Occasionally I zip past the El Mocambo while biking south on Spadina in Toronto. The epic marquee sign is still absent, but from all accounts, there’s plenty happening to the skin of the revered establishment. Like so many who played there over the decades, I await the makeover, courtesy Dragons’ Den star, Michael Wekerle.
I recently caught up with musician Greg Godovitz in Kensington Market where the “Elmo” has a small gift shop stocked with T-shirts, trendy clothing and memorabilia. It would be a challenge finding anyone other than Godovitz with more considerable enthusiasm for the project. He assured me everything was on pace to open in May. Workmen are hammering away, and the rooms are taking shape.
I first played the ‘Elmo’ in 1972 under my name with a seven-piece fusion jazz/funk aggregate. I’d just released my first side with Capitol Records, "Goodbye Superdad." Who the hell knows what I was thinking about with that title?
I had people come up to me inquiring if it was a soundtrack recording for a Disney movie – a salute to estranged dads.
The band played a hard-edged funk/jazz style with screaming guitar and bruising B-3 at the forefront. Our paycheck for the week was $2,400, a considerable sum in those early days. As the months pass and the prominence of the club escalates, the upstairs became an international showcase. My band eventually slipped downstairs for the next four years where we found steady work. The pay never matched the featured performance slot, fluctuating between $1200 -1400 a week. Instead of performing for the usual industry and media types, we played for college students, friends, and neighbourhood regulars. There was nothing humbling about that; in fact, it was the perfect situation for introducing new bands, players, and material.
Over the next couple of years, I abandoned fusion and introduced reggae music to the club. As usual, the patrons were receptive to change, although a few of the staff remained uncertain; some whispering racist epithets as they cleared tables.
Two personalities dominated the venue; Reggie Bovaird; the amiable bouncer/doorman/manager, and Pat Joyce, the crusty, yet caring bartender. A third, doorman Keith McCullough, bridged those gaps between the more eccentric personalities, bringing a level of calm and sense of normality.
One thing the El Mocambo had in common with other age-restricted Toronto venues was the depth of unrepentant hostile bouncers. A body-toss down the stairs wasn’t out of character for some of the beef- brains that stood watch over the club. More than a few of these thick-necks faced the courts on assault charges. It was Reggie who kept things under control and in perspective.
Reggie arrived from the Nickelodeon on Yonge Street. Everybody knew and respected him and his love and devotion not only for the music but also the musicians. Whether it was Dylan or Zappa, Reggie held court and kept the social thing upbeat, and the beer drinkers and music fans integrated. Pat, on the other hand, divvied out rare compliments, usually coming late evening after a full house and fat till.
It was co-owner Mike Baird who kept me rolling along over the years. Baird was always appreciative of the music and musicians I put on stage. In fact, Baird gave me one of my great memories of that period.
I’d been playing the Generator, Mad Mechanic and Jarvis House. The level of violence kept escalating, and after a brutal slugfest at the Generator, I cancelled two upcoming weeks – one at the Mad Mechanic and the other at another well-known hitter’s bar.
I got sued by two musicians in the band for the cancelled gigs and taken to Local 149. The musician’s association staged a kangaroo court, called immigration on me, ruled in favour of the players, suggested I go back to the U.S. and fined me.
I paid off the players but refused to pay the fines.
The Toronto Musicians Association hounded me for months, notified CBC not to hire me, interceded in every aspect of my professional life, then sent a representative to the Elmo to collect the fines from my pay. It’s just past the last set and Baird is counting out the band dollars when this TMA pretend-thug reaches for my money. I warn him not touch. He then threatens Baird, telling him he was pulling out all of the international bands and shutting down the club.
Baird doesn’t back down and tells him, "if Bill says don’t touch the money, I’d advise you to use better judgement. This is for you two to work out and as far as threatening the club, go ahead.” Big Respect!
What made the El Mocambo such an attraction was the diversity of artists who filled the upstairs. Lord, if I only had a camera then! Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Guy, Asleep at The Wheel, Roomful of Blues, Ramsey Lewis, The New York Dolls, Howlin’ Wolf, Downchild Blues Band; jazz, blues, bluegrass, country - you name it. In fact, I even worked the joint to an ecstatic house with comic Robert Klein, opening for the Firesign Theatre. Speaking of comics, how about National Lampoon with Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner doing her best Patty Hearst? What a night that was!
How about the insult fest between cabaret star Peter Allen and drag queen Craig Russell? Or the night jazz piano giant Ramsey Lewis entered the club with his manager who was packing a gun and was quickly pulled aside. The gig got even more bizarre when Lewis, frustrated by a loud-mouth patron, stared him down for what seemed an interminable time. When that failed, he directed his bass player to start the set by playing a bass solo at ballad tempo. Brutal!
And then there was the roving saxophone of jazz legend Sonny Rollins who drifted table to table improvising over his calypso jazz hit, “St. Thomas.” There was even an unexpected Buddy Guy drop in from a floor above to meet the bass player in our band. I walked him over and introduced him to my Korg keyboard synthesizer. Guy looked at it as if it had been couriered from Mars.
By 1976, I left Toronto for pastures south. When I returned in late 1979, the Elmo had been christened a national shrine. An appearance by the Rolling Stones elevated the reputation of the club to that of a sacred institution.
The music policy had also changed. Jazz and blues were out. Alternative rock was in while aspiring punks hid in the crevices. Other than a few bright reggae moments and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s memorable appearance in 1983, the place began to smell corporate.
Often situated just inside the front door and ‘locked and loaded’ facing a pinball machine; road racer, Miles Baldwin. Miles was big-fun crazy. Miles' dad played in my band. The banter between the two while snapping away at Pinball Wizard was a hilarious mix of bohemian humour and street hustle. This was the big “greet” when clearing past the doormen!
Fights were still a common occurrence. In fact, a table of Edmonton Eskimo fans slugged it out down the front of us with bouncers as we played Bob Marley’s,“No Woman, No Cry!” How weird was that?
It wasn’t until I was part of China (Kearney, King & McBride), a band born on the bottom floor of the club in 1980, that I learned an obscene lesson in booking policy. To play upstairs, bands were now required to pay a fee. CBS doled out $600 for our performance after the release of our album, China, to be deducted from future recording royalties. When word spread amongst the band members, it was met with resentment and anger. We played to a full house but walked away penniless from the gig. The Elmo cleaned up.
The following year I played a couple more weeks downstairs with my ska/reggae unit, but the lustre had all but faded. The pay in 1982? $1,200! Out of that came the sound system rental, $750 for the house system. Some things never change.
As the years advanced, the names of bands became less significant. I’d pass the marquee and ask myself, who the hell is Zoo Flem, Butt Monkey, Violent Spoon, The Nauseous Snake, Toilet Boys, Duck Butter and the Pancakes and the likes. Gone were the tall names like Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Little Feat, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Tom Waits.
While sifting through a box of old cassettes I came across tapes of Kearney, King, McBride and LaBarge recorded downstairs in 1980, and I transferred them to Sound Forge, then over to CD. The energy and spirited sounds in the room brought back beautiful memories of those sweaty, smoke-filled evenings. There were few pickers locally who could match the guitar wizardry of Danny McBride and Bernie LaBarge back then or the cracking rhythms of drummer Paul Delong and bassist Gene Falbo.
The band drew the royalty of Canadian music. Guitar whiz Domenic Troiano would drop by and sit in with the band. The Good Brothers would make the hang, in fact, it was the “brothers” who helped us secure a recording deal with Epic Records in the US.
It was also how we lured legendary producer Bob Johnston of Johnny Cash and Simon & Garfunkel fame to catch the band, and eventually sign us. I can still see Johnston’s big smiling face standing front and centre giving the band a thumb up after each song.
While biking down Spadina in the fall of 1998, I decided to stick my head in for one last glance at infamy, remembering five, wild, fun-filled New Year’s Eves when we rocked the first-floor crowds. I made the usual right turn into the musty corridor and recognized the room was in much the same condition it had always been. The college types were still there, but the vibe was different. Something inside told me the ghosts of greatness had evacuated the premises.
It would be more than a decade before I again set foot in the Elmo and this for a solemn occasion; a tribute to a former bandmate and my trusty piano tuner, John Lowery, who’d passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. The September 30, 2009, celebration of John’s years in the music industry was a resplendent gathering of Toronto’s rock elite.
The room was now a cavernous, soulless shell stripped of its past brilliance. The stage draped in long sheets of colourless fabric could not salvage the ugliness. It was either change or fade. I couldn’t engage with the room with the same warmth as when John, Bernie, Danny, Paul, Chris Kearney and the gang graced the downstairs stage on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
2018? I have a gut feeling the comeback will be a shot of adrenalin for the music community. With history as a back-drop and the legends cheering on, May can’t come soon enough!