The Ramblers wanted to hit the “big time” and they finally landed a gig playing at Toronto’s Zanzibar Tavern.
At the Zanzibar we played 6 nights a week plus a Saturday afternoon matinee. This went on for 6 months from about March to September of 1960. When I think back on it now, I wonder how I ever did it.
Some of the tunes we played back then included “Honky Tonk”, “Raunchy” and “Harlem Nocturn”. I can remember singing a song called “Linda Lu”. To open each set we did our theme tune, Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” featuring me on sax.
As the “front man” for the group, I had to sign two (2) contracts with Dave Cooper, the Zanzibar’s entertainment manager: one for the Toronto Musicians Union and another “under the table” for the club, which had a much lower rate of pay.
I remember one Saturday afternoon during a break in our Zanzibar matinee, I was walking down Yonge Street and Ronnie Hawkins was standing on the sidewalk out in front of Le Coq d’Or tavern having a cigarette. He was a really big name entertainer; probably one of the most successful entertainers on the Yonge Street strip.
Ronnie called out to me in his Southern drawl as I was walking by, “Hey boy, I like the way you play – would you like to be in my band?” Now, I was a bit surprised because he was a really big time entertainer; probably one of the most successful acts on the Yonge Street strip. But with no hesitation I said “No, thank you“. I was already committed to a few other things and have never regretted this decision, but sometimes wonder about it.
On another occasion, one evening when the Ramblers were on a break, I walked down the street to see Rompin’ Ronnie’s group. As I walked in, guitarist Robbie Robertson waved at me from the stage with a big smile. Funny, some of the little things you remember about people.
There was a popular story going on back then that might even have been put out there by Robbie himself – about how he was able to bend his notes on the guitar. The legend goes that he said: “… by soaking his strings in turpentine. ” Now this could have been a joke, I’m not sure, but I know a few guys actually tried it.
Ronnie Hawkins, in his book, stated that the best musicians he ever found were on Yonge Street in the early sixties. Nice.
How I First Got Involved
One day back in 1959 I got a call from a man named Howard Jones to come out to a rehearsal for a new group. Howard was a kindly gentleman who had part time connections with entertainment as a casting director.
The band was looking for a sax player and somehow, my name came to their attention. A lot of groups back in those days were naming themselves after cars, and this group called themselves “The Ramblers“.
I attended a few rehearsals and we got a list of tunes together and began playing at places such as Merton Hall, the Odd Fellows Hall, and CYO dances at St. Basils Church in Toronto.