Media articles about the old Colonial Tavern in Toronto often fail to convey the kind of ambience and excitement of the place.
“Recalling my six months’ employment there in 1976 reminds me of quite a different world that has faded away.”Cindy Allingham – Author
My dad sometimes took his elder children to the club to expose them to jazz giants in the late 1960s, and I became more familiar with the club in the early 1970s as the music roster expanded. American Jazz icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Roy Hargrove were joined by Canadian jazz greats Moe Koffman, Kathryn Moses, Don Thompson, Phil Nimmons, and Rob McConnell. Audience tastes began to include blues (Charley Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, King Biscuit Boy, Muddy Waters, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, James Cotton), rhythm and blues (Commodores, Earth Wind and Fire, Sam and Dave) and many local blues, rock and R&B bands (The Mighty Pope, Rough Trade, Edward Bear, Downchild Blues Band, Powder Blues). Well-known pop acts like Peter Allen, and entertainers like Sonnie Terry/Brownie McGee came often.
The Colonial was what was called a ‘supper club’ in the 1950s and 60s.
Located on Yonge St. just north of Queen, the entranceway was imposing, with glass enclosing the front staircase up to the second floor, where dining was offered. The design was mid-1960s; once inside it was hard to see any décor features because the walls were painted black and the lighting was kept low.
The main level was a long oblong; a stage, raised about 5 feet, was placed in the middle of one of the long walls, and opposite it was a long, granite bar. In front of the stage was a small dancefloor, enclosed by a metal railing and ringed with tables.
On either side of the stage a second-floor balcony projected out over the main floor, and another floated out over the bar. Tables populated the areas under the balcony at each side of the stage, and the balconies themselves carried tables for dining while watching the performers.
The Colonial management boasted that they offered the longest bar in North America (not just Canada) but I know of no proof, and it didn’t seem all that long to me.
At least two bartenders tended the customers sitting at the bar on high stools, and they made drinks to order for the waitresses to pick up.
Girls would request gin and tonics, rye and gingers, or mixed drinks like Singapore Slings. The bartenders would set them up on the bar, and the girls would ‘purchase’ the drinks by paying the bartenders, who would deposit the money in the till.
The girls were then responsible for delivering drinks to the table and collecting money from the customer to replenish their ‘float’.
In some ways the girls had their own autonomous little businesses, because they were responsible for the customer experience after the drinks left the bar.
Goody, a retired part-owner, filled his time waiting tables in the old-fashioned formal way.
He loved kibitzing with the customers, but he was gruff and distant with the waitresses. Nevertheless he took pride in his work, and insisted on training the girls.
He taught me how to carry a tray full of draft beer without spilling a drop, gave me tips on ways to remember drink orders and prices, and how to spot underage drinkers.
He was very careful to preach about not biting the hand that feeds, so he often repeated advice about not overcharging customers and not ripping them off.
He also gave advice on how to cut corners too. For example, if a waitress made a mistake and ordered a gin and tonic when the customer had asked for vodka, she could leave it on the bar without paying for it and get another drink. Once the customer had drunk their vodka, and asked for a second one, the waitress was allowed to pick up the G&T, pay for it, and bring it to the customer.
Goody swore that once a customer had had one or two drinks they could not tell the difference between vodka and gin, or between bourbon, Canadian whiskey or scotch if it was mixed with something.
The Colonial audience was very diverse. Toronto in the early 1970s was not; Crowds were primarily white and local, although there were always American tourists.
There was, however, a special crowd at the bar in those days.
Many were American blacks who had a drink and socialized with each other while they waited for their ‘ladies’. A percentage of them were pimps, although not all. This was the era of Blaxploitation movies like Superfly and Shaft. Patrons wore flashy clothes, lots of gold, and hats. They ordered the most expensive drinks (Courvoisier and Napoleon brandy were popular) and some dealt in illegal substances.
Occasionally someone at the bar would start a fist fight, and the musicians would stop playing momentarily. The manager worked hard to control this element and keep them from disrupting the entertaining atmosphere.
In this effort, the bouncer, Rocky, was indispensable.
Rocky was a large, beefy black man with a happy disposition.
He was up to the job physically, of course, but more than that he was extremely perceptive and sensitive.
He could read the room, and knew all the regulars. He knew when someone was going to cause trouble, and he knew how to calm down patrons who were about to disrupt things.
Importantly, Rocky kept an eye on patrons who threatened to cause trouble for the girls. One night a man tipped me $50, which was many times more than his bar bill. I pointed out that he might have made a mistake, but he merely smiled at me. I took it to Rocky. He immediately went over to the patron, gave him back his $50, told him the girls were not for sale, and offered to escort him out of the bar.
Rocky was, in fact, part of the underworld himself; he offered me work as an ‘escort’ but was polite and understanding about the fact I turned him down. He had a string of ladies, apparently, but I never saw them. It was prudent, as a waitress, to keep Rocky happy, however.
The night I served a drink to one of the bar crowd, and a gram of cocaine was slipped on my tray, I didn’t know what to do. I gave it to Rocky, hoping he would either enjoy it or dispose of it. He was always kind and friendly to me. I don’t know what sort of life Rocky had after 1976, but I am sure he prospered somehow, because he knew how to fit in and convince people to like him.
In Toronto bars, which closed promptly at 1 am, the music would end, and patrons were encouraged to drink up and leave.
Rocky would famously holler “Motel time! Drink up, folks. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”
The police, uniformed or plainclothes, made frequent appearances.
They often wanted to talk to the regulars at the bar. They would ask the bartenders and Rocky whether so-and-so had been in; frequently so-and-so would be quietly walking down the back towards the washrooms and sometimes right out the back door. The bartenders would alert the rest of the bar by saying “What can I get you, officer?” in a loud voice, and the regulars would move, shuffle around, laugh and order drinks.
One Monday night, when the Commodores were playing, police ascended the little catwalk beside the stage to the dressing rooms. They apprehended one of the band, charged him with drug possession, and took him away.
The Commodores were a very popular group at the time, and people had paid the maximum cover to see them. The rest of the band tried to play without their brother, but found it difficult. The manager gave everyone their cover back that night, and the band went home.
The next night the Commodores were back on stage playing as expected; they had either found a substitute player or got back their brother. The notoriety must have boosted the audience numbers for the rest of the week, because it was packed Wednesday to Saturday.
I always wondered what the police thought they would achieve by busting these guys.
“The performers were the real show.”
Each act had a very distinct presence, and even the audiences had different personalities to match. Muddy Waters was one of the most memorable.
By the time he played the Colonial he had been performing for 30 years, and he was pretty good at what he did. Waters would come to Toronto and play several gigs over a few weeks; he would pick up as many sidemen in the city as he could, so that his own band numbered only 2 or 3.
Young Toronto musicians would be flattered to be invited to play with his band. One of them told me afterwards that Muddy would offer scale (minimum wages as dictated by the Musicians Union) “and all the booze you could drink”. When he played a club he would have a few cases of very cheap champagne brought in, and insist the bartenders and waitresses serve it to him and his bandmembers.
I never saw him when he wasn’t almost pie-eyed drunk, but it never stopped him from putting on a wonderful show. I sneaked a taste of the champagne once; it was dreadful, and I expect it probably stopped many Toronto sidemen from ruining their health.
The audience for Muddy was an adoring and worshipful one. One night I was waiting on a table of very young men; one of them returned from the men’s room all excited. “Guess what, you guys?” he said, “I pissed right beside Muddy Waters!”
The biggest and most boisterous show was a Saturday night performance by Downchild Blues Band. Rick “Hock” Walsh joined Tony Flaime on stage, and the packed audience included many friends of the band.
They were so hot that night they continued their last set until close to 2 am, although the bar stopped serving at 1 am. I had earned close to $100 in tips that night, which was an immense amount of money.
In the middle of a rocking finale of Got My Mojo Working, a young well-endowed woman ran up on stage and started dancing with Walsh; at first he went along with the intrusion, because it seemed to fit the party-like atmosphere, but when she removed her shirt and danced topless bouncers had to intervene.
The conduct would have been considered a lewd performance then, and the performers would have been blamed and punished. Downchild ended off the set and everybody went home exhausted after the excitement.
The most depressing and sad show had to be Stan Getz.
A hollow-looking skeleton of a man appeared onstage with a bassist and drummer, seated on a stool, and wailed on a tenor sax.
The audience was respectful of the talent, but nursed their drinks, kept their conversations low, and many left after a set.
I have always been a big fan from when my dad played me his records, and I was glad for once that I could spend time listening, rather than hustling. I understand that Getz was a difficult person who often struggled with addiction. During that performance I heard many in the audience saying quietly that his career was over, but he continued performing into the late 1980s and recorded on Captain Marvel with Chick Corea.
Perhaps that week in 1976 was just a bad one.
One of my personal favorite bands was Chuck Mangione’s acoustic combo.
Mangione led a very successful 21-piece band in the early 70s, but he enjoyed playing in a small group too, and came to the Colonial for that.
He liked Toronto, apparently, and a couple of weeks after his gig he appeared with his big band at Massey Hall. Customers walked over from the Hall and came in the back way after the show was over, and a pleasant foursome sat in my section. While bringing them their order I asked what they had been up to, and when they said they had been at the Massey Hall show I asked eagerly how it was. I was somewhat surprised when one of the guys made a face and said “Aw, it was okay.” An hour later when the party was ready to leave, the man handed me a platinum credit card with the name “Gap Mangione” on it. Chuck’s brother, a great musician in his own right, wasn’t going to go overboard.
Another memorable act was Peter Allen.
He had released an album, Taught By Experts, that was flying up the charts that summer, and he was working hard promoting it across North America.
Allen, an Australian performer and writer, had married Lisa Minelli in 1967, but they separated in 1969.
Although he never ‘came out’ as gay, his flamboyant costumes and energetic dance signalled his audience. At that time nobody talked about it, but the people who came to see Allen were in the know. The elite of the gay community came to the Colonial that week, the clothes were spectacular, the tips were grand, and the levels of energy and celebration were high.
After weeks of jazz and blues, I Go To Rio, one of Allen’s new songs, was played loud and proud and I danced along with my tray. Allen passed away, sadly, in the early 1990s of complications from AIDS.
During the 1970s, the LGBTQ community really came out of the closet, so to speak.
Same-sex sexual relations had been legalized in 1969, but it took a few years for cultural change.
In 1976 the Pride Parade was still seven years away, but gay gatherings, demonstrations and conferences were occurring and these groups wanted government recognition.
It is hard to convey how shocking Allen’s performance was to straight audiences. The shock was visible on faces the night that Rough Trade took the stage for a week, shortly after Allen’s gig. Carole Pope, Kevan Staples, and Diane Brooks led a tight band; Carole wore black leather and the music challenged convention in musical, sexual and social ways.
It was around that time when many of the regulars at the bar stopped attending every night. From then on, the regulars crowded the bar only when an ‘approved’ act was playing.
One of those was a local R & B group, led by Earle Heedram, called The Mighty Pope. They did covers of Earth, Wind and Fire, Ohio Players, the Temptations, and others. Goody had a wonderful time the first night of their gig, when the audience trickled in before show time asking the usual question,
“Who’s playing tonight?” He would call in a theatrical voice “It’s The Mighty Pope, and the first mass is at 9:00!”
I loved their music, and particularly noticed the tall young man who played bass. He ordered only orange juice between sets, and was very quiet. We didn’t connect then, but “I married him 13 years later”.