A Conversation With ... Joey Cee
Joey Cee and I have enjoyed a long history dating back to the early seventies and the long twenty-eight year run of the Beaches International Jazz Festival. We survived the Tom Jakobek years as the festival stood ground and fought every roadblock the councillor threw in our path to establishing one of Canada's most beloved community music festivals. It was a hard slog but Joey and I and Lido - festival CEO -survived the political onslaught and put the event on solid ground.
Joey's a conversationalist and as you will witness in his responses "Mr. Cee" took the time to answer each question in detail. The interview reads like an autobiographical novella - and that's a good thing! Enjoy..
Bill King: It’s a long ways from St. Patrick’s Church Choir when you first stepped behind a microphone. Was it the times, the Hit Parade of young singing sensations that got you focused on a music career?
Joey Cee: I was both a choir boy and an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Church on McCaul Street since I was four years old. The first time behind a mic was at a music competition held by the Kiwanis Club. A few school buddies and I got together as an acapella trio and won the contest. I think I was about eight years old. The feeling of entertaining an audience and winning was what probably got me hooked. Being an altar boy conditioned me to be in front of big crowds every week. A cathedral full of worshippers with all eyes on you can do that. It wasn’t until I went to St. Michael’s College School that I became active by being a CHUM High School Hit Picker for the school and then again for Western Tech and Commerce. My first meet the stars function was at Casa Loma where I met Bobby Curtola. It was a pizza party. He was a rising Canadian star then. Many more functions followed that were exciting - adding fuel to the fire within me. Through these I learned to network and get to know the deejays and the people behind the scenes.
B.K: You were a mid-town Toronto boy. Your family was from Malta and neighborhoods and streets were exciting. How did you spend your days?
J.C: No I was a bonafide 100% downtown kid. My whole childhood was played out on Widmer Street between King and Adelaide - yes - where the TIFF building now stands. One of my 3 addresses on the same block of row houses was 21 Widmer, the site of the new Festival Hall residences. It’s ironic or maybe the writing was on the wall that I would never leave the hood. I was there when Forbes Car Wash was built. In fact I believe Ivan Reitman’s mom was the lady who came around to collect the $15 monthly rent. This was the late 40’s and early 50’s. The area was derelict by today’s standards and most of the immigrants living on the street were poor and hard working. My mom worked at Woolworth’s and Kresges at the restaurant counter and my dad worked at CP Railways as a car cleaner on the new Skyliner, the first train with the glass roof. In fact, I consider myself a railway child as I spent a lot of time at Union Station and in the yards with my dad. I could tell you what stood where all along Bremner Blvd. right up to the roundhouse, when they were all tracks. All the porters knew me and treated me like their own.
My mom, dad and I arrived in Toronto from Malta via New York in 1947 when I was a year old. Many Maltese people lived on Widmer at the time. Many were relatives. I still remember the old cars at the time, hot summer nights sitting on the stairs of the row houses, neighbours interacting with each other, the big backyards stretching halfway to John Street on the East, full of plants, flowers and trees. Hummingbirds were commonplace. You don’t see anything like that anymore in downtown Toronto.
In fact you don’t see winters like the ones I lived through then anymore either. When it snowed it stayed for the whole winter and kept piling up.
I went to St. Patricks School on Beverly Street. I clearly remember the big cathedral on John Street burning down. I also recall passing the construction of the AGO daily on my way to school. On Saturdays I worked at the Saxon Building on Duncan Street delivering coffees and donuts to the many factories in the district. This also included delivering coffees to the first location of CHUM Radio which was in a house on Adelaide Street.
I believe everything I did and learned during those formidable years prepared me for the next phase - the 60’s. As I see it now, the dots were beginning to connect.
B.K: American Bandstand reached across continents and inspired many a young entrepreneur to take charge and book their own dances. For you it was the The Star Club Hall in the heart of what’s now Little Italy and the surrounding schools.
J.C: By the time I was twelve years of age I already knew I wanted to be in the music industry. In what capacity I was not sure. So I dabbled in everything I could. My creativity juices were overflowing and I was running wild with ideas. So much that I could not concentrate on my schoolwork. I was being sidetracked by distributing CHUM charts, getting surveys, selling hard to get records on the side to my schoolmates, deejaying at church and high school dances, calling bingo numbers every week at the church hall and taking up various music lessons along the way. That resulted in me breaking the cardinal rule - quitting school as soon as I turned 16. That was in mid-December of 1962. On January 9, 1963 I went into business for myself by starting a weekly dance night in what is known as Little Italy. Then it was a dark and inactive area of the city. But for me, the dance hall at the corner of Euclid and College was perfectly located. It was in walking distance of 4 major high schools which I drew students from every Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. Modelled after American Bandstand, I called it Canadian Bandstand. The format was simple, my schoolmate and I would set up a deejay table on the stage and bill ourselves as Joey and The Professor (David Alexander). With his forte being electronics, he built the front panel of the stage that lit up pulsating to the music. I believe it was the first light box ever used as it fed from one side of a stereo amp. As corny as it sounds, it worked. We had to put on a show and we did. Just like American Bandstand we secured new recorded talent (which at the time was slim picking), to drop by, lipsync and sign autographs. Our very first guest was a new young country folk artist out with his first recording on Chateau Records. Friend, producer and owner of the label Art Snider sent him over to help promote the new single. That by the way turned out to be the first lip-sync gig for Gordon Lightfoot. Others followed. From Jackie Shane, Hollywood Argyles, R Dean Taylor and the list goes on. Our media partner was CKEY RADIO who connected us with the likes of J P Finnigan and Dave Mickey (Marsden).
The dancehall itself was run by the Three Star Dance Club, a ballroom dance school on the 2nd floor. It could hold 200 plus under a mirror ball setting with curtained stage which I took full advantage of. I had to get my $40 rent worth. My opening day cost me $80 out of pocket to produce with a ticket price of 25 cents. Duane Eddy’s song “Because We’re Young” was our opening theme song and R&B/Motown ruled as far as the music goes. We were also the first to play any Beatle record long before they were even heard of in Canada or the USA. Promo copies were sent to me constantly by record companies and promoters to test out the danceability of new records. This resulted in the Toronto Star publishing a “Joey Cee Predicts The Hits” column every Friday for several years. It also resulted in creating a Danceability Award which was presented in person to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher and others. The latter was in partnership with CHCH-TV’s Dance Party program.
B.K: You decided to step back and produce and write. What was the experience like for you?
J.C: As a recording artist on various major labels, I released about a dozen singles. From the get go I had no interest in becoming a live touring act. I was more interested in seeing how far I could go with my vocal talents and songwriting capabilities on the international front. Since I pretty well knew the ins and outs of the industry I thought I could navigate it. I may not have had any major hit records but I did put a dent in some markets and some charts in Canada and the USA. To date, many people still don’t know the pseudonyms I used as a singer with studio groups such as The Puppies ("Sea of Love"), Artsy ("Cuddly Toy") and of course I was Joseph ("Any Dream Will Do"). In fact both sides of the Joseph record on Capitol-EMI were songs that I selected from an obsolete album on London Records by a UK kids choir. This was the first ever recording of these tunes from the musical Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Others followed a few years later with “Any Dream Will Do” winning a Tony for best Broadway song ten years later. That song was followed up by “Oh What The Summer Can Do” on A+M Records (written by Ronnie King of the Stampeders). The flip side ironically (a throwaway side) became a hit in Australia. Go figure!
In the early 80’s I was approached by Playboy Magazine to produce an album in conjunction with their annual Music Poll. I was chosen from many contenders including large labels to submit my idea for an effective recording project. It seems my idea won out over all the others and I was awarded the contract to produce and market the “Street Rock” album and released it on my own Nightlfite Label. That was the beginning of producing other new acts including myself when I felt like it.
B.K: The record charts fascinated – when did you start publishing your own music publication?
J.C: I started publishing my own charts to promote my deejay work in 1963 and it was called “Keeping Track with Joey Cee”. It wasn’t a ratings chart like for instance the CHUM Chart. Mine was designed as a monthly Record Release chart which would let people know what records were released in the Pop and R&B categories. With the radio stations only adding on 3 or 4 records a week, hundreds of great recordings were going by unnoticed so I thought I would do something about that and keep record lovers informed. I was big on R&B, especially at the dances. These charts were distributed in high schools throughout the city as I have probably deejayed every school in the GTA twice over, and at record stores including Sam The Record Man and A&A’s. The chart took on a life of its own and was supported by advertisers. These included John Harris, Mel Shaw, Ron Scribner, various record companies and agents. The chart became the official publication for CKFH radio when I joined as Music Director. After I left, they started their own version copying other stations. Something I wouldn’t have done. I guess that was my entry into publishing. Music Canada Quarterly, Flipside, Record Week, Record Month, Hot Spots, Hot Spots America and many other magazines followed in the years to follow.
B.K: You did a stint at CKFH as music director – what was a Joey Cee playlist made of?
J.C: I was Music Director at CKFH from 1967 to 1969. For those who don’t know, the station was owned by Foster Hewitt and it was the station that broadcast the games at the time. In fact I started working there the last year the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. The playlist was anything but a standard hit list. I wanted listeners to hear new recordings that CHUM was not playing. I always had a steady stream of new and established artists and promo guys coming through my office. The telephones were always going. I would have to stay late each night just to get through the days submissions. Putting together a playlist was not as simple as it sounds. This was long before computers. Each day I would have to type the playlist on a thing called a typewriter and make three carbon copies. Whiteout was my best friend. Each 45 rpm record ( a small disc made out of vinyl) had to be put on a rack in the order to be played by each disc-jockey (the guys who actually operated the turntables while talking). So keeping ahead of them was a big chore and thank goodness I knew how to type. A rarity amongst most in those days.
My concentration was getting my hands on new releases before CHUM and other radio stations, and introducing new Canadian talent to our listening audiences. I must say my connections and determination kept paying off. It was rare but I managed to receive more than a dozen gold records and citations for breaking new records. Among these were "Born To Be Wild," "J’Taime," "These Eyes," "Space Oddity," "Whiter Shade of Pale," "Brooklyn Roads" and many Motown records.
The job was challenging but extremely fun and rewarding. I worked with many of the classic deejay/announcers - Don Daynard, Big G Walters, Tom Fulton, Kenny Wells, Keith Hampshire, Chuck McCoy, John Donabie, Duff Roman, Erroll Bruce and the elusive Chicken Man amongst others. It was one big happy fun family. Just like WKRP Cincinnatti.
B.K: Hot Spots Magazine has seen the longest run. What was the thought behind this and how many cities at its peak did it run in?
J.C: Hot Spots Magazine was my entry into what I call the “entertainment” industry in 1985. I started it up as a result of my involvement as a nightclub promoter and event producer. After publishing the weekly music industry newspaper Record Week in the mid-70s I swore I wouldn’t go back into the daily grind of putting out a magazine. So here I go again - only this time quarterly. The magazine featured and focused on nightclubs and music destined for the dance floors in Toronto. It was widely accepted by nightclubs and record pools across the country. The magazine actually started up as a partner to my newly developed radio programming feature called The Hot Spots Reports. These were live reports from a different night club in each city every half hour reported by our team Hot Spots Prowlers every Friday and Saturday night. We started our first reports on CKFH 99.9 followed by Power 106 Los Angeles, HOT 103 New York City, CKMF Montreal and Magic 102 Buffalo. Once we hit the states the magazine morphed into a national nightclub magazine renamed Joey Cee’s Hot Spots America.
B.K: Film icon Norman Jewison turns 90 this week. In 1988 you produced the Norman Jewison Hollywood Walk of Fame Dedication. What did this entail?
J.C: My association with Power 106 in Los Angeles afforded me the opportunity to meet many big players in the entertainment business and through major networking came up with the idea to produce a week-long event in Hollywood that would bring together many of the Canadians working in music and film in Los Angeles. This resulted in the launch of Canada Day in L.A. in 1987. The highlights of the event was the gala at the Red and White Ball at the Palace in Hollywood. Hundreds of invited Canadians and their celebrity friends were invited to attend the concert and schmoozed to celebrate their Canadian heritage. The City of Los Angeles under Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed it Canada Day. This is where Blue Rodeo played and introduced to L.A. audiences for the first time. We honoured Cirque du Soleil with their ‘first ever’ award from Canada aptly named the Dream Award, the same award was presented to Wayne Gretzky the following year.
For the 1988 edition of Canada Day in L.A. I wanted to honour a Canadian that was truly deserving of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After walking this stretch on Hollywood Blvd. hundreds of times, I realized that there were very few if any Canadians honoured on the main street. With that in mind I approached the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and hit them up with the idea of honouring Norman Jewison as a recipient. The conditions were that the nominee would have to qualify based on the body of work over many decades, guarantee to show up on the designated day and the cost of the star paid up front. The down side was when they told me there was no more room on Hollywood Blvd. for placement of the star. That is when I went into hyper mode. I immediately proceeded to stake out a suitable location for the star. My eyes were on a spot on Hollywood Blvd. right in front of The Roosevelt Hotel. I was told by the Chamber that this would be impossible as the Roosevelt has the deciding authority and that they have been turned down dozens of times. I was determined to have this spot so I met with the General Manager of the hotel and gave it my best shot noting that the Hotel was originally owned by a Canadian - Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I made the argument that it is about time that another Canadian film icon be inducted in front of the hotel. The manager agreed and we were off to the races to the dismay of the Chamber who wondered how the hell I was able to pull that off. On returning to Toronto I attended the annual BBQ at the Canadian Film Centre where I made a point of meeting Norman Jewison and asking him about his upcoming working agenda. A little hesitant, he graciously told me that he would be finished the current project by the time I had in mind. That’s all I needed to know. I told him it was nice meeting him and I will be seeing him soon. This was the first time and last time I would meet Norman until we came face to face standing together at the star unveiling at which point he remembered our conversation and thanked me and my team for doing a great job.
I laid out the five grand to secure the star and proceeded to contact his office and arrange the details with his secretary under cloak and dagger. I even convinced Lynda Friendly who worked for Garth Drabinsky, head of Cineplex, at the time, to host the luncheon after party at the Roosevelt attended by many celebrities. The day went off without a hitch. It was magical and memorable. For the record, it was noted by the Chamber of Commerce that up until that time this was the fastest approval for any star dedication ever. And it landed on the elusive Hollywood Blvd. location. To this day I don’t think Norman knows how much work went into making this happen. I’m just happy that it happened according to plan.
B.K: You’ve produced over 150 events – which stand out the most and have been the longest running?
J.C: As mentioned previously, the Canada Day Celebrations in Los Angeles were for sure major highlights. Others include producing more than a dozen Music and Comedy Challenges as part of the American Dream Challenge at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, The Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, The Taj Mahal and Trump Hotel in Atlantic City and the The Crystal Palace in the Bahamas. Here at home the anchor event for me is the Beaches International Jazz Festival where I came on board since just after its inception 28 years ago as an Associate Producer. I was the co-producer of the annual Country Jam on Canada Day at Kew Gardens and Sunnyside which ran for nearly a decade, as well as the MIX 99.9 BeachFest on Labour Day at Kew Gardens and Sunnyside for 16 years. You can throw in a few years of Parti Gras at the Distillery District and add a decade of the Toronto Chocolate Festival for good measure.
B.K: Twelve publications over the decades – is there one that held its own the distance?
J.C: Music Canada Quarterly was Canada’s first glossy colour magazine dedicated entirely to Canadian music and talent. It was available on newsstands across the country.
Record Week was the alternate music industry weekly newspaper rivalling RPM at the time. We made a lot of historic inroads at the time and were well known globally. Our editorial team was next to none - David Farrell, Martin Melhuish, Kirk LaPointe, Juan Rodriguez and many other contributing writers and photographers. We even had an office in Montreal working out of Patsy Gallant’s house in Westmount. Our downtown office was one of the first to occupy a newly renovated Carlton Street location with David Marsden as a sub-tenant. How cool was that?
Hot Spots and Hot Spots America magazines went the distance for more than a decade in Canada and the USA profiling and working with nightclubs, recording artists, record pools and deejays across the continent.
HOToronto Magazine started up in 1993 and has been going ever since starting as a hard copy entertainment city information magazine available in hotels all over Ontario to becoming an on-line entity in 2008. Two years ago the operating name was changed to Toronto On Demand with HOToronto Magazine being retained for special editions. What’s On Where Magazines started at the turn of the century and is the sister site of Toronto On Demand.
Many are unaware that I also published Anne Murray’s first concert/newsstand publication titled “ANNIE … A POINT OF VIEW” as well as the commemorative magazine for THE STAMPEDERS world tour.
B.K: You are also an art dealer. Can you share in what genre or styles?
J.C: Well I wouldn’t put it in those terms. That’s usually reserved for those who deal in original paintings. In 2001 I teamed up with a friend of mine who owned and operated the double decker Old Town Tours in downtown Toronto. Together we dealt in signed and numbered Limited Edition framed art. The studio was on Bentworth Avenue near Yorkdale. By appointment only, we sold to interested buyers and frequently held art shows to display new works. I never liked to be around during the sales because I would talk someone out of buying a piece I liked or was attached to …. and that was most of the pieces that I curated. We both got so busy that we didn’t have time to dedicate to this venture. To this day though I have a collection of 200 or so pieces of valuable retained art pieces. I’m planning to have several art sales with some proceeds going to various charities.
B.K: The big story a year or so ago was the big Princess Margaret win – the cottage and car. Recently, polka king Walter Ostanek won a million dollar lottery. Are you inviting Walter over for a chat and jam session?
J.C: Well, I never saw this one coming! After my win of the Princess Margaret Home Lottery Early Bird million dollar cottage and Mercedes last year, I have been trying to take the blessings of good luck in stride. In all my Facebook notes I have continuously mentioned that it would be nice if someone I KNOW other than me would win and share the same excitement. I put out there and voila. Walter works hard and loves what he does at Marineland and I’m happy for him. I have a lot of wildlife and water creatures at my cottage so I will invite him to come up and play on the dock sometime.
B.K: How’s the Toronto Chocolate Ball shaping up?
J.C: And now we turn to chocolate. Another one I didn’t see coming a decade ago. After producing 16 editions of the Chocolate Ball and 10 Toronto Chocolate Festival events, I am taking a breather on having a Chocolate Ball in the Toronto area this year. It will be back next year. I want to concentrate on building the Toronto Chocolate Show at Roy Thomson Hall which is in its 6th year. It takes a lot of energy and chocolate to put on this event. You don’t have any idea how hard it is to stop eating the best chocolates in the world when they are in your face all the time. We’ve got some nice surprises in store at this year’s show. And even bigger ones in the next few years. By the way, as can be expected, my involvement with chocolate has made way for the launch of an International chocolate website launched last spring called ChocolateAffairsMagazine.com. Now I’m sure that doesn’t surprise anyone I know.
B.K: Any big plans or visions lurking in the path?
J.C: I’m planning a new Spring Chocolate and Pastry Show for Toronto, new city and Niagara Chocolate Tours, a big newsworthy chocolate installation in 2018, more Chocolate Ball Galas across the country and more time off so I can see a shrink.
B.K: What’s makes you the most happy?
J.C: Making people happy. See them smiling and enjoying themselves. I am and have always been in the business of making people happy. If I’m happy with what I’m doing I’m confident that the feeling will resonate. I’m also happy raising money for great causes - and there are many of them. If I can make a difference - big or small - with funds or awareness I’m for it - providing I have the time and resources to dedicate. I’m an Ellen Card carrier!