Music transformed Yonge Street, the north–south artery of Toronto. What had once been a sleepy business district with a few hotels and restaurants became a vibrant music scene in the 1950s.

From the Town Tavern to Zanzibar to Club Bluenote, a music-loving Torontonian could find jazz, soul, country western, and rock and roll on the Yonge Street strip.

Home to numerous restaurants, clubs, and taverns featuring nightly live music, Yonge Street was also a one-stop shopping experience for the record collector. A visit to Sam the Record Man or A&A could get you the latest album from Joni Mitchell or Glenn Gould. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, changing interests in live music and increased suburbanization in the city slowly saw the end of Yonge Street as the heart of music in Toronto. On today’s Yonge Street, few clues remain of the rocking music scene that was here decades earlier.

Let's take a stroll on the Yonge Street strip of Toronto's past— exploring the venues and businesses you would have encountered along the way.

A black and white photo showing a 1950s street scene. Numerous cars drive along the main road, while on both sides of the street, large signs advertise shops, bars, and theatres.

A view of the Yonge Street strip looking north from Dundas Street in 1950 at the beginning of its life as the heart of music in the city. Iconic music venues Le Coq d’Or and the Edison Hotel can be seen on the right.

City of Toronto Archives, Series S74, Fonds 13, Item 49320

Town Tavern

The Town Tavern

One of the earliest Toronto venues to offer regular live music was the Town Tavern. Opened in 1949 just east of Yonge on Queen Street, owner Sam Berger offered guests a theatre restaurant experience: offering food and live entertainment every day of the week. 

In 1955, pianist Oscar Peterson suggested to Berger that he convert the Tavern to a jazz venue. Berger listened. 

Soon, the place was hopping: featuring both local and international jazz greats on its roster, including legendary Toronto drummer Archie Alleyne and Peterson himself.

A  black and white exterior image of a multi-storey building. A marquee outside reads "Town Tavern". Men and women walk alongside the sidewalk in front of the venue.

Located just off Yonge Street, the Town Tavern offered a variety of music, from blues to Hawaiian styles, before it became a dedicated jazz venue in 1955.

Courtesy of York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds

Colonial Tavern

The Colonial Tavern

The former location of the once-grand Scholes’ Hotel, just south of Dundas Streeet, the Colonial Tavern opened in 1947. One of Toronto’s first cocktail lounges, the Colonial soon gained a reputation for great live big band music and jazz.

A black and white photograph of the exterior of a two-storey building. Umbrellas and tables are set up outside with pedestrians walking in front. On the building a sign reads "Colonial Tavern", below which is a marquee advertising upcoming acts, such as Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers.

An exterior view of the Colonial Tavern in 1973 when Yonge Street was briefly a pedestrian thoroughfare, with no cars allowed.

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1118, Series 377, Item 782

Colonial Text

In the 1930s and the 1940s, around the time the Colonial Tavern opened, working musicians in the city had to be a member of the Toronto Musicians' Association to be able to play local venues. Black musicians were largely prevented from joining the association: high membership fees or unfair musicianship tests excluded Black performers from the organization, denying them the chance to play in high-profile Toronto venues. 

 In 1944, Cy McLean became the first Black member of the Toronto Musicians' Association, a blow to the Yonge Street colour barrier and paving the way for other Black musicians, such as Archie Alleyne, to earn a living as a working musician on Yonge Street. 

Membership in hand, McLean and his band, the Rhythm Rompers, played many Toronto clubs. Debuting at the Colonial Tavern in 1947, McLean and his band became regulars at the venue, performing every night in their main dining room for years. 


Above Ground and Underground

 A black and white photograph showing the interior of a packed music venue. On stage a group of musicians play, including a trumpeter, a bass player, and a drummer. The audience, seated below them and on a higher second level, look on.

Jazz trumpeter Buck Clayton plays the Colonial Tavern in 1966 to a packed house on the main floor of the Colonial Tavern. Throughout the 1960s, the venue was known for its jazz and blues focus. Photo by Pete Geddes for the Toronto Telegram. Courtesy of York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC01214

A black and white poster advertising the band Teenage Head at the Colonial Tavern on April 10,11. The majority of the image is taken up by an illustration of a man looking at the camera with an intense, unsmiling expression.

By the 1970s, times were tough for music venues on Yonge Street and the Colonial turned to new music to try to draw in a younger crowd. Management opened the Colonial Underground in the building’s basement. It soon became a top spot for punk and new wave bands to play, like Teenage Head and the Viletones. Courtesy of the Flyer Vault

Silver Rail
A black and white newspaper advertisement announcing the opening of the Silver Rail on Wednesday, April 2. The description advertises a masterful chef to prepare meals with the latest modern kitchen equipment.

An early advertisement for the Silver Rail tavern, one of the very first bars in Toronto to legally be able to serve cocktails. Early menus from the Silver Rail included drinks such as long tails, flips, and even a variety of egg nogs.

The Toronto Telegram, April 1947

The Silver Rail

Music and alcohol have a shared history in Toronto. Thanks to tight liquor restrictions in “Toronto the Good”, few venues could offer both live music and a strong cocktail. That all changed in the late 1940s: the availability of liquor licenses meant a new source of revenue for many Toronto spots.

No longer dependent on selling tickets to see live performers, venues could rely on bar sales as a source of income. In turn, it meant they could offer live music either cheaply or for free.

No Toronto venue represents this shared relationship more than the Silver Rail. Among the first to receive a license from the province in April 1947 to serve mixed drinks, the Silver Rail offered Torontonians the chance to enjoy a cocktail at its famous silver bar while listening to the 3 Keyboards, the house band. 


Listen: Perdido

Located steps away from Massey Hall on Shuter Street, the Silver Rail saw many an audience member or even a performer enjoy a drink before or after a show.

Jazz legend Charlie Parker famously downed a triple whiskey at the Silver Rail to steel his nerves before a concert at Massey Hall in 1953. The concert was one for the history books, featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.

Listen to "Perdido", the first track of this famous 1953 concert recorded at Massey Hall. 


This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

 A colour photograph of the exterior of a three-storey building. Large letters above the main floor of the building in red advertise “Friar’s Tavern.” Underneath the large sign is a marquee advertising upcoming bands.  A colour photograph of the exterior of a three-storey building which is located at the corner of two streets. On the ground floor of the building signs advertise the “Hard Rock Cafe”. Above, on the second and third floors is a stone facade, outside of which hangs a sign advertising “Nickelodeon.”

Click here to travel through time

See how the southeast corner of Yonge-Dundas Square changed from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Once the location of rock-and-roll spot, the Friar’s Tavern, it was replaced in the late 1970s by the Hard Rock Cafe. The restaurant remained a staple in the location for almost 40 years, finally closing in 2017.

1960s: City of Toronto Archives Series 1465, File 548, Item 24

1980s: City of Toronto Archives Series 1465, File 308, Item 3

Friar's Tavern

A major intersection in Toronto, Yonge-Dundas Square was once the site of numerous live music venues. Music could be found on nearly every corner: north, south, east, and west. 

On the southeast side of the corner sat the Friar’s Tavern, a rock and roll venue open from 1963 to 1976. Featuring local and international acts, the Tavern was an early gig for the band the Hawks. The former backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins at the nearby Le Coq d’Or, the Hawks flew solo in the early 1960s.

Thanks to exposure from gigs at Yonge Street venues like Friar’s Tavern, they gained international fame as Americana rockers under a new name: the Band


The Brown Derby

Opened in 1949, the Brown Derby occupied the northeast corner of Yonge and Dundas. As a particular draw to music crowds, the venue offered a revolving bandstand in the center of its floor. Every audience member was guaranteed the best seat in the house.

The Derby began by offering popular music of the 1940s with big bands playing swing music.

In the 1960s, the Derby waxed nostalgic: dedicating a room to the music of the 1890s, a popular fad throughout Toronto at the time, with live performers playing ragtime and honky-tonk tunes. By 1974, the Derby was gone, replaced by a large shopping centre.  

A black and white text-based newspaper advertisement for the Brown Derby, offering live music by Joe King Zaniaks and Frank Russo as well as a "Gay 90s" room in which performers play ragtime and honky-tonk music from the 1890s.

An ad from November 9, 1962 advertises the Brown Derby's many rooms of live entertainment. Joe King and the Zaniaks performed for several years at the Derby as a comedic troupe. Meanwhile Frank Russo entertained patrons on his trusty accordion.

Courtesy of the Globe and Mail Historical Archive

A colour photograph of the exterior of a large building sitting on a city corner. A two-storey building, the upper story features no windows apart from large circular images of famous stars of Hollywood, such as Laurel and Hardy, all wearing brown derby hats. The corner of the building features a yellow marquee, the top of which is labelled "Yonge" and "Dundas" to indicate the two streets on which the building sits. Below the  marquee lists upcoming entertainment.

A view of the Brown Derby in the early 1970s. In its final years, the venue, a giant building that dominated the northeast corner of Yonge and Dundas, turned to a new trend to lure patrons: topless dancing. Many other Yonge Street venues at the time also began to offer burlesque shows and topless dancers as a way to offset diminishing income.

City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 1

Edison Hotel

The Edison Hotel

The Edison Hotel once sat on the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets, just north of Le Coq d’Or, another famous Yonge Street institution noted for its live music. The Edison's grand architecture referenced its origins in the 19th century, formerly known as the Empress Hotel.

By the late 1940s, the Edison had been rebranded as a music venue (although many of its rooms were still available for rent).

Country music was the Edison’s calling card— one it stayed true to throughout the rock and roll years of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the growing burlesque trend on Yonge Street during the 1970s. Over the years, it featured performances by the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Conway Twitty, and Carl Perkins.

Although the Edison stopped renting rooms by the 1970s, the owners held on to the property until 1991. The site was next home to restaurants and shoe stores, but the building was largely unmaintained. In 2011, a six-alarm fire engulfed the building, destroying it. 

Country is human, it hits everybody in the heart. This rock and roll, nothing but boom boom boom, bum bum bum, when we had rock and roll in here we had nothing but music is for the family.

—Jimmy Clemens, owner-manager of the Edison Hotel, 1968
A black and white photograph of an exterior of a multi-storey building. The main level advertises the "Edison Hotel" in its storefront window.
The Edison Hotel in 1950 on the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets.
City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 18, Item 49377


We would be playing at Le Coq d’Or, and next door at the Edison, Bo Diddley or Carl Perkins could be playing. The doormen would say, 'Let me see your ID,'
and I’d say, ‘Oh, I play with Ronnie Hawkins,’
and they’d say, ‘Oh, go ahead.’

— Robbie Robertson, the Band
 A colour photograph of a street scene from the 1970s. A line of storefronts offer electronics, sports equipment, and music. In the distance, two large record store signs can be seen: A&A and Sam the Record Man.

A view looking south on Yonge Street during the mid-1970s. Prominently seen are A&A Records and Sam the Record Man. They were each other's fiercest competitors. Both shops were must-visit destinations for music lovers in Toronto. Both were famous for their annual sales, which would lead to round-the-block lineups to get a good deal on records or cassette tapes.

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 197


Sam the Record Man

Live music venues took up considerable real estate on Yonge Street but perhaps none had more iconic frontage than the record stores. For those who wanted to bring a song by the Band or the latest Glenn Gould album home with them, there was no better place to go than Sam the Record Man or A&A Records, located just a few steps from each other on Yonge Street. 

Sam Sniderman opened Sniderman’s Music Hall in 1937. What was, at first, a small space to sell records in the family's established radio sales and repair business eventually became the focus of the store. The Snidermans watched record sales climb and climb during the era of the big bands and the early years of rock and roll in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1959, Sam and his brother, Sidney, expanded the business, opening a new location on Yonge Street. In 1961, they opened a large store two doors down from their largest competitor, A&A Records. They called it Sam the Record Man.

By the late 1960s, the store was an institution, helped by the gigantic record-shaped neon signs the Snidermans put up on the exterior of the store. The first was installed before 1970, measuring 7.5 meters wide by 8 meters tall. The neon sign became a landmark of an already bustling Yonge Street strip. 

Although the Yonge Street flagship store closed in 2007, the record store's famous signs were preserved. After several years in storage, the neon records were re-installed atop the buildings at Yonge-Dundas Square in 2017. 

Sam Video

Watch: Sam the Record Man

Take a peek inside Sam the Record Man during the 1970s and 1980s, from its famous annual sales to live performances held within the shop. 


This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

Courtesy of Retrontario. Please note: this third-party video does not provide closed captions.

View Transcript

[Synthesizers and electronic music plays in the background. No dialogue. A nighttime street scene with neon lights flashing, focusing on two stores: A&A Records and Sam the Record Man. An interior shot of a bustling store, with cashiers handling money and records to many waiting patrons. Numerous scenes of customers browsing through racks of records and albums. Scenes of people lining up outside the store, waiting to get in. Shot of Sam Sniderman inside the store looking out from a second-floor viewing platform. Shots of live performances and musical acts performing within the store. Shots of different cd cases. Scenes of Sam Sniderman opening and closing the store at the beginning and end of each day. 

Steele's Tavern

Steele's Tavern

Just north of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street was Steele’s Tavern. Steele’s Tavern had been a long-standing restaurant on Yonge Street, opening in the 1930s. But, in the wake of loosening alcohol restrictions in Toronto in the late 1940s, the Tavern rebranded itself, offering live music and cocktails.

Spread out over two floors, musicians would often compete to be heard with hockey games broadcast live on the Tavern’s televisions.

The Tavern lasted only as long as its owner, Steele Basil. When he retired in 1974, the Tavern shut its doors. The space of the former Tavern was soon was absorbed by its successul and expanding neighbour on Yonge Street: Sam the Record Man. 

A black and white photograph showing the exterior of a restaurant storefront. Above large, plate-glass windows is a sign reading Steele's Tavern. In the windows are paper advertisements for meal specials: liver, bacon, and onions for 75 cents as well as fried leg of chicken for one dollar.

The Steele's Tavern circa 1950, where it advertised fresh meals for the whole family as well as an upstairs lounge.

Courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, File 58, Item 2465


This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

Listen: I'm Not Saying

Owner of Steele's Tavern, Basil Steele, hired a young Gordon Lightfoot to play to his patrons in the early 1960s. Heard by folk power couple Ian and Sylvia, his performance at the Tavern landed Lightfoot with a manager, Albert Grossman. Lightfoot's new manager just so happened to work with another rising folk star: Bob Dylan.

With Grossman's help, Lightfoot recorded his first singles with Warner Music. Lightfoot returned to the Tavern just a few years later as a celebrity. Sam Sniderman, the Record Man himself, threw the young folk singer a party at the Tavern for the release of Lightfoot’s recording deal. 

Listen to "I'm Not Saying", one of the first singles from Gordon Lightfoot.



Opened as the Rosticceria Tavern, the 1960s saw this restaurant transform into a raucous live music venue known as the Zanzibar. Featuring food and live music, numerous rock and roll bands played here, including Frank Motley and the Motley Crew.

Motley's band played numerous venues both in Toronto and throughout the United States. In the later 1960s, the Crew often played at the nearby Saphire Tavern, with Jackie Shane as their featured singer.  

Find Out More
A colour photograph of the exterior of a building with a stone facade. It sits amongst other buildings on a bustling city street. Signs outside the building advertise the Zanzibar as well as "Dancers All Day"

The Zanzibar during the late 1980s, long after it had switched from live music to feature topless dancing, a popular business model on Yonge Street for several decades.

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 618, Item 41

A black and white photo of a band performing on an elevated stage. Below and in front of the stage, several people in informal clothing dance and watch the performers.

Regular performers Kay Taylor and the Regents during Club Bluenote's Twist Marathon, January 23, 1962

Photo by Tom Graham. Courtesy of Nicholas Jennings

Club Bluenote

One of the most northern clubs on the Yonge Street strip, Club Bluenote opened in 1958 as a late-night club, not opening until midnight. Under the ownership of Al Steiner, the second-floor venue became to the go-to place for musicians to unwind after a long set at the Colonial, Friar's Tavern, or Le Coq d'Or. 

The space quickly earned a reputation for blues and motown music in the early 1960s. Big names from the US such as the Supremes and Stevie Wonder often would drop by the Bluenote to enjoy a late-night set. 

The Bluenote was among the first of the iconic Yonge Street venues to close, shutting its doors in 1969. 


Yonge Street Murals

Although many of the Yonge Street strip's live music venues and record stores have closed, the city still remembers the street as the former heart of music. In 2016, the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area commissioned two large-scale murals by local artist Adrian Hayles to commemorate and celebrate some of the important musicians and venues that made their mark on the city's history. 

A multi-storey mural painted on the exterior of the building, featuring a combination of musician portraits and iconic signage.

Mural by Adrian Hayles, courtesy of the Downtown Yonge BIA

Completed in 2016, this mural features nine artists and seven historic venues associated with the Yonge Street strip. This image features the portraits of musicians Gordon Lightfoot and Oscar Peterson, two musicians who spent many hours in Yonge Street venues.

Also featured are B.B. King and Shirley Matthews. American singer-songwriter and legendary blues guitarist B.B. King played several sets at Club Bluenote and the Colonial Tavern in the 1960s and 1970s. Canadian singer Shirley Matthews was also a favourite of Club Bluenote in the 1960s, releasing her major hit "Big Town Boy" in 1964. She won the 1964 RPM Gold Leaf Award (considered the predecessor to the JUNO Awards) for Female Vocalist of the Year.  


Adrian Hayles' 2018 mural features 13 artists and six historic venues associated with the Yonge Street music scene during the twentieth century. Seen in this photo are Cathy Young (1974 JUNO Award Winner for Best New Artist) and Carole Pope (1981 JUNO Award Winner for Most Promising Female Artist). 

Classic Canadian R&B band, Jon and Lee & the Checkmates can be seen on the right. Famous for their live performances in the 1960s, the band played at nearby Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens. Members of the band Mandala can also be seen on the mural at the bottom. First known as The Rogues, they became popular as the house band at Club Bluenote on Yonge Street. 

A multi-storey mural painted on the exterior of the building, featuring a combination of musician portraits and iconic signage.

Mural by Adrian Hayles. Photo by Hanifa Mamujee