Yonge Street, one of the busiest streets in downtown Toronto, has a long musical history. Dubbed the “Yonge Street Strip,” throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, it was the spot for musical entertainment. The nightclubs and concert venues hosted many musical legends including Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould and Ronnie Hawkins, before ushering in a tidal wave of Beatlemania at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Friar’s Tavern (1960s/70s), via The Canadian Encyclopedia

Friar’s Tavern, in particular, played an important part in the history of rock and roll. From 1963 to 1976, it was one of the most popular nightclubs along the Yonge Street Strip, eventually referred to as simply, “Friar’s.” Always on the cutting edge of entertainment history, they were one of the first nightclubs to hire Go Go Dancers. It was not uncommon to find them doing the monkey, frug, and Watusi in cages hanging from the ceiling, grooving to to the music of David Clayton Thomas and the Shays.

A poster advertising Levon & the Hawks at Friar’s Tavern, c 1965 (courtesy Nicholas Jennings Collection)

While boasting “the finest in food,” Friar’s also offered a wide variety of musical genres, from jazz legend Oscar Peterson to rock stars Bill Haley & The Comets and Levon & the Hawks. The latter attracted a very special guest in 1965- Bob Dylan.

At this point in time, Dylan was in search of a backup band. He wanted a band that would “go electric” with him, and Toronto native Mary Martin convinced Dylan that Levon & the Hawks fit the bill. Dylan flew to Toronto and on September 16th, auditioned the band in what “Time” magazine has hailed as “the most decisive moment in rock history.”  

For two nights, Dylan rehearsed with the group, cultivating their “hard edged” sound. Then, they accompanied Dylan on a world tour. After sold out shows across North American, including the band’s native Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Levon & the Hawks relocated to Woodstock, New York (the town that lent its name to the Woodstock Music Festival). They later became famous as The Band.

None of this would have been possible without that fateful meeting in Friar’s Tavern. Unfortunately, as Levon & the Hawks were climbing to success, the tavern where the band was plucked from obscurity fell into disrepair.

As Frair’s Tavern fell into decline, they increased “adult” performances, and soon the venue relied on crude entertainment gimmicks to attract customers. These gimmicks included nude body painting and free lunches for any girl willing to strip into a bikini.

In 1976, Friar’s Tavern closed its doors, re-opening as the Hard Rock Café in 1978. While the Hard Rock Café commemorated these musical milestones, they eventually closed their doors in 2017.

To learn more about the music history on the Yonge Street Strip, you can attend a walking tour led by Heritage Toronto on August 31 at 6:30pm. 

Research courtesy of Heritage Toronto and The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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