When he was studying business at the University of Guelph, the family business Cosmo Ferraro was expected to join was his father’s real estate company. Things took “a left turn,” he explained to FYI over a beer at The Cameron House recently.
That detour was to take over another business with family connections, Toronto’s famed music and arts hub The Cameron House. Back in 1981, the old large building in the heart of Queen Street West was taken over by Cosmo’s uncle, (the late) Paul Sannella and partners Herb Tookey and Anne Marie Ferraro (Sannella), Cosmo’s mother.
In early 2010, Cosmo Ferraro began managing and booking the bar, at age 22. “I took over from Cindy Matthews who was managing the bar for a long time. Cindy had a young family and was looking to get out of the bar business right about the time I was finishing university. It sounded like fun, so I took over.
"My dad said ‘this will be your MBA. Go figure out how it all works, deal with people and situations. I think I stumbled onto a good group of people and friends, musicians my age that I started hanging out with right away and that helped a lot. People like Devin Cuddy, Sam Cash, and Jay Swinnerton from Tarantuela, the heart of which later became the record label [Cameron House Records].
"It was a good core of musicians here, enjoying each other and joining each others bands, and I was figuring out my scene here. Trying to balance the regulars plus making it my own a little bit."
Under Ferraro’s stewardship, the place is thriving, presenting great music in an unpretentious atmosphere. The Cameron’s ownership and its clientele wanted the venue to keep functioning as a vital music environment. “We didn’t want it to become a covers bar or a Starbucks,” says Ferraro. “There were a lot of people nervous about what was going to happen, but I think people are happy that not much has really changed.”
He recalls that “I stumbled onto a good group of people and friends there, the musicians my age that I started hanging out with right away.” He cites Devin Cuddy, Sam Cash and Jay Swinnerton as members of that coterie."
Since the early ‘80s, The Cameron has helped spawn a large number of top Canadian groups and singer/songwriters. Blue Rodeo often played here early on, and local honkytonk hero Handsome Ned both lived and performed here regularly. This is where Molly Johnson honed her chops as a jazz singer, while the likes of Justin Rutledge, Doug Paisley, David Baxter and Royal Wood worked on their craft during long-running residencies here.
Cosmo Ferraro takes pride in that, noting that “a lot of artists say that having this stage to figure out their live show made a big difference for them. The Strumbellas did Monday nights for a couple of months, playing to 5-10 people. I remember [band leader] Simon Ward telling 12 people ‘what are you doing here at midnight on a Monday? Don’t you have jobs?!”
As well as the two music rooms on the ground floor, upstairs residents have long included notable local artists and musicians, as Ferraro explains. “Devin Cuddy, Kevin Quain and Frank Nevada live up there, as does Andy Patterson (from TO new wave faves The Guvernment) and Michael and Deanne from [of groundbreaking theatre company] VideoCab. I used to live up there, and my brother took that room.”
Ferraro stresses that The Cameron House "is not competitive at all with The Horseshoe and the Rivoli," the other legendary music venues in the 'hood. "The more of those classic venues that survive the better. There's a real camaraderie on the strip."
Growing up around the Cameron coloured Ferraro's musical tastes. "I grew up listening to Handsome Ned and Blue Rodeo. As a little kid that’s what music was to me. I remember as a young kid someone calling Elvis the King. I went why isn’t Handsome Ned the King!'"
A seemingly natural offshoot of operating The Cameron House has been the establishment of an independent record label, Cameron House Records. “I think that was in January 2011,” Ferraro recalls.
"Where the idea started I don’t exactly know. Probably after a few too many beers! But it just came from seeing so many people here and getting a sense that they were special and that they couldn’t always go and make a CD for themselves. Something as simple as getting into a studio for a couple of days would take them a long time.”
“It started off very casual- ‘let’s just make a few albums by some of the regulars here and see what happens.' We made a few then things got more serious. We got Warner Music as our distributor and started to make more connections in the biz and started making bigger records.” Ferraro praises Warner's Steve Kane as "maybe the most genuine music fan in this industry and a real pleasure to work with."
Early releases on the label included Kayla Howran, Tarantuela, Devin Cuddy and Sam Cash, with the latter two making a splash. Also grabbing attention was honkytonk songstress Whitney Rose, who recently moved over to Six Shooter Records.
CHR has also done a few licensing deals, for albums by the likes of Rattlesnake Choir, Colonel Tom Parker, and Al Tuck. “We wanted to give some credit to some of the people who’ve been on the scene here a long time, so it’s great to have John Borra [Rattlesnake Choir] and Colonel Tom. My partner in the label Mike McKeown found Al Tuck and got obsessed with him. That record made the Polaris longlist, so it was nice to check that box.”
As well as doing double duty in running a music venue and a record label, Cosmo Ferraro finds time to play in a rootsy rock band. Named simply Ferraro, it features Cosmo and his two younger brothers, Gianni (drums) and Tally (bass), plus cousin Tom on electric guitar.
Initially a fun covers band, Ferraro has become a bigger proposition, as Cosmo explains. “Being brothers we grew up messing around, playing in the basement, Without the Cameron House, we wouldn’t take it seriously, but being here every day and seeing all these musicians plus having a stage whenever you want it, that kind of made us more excited about it.
We’d get help and advice from other musicians and we’d get inspired by them. That gave us a kick in the ass to take it seriously and start writing our own songs, and that was the first big step.”
The original tunes are written by Gianni and Tally at present, Cosmo explains. “I ‘m not very good at songwriting. It’s a skill I probably need to work on but for the time being they’re writing lots of good songs.”
Industry interest in the band led to a record deal with Cadence and scoring United Talent Agency for booking (Jack Ross and Stefanie Purificati take care of that side).
Ferraro released their debut full-length album a couple of months ago and are now gaining attention beyond the Toronto scene. A couple of shows opening for The Sam Roberts Bar at famed Ontario cottage country venue Kee to Bala has the group excited.
Why not sign to Cameron House Records?, we asked Cosmo. “It is rather a conflict of interest," he responds. "If we sign there and start doing well, other artists might get upset that we’re taking more resources and time.
Plus the feeling of signing to a record label is cheapened a little bit if it’s your own. It’s a nice feeling to have someone objectively interested in us. This made more sense at the end."