Giant mural will celebrate downtown musical history
August 24, 2017
Downtown Yonge St. was the place where Jay Douglas cut his teeth as a musician in the 1960s and early 1970s.
He was a member of The Cougars – a soul, funk and reggae group – that performed at the legendary Le Coq D’Or Tavern, Club Bluenote, Little Trinidad Club, The Latin Quarter, Zanzibar, The Colonial Tavern, The Calypso, The Caribbean Club and other music venues between Gerrard St. and Queen St.
The Cougars were together from 1966 to 1973.
“This was the spot to be and this is where I really learnt to perform using the training I received in Jamaica,” said Douglas. “If you came to Yonge St. in those days and you weren’t dressed up, you were out of place. Today, it seems like the other way round.”
Last week, he and several other musicians from the 60s, 70s and 80s, returned to Yonge St. for the unveiling of a giant musical mural on the southern side of the 22-floor Toronto Community Housing building at 423 Yonge St.
“This is a very, very special day for me because this was the strip where the action was back then,” Douglas, who grew up listening to the Blue Busters (a Jamaican vocal duo) and American singers Jackie Wilson, Chuck Jackson, Solomon Burke and B.B King, said.
Douglas, who spearheaded the 2006 Jamaica to Toronto reunion concert at Harbourfront Centre, said he learnt of the honour through an email delivered about two weeks prior to the unveiling.
“I was very moved and I feel very blessed to be in the company of such great musical artists whose images will adorn this giant wall,” he said.
Working part-time for four months at a Bloor St. W. Dominion store while attending Central Technical School is the only other job not related to music that the veteran singer-songwriter has held in his 53 years in Canada.
“Just before quitting that gig, I remember telling the manager that what I was doing was hard work and there is no other business for me than show business,” he said. “This is what I eat, sleep, breathe and dream of.”
Douglas’ love of music was forged in elementary school in Montego Bay when music was part of the curriculum and students would sing under the mango tree after lunch.
“The teachers would put their ears to our mouths to ensure we sang on key,” he said. “That was how it was done back then.”
Douglas was a member of his Methodist Church junior and senior choirs that took part in the all-island competition which was similar to the American Idol contest.
“If you couldn’t sing, the folks would let you know in no uncertain manner,” he pointed out. “It was very tough in those days.”
Coming to Canada in 1964, a decade after his mother migrated under the Canada-Caribbean Domestic Worker Scheme, Douglas performed with the defunct Central Tech school band before linking up with The Cougars.
Joining Douglas on the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association (BIA) mural are late American jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie who performed at many of the Yonge St. clubs, bluesman Lonnie Johnson who enjoyed playing here and spent his last five years in Toronto, and Salome Bey who is suffering from dementia.
It was after a 1961 performance at The Colonial Tavern that Bey went to the First Floor Jazz Club near Yorkville where she met the late Howard Matthews who was smitten by her. They married three years later.
“This is quite emotional for me,” said singer/songwriter SATE, Bey’s daughter, who attended the launch. “It’s good to know that she’s still being remembered and acknowledged for her contributions to the music industry. Nowadays, it seems like if you are out of sight, you are out of mind. While performers like Drake and The Weeknd deserve the attention they are getting, there were others before them on whose shoulders they stand. There was a past and we should never forget that.”
SATE said she learnt about Yonge St. being the city’s music hub through her father.
“When I was growing up, my mother was starring in Indigo (it was one of the most successful cabarets to play in the city) on Basin St. which is a few blocks from here,” she said.
Last September, the BIA launched its first mural on the other side of the high-rise between College & Gerrard Sts.
“The mural on the north side was really paying homage to the 50s and 60s,” said BIA chief operating officer and executive director Mark Garner. “It was really at a time when Toronto was trying to establish itself as a bona fide music hub, not only in North America, but globally. This mural is going to have some of those legends from the 50s and 60s along with some of the great performers of the 70s and 80s.”
He said the murals are part of the organization’s strategy to ensure that Yonge St. maintains its aura as a music mecca.
“These murals are very visible, they are a tribute to the music that has been so important to so many of us and they are dazzling sights to celebrate the decades of the amazing sounds in Toronto,” Garner added. “They are a stunning visual reminder of the long and vibrant history of music in Downtown Yonge which continues today…We are very proud to ensure that we preserve this neighbourhood’s uniqueness and the role it has played in the music sector.”
Toronto Centre-Rosedale councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said the new mural helps to preserve, enhance, maintain and foster culture in a changing urban environment.
“That’s a very big conversation that I know is happening in Kensington Market, Cabbagetown and other places as the city starts to intensify and grow,” she said. “This particular strategy that has come from the Downtown Yonge BIA embodies a lot of how we preserve history, foster it, enhance it, make sure we don’t forget about it and build upon that amazing legacy that we have been so fortunate enough to inherit. So, this is a very exciting day not just for the Downtown Yonge BIA, but I think in terms of culture building in the city.”
Wong-Tam thanked the musicians for their invaluable contributions to the city’s music sector.
“Without you, there is no story to tell,” she said. “Without your contributions and persistence and your honing of your craft and sharing your music talent with us in this city, Toronto would be a much poorer place. I believe we are actually much richer culturally because of your contributions.”
StreetARToronto, a City of Toronto Transportation Services division initiative, supports the mural project through funding, materials and mentorship.
“We do this to help create attractive, colourful and vibrant streetscape, support artists and reduce graffiti vandalism,” said StreetARToronto project lead Carolyn Taylor. “We are delighted with the design and concept that the artist has developed and the scale of these walls is a perfect canvas to showcase these truly legendary musicians.
“Just as every fan knows the tremendous effects of music and the power it can have on our thoughts and emotions, murals – in much the same way – add an emotional quality to the daily lives of those who get to view them on their daily commute as a visitor to our fine city. The personal connection and interaction between viewer and artwork is a moving and unique experience, so we are delighted to be part of what has already become a great Toronto landmark.”
Created by local artist Adrian Hayles, the 70-metre tall mural will take three months to complete.
“I am so thrilled to be given this opportunity to do this grand scale project,” said the designer of the Reggae Lane mural which features Douglas.
Born in Toronto to Guyanese immigrants, Hayles spent seven years in the South American country before returning to Canada at age eight.
“Adrian is one of the most professional and skilled public artists I have seen in this city,” said Wong-Tam. “We are happy to work with him anytime any day.”