Yonge Street in the 1960s was a hot bed: racy, illicit and awash in the vibrancy of coloured neon lights. Between the garish emporiums, leather shops, dirty bookstores and gaudy triple-bill theatres, it was a place where the music of wild, wailing bluesmen could be heard pouring out of the windows and doors, and where stompin’, raunchy rock n’ roll came to life in front of packed crowds every night. There was The Colonial, Steele’s Tavern, Friar’s Tavern and The Brown Derby, Zanzibar, The Edison Hotel and The Hawks Nest amongst so many others, but it was the infamous Le Coq d’Or Tavern that became the heart and soul of the Yonge Street strip and helped to give way to what would eventually become known as the world famous “Toronto Sound”.
Located at 333 Yonge Street and known for its deep red walls, saddle shaped bar stools, crummy western knick-knacks and caged go-go dancers, Le Coq d’or Tavern rose to prominence in the late 1950s upon the arrival of Arkansas rockabilly wildman, Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and his band The Hawks.
Hawkins, who in the early days of rock n’ roll was often mentioned in the same breathe as both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and had spent many grueling years on the road touring the honky-tonks of the Southern U.S., was prompted to head north to Toronto upon the recommendation of a good friend, Harold Jenkins. Jenkins, who would soon find fame as Conway Twitty, expressed the benefits of touring in Canada where the industry was still in its infancy and a gig at a single bar could last upwards of a month at a time.
“When we arrived in Canada, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Hawkins. “We were only 1400 miles or so away but we had no idea; we thought we’d need fur coats in the summer! There really wasn’t a rock n’ roll or rockabilly scene either when we arrived. It wasn’t in any of the clubs and they weren’t playing it on the radio yet –– it was just getting started. ‘58, that was the year when everything really began and that’s when we landed in the promise land for the first time.”
Although it really wasn’t until Rompin’ Ronnie & The Hawks blew into town that the tavern hit its stride, Le Coq d’Or had enjoyed an established presence on Yonge Street since the late 1940’s. In fact, in 1947, loosened liquor laws came into effect in Ontario enabling bars to offer a mix of drinking and entertainment for the very first time. On account of this, Le Coq d’Or became a local spot for soldiers and other military men returning from World War II in search of the same kind of poise and privilege they had enjoyed the bars and eateries abroad. While at the time the tavern primarily hosted crooners and country acts (popular genres during the pre-50s post war period), it sparked the beginnings of what was to become a thriving music scene a mere decade later.
“When we started playing Le Coq d’Or there was already a pretty good cliental in place,” says Hawkins. “It was still a well managed, high-class cocktail lounge where you had to have coats and ties––Neil Young could have never gotten in,” he laughs. “It was a really nice place, and that was something we weren’t used to down South. We played some tough places man, I’m tellin’ you, we’re lucky we’re alive.”
Though Ronnie and The Hawks split their time between Canada and the U.S. for quite a few years, when they finally settled at Le Coq d’Or Tavern (a residency they maintained six nights a week, on and off, for well over a decade), the timing was right, the tides had turned and people were hungry for authentic Southern rock n’ roll.
“The thing is there really weren’t bars anywhere else in Toronto during that time,” he says. “Sure the big hotels had cocktail lounges, but there were the liquor laws and if you wanted to see entertainment and drink you had no choice, you had to come to Yonge Street. That made it really great for us because there were a lot of people downtown all the time.”
Something was definitely happening on the Yonge Street strip, which by the early 1960’s was a literal hothouse of rock n’ roll, R&B, blues and folk music, and people could feel it. Before long, they began flocking from the outskirts of Toronto to take in the music and bright city lights, and to watch young, hot-blooded musicians like Hawkins, move and wail, jump and grind.
“Ronnie was my very first interview,” says Canadian music journalist Larry LeBlanc who often spent time at Le Coq d’Or in the late sixties and early seventies. “It was 1965, I was fifteen-years old and I had taken the Greyhound bus in from just outside of Pickering. We did the interview in the lobby and Hawkins had a go-go girl on one leg and a go-go girl on the other, and he was drinking Golden Cadillac’s from a cocktail glass. He was something else––definitely not the grand old man he is to day.
“You have to understand that in that day we were listening to something called ‘skip radio’ and people like John R. out of Nashville, who was famous for playing rhythm and blues. John R. played nothing but black music. When Hawkins showed up, he had this thing called the camel walk, which is similar to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, his band was tighter than tight and he was cooler than cool. All of a sudden we had that sound right here in our own backyard; Hawkins was the real deal.”
At the peak of the tavern’s success, it wasn’t uncommon for Ronnie and The Hawks to play to near sold-out crowds every night. “It was definitely a mixture of people,” adds LeBlanc. “Everybody from rounders and hookers to university professors and police officers––even a reputed hit man frequented the place in Hawkins’ time.”
Earning a cool $2000 a week, Hawkins made such a lucrative living playing Le Coq d’Or that he was able to purchase himself a Rolls Royce. Drinking buddy and famed Canadian singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, later penned the song “Talking Silver Cloud Blues” about Hawkins’ car.
Le Coq d’Or also played an integral roll in launching the career of another seminal Canadian rock act––one that got its start performing backup for Hawkins. When the original Hawks line-up––all except Levon Helm––decided to return home to America, Hawkins replaced the group with local Canadian musicians, one of which was a then underage Robbie Robertson.
By 1964, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson (who each came to join The Hawks one by one at the decade’s onset), also parted ways with Hawkins, going on to form an act that would eventually become known worldwide as The Band.
In the years that followed, a number of other notable musicians also got their start performing backup for Hawkins at Le Coq d’Or including, Rick Bell and John Till (who left to join Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band), all the original members of Hamilton rock band Crowbar, famed Canadian composer and producer David Foster and even actress and singer Beverly D’Angelo (think National Lampoon’s Vacation) amongst others.
As the 60s drew to a close, Hawkins eventually moved upstairs to The Hawks Nest and then on to residencies at other local establishments. Though Le Coq d’Or Tavern remained open until 1976, both it and most of the other bars along Yonge Street had gone the way of the strip-club and run their course earlier that decade. Later in 1991, 333 Yonge Street re-opened its doors as the HMV flagship store, but that’s a whole other piece of Toronto music history.
As far as local venues go, this city has plenty, but surely few will remain in the collective conscience of rock and roll’s first generation as long as Le Coq d’Or.
Juliette Jagger is a rock n' roll critic living in Toronto - @juliettejagger
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Le Coq d’Or Tavern remained open in the 80s. In fact, it closed in 1976.