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Gordon Lightfoot, left, talks with artist Robert Markle at the Riverboat in the Yorkville neighbourhood of Toronto on January 3, 1967.Canadian Press/Handout/York University Libraries, ASC00609/The Canadian Press

The Gordon Lightfoot who first performed in Toronto’s Yorkville, what’s now one of Canada’s ritziest neighbourhoods, is not the Gordon Lightfoot we know today.

Yorkville transformed musicians, from Lightfoot to Neil Young to Joni Mitchell, almost as thoroughly as it was transformed in the second half of the 20th century. The neighbourhood now known for its multimillion-dollar condos, high-end restaurants and luxury boutiques was just 60 years ago a haven for hippies and a “hothouse” for future folk legends.

“Everything that would have taken five years anywhere else took one year in Yorkville, because there was so much input,” said Mike Daley, a musicologist who’s spent the last five years researching Yorkville’s history.

“The creativity was just flowering there. And I think it’s because of the particular qualities of the Yorkville coffee house district that you didn’t see anywhere else.”

In Lightfoot’s case, Daley said, that looked like a sort of maturation. When he first started performing at the coffee shops in the bohemian community, he was part of the folk duo the Two Tones with his old friend Terry Whelan.

In 1962, they recorded an album live in one of those coffee shops and named it Two Tones at the Village Corner.

In the liner notes, Lightfoot describes the setting as “what used to be an old house, about the size of a shoe box.” The club was a dark room downstairs, he wrote, and the air was thick and sticky, filled with smoke.

The album opens with We Come Here to Sing, an upbeat folk song that proclaims while “some come here for coffee” and “some come here for tea or some such thing,” Lightfoot and Whelan come to Yorkville’s coffee houses to sing.

Three years later, Daley said, Lightfoot would go on to perform at the Riverboat, one of Yorkville’s most famous coffee houses in the ‘60s, for the first time.

“The newspaper reviews of Gordon’s first appearance at the Riverboat in the spring of 1965, and then the reviews in the fall of 1965, the development that these critics talk about is just incredible,” he said.

“Yorkville was really his finishing school as both a performer and a songwriter.”

Sylvia Tyson, who was herself a Yorkville folkie as one half of the duo Ian and Sylvia, recalled rubbing shoulders with Lightfoot at the time.

“It was a very small music scene at that point. I mean, today it’s enormous, of course,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “And because it was small, we all knew each other and all supported each other.”

She first saw Lightfoot at another of his regular haunts, Steele’s Tavern on Yonge Street, which was more of a traditional venue, and not part of the Yorkville scene.

“Unlike a lot of places, it actually had a bar. Most of them were coffee houses,” Tyson said.

Daley said that’s because there was a bylaw in Yorkville instituted in the 1940s that capped the number of liquor licences.

“It was designed to keep taverns out of Yorkville. They didn’t want what had happened on Yonge Street to happen in Yorkville,” he said.

Real estate in the area was undervalued at the time, he said, so it was cheap and easy to rent a space and bring musicians in to attract customers.

“These tended to be small places. They were run with a low overhead, and folk music was ideal for these spaces,” he said.

Victorian row houses, some of them painted bright colours, were converted from single-family homes into commercial buildings or rooming houses.

Robin Elliott, director of the Institute for Canadian Music at the University of Toronto, recalled his single trip to Yorkville in the late 1960s.

“It was a scene in the sense that Haight Ashbury in San Francisco was a scene. Yorkville had its own distinctive vibe. There were lots of shops offering drug paraphernalia, people smoking pot all over the place – back before that was legal, obviously,” he said.

As the neighbourhood became more popular among hippies, and especially among teenagers who were allowed into the all-ages coffee houses, politicians started taking note, Daley said.

They slapped coffee house owners with bylaw violations, and upped enforcement in other ways.

“They started bringing in a big police presence to control the hippies,” Daley said. “And by 1968, Yorkville’s hippie scene and the music scene had been cleared away for the growth of these upscale discos,” he said.

Those discotheques did away with live music in favour of recorded songs for partiers to dance to.

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, real estate investors started buying up land, beginning the neighbourhood’s transformation into one of the poshest places in Canada.

“They renovated the places. They in some cases tore down the old buildings and built new ones,” Daley said. “And they raised the rents.”

Real estate developer Ian Richard Wookey, for example, bought up swaths of the neighbourhood in an effort to clean it up and preserve its charm.

The high-end boutiques, which had been in Yorkville before the folk scene emerged and lasted through its reign, began to thrive once again. The neighbourhood’s proximity to a stretch of Bloor Street long known as the Mink Mile also helped establish it as a place of prosperity.

The introduction of the Bloor subway line also contributed to the neighbourhood’s transformation, Daley said. All of a sudden, it was much more accessible and its land was therefore more valuable.

By the 1970s, the Riverboat was one of the last coffee houses left. Folk had fallen out of favour among the music-loving masses, so only the diehards kept coming back, Daley said.

The Riverboat’s business model made it sustainable, he said. There would be multiple performances in a night, and the crowd would be cleared out between each show, increasing the potential income from cover fees.

But in 1978, even the Riverboat would close down.

But Daley said the neighbourhood’s legacy can’t be erased so easily. It was fundamental to Joni Mitchell’s development as an artist, exposing her to all sorts of different music and input from numerous other artists.

“There was a lot of competition, and so I think that drove artists to work harder and to do better and to try to distinguish themselves and be different,” he said. “And because you’re meeting so many different types of people, it’s a great place for alliances.

“These two musicians from different worlds would meet, and then they’d start collaborating together and it would take them both somewhere completely different.”

Plans for a star-studded night of music celebrating the legacy of Gordon Lightfoot are already taking shape, according to his longtime friend and concert promoter. Bernie Fiedler says several prominent Canadian musicians, including Burton Cummings, Tom Cochrane and Murray McLauchlan, have already committed to performing at a tribute show.

The Canadian Press

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