Photo by Ryan, 2009, CC 2.0, via Flickr

After exploring the connection between Bob Dylan and Friar’s Tavern on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto (You can find that article here), let’s take a look at Toronto’s oldest concert hall, Massey Hall.

Turn of the Century

Opening its doors in 1894, Massey Hall was home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir before their relocation to Roy Thompson Hall in 1982. It was known as Massey Music Hall until 1933, before becoming simply Massey Hall. Erected by industrial entrepreneur Hart Massey in memory of his son, Charles Albert Massey, it was the first, and until the 1920s, the only building in Canada designed specifically for entertainment and musical purposes. Massey hopes that the building would inspire “an interest in music, education, temperance, industry, good citizenship, patriotism, philanthropy and religion.”

Photo courtesy Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Room/PC-1093 via The Canadian Encyclopedia

Nicknamed the “grand old lady of Shuter Street” by Vincent Massey in 1953, the venue has welcomed a wide variety of musical genres and guests. Throughout the early 1900s, there were notable appearances by British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, suffragist Nellie McClung, and American boxer Jack Dempsey.

The Jazz Age

Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parket at Massey Hall in the historic concert on May 15, 1953. CP file photo. via The Canadian Encyclopedia

In 1946, Oscar Peterson and a thirteen-year-old Glenn Gould made their concert hall debut within weeks of one another. Massey Hall also became a key figure in jazz history, welcoming all of the jazz greats in 1953 for a reunion and live album recording. The all-star lineup, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, performed for the first (and only) time together. Some referred to this as “the Greatest Jazz Concert Ever,” however; it had a boxing match (between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott) to compete with and many slipped out to catch that match. As a result, the show made little money, despite making music history.

Home to Folk and Rock

Neil Young “Live at Massey Hall 1971”

Into the 1970s, Massey Hall was home to the recordings of Neil Young and Canadian rock band Rush. The former released his solo acoustic performance in the hall in 2007, “Live at Massey Hall 1971,” becoming a number one album in Canada. The latter recorded their first live album, “All the World’s a Stage,” which sold over one million copies.

For Gordon Lightfoot, one of the greatest Canadian songwriters of the twentieth century, Massey Hall was like his second home. The hall doubled as a live recording studio and performance venue for Lightfoot. In his own words, Massey Hall was “the centre of my universe as a musician.” In November 2016, he made his 160th appearance at Massey Hall.

Massey Hall Musical Legacy

A commemorative plaque was installed to mark the buildings Centennial in 1994, stating: “Since its opening in 1894, Massey Hall has served as one of Canada’s most important cultural institutions…. Although criticized for its plain exterior, the concert hall has earned widespread renown for its outstanding acoustics.”

In 1973, the City of Toronto designated it as a heritage site, while in 1981 it was deemed a National Historic Site.

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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