At the corner of Brunswick and Bloor stands Ye Olde Brunswick House. A venerable watering hole long favoured by U of T students. Upstairs is Albert's Hall. In its heyday, Albert's Hall was the Home of the Blues in Toronto. ( In the last couple of years it has become an off-track betting hole, favoured by nobody). Six nights a week you could see the finest of local and international blues acts, pounding out the shuffles, the HogTown Grind, wailing the slow blues, swinging the Queen Street Strut, getting funky, getting down. I used to play there a lot. Often, the club would book a blues act from Chicago or Detroit and then assemble a local band to back them up. I got a lot of those calls. I was young, but had a natural feel and love for roots music. Ellen McIlwaine, John Sebastian (of Loving Spoonful fame), Otis Rush, Colleen Peterson, Blind John Davis, Amos Garrett and Geoff Muldaur, Rory Block, Etta James and many others. What a great apprenticeship I had. I used to play 300 nights a year in clubs. That's a lot of time on your instrument. Four sets a night, six nights a week. (It seems that these days, some musicians don't play 300 shows in their entire careers). Some of my most memorable nights of music happened there.
We were playing with Amos Garrett one night and the guys from Los Lobos came in. They hauled in a couple of amps, pulled out their guitars and we jammed until three in the morning. This is when clubs in Ontario used to close at one. Nobody cared about that. We just kept playing and playing until we wore ourselves and the audience out.
I was booked to play six nights with Blind John Davis, a 75 year old piano playing blues legend. Monday morning I get a call from Derek Andrews the club's booker. He asks me if I can go out to the airport to pick up John, who is flying in from Chicago. I get to the airport and explain that I'm there to pick up John, who is not only old but blind. I'm taken to the immigration office where John is brought. Now John may have been old and blind, but he was determined to be as self reliant and independent as possible. The agent asks for John's visa and work papers. They had been mailed to him in Chicago. His housekeeper had put them on his dresser, beside his morning mail. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the mail and hands it to the official. It was time to intervene. I did the shmooze job of my life. I pleaded that John was a legend, that he was old, black and blind. That to deny him entry into Canada would put Canadian musicians out of work, would cost the club money, that it would be a disaster for everybody. I promised that I would take care of the paperwork myself. The agent bought it. By this time, John was pretty nervous about the whole thing and said that he had to go to the bathroom. The agent said that it was regulation that he had to accompany John to the toilet. So the three of us march into the men's room, and John asks where the urinals were. I told him that they were directly ahead a couple of paces. So he takes a couple of steps, places one hand on one urinal, the other hand on another urinal and proceeds to piss on the wall in between them. . The agent and I just looked at each other. I didn't say a word. It was all I could do not to piss myself laughing. Blind John Davis quietly died a couple of years later in the back seat of his son's car, on the way to a gig. I'm sure that he's still playing the boogie woogie in heaven, much to God's delight.
In my career I have had the privilege to perform with quite a number of blues legends, at festivals, concerts and clubs. Dr. John, Pinetop Perkins, David Lindley, Solomon Bourke, Yank Rachel, Papa John Creach, Mick Taylor, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Mel Brown, Johnny Johnson, Taj Mahal; but the highlight of them all has been Etta James. I was weaned on soul music. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye; their records were like text books to me. I memorized every note. Their music became part of my molecular structure. I learned to speak the language, and nobody spoke with a more soulful, passionate voice than Etta James. For the Albert's Hall gig, an A-Team of Toronto players were assembled. John Tilden, Robert "Omar" Tunnoch, Wayne Mills, Hammond great Denis Keldie and myself. The first time I met Etta was at rehearsal, Monday afternoon, first day of a six night stand. We would usually run the charts, check the tempos; get a feel for playing together. Etta only knows one way to sing, straight from the heart, 100% effort every time. Even at rehearsal. The bar staff, which was busy setting up tables and stocking beer, all stopped what they were doing to watch Etta sing. The band was stunned. I was in ecstacy. I'm a singer's drummer. The better the singer, the better I play. Etta brought out the very best in me. She let me shine. Etta brought a wonderful blend of emotion, passion, raw sexual energy and humour to her show. If you made a mistake or played something she didn't like, she would lob an invisible hand grenade at you. If the band screwed up she would blow us up with an invisible plunge detonator. She had the Death Stare mastered and you didn't want to get that. That meant Etta was unhappy and she was large and mean. Etta and I became good friends. I gave her son Tito a couple of drum lessons. I would call her when I got to L.A. She would call me when in Toronto. She hasn't played in Toronto for a couple of years. I haven't seen her since I transitioned. I wonder what she would make of me now? I can't rave enough about her. Playing with her was one of the highlights of my career.
Albert's Hall was a great place. There hasn't really been a club like it since. Things began to change. Management, bookers, the economy, people's tastes, styles: they drift, they are liquid. Albert's Hall stopped booking big name acts, people stopped coming and eventually the club gave up on music and turned the place into an off-track betting salon. Such is life.