Last night a gathering of friends met at Drums N Flats, an uptown sports bar in Toronto, to remember and share stories about Australian-born author, broadcaster, historian and music journalist Ritchie Yorke who died in his homeland in February of this year.
He was an Aussie from the Land of Oz who came to Canada where he made his byline known around the world. Here, he made an indelible mark in helping turn the tide in giving homegrown musicians the impetus and affirmation to understand that they were as good as any on the world stage — and giving lift to a dream that would come true.
His company was called Super Grease; he was the catalyst for the famed Canadian Music Junket; with Ronnie Hawkins, the standard-bearer for John and Yoko’s 'Give Peace A Chance'; the first to spot the enormous potential of Led Zeppelin; a man who passionately loved the blues and rhythm and blues.
He was a persuasive entrepreneur tirelessly championing the underdog and wholeheartedly believed in John and Yoko’s mantra of peace and love and an end to war.
An idealist—and a journalist who chronicled rock n’ roll through the starburst era of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Part Crocodile Dundee, part John Wayne—he was a formidable presence who deeply connected with John Lennon, Pierre Trudeau, and a small number of Canada’s blue blood families that included the Siftons, Websters and Eatons.
He also made fast friends with colourful entrepreneurs such as Bill Ballard, Michael Cohl, John Brower and Kenny Walker. Individuals who made a difference in changing the way the old guard did business in 'Toronto the Good'.
Like-minded people, determined to make a difference and take on the staid power structure run by a WASP elite, who weren’t afraid to take a gamble on big ideas and who fell hard before they succeeded.
It is all but impossible for today’s generation to comprehend that Canada in the early Sixties was lily white and still living as if it was under Colonial rule. Ladies wore white gloves to the theatre, Eaton’s sold fur coats, and women had to enter licensed establishments through a doorway that read ‘Ladies and Escorts’.
The music business in those days was threadbare, run by men who had no comprehension about or interest in creating hits, satisfied instead to import them from the US and the UK. The exceptions being a fiercely proud woman by the name of Alice Koury and her husband, Fraser Jamieson, who ran London Records from its headquarter in Montreal, and the incomparable Walt Grealis and Stan Klees who promoted Canadian music through their weekly sheet, RPM magazine.
Of course, there were others with vision, foresight and a will to alter the landscape, but it was a battle without a champion until Ritchie Yorke ambled in as if he were anointed to lead the struggle to change hearts and minds.
And he did.
The Globe and Mail, the newspaper of record for Bay Street and Ottawa, hired Ritchie as its pop music columnist. At the time the broadsheet was promoting the fact that it was the first Western newspaper to have a bureau in what was then called Peking. The teletype printer in the paper’s King St. West newsroom was forever stuttering out reams of copy from a procession of senior reporters assigned to the Bureau, and the copy was endlessly boring from start to finish.
But the newspaper’s secret weapon was Ritchie Yorke. His passion, zeal, unbridled enthusiasm for the beat, knew no boundaries. He was a man on a mission, and if his keenness in promoting music, musicians, and what he defined as Maple Music came with a purse-string of demands, so be it because his columns could make hits, fill concert halls, alter the course of conversations in all walks of life.
He was the heralder of Canada’s underclass, its homegrown musicians and the few but growing number of fellow acolytes willing to invest, promote and build a homegrown star system.
Last night, at Drums N Flats, a hundred or more who remembered came out to honour his memory.
It was no ordinary gathering. Former press secretary to Pierre Trudeau, Patrick Gossage, told the assembly about how Ritchie and the PM had deeply connected, both driven by a shared idea of taking Canada on to the world stage and giving Canadian artists a voice and a platform from which to be heard in their home country.
Richard Flohil underscored the importance Ritchie played in the creation of the Canadian content regulations, drafted by Pierre Juneau and given the stamp of approval by Trudeau.
Bernie Finkelstein recalled Yorke’s enthusiasm when he first heard Kensington Market’s new album, and the review he gave the group that became a marker in the Market's career.
Peter Steinmetz, Frank Davies and Terry Brown talked about the profound influence he had made on their lives, and how his boundless enthusiasm for creating a star system in Canada had affected the course of their careers.
Michael McCarty shared how Ritchie had made him fierece in his own determination to help build the dream of a homegrown star system, and how Axes Chops and Hot Licks remains a coveted keepsake in his library collection.
Al Mair said a few words, and every one counted because he was there in the beginning when the good fight needed to be fought. Better still, he never gave up fighting and in this these two champs were alike.
Cathy Young shed tears for a man who had championed her when she was unknown, strumming a guitar and singing in the hope that someone would notice—and he did.
John Brower had the audience in stitches, recounting the lead-up to the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival at Varsity Arena in 1969, a show that became world famous when John Lennon elected to perform with his zany Plastic Ono Band.
Martin Melhuish described the Australian’s ritual before long overnight stints at an upright typewriter with a teapot, cozy, china cup and saucer and an ashtray full of Old Port cigar stubs.
Ritchie Yorke in his day was a formidable writer. His columns in the Globe & Mail were influential, but his long-form prose written for the Saturday magazine, and for Rainbow magazine were priceless.
These were features about Aretha, Etta, King Curtis, B. B. King, Jerry Butler, Big Mama Thornton, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Jerry Wexler, and the datelines read Muscle Shoals, Mobile AL, London, New York, and Miami.
These were features that told stories in such a way that they put you front and centre in the story. They gave colour, form and essence to the subjects. He didn’t mask the truth, either. His two-part feature Rainbow Over Rio, published in Rainbow, was extraordinary, read like a Hunter S. Thompson epic and came laced with detail about intoxicants and the lustful ways of musicians drunk on themselves. The feature in total probably ran 20,000 words.
There was also Axes, Chops and Hot Licks, a panoramic history about the Canadian music scene before and after the CanCon legislation, with a foreward by Pierre Juneau who was the first chairman of the CRTC.
It was a book that told the story, but most of the stories told were by those affected.
There were many others in attendance at last night’s celebration, including Arnold Gosewich, Ross Reynolds, Deane Cameron, Duff Roman—record company presidents who helped to make a difference, part of the new guard back then who invested in and promoted local artists and had measurable success in doing so.
Others wished they could have attended, but for various reasons could not.
People like Gerry Lacoursiere, Joe Summers, Shelley Siegel, Brian Chater, Bill(y) Ballard, George Struth, John Mills, Kelly Jay, Gary Slaight, Mel Shaw, Stan Klees, Donald Tarlton, Terry Fludd, Wilder Penfield 111, Brookes Diamond, Bill Gilliland, Ed Preston, Dave Coutts and John Watts, John Driscoll and on and on.
But former members from Fludd, Edward Bear, Goddo, Christmas, and others were there. Jake Gold, too; as well as Doug Thompson, Bob Segarini. The list is long.
As too, Emily and Ian, his two children by second wife Christine Ditchburn, and his widow Minnie (Cherry) Yorke who is left with the task of dealing with a legacy that continues, and a sizeable collection of priceless R&R memorabilia given to him by the likes of Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John and Yoko and on and on.
Ritchie’s life didn’t end so well, but it was the life he made that we all remember so well.
He made a difference for the better in his life, and that is something that death itself can’t steal from him.
In a way it was his gift to us all standing and seated at Drums N Flats last night.