[This is the third section of the blog post “how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 1: the Thornhill sound”]

The basic conditions were now in place for the flourishing of musical creation and performance that gave rise to the first wave of the Thornhill sound. Its location was the rec rooms, bedrooms, basements, and proverbial garages where kids often come together to create music and form bands. However, not all future stars of the QSW music scene who came from Thornhill arrived via this venerable garage-band tradition, as shown by the B-Girls.

Confession: I’ve yet to secure interviews with Thornhill natives and founding B-Girls Cynthia and Rhonda Ross, so my analysis in this section is more hypothetical than other material in these two blog posts, awaiting more solid footing in future research. (Cynthia and Rhonda, if you’re reading this, drop me a line!) I offer this tentative analysis mostly to qualify and contextualize the general pattern I’ve laid out for the Thornhill sound.

In the many accounts of the B-Girls, one of the more beloved groups of the QSW music scene and (along with the Curse) an early all-female group, it’s hard to find mention of the Ross sisters’ background in Thornhill. But they were there. Older sister Cynthia reportedly went to a private school, perhaps outside the village, probably graduating in 1971 or ‘72. (“Hey, she was a wild child!” remembers John MacLeod, who briefly dated her in the mid-1970s.) Two years younger, Rhonda attended Thornlea Secondary and probably graduated in the class of ‘74. Scott Davey recalls both sisters lived in Thornhill as late as 1976. Yet they found their way into the city early on in the pre-punk ‘70s.

I’m a little big older than the other girls so I grew up with Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin and all these people at very small concerts. I’d gone to England and I knew Ron Wood from the Stones. I had gone to New York fairly regularly in the early ‘70s, like ‘71, ‘72, and was friends with Johnny Thunders from the New York Dolls so I knew about that whole scene. [Cynthia Ross, quoted in Worth 2011: 138]

The Ross sisters were always around. All these girls I’d been seeing at gigs since I was fourteen or something — all those New York Dolls and Stooges gigs that were in the ‘73, ‘74 period — if you went to any gig then you’d see Xenia [Splawinsky, future B-Girls guitarist] and you’d see Lucasta [Ross, future B-Girls singer and no relation to Cynthia or Rhonda] and Cynthia and all of them. It’s all intricately linked; all these disparate people who were around all got pulled together. [John Catto, quoted in Worth 2011: 138]

I remember a party at their house in ’75. Sparks were in town (Propaganda tour – Massey Hall – they were brilliant) and I was intensely jealous that they had been able to meet them OF COURSE being gorgeous Jewish girls backstage at a Jewish boys band show. “You hung out with Sparks?!?” Doesn’t mean so much now, but in ’74 … [Tony Malone]

One factor in the Ross sisters’ adventurousness and independence may be family background. John MacLeod believes their father worked in Toronto’s Jewish entrepreneurial sector — a non-corporate business milieu where family, connections, hard work, and perseverance in the face of pervasive resistance were the basis of success.

Rhonda was like, when you met Rhonda at fourteen, she was forty years old intellectually and business-wise. Because her father had come up with Harry Rosen, right? […] You may know the Shoppers Drug Mart business up here. That started in 1960. In this country, sorry to say this, but a Jewish man would have to go to a rich guy like E.P. Taylor to get financing for a business like that, right? Like, if you read the Robbie Robertson book, these people that were in the Kensington scene down in the early days of the Jewish community here in the city, they were cut out of the mainstream. It’s the kind of people that became the Bronfmans et cetera, because they start off as bootleggers. But these are people that are very smart. And without being stereotypical there, Rhonda was as smart as anybody was when she was fourteen years old. [John MacLeod]

Again, the Ross sisters would be the ones to elaborate on this, but the evidence indicates that after they finished high school, they were making moves toward behind-the-scenes occupations in these kinds of entrepreneurial sectors.

I was a designer doing windows for the Bay and Holt Renfrew in Montreal, coming back and forth to Toronto. That was during the days when punk was just starting. [Cynthia Ross, quoted in Worth 2011: 137]

Our original drummer [Rhonda Ross] was part of the management team for Rush, so there were all these connections through the industry as well. [Xenia Splawinski, quoted in Worth 2011: 138]

You know, the funny thing is Rush were also at the same time as us, and they lived right across the border of Steeles [in Willowdale], right? […] [About 1976] Rush’s management was in Thornhill on Glen Cameron Road up there. And Rhonda worked there at that time. And she was a kid… I mean, obviously Rush went on to be huge. But at that time, there weren’t even record companies to sign them. They’d put out their own records, basically, which certainly was ahead of anyone else doing that. But we had no interaction with that. They just went into a different world, even though they were around. And they were excellent players; you’d see them at fifteen or sixteen, and they could play. Literally half a mile away from where we were, but we just had no interaction with that, except for the fact that Rhonda worked for Ray Danniels and worked for SRO. [John MacLeod]

Undated ticket from a local performance. Source: https://bobsegarini.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/segarini-workin-the-barsand-a-great-video-tribute-to-one-of-canadas-most-charismatic-record-industry-icons/

 

A music industry in the suburbs?

This anecdote raises the question: did Thornhill and nearby suburbs (like Willowdale) outside metro Toronto limits have their own music industry development, and thus be able to provide some youth with their own entrée into the city’s music scene? The question is ultimately beyond the scope of this blog post, but the evidence I’ve come across — rather accidentally, in the course of my interviews and archival research — suggests one hypothesis. (As this is a topic I’d like to investigate further, I’m open to any leads in the comments section below.)

That sort of idea of music in Thornhill was going on in a bunch of different ways. Even before I had met any of those people, there was another music connection which was there was a guy who lived down the street who was the manager of a really big band in Toronto which was called Mandala. They were a soul band, and his brother and I became friends, and we like worked on songs together. [Chris Terry]

The manager who Terry refers to here is George Elmes. What was the manager of one of the top Toronto acts of the day, doing out in Thornhill in the 1960s? For that matter, what was Rush manager Ray Danniels doing working there in the 70s? My guess is that their “industry base” in Thornhill was simply a function of their suburban residence; like other baby boomers, their location followed the normative pattern of North American middle-class and working-class families leaving the city during the era of the “urban crisis.” Their music-industry work involved a lot of phone calls and other activities that could be done remotely from the suburbs; their presence in Yorkville and on Yonge Street was generally during evenings, allowing for reverse commutes against the normal metropolitan rush hour; and their artist management activities didn’t necessarily require the bureaucratic scaling-up that makes a city office location more likely.

In other words, music managers Elmes and Danniels could make their impact from a suburban location, in contrast to the typical professional musician’s career. In the suburbs, a family or neighborly connection to these men’s music-industry hustle might be easier to come by, given the few degrees of separation linking suburban community networks, than in a large city. At least, that’s my hypothesis for how Rhonda Ross from Thornhill came to work for Rush’s management before joining the B-Girls.

It’s worth recalling the larger spatial context in the immediate post-WWII era of North America: the great dispersal of talent and “human capital” into the suburbs. While it’s true that Toronto cultivated scenes of musicians, nightclubs, and audiences in Yonge Street, Yorkville, and (the subject of my next post) later Queen Street West, these were relatively thin cross-sections of the otherwise corporate-dominated culture sectors — a contrast to the agglomerative “creative city” model in the contemporary “new economy” (Florida 2002). As well, Toronto was still very much a second city in this period — second to Montreal’s economic and cultural centrality prior to the 1970s Quebecois sovereignty movement, and a hinterland to the hegemonic U.S. music and cultural sectors concentrated in New York City, just a day’s drive to the south (Edwardson 2009, 2008). In contrast to the Big Apple’s “Warhol economy” (Currid-Halkett 2007), Toronto’s nightlife demi-monde played for much smaller stakes — initially, just the intrinsic satisfaction of ‘finding yourself’ and ‘doing your own thing’ against the backdrop of Toronto the good. This is where my second story of the Thornhill sound begins.

Next – the starmaker: Steven Davey.

 

ROAD MAP TO QSW:

how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 1: the Thornhill sound
the Thornhill sound
suburban dream
precocious urbanites: the Ross sisters
the starmaker: Steven Davey
the bands of Thornhill

how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 2: OCA bands
the Thornhill sound leaves home
how art came to QSW
Oh Those Pants! bring the Thornhill sound to OCA
the Dishes open up QSW to new music
punk and art: the Diodes
the Thornhill sound set loose on QSW
the last house band: Martha and the Muffins

sources, citations and updates