lure teens into Varsity Stadium for “Rock ‘n Soccer” on June 22, 1966, he booked one of the most controversial bands of the moment to headline.

It had been a rocky year for the Byrds. Singer Gene Clark departed the group in February 1966, because of a mixture of stress, fear of flying, and dissent within the band. Their next single, “Eight Miles High,” was banned by radio stations across North America because of suspected drug content. In Toronto, 1050 CHUM played the song for a week before station manager Allan Slaight pulled it “the minute we heard what it was supposed to refer to.”

The Star’s Robert Fulford interviewed students at Wilson Heights Junior High for their perspective on the lyrical content of “Eight Miles High” and similarly controversial songs. Fulford wasn’t convinced the Byrds depicted a drug trip, noting that “only in the vagueness, the sense of dislocation, can you find any real hint of such an experience.” One student thought it was about the serenity of being up in the sky, while another thought it described how the singer felt while being with his girlfriend. When informed the song was banned, one girl asked “what do they think they’re trying to hide from us?”

(Among the students interviewed was future Fashion Television host Jeanne Beker. While she didn’t comment about the Byrds, she guessed that the title of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” evoked the concepts of “woman is the world and the rain is just the hate falling on the world.”)

ts 66-06-18 byrds banner

Toronto Star, June 18, 1966, using an outdated publicity shot (Gene Clark, departed since February 1966, is on the right).

The mixture of rock and soccer didn’t go smoothly at what the Globe and Mail’s John Macfarlane dubbed “Toronto’s first op-pop-soc-hop.” Around 3,000 teens showed up, less than half the audience organizers required to break even. The evening began with a trio of local acts, followed by a match pitting the Falcons against the Hamilton Primos. Overheard in the stands: “What are those squares doing out there kicking a rubber ball around?” Kids bored by the game may have perked up during the halftime go-go dancing spectacular.

After the Falcons earned a 3–0 victory, the audience anxiously awaited the arrival of the Byrds. CHUM DJ Bob McAdorey urged the crowd to “spread out and sit on the natural seat God gave you” before the band performed. While 30 police officers threatened to send excited girls “back to Yorkville” if they didn’t move away from the stage, the band played a half-hour set. “No one will ever know whether they were good, bad, or indifferent,” Macfarlane observed. “At times it was difficult to tell what they were playing above the screams of the crowd.” Star reviewer Douglas Hughes felt “the affair had all the most depressing characteristics of a mass outdoor funeral,” and structured his report in such a manner.

On his way out of the money-losing concert, Hughes overheard a girl suggest to a boy that they head to Yorkville to see “some groups up there that really swing.” He dismissed the idea. Hughes didn’t blame him, as there was “no point in risking another funeral.”

Additional material from the June 23, 1966 edition of the Globe and Mail, the June 18, 1966 and June 23, 1966 editions of the Toronto Star, and the June 2, 1966 edition of the Telegram.


tely 66-06-02 byrds preview The Telegram, June 2, 1966.

ts 66-06-18 do they sing of dope

Toronto Star, June 18, 1966.

gm 66-06-23 byrds review

Globe and Mail, June 23, 1966.

gm 66-06-23 byrds soccer game

The view from the sports page. Globe and Mail, June 23, 1966.

ts 66-06-23 byrds soccer review 1

Another sports-page take. Toronto Star, June 23, 1966.

ts 66-06-18 gzowski on supremes

This profile of the Supremes by Peter Gzowski was on the same page of the Star as Fulford’s piece. 

Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman: He Said It, He Did It

Originally published on Torontoist on September 24, 2012.


Globe and Mail, August 21, 1971.

Sam Sniderman was typically modest when he assessed his contribution to Canadian music. “I have done more than any other individual to forward the recording industry in Canada,” he boasted to the Globe and Mail in 1967.

But it wasn’t just ego talking. Over a 60-year retailing career Sniderman proudly championed Canadian artists, whether it was prodding major labels to sign local artists, encouraging government-funded talent development programs, or providing the first significant sales floor space to artists ranging from Gordon Lightfoot to Raffi.

The announcement late last night of Sam the Record Man’s death has rekindled many memories of his landmark Yonge Street store five years after it closed, former customers fondly recalling the first record they bought there, spending hours looking for obscure imports, and joining the crowds lined up for the annual Boxing Day sale.

View of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street

View of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, June 23, 1971. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 3, Item 25

Sam Sniderman entered the record business in 1937, when the 17-year-old budding entrepreneur was given space in his brother Sid’s radio shop on College Street. In the years afterward, he gave several accounts as to why he was drawn to records. The usual story is that he believed it would help woo a girl who loved classical music (if so, it worked—he married Eleanor Koldafsky a few years later). In another telling, Sniderman remembered being wowed by tales about the industry from an RCA Victor salesman, even if those tales were meant to push records. “I was intrigued with the stories he was telling,” Sniderman recalled in 1996, “and I wanted to find some sort of niche for myself.”

By the 1950s, records overtook the shop’s radio sales, leading to a name change: that was when the store became Sam the Record Man. It moved to 347 Yonge Street in 1961, a decision Sniderman once admitted was spurred by arch-rival A&A’s tactic of pasting his ads on their window with his name removed. The battle between the Yonge Street titans was fierce, with Sam’s developing an edge for its bargain closeouts and deep selection. With his trademark wide smile, Sniderman told the Globe and Mail in 1967 that “we’re friendly competitors, except that we’ll stab each other in the back whenever we get a chance.”

Sniderman was a hands-on owner, strolling through the store to advise customers. Local lore held that he had memorized the entire inventory, an impressive feat given its depth. The store became a place where people who came in for a particular record quickly lost a few hours flipping through the bins. Each expansion added to the ramshackle (if sometimes maddening) charm, bringing with it more crooked floors and mismatched rooms. To many tourists, a trip to Toronto wasn’t complete without walking through the doors under the spinning neon discs.

Sitting still was difficult. Sniderman said he was “driven by a compulsion to become involved. I can’t just sit on the sidelines. I’m into an idea and before I know it I’ve said things and made commitments and I know deep down I can’t make six appointments for 2 p.m. on a single day.” Among the things that kept him busy were establishing the Sniderman Recordings Collection at the University of Toronto (which comprises some 180,000 sound recordings), serving as a director of CHIN radio, supporting the Yonge Street pedestrian mall during the early 1970s, investing in a neighbouring Chinese restaurant which bore his name, and assisting numerous agencies devoted to developing Canadian musical talent.

Capital works - Yonge Street and Gould Street. - [between 1977 and 1998]

The Gould Street side of Sam’s, before the chess tables went in, early 1980s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 26.

Helping homegrown musicians was a point of pride; Sniderman maintained that “talent is a country’s best resource.” He pushed multinational companies to pick up Canadian acts, promising to sell at least 1,000 copies of any album they offered. He reputedly landed Joni Mitchell her first spot at the Mariposa Festival. “If Ottawa had any sense,” he told the Globe and Mail in 1971, “it would buy out Sam the Record Man and build those 90 stores just to plug Canadian talent. Why if each shop sold just five discs apiece, we’d have a national hit on our hands.” He envisioned a federal “Canadian Talent Development Board” which would underwrite artists who wanted to record or tour. Not that there wasn’t a profit motive involved: “I make plenty of cash out of Canadian records,” Sniderman said. “If I didn’t, I’d throw them out of the store.”

Musicians became loyal customers, even if it meant Sniderman had to cater to their whims. Glenn Gould annually called the store on Christmas Eve for last minute gifts. When Sniderman told Gould how crazy the last-minute rush was, the pianist pleaded “please Sam, do this for me. I need you.”

When Sam the Record Man went bankrupt in 2001, he admitted the one song that he would take if stuck on a desert island: Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me.” “Anne’s voice had helped through bad periods before,” Sniderman observed. “I find it very comforting.”

For music lovers, his store was equally comforting.

Additional material from the February 11, 1967, August 21, 1971, and November 23, 1996 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the November 3, 2001 and June 30, 2007 editions of the Toronto Star.


The day after this piece was originally published, that week’s “Vintage Toronto Ads” column spotlighted Sam’s.


Toronto Star, December 10, 1948 (left); Toronto Star, December 19, 1952 (right).

Besides the iconic presence Sam the Record Man had on Yonge Street, it was a long-standing advertiser in Toronto’s newspapers. Starting in the 1940s as Sniderman’s Music Hall, the record retailer lured in music lovers with sales on the latest releases and back-catalogue items.

Many of the early ads we found highlighted Sam’s selection of British and foreign-language albums, capturing a city starting its transformation from a staunchly loyal outpost of the British Empire to today’s multicultural landscape. Parlophone Records would aid Sam’s sales from the 1960s onwards…or their major mop-topped act (who was released on an associated EMI label in North America) would.


Toronto Star, November 15, 1957.

Two major changes occurred to the store’s ads during the fall of 1957. The “Sam the Record Man” name appears to have been adopted at this time, though die-hard customers had been using it for a while. Also taking shape was the ad format Sam’s used for the next half-century, filled with pictures of the week’s major sale items.


Toronto Star, November 15, 1957.

There was only so much space to show the records, so lists of other specials were included. The store also touted its easy access from the College streetcar.


Toronto Star, July 20, 1961.

Before Sam’s occupied its best-known location at 347 Yonge Street in 1961, the building housed a furniture store. While Sam’s operated out of a temporary location further south at 219 Yonge, A.R. Collis held a “selling out sale.” Fifty years would pass before the site witnessed another store closing blowout.