NOW MagazineMusic40 at 40: Back to the working-class country music bars on Queen Street
40 at 40: Back to the working-class country music bars on Queen Street
“You can learn a lot playing on Queen Street and I know plenty of musicians who have. Some musicians never want to get off Queen Street, others can’t.”
By Michael Hollett and Kevin Ritchie
May 17, 2021
With many places boarded up along Queen Street during the pandemic, the character of the 14.2-kilometre street is once again in flux. Already subject to multiple waves of gentrification that have gradually transformed large swaths of the street from working-class communities into cushy enclaves full of pricey real estate and destination retail and dining.
Over the past 40 years, Queen West has been known for art galleries, indie retail and music venues. Artists who have defined Canadian music, comedy and art have emerged from the strip, but for this edition of our 40 at 40 archival series, we’re looking at an often-overlooked scene: the country and western bars that dotted the street from the Beaches to Parkdale.
In 1981, NOW co-founder and former editor/publisher Michael Hollett visited country and western bars that were mostly frequented by working-class Maritimers and Newfoundlanders – places “untouched and unimpressed with the growing pockets of art nouveau and bare brick walls.” That was back when Queen and Leslie was synonymous with violence and roughness – according to one musician interviewed – and the Gladstone Hotel wasn’t marketed as a wedding venue.
While NOW later became known for artist-focused cover stories, this music feature is casual and observational, giving readers a portrait of a subculture and a scene where people of all ages mixed. As Toronto emerges from the pandemic, being able to rekindle spaces where people from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds can comfortably co-exist should be a priority – on Queen West or anywhere else.
– Kevin Ritchie
Below is Michael Hollett’s cover feature on the country and western music scene on Queen Street, republished from our September 24, 1981 issue.
The Other Side Of Queen Street
The sounds of Your Cheatin’ Heart and Sweet Home Alabama blend together as the Queen Street country and western regulars gather at their favourite haunts
By Michael Hollett
There is a Queen Street that has remained constant through the years – untouched and unimpressed with the growing pockets of art nouveau and bare brick walls. It thrives today as it has for years in the old taverns and hotels that have been around since the turn of the century. These places are easy to miss, sitting on street corners with their bricks painted and their upper windows covered with plywood. They were around when the Peter Pan served onion sandwiches instead of French onion soup.
From the Orchard Park Tavern, which hugs the edge of the Beaches to the Parkdale, which sits at the fringe of this scene, people are doing as they and others have done before them – drinking and listening to country music being played by those who still seem close to the heartbreak and pain they so often sing about. And the ribbon of steel running through the country and western music carries the Queen streetcar instead of the orange Blossom Special.
The Queen Street C&W bars have a life and a social scene all their own. They’re mostly the haunts of displaced Maritimers and Newfoundlanders, of working people and those looking for work. But the bars are not all equal in the eyes of patrons.
One caustic East Coaster explained the difference to me. “Out here in the west end, these bars are the high tide of Queen Street, the ones in the east are the low tide.
“People who drink here are more respectable. You know we’ve all had showers and are good honest people. Some of the bars east of here, well, only Maritimers on the skids and DPs go to them.”
Sue and Cathy come to the Gladstone (a high tide bar) fairly regularly. They like it a lot. They met because they are ex-sisters-in-law and their friendship has endured longer than their marriages. They feel comfortable coming into the Gladstone alone and they are equally comfortable sitting by themselves, listening to the band and having a few beers.
Sue’s the thin one, her hair is permed and she has an ever-smiling, knowing face. Cathy’s a little plainer, a bit heavier and she wears a T-shirt. They are both in jeans.
Dressed a little differently the two of them wouldn’t look out of place in any of the uptown singles clubs that people their age are found in. So why do they come to a place like this where there may be a fight and the atmosphere isn’t the classiest? At $1.20 a bottle, the beer isn’t that much cheaper than it would be uptown.
“I like these places,” says Sue. “I feel at home in them, I’m comfortable here and I like the entertainment. I like to see a good band when I have a drink.
“There’s no pressure here, no pressure to look a certain way and you don’t feel any pressure from the other people here, from the men or anybody else.”
This comfortable, at-home feeling Sue talks about is a key ingredient at most of the Queen C&W bars. They feel a lot like some working-class family gathering, maybe a wedding, a little late in the day when people have started to loosen up, uncles are dancing with nieces and cousins are checking each other out, deciding it’s okay to do some serious dancing.
Regulars can be any age, and no bar is the exclusive domain of a particular age group. Instead, in the best tradition of a family gathering, people from 19 to 90 drink, dance and socialize together.
This family feeling overflows into the touchy area of fighting. From the look of these places, you might assume that punch-outs were as common as orders of 50. Not so. Fights are neither commonplace nor encouraged. But they are tolerated.
A woman in her fifties put it this way: “When there’s a fight it bothers me, I want to get lost. But I can’t really hold it against a fellow when he gets into a fight. Hey may be the nicest person when he’s sober, it’s just a case of too much to drink and it having a bad effect on the fellow.”
Charlie Cooper, leader of the band Mule Train that plays mostly east-end haunts, had his own opinions about fighting.
“It’s really rude. It’s like if you and your buddies came into my house and started busting up my furniture.
“If they want to fight or if they need to fight, okay, but they should do it outside. If I’m mad at a guy, I tell him I’ll meet him in the parking lot and that’s where I do it, not where it will ruin things for other people.”
Says Cooper, “When I played the Holiday Inn circuit you could be sure that if there was a fight it would empty the place. But here they just throw the guys out and carry on. Look at the area this bar is in (Queen and Leslie), the people are used to this kind of thing, they’re used to roughness and violence.
“People in here police it when there’s a fight. They realize it’s not too cool to bash somebody on the head with a piece of motorcycle,” says Cooper.
“It’s a way of life, not necessarily a good one, but it’s a way of life.”
General estimates are that half the crowd in a Queen country bar is there because of the particular band, and the other half are there because it’s their regular haunt. One thing’s for certain, almost everybody wants to hear the music, and the music they like best is country and western.
The bands perform old classics by people like Hank Williams and Jim Reeves up to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as well as old 50s and 60s tunes. They play lighter, current rock and country-rock too.
And there’s always at least one couple moving across the dance floor and usually more. Old classics are guaranteed floor-packers.
There’s usually somebody on the floor even between sets dancing to the juke box. Disco gets a lot of play then.
Like everything else, dancing cuts across many lines – young men dance with older women. Pudgy, puny, short, tall – you don’t have to be one of the beautiful people to be welcome on the dance floor.
And though these people are probably Toronto’s real urban cowboys – they don’t dance like John Travolta. Nobody seems to notice, and if they did, they wouldn’t care as long as everyone was having a good time.
The men amble up to tables with women, sometimes women with their boyfriends, and ask them to dance. If they’re turned down, the guys just move along.
And once they’re on the floor, there’s a respect between partners. Sure, a guy will try to press a little close, but he’ll back off when he’s told to. Certainly the slow dances aren’t wasted on this crowd. The men and women pursue the pelvic grind as enthusiastically as anyone.
One musician, noting some particularly enthusiastic grinding. called the couple “naval destroyers.”
And the bands that play on Queen Street can be pretty good. Some big names in country circles did some dues-paying on the Queen strip including Johnny Paycheck, Harold McIntyre and Mickey McGivern.
Paul Dykens has played on and off Queen Street for the last 10 years. Before that he was a musician down home in Nova Scotia. He’s a well-respected drummer. When I saw him he was playing with the Midnight Riders at the Gladstone. The Riders usually play more “major league” spots, but were at the Gladstone because they had a free date.
Dykens was happy to do it because “I love Queen Street, I love playing here, I love the places, and the people that come to see us are great. This is where I started, this is where a lot of us started and I’ll always feel comfortable playing on Queen Street.”
Dykens calls Queen Street “the Bourbon Street of country music.
“You can learn a lot playing on Queen Street and I know plenty of musicians who have. Some musicians never want to get off Queen Street, others can’t.”
Dykens says the music fans in the Queen Street bars are the kind of people that it’s fun to play for. They’re patient, they don’t heckle, but on the other hand they know good music and they let you know if they think you are playing well, he said. “If you’re any kind of musician at all you can always get a job on Queen.”
Charlie Cooper looks kind of tough. He’s not big, but he’s got the wiry strength necessary to be a survivor. He’s a rough-edged man with long hair and a moustache and a look that was more common eight years ago than it is today. He says he’s been wearing cowboy boots since he was fifteen.
Cooper is the lead singer/rhythm guitarist and leader of the band Mule Train. When I saw them they were playing at the Duke of York at Queen and Leslie. The people at the Duke are big, they work in the factories, garages and scrapyards of this area. They’re loud and jolly and the word “fuck” hangs in the air of this bar bouncing enthusiastically from table to table.
Cooper’s been playing along Queen for the last 10 years. His first gig was at the Holiday tavern (Bathurst and Queen) at $10 a night.
By day, Cooper buys and sells scrap metals.
“I’ve got my own truck. I’m my own boss and I don’t have to punch a time clock for anybody.”
Most people playing along Queen Street have day jobs.
“Playing music used to be my bread and butter, but that’s tough – it’s a tough life that can take you anywhere. It’s sure not easy on the relationships. Now I just play for fun.”
Cooper got his first guitar when a customer at his dad’s garage gave it to his father. His father couldn’t play so Cooper learned how to use it.
“Me and my buddies formed the Whitefield Road Blues Band. We were into psychedelic stuff back then. Then I got a job on the Holiday Inn circuit. That’s where you wear tuxedos and look like a dodo every day, driving around the country and playing for stuffed shirts.”
Not only is that life lonely, but the band had more expenses than a Toronto-based group. You’ve got to come up with suits, lobby photos, and plenty of travelling expenses. Cooper’s wife left while he was in the Holiday Inns and he hit a low ebb. Then he got it together and started playing along Queen Street. Things worked out again for him playing the music that means the most to him.
Cooper explains that when running a band you’ve got to be flexible. “If a guy in the band is going through hard times, you ride it out with him for a while. But if a guy’s just a screwup and he’s going to cause three other guys to lose money because he doesn’t show up for a gig, well, then you’ve got to do something drastic.”
Cooper tells the story of a drummer who walked out on his band while they were playing a matinee set.
“I was able to find another drummer in the crowd. Queen Street musicians often go to see each other play. But the sonofabitch took the drumsticks with him when he walked. I went out to my truck and busted a broom in half – the new guy managed to play with them but it wasn’t easy.”
Tonight Cooper’s mad at his bass player. He’s a young kid and he’s obviously coasting, his singing is off and he’s playing sloppy.
“The guy’s got a good day job, he’s a sheet metal worker and part of the union so he doesn’t give a damn about what he does on stage.”
Saturday afternoon at the Parkdale, the place is relaxed, TVs are blaring and video games are being played intensely. Half of the main bar is closed and the other half is almost full of people. A band called Good Stuff is playing this week according to a spray-painted sign on the stage.
I can’t help but notice Cornelius Rusk when he slides in. He’s with a group of three other people but his stately, dignified manner and his striking looks make him stand out in any group. He’s obviously from the East Coast and I make a bet with myself, which I win, that he’s from Newfoundland. Cornelius, or Corn as his friends call him, is on the other side of 50 but he’s in such good shape it’s hard to guess his age. He’s got carefully cut, thick white-grey hair that frames a face with just the right amount of lines to reinforce his dignified manner. His face has square sharp features but his eyes have the softness of a gentle man. His body’s square and trim, not too large. He’s wearing a black silk shirt, trimmed with white in the finest country and western tradition.
He and his party take a table just off the edge of the stage. He’s with a younger couple, both wearing straw cowboy hats who have the eager look of tourists or fans. They’re both. The other person at the table is an older woman, she looks older than Rusk, but she too has a dignity and a care to her appearance. She’s wearing a pantsuit that I’m sure she feels good in and has her hair put up smartly in a scarf. She’s Rusk’s wife Margaret.
I keep an eye on this group. Rusk’s young male friend has reverently carried in a squeeze box accordion with him and between sets he talks conspiratorially with the leader of Good Stuff. They arrange for Rusk to sit in at the beginning of the next set.
Rusk moves deliberately up on stage while the introductions are being made and the younger, respectful members of the band adjust the microphone at the electric piano so he can sit at it and play.
Rusk is going to start off his mini-set with a few tunes on the “mouth organ.” He lets the crowd know a bit of his background. He’s played with the Johnny Guy Show in Nashville, with Tom T. Hall and a number of other bands.
“I want to send this song out to Boston Billy,” he says as he begins.
Rusk cups the mouth organ with a draught glass on one end while he plays and the band quickly picks up with rhythm.
After another mouth organ tune, there are requests for a squeeze box song. Rusk’s young friend lovingly brings the instrument to Rusk who very deliberately wraps himself in it. He kneads it, strokes it and squeezes the notes out of it. And throughout his set he stares unblinkingly at his wife Margaret who listens with the same intensity.
After another tune and a good round of applause, Rusk puts his teeth back in his mouth and leaves the stage. His friend and the band members step over each other to help him down.
“He’s really professional,” Rusk’s friend assures me, “he’s just doing this for a lark.”
“I’ve been playing music professionally for 35 years,” says Rusk. “I’ve played all over Canada and the U.S. in a lot of good bands.”
He tells me he left St. John’s, Newfoundland when he was 10 years old but I see he retains the Newfoundlander’s love of a good tease.
Rusk’s wife Margaret listens attentively while we walk and corrects him from time to time on details. Then she tells me her story while Rusk jaws with his young friend.
Margaret and Cornelius have been married longer than she wants to tell and throughout their time together music has always been a part of their lives. Margaret was a drummer herself for a short while but she hurt her arm and it got too hard to play.
I tell her it was obvious that Cornelius was playing to her.
“Sure it is,” she says. “I’m his critic, I tell him if he plays well and if he doesn’t. I always have. At the same time, I’ve always encouraged him to play because I know he loves it and I love it too.”
She explains that country music is written for people like her and Cornelius, people from the small towns, the country and the East Coast.
“The country music helps make the big city seem a little smaller,” she says.
I ask her how she feels about her husband playing with long-haired musicians, about the mix of young and old people in the Queen bars.
“The long hair doesn’t bother us. To each his own I say. Nobody in these places knocks anybody else. They don’t complain about the music or the way people look. That’s not important, the way I look at it, nice people is nice people.”
Herb Appleby has owned the Gladstone Hotel since 1964. He bought it with his father and took over sole ownership when his father passed away a few years later. Appleby’s father had owned the New Statler Hotel at Chestnut Street and Queen and before that had owned the Casino Theatre also on Queen.
“It was one of the city’s better burlesque houses. People like Tony Bennett played there,” he says proudly.
Herb Appleby is not the kind of man I expected to find running a Queen Street country bar. He’s Jewish, about five foot eight, a little bald and looks somewhere in his 40s. He doesn’t look like a country music fan.
But it’s obvious Appleby loves running the Gladstone and is proud of his hotel.
Appleby says that when he bought the Gladstone it was just a place to drink, it didn’t have a lot going for it. He’s put a lot of energy into promotional activities, good service and good bands.
“The way I look at it, the product I sell is the same as everybody else sells, my Molson Golden is no better or worse than anybody else’s. I’ve got to be able to sell my customers something else to get them in here on a regular basis.”
Talking with Appleby, you get the feeling you could be talking with a country club owner or the operator of a fine restaurant.
“When I took over there was no entertainment. The first thing I did was put in a Hammond organ, they were big back then. Three years later I switched to a country and western policy and I have stuck with that ever since. My customers want country and western and the clientele I want are country and western people.
“People will travel across town to hear a good band so I make a point of booking good ones. There’s no question that the music you bring in defines the crowd. For example, I wouldn’t want to run a place catering to a rock crowd. Too many fights and just the wrong kind of atmosphere.”
“My regular customers are friendly, good people out to have a good time. I like them to feel that while sure I may be taking their money I give them a little extra in return.”
Appleby always has a supply of cakes in his freezer so he can thaw one out and give it to people celebrating almost any kind of event.
“Friday nights a woman often comes in selling roses, I’ll take a dozen and give them to my regular customers.
“There are people in this bar who have been drinking at the Gladstone for 40 years, really. I’ve got a lady who comes in here a couple nights a week who’s 85 years old. She’s gone through two husbands and I’ve known them both. We’ve got fathers with their sons and their fathers all at the same table.
And when there’s a death in the family, Appleby sends flowers.