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When rock was Yonge and guitar was king

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If you're one of those out-of-sorts flatlanders who's always looking for reasons to deepen your dislike of all things Toronto, be warned: the three-part documentary Yonge Street -- Toronto Rock & Roll Stories isn't likely to add any heat to your hatred.

In fact, this new pop-culture exploration, which airs Monday through Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Bravo!, portrays the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe as a pretty darned cool place to be during Yonge Street's musical heyday of the late '50s, '60s and early '70s.

Directed by gifted bad-boy filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, Dance Me Outside, Highway 61), this three-hour retrospective harkens back to a time when downtown Toronto's most famous thoroughfare was the epicentre of a musical movement that literally changed the course of Canada's musical history.

Filled with rare archival footage and interviews with dozens of musicians, promoters and media types who were there, Yonge Street tells the story of a Toronto that attracted some of the best musicians in North America to perform in the numerous nightclubs and bars that dotted the Yonge Street strip.

"Toronto was good," says pioneering rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who emigrated from America's deep south and became one of the street's most important musical innovators. "It was the promised land for me. There wasn't a city in the world like Toronto.

"At that time, every Canadian we knew was trying to get to America. I said, 'Boy, if it was that good, I wouldn't have left!' "

Hawkins is one of several Americans featured in the film who travelled to Toronto in the late 1950s for a short-run gig and ended up staying a lifetime.

Yonge Street recalls a 1957 appearance by Elvis Presley at Maple Leaf Gardens -- the result of a fan-driven petition, and one of the King's few non-U.S. concert performances -- that inspired a rockabilly revolution in Toronto's musical community. Within weeks, a new sound was being heard all along Yonge Street, and guitarists, drummers and singers began travelling to the city to take part in the scene.

Yonge Street in the late '50s had two main attributes -- it was musically inspired, and it was criminally tough. But the two cultures coexisted comfortably, and the hotels and bars thrived.

"It was a scene, that's what it was," says musician/producer Daniel Lanois, who developed his musical chops playing alongside Yonge Street regulars. "And by being part of a scene, just by hanging out, through osmosis, it shapes who you are as a player.

"I think those Yonge Street lessons -- lessons in life -- helped form my guitar playing, and who I am as a human being."

Monday's opener focuses on the late 1950s, when Hawkins and his band, the Hawks (which included Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, who later backed Bob Dylan's electrified re-invention and then rose to their own level of stardom as The Band), redefined the musicianship and passion with which Toronto's pop/rock/R&B was played.

Robertson's guitar style is recalled by several who tried to copy it.

"Every guitar player in Toronto learned from Robbie, trust me," says George Simkiw. "I watched them all change from their old style of playing to the new 'Robbie' style of playing. And I was one of the pack."

In addition to the hard-driving rock 'n' roll that became its signature sound, Yonge Street also spawned a folk-music scene during the '60s, when the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Ian & Sylvia brought a younger, peace-loving crowd to the coffeehouses of Yorkville.

The Yonge Street sound expanded and adapted, but never abandoned the rock/R&B roots that would later launch the careers of David Clayton Thomas (Blood, Sweat & Tears), John Kay (Steppenwolf) and many others. The film includes a couple of priceless stories about rock-festival events in 1969 that were designed to lure some of these big names back to Toronto after they'd left Yonge Street behind to become international stars.

There's a lot here to like. McDonald's Yonge Street is a captivating and worthwhile tale that's sure to entertain even the most determinedly Hogtown-hating flatland rock 'n' roll fans.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 G5

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