The Domino Effect: How One of Toronto’s Most Iconic Rock Concerts Almost Never Happened
For many, the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival of 1969 is the stuff of legends. For some, like famed rock promoter and pop culture icon John Brower, it’s a footnote in his own musical story. Having taken place at Varsity Stadium on the University of Toronto campus on September 13th, 1969, the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival was a 12-hour concert that saw some of rock and roll’s earliest stars like Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, sharing the stage for the first time with contemporary acts of the day like The Doors, Chicago and even a then virtually unknown Alice Cooper. It was also the debut performance of The Plastic Ono Band. Oh, and that whole lighters in the air thing that has become synonymous with rock concerts over the years, that originated there too. The best part about it all? It almost never happened.
Johnny Brower got his start as a rock promoter in Toronto during the late 1960’s. As a co-founder of the now famed Toronto venue The Rockpile, which was originally housed in the old Masonic Temple on Yonge Street and modeled after The Fillmore in San Francisco, Brower became the first concert promoter to bring international rock acts like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart to Canada. Though the venue was quite successful, the redundancy of booking acts on a weekly basis quickly began to bore Brower, deciding instead to leave and join forces with his friend, Kenny Walker. The two began booking smaller concerts like Richie Havens at Massey Hall and Donovan also at Varsity Stadium. Then suddenly the festival circuit erupted. “I could see what was coming,” says Brower. “After Monterey in ’67, agents were talking and saying things like ‘Atlanta’s having a pop festival, why don’t you guys have one?’ But we had no money for that. So, we got the Eatons [of the department store fame] involved––they were our high school chums. Anyways, that’s how we got started. Without the Eatons there would have been no summer of ‘69 for us. They gave us the significant ability to go out there and put on the Toronto Pop Festival for two days in June of that year, which was hugely successful. Sly and The Family Stone headlined and Steppenwolf played, but it was Chuck Berry who really stole that show. He had a crowd of like 25,000 people going insane doing the duck walk. That’s when I got the crazy idea that if we brought all of the legendary rockers together for a “rock and roll revival” we could add some contemporary bands to the bill and do a one day show in September. Everybody loved it.”
And so, Brower and Walker went about booking the acts, all of which were miraculously available, and officially billed the show as the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. They priced the tickets at a whole six dollars, but for some reason they didn’t sell. “On the Monday before the show, which was scheduled for that Saturday, I received a call from Thor Eaton wanting to know about the ticket count,” says Brower. “At that point, we had only sold a measly 2,000 tickets. On the Monday before the Pop Festival, we had sold over 10,000 tickets and we were well into profit. This time around we were looking at massive losses so Thor basically said, ‘Look, we don’t want to put up any more money,’ because they were dolling it out as we needed it. Kenny and I just looked at each other and said, ‘This is insane.’ The Eatons also didn’t want to book The Doors, so I had to borrow $25,000 from a guy named Edjo who was the head of The Vagabonds Motorcycle Club, and I was also on the hook for that. The show was pretty much about to be cancelled, I was afraid to go home and tell my wife because we now had a 3 month old baby, and on top of that I had go to the hotel to tell Kim Fowley and the Mayor of The Sunset Strip himself, Rodney Bingenheimer, who we had just flown in to town, that they had to go back home too.”
KIM FOWLEY – LA ICON AND PRODUCER OF THE RUNAWAYS – SETS THE WHEELS IN MOTION
Figuring he could at least save on a few hotel bills by sending them home as soon as possible, Brower approached Fowley and Bingenheimer with the bad news. “Kim took one look at me and said, ‘No, you can’t do that. This is an incredible show. If this were at Dodgers Stadium it would sell out. What’s wrong with this town? And what’s wrong with your investors?’ “I just said, ‘My investors have money because the don’t give it away.’ That’s when Kim really stepped in. He said: ‘Look, you need to call John Lennon tomorrow at Apple because The Beatles have recorded songs by Little Richard and Chuck Berry. John Lennon loves all the old rock and rollers and you’ve got Gene Vincent on your show. Back in the day he was the headliner at The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany when the Beatles were the opening act; they used to worship him. They wore black jackets and shit like that because he wore them.’ We were all just thinking gee thanks for the history lesson Kim but we’re just supposed to call up Apple Records? But he was serious and said, ‘Yeah, you call them up early in the morning and you get information to give you the number. Tell the receptionist the names of the legends. Don’t tell her about The Doors or Chicago, just ask John to be the emcee. If he thinks there are 15 bands on the bill he may panic. Just tell him about the legends and say you want to invite he and Yoko to be the emcees.’”
So, that’s exactly what Brower did. At 6:30 am the next morning, he phoned up reception and said: “’Hello. This is John Brower from Toronto, Canada and this is very important. I need you to write these names down.’ The receptionist on the other end of the line wrote down the names of the artists and I said: ‘I want you tell John Lennon they are playing and that we’re inviting him to come and be the emcee.’ The next thing you know Lennon comes on the line. He goes, ‘So all these bands are playing?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this Saturday at the University.’ He said, ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to come unless we can play.’ I said, ‘Do you mean The Beatles?’ To which he said, ‘No, just me and Yoko. We’ll put a little band together.’ So I of course said, ‘Yeah we’ll squeeze you in,’ which I realized sounded like the stupidest thing in the world because the show was going to be canceled, but he said, ‘Olright, well I need to get off the phone so I can get a band together.’ We were on speaker phone so everyone was just thinking, ‘Oh God how much is this going to cost?’ But before he left I said, ‘Listen, we can’t pay you but we’ll get you first class plane tickets and we’ll put you up somewhere nice.’ He said, ‘That’s all fine no problem.’ I told him I’d call him back for the names on the plane tickets tomorrow and that was it. Click. And he hung up. I just looked at Thor and said, ‘Okay, so do we have a show or what?’ And he finally said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’”
Knowing that they had to act fast to get the word out about Lennon’s upcoming appearance, Brower and Walker waited until 9:00 am and then went about alerting CHUM Radio. Unfortunately for them, CHUM laughed in their faces. Earlier in the year Brower and Walker were two of the only promoters given the ability to present The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” movie. While they had no trouble selling out Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall, and Montreal’s St. Lawrence Centre, Ottawa was an absolute flop. “The night before the show in a 2,200 seat theatre we had only sold 400 tickets,” says Brower. “The radio promotion had been really bad and in those days when you were a promoter everything was on the radio. There were some print adds but you always had the phone number of the on-air studio in case you had any breaking news. Well, we were having dinner at the Château Laurier Hotel and I said to Kenny, ‘Look I’ve got an idea.’ There were a lot of young people waiting around this dining room so I just called this young girl over and said, ‘How would you like 12 tickets to “The Magical Mystery Tour” movie tomorrow night?’ She said, ‘Okay cool.’ I wrote down the number of the radio station and I said: ‘Call this number. Somebody will answer and you just tell them you work here at the Château Laurier and that you just saw George Harrison here having dinner with some people.’ So, she goes off and comes back 5 minutes later and says: ‘Man I hope I’m not going to get in trouble for this. I called the guy but you didn’t tell me it was a radio station and he put me on the air! He was asking me what George was wearing, who he was with, what he looked like. I had to make everything up. I felt so stupid! Thank god he didn’t ask me my name.’”
Of course Brower and Walker made good on their promise of the 12 tickets and the girl went on her way. The next morning people were lined up at the box office and the show was sold out by 10:30 am. Unfortunately for Brower and Walker, who made the mistake of bragging about their success to a small group of friends upon returning to Toronto, CHUM found out. “You have to imagine, we were putting on a show that was dying and CHUM knew it all too well because they are promoting it,” says Brower. “When we went in there and told them that John Lennon was coming in on Saturday, the Program Director took one look at us and said: ‘You know what, The Beatles must love you guys. You got George Harrison down there in Ottawa now you’ve got John Lennon coming to Toronto. This isn’t Ottawa. This is CHUM Radio and we’re not buying any of your bullshit so get out of here.’” The next day Brower got back on the phone with Apple Records to confirm the names of the members of Lennon’s newly formed band. Having put a tape recorder on the line, Brower had hoped to record Lennon’s voice but got Yoko Ono’s assistant Anthony Fawcett instead. To his surprise, Fawcett named Eric Clapton amongst the guests. Thinking that the recording was a surefire way to prove to the Program Director at CHUM that they weren’t joking around, Brower and Walker immediately returned to the station. “The Program Director saw us and right away got up and said: ‘You know what? I’ve been promoting shows here for you for two years. How can you come up here with a tape of some guy you know with a fake British accent and try and get us to put this crap on the air. Eric Clapton? That was a nice touch but John Lennon in 4 days, no way, get out.’ “At that point Kenny said, ‘Man Thor is going to freak.’ I just turned to him and said: ‘You don’t tell Thor or anybody anything, just be quiet and let me think.’”
Brower eventually decided to reach out to fellow rock promoter Russ Gibb who he had previously worked with to promote Jimi Hendrix at Maple Leaf Gardens. Gibb, who had a club in Detroit called The Grande Ballroom, also hosted a popular radio show in Ann Arbor Michigan that aired every night of the week from 7pm-midnight. “When I called Russ he just said, ‘Hey listen, did you talk to John Lennon yourself?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and so he went with it. He started playing the recording on the radio every hour and by Thursday all of the tickets were sold out in the Detroit-Windsor area. Friday morning one of our guys flew down with 10,000 more and they were all sold out by the end of the day too. “People were lined up for four or five blocks to get these tickets because Russ Gibb was God. He was the critical missing link in getting this information to the public and the public was in Detroit.”
SHIT HITS THE FAN – JOHN AND YOKO BACK OUT AND SEND FLOWERS
Back in Toronto, Brower was able to move another 200 tickets but still couldn’t get people to believe that he was actually bringing John Lennon to town. The only person willing to give Brower a chance was Edjo. Having done security for Brower in the past, Edjo agreed to bring in bikers from all over Ontario to greet John and Yoko at the airport upon their arrival. The only problem was, people had begun to talk and the word on the street was that the concert was bullshit. “Edjo came to my house on Friday night and he was stoned and really angry and just said: ‘You know man, this is the moment right now. Tell me it’s bullshit. Tell me Lennon’s not coming and that you’re scamming tickets and that’s okay, we’ll still be cool, but if you let me and my guys ride out to that fucking airport tomorrow morning and there is no John Lennon, you better move.’”
At 4 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, September 13th, Anthony Fawcett called from Heathrow Airport in London. “His voice was trembling,” says Brower. “He just said, ‘I’m here with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, and Mal Evans [The Beatles tour manager], and I just spoke to John. He says he and Yoko can’t make it, send flowers.’ I came out of bed like I was hit with a cattle prod, my life passing before my eyes. I saw Edjo putting the flowers on my grave; everything was destroyed. I just said, ‘No. No. Put Eric Clapton on the phone.’ Now, I had promoted for Eric back in July in Toronto. It was a great show but we lost twenty-grand. Eric’s record didn’t come out in time and I got the first single, “Had To Cry Today,” on the day of the show. Anyways, Eric came on the line and I said, ‘Eric, you probably don’t remember me but I lost $20,000 on Blind Faith in the summer. Listen man, you’ve gotta help me. If John Lennon does not show up today I am ruined. I have to leave my city. I have to leave my country. In fact, I’m going to come over there and move in with John Lennon, with my wife and kid, okay? You need to get him back on the phone and tell him he has to come.’ Clapton starts yelling, ‘I don’t get up at this time of the morning for anybody. Fucking Lennon gets us out here and then sends fucking flowers?’” In lieu of Brower’s pleas, Clapton wasted no time and immediately phoned Lennon back. “He was furious,” says Brower. “He just said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? There’s some guy on the other end of the phone who is ruined if we don’t go over there. He said he’s going to come over and move in with you!’ We later found out from Anthony Fawcett that Lennon was mortified that Eric Clapton was mad at him. I mean you just don’t get Eric Clapton mad at you. None the less, John and Yoko eventually got their asses out of bed and came to the airport.”
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