The Domino Effect: How One of Toronto’s Most Iconic Rock Concerts Almost Never Happened
Famed Rock Promoter, John Brower tells the story of the legendary John Lennon concert in Toronto that almost wasn't.
Official Toronto Rock & Roll Revival Poster/Photo Courtesy of Hiller Rinaldo Associates, Copyright 1969
For many, the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival of 1969 is the stuff of legends. For some, like famed rock promoter and pop culture icon John Brower, it’s a footnote in his own musical story. Having taken place at Varsity Stadium on the University of Toronto campus on September 13th, 1969, the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival was a 12-hour concert that saw some of rock and roll’s earliest stars like Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, sharing the stage for the first time with contemporary acts of the day like The Doors, Chicago and even a then virtually unknown Alice Cooper. It was also the debut performance of The Plastic Ono Band. Oh, and that whole lighters in the air thing that has become synonymous with rock concerts over the years, that originated there too. The best part about it all? It almost never happened.
Johnny Brower got his start as a rock promoter in Toronto during the late 1960’s. As a co-founder of the now famed Toronto venue The Rockpile, which was originally housed in the old Masonic Temple on Yonge Street and modeled after The Fillmore in San Francisco, Brower became the first concert promoter to bring international rock acts like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart to Canada. Though the venue was quite successful, the redundancy of booking acts on a weekly basis quickly began to bore Brower, deciding instead to leave and join forces with his friend, Kenny Walker. The two began booking smaller concerts like Richie Havens at Massey Hall and Donovan also at Varsity Stadium. Then suddenly the festival circuit erupted. “I could see what was coming,” says Brower. “After Monterey in ’67, agents were talking and saying things like ‘Atlanta’s having a pop festival, why don’t you guys have one?’ But we had no money for that. So, we got the Eatons [of the department store fame] involved––they were our high school chums. Anyways, that’s how we got started. Without the Eatons there would have been no summer of ‘69 for us. They gave us the significant ability to go out there and put on the Toronto Pop Festival for two days in June of that year, which was hugely successful. Sly and The Family Stone headlined and Steppenwolf played, but it was Chuck Berry who really stole that show. He had a crowd of like 25,000 people going insane doing the duck walk. That’s when I got the crazy idea that if we brought all of the legendary rockers together for a “rock and roll revival” we could add some contemporary bands to the bill and do a one day show in September. Everybody loved it.”
Toronto Rock & Roll Revival Ticket/ Courtesy of Alice Cooper archives
And so, Brower and Walker went about booking the acts, all of which were miraculously available, and officially billed the show as the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. They priced the tickets at a whole six dollars, but for some reason they didn’t sell. “On the Monday before the show, which was scheduled for that Saturday, I received a call from Thor Eaton wanting to know about the ticket count,” says Brower. “At that point, we had only sold a measly 2,000 tickets. On the Monday before the Pop Festival, we had sold over 10,000 tickets and we were well into profit. This time around we were looking at massive losses so Thor basically said, ‘Look, we don’t want to put up any more money,’ because they were dolling it out as we needed it. Kenny and I just looked at each other and said, ‘This is insane.’ The Eatons also didn’t want to book The Doors, so I had to borrow $25,000 from a guy named Edjo who was the head of The Vagabonds Motorcycle Club, and I was also on the hook for that. The show was pretty much about to be cancelled, I was afraid to go home and tell my wife because we now had a 3 month old baby, and on top of that I had go to the hotel to tell Kim Fowley and the Mayor of The Sunset Strip himself, Rodney Bingenheimer, who we had just flown in to town, that they had to go back home too.”
KIM FOWLEY––LA ICON AND PRODUCER OF THE RUNAWAYS––SETS THE WHEELS IN MOTION
Figuring he could at least save on a few hotel bills by sending them home as soon as possible, Brower approached Fowley and Bingenheimer with the bad news. “Kim took one look at me and said, ‘No, you can’t do that. This is an incredible show. If this were at Dodgers Stadium it would sell out. What’s wrong with this town? And what’s wrong with your investors?’ “I just said, ‘My investors have money because the don’t give it away.’ That’s when Kim really stepped in. He said: ‘Look, you need to call John Lennon tomorrow at Apple because The Beatles have recorded songs by Little Richard and Chuck Berry. John Lennon loves all the old rock and rollers and you’ve got Gene Vincent on your show. Back in the day he was the headliner at The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany when the Beatles were the opening act; they used to worship him. They wore black jackets and shit like that because he wore them.’ We were all just thinking gee thanks for the history lesson Kim but we’re just supposed to call up Apple Records? But he was serious and said, ‘Yeah, you call them up early in the morning and you get information to give you the number. Tell the receptionist the names of the legends. Don’t tell her about The Doors or Chicago, just ask John to be the emcee. If he thinks there are 15 bands on the bill he may panic. Just tell him about the legends and say you want to invite he and Yoko to be the emcees.’”
So, that’s exactly what Brower did. At 6:30 am the next morning, he phoned up reception and said: “’Hello. This is John Brower from Toronto, Canada and this is very important. I need you to write these names down.’ The receptionist on the other end of the line wrote down the names of the artists and I said: ‘I want you tell John Lennon they are playing and that we’re inviting him to come and be the emcee.’ The next thing you know Lennon comes on the line. He goes, ‘So all these bands are playing?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this Saturday at the University.’ He said, ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to come unless we can play.’ I said, ‘Do you mean The Beatles?’ To which he said, ‘No, just me and Yoko. We’ll put a little band together.’ So I of course said, ‘Yeah we’ll squeeze you in,’ which I realized sounded like the stupidest thing in the world because the show was going to be canceled, but he said, ‘Olright, well I need to get off the phone so I can get a band together.’ We were on speaker phone so everyone was just thinking, ‘Oh God how much is this going to cost?’ But before he left I said, ‘Listen, we can’t pay you but we’ll get you first class plane tickets and we’ll put you up somewhere nice.’ He said, ‘That’s all fine no problem.’ I told him I’d call him back for the names on the plane tickets tomorrow and that was it. Click. And he hung up. I just looked at Thor and said, ‘Okay, so do we have a show or what?’ And he finally said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’”
BUTTING HEADS WITH CHUM FM + THE TRUE ART OF RADIO PROMOTION
Toronto Rock & Roll Revival Button Merchandise, 1969
Knowing that they had to act fast to get the word out about Lennon’s upcoming appearance, Brower and Walker waited until 9:00 am and then went about alerting CHUM Radio. Unfortunately for them, CHUM laughed in their faces. Earlier in the year Brower and Walker were two of the only promoters given the ability to present The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” movie. While they had no trouble selling out Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall, and Montreal’s St. Lawrence Centre, Ottawa was an absolute flop. “The night before the show in a 2,200 seat theatre we had only sold 400 tickets,” says Brower. “The radio promotion had been really bad and in those days when you were a promoter everything was on the radio. There were some print adds but you always had the phone number of the on-air studio in case you had any breaking news. Well, we were having dinner at the Château Laurier Hotel and I said to Kenny, ‘Look I’ve got an idea.’ There were a lot of young people waiting around this dining room so I just called this young girl over and said, ‘How would you like 12 tickets to “The Magical Mystery Tour” movie tomorrow night?’ She said, ‘Okay cool.’ I wrote down the number of the radio station and I said: ‘Call this number. Somebody will answer and you just tell them you work here at the Château Laurier and that you just saw George Harrison here having dinner with some people.’ So, she goes off and comes back 5 minutes later and says: ‘Man I hope I’m not going to get in trouble for this. I called the guy but you didn’t tell me it was a radio station and he put me on the air! He was asking me what George was wearing, who he was with, what he looked like. I had to make everything up. I felt so stupid! Thank god he didn’t ask me my name.’”
Of course Brower and Walker made good on their promise of the 12 tickets and the girl went on her way. The next morning people were lined up at the box office and the show was sold out by 10:30 am. Unfortunately for Brower and Walker, who made the mistake of bragging about their success to a small group of friends upon returning to Toronto, CHUM found out. “You have to imagine, we were putting on a show that was dying and CHUM knew it all too well because they are promoting it,” says Brower. “When we went in there and told them that John Lennon was coming in on Saturday, the Program Director took one look at us and said: ‘You know what, The Beatles must love you guys. You got George Harrison down there in Ottawa now you’ve got John Lennon coming to Toronto. This isn’t Ottawa. This is CHUM Radio and we’re not buying any of your bullshit so get out of here.’” The next day Brower got back on the phone with Apple Records to confirm the names of the members of Lennon’s newly formed band. Having put a tape recorder on the line, Brower had hoped to record Lennon’s voice but got Yoko Ono’s assistant Anthony Fawcett instead. To his surprise, Fawcett named Eric Clapton amongst the guests. Thinking that the recording was a surefire way to prove to the Program Director at CHUM that they weren’t joking around, Brower and Walker immediately returned to the station. “The Program Director saw us and right away got up and said: ‘You know what? I’ve been promoting shows here for you for two years. How can you come up here with a tape of some guy you know with a fake British accent and try and get us to put this crap on the air. Eric Clapton? That was a nice touch but John Lennon in 4 days, no way, get out.’ “At that point Kenny said, ‘Man Thor is going to freak.’ I just turned to him and said: ‘You don’t tell Thor or anybody anything, just be quiet and let me think.’”
Brower eventually decided to reach out to fellow rock promoter Russ Gibb who he had previously worked with to promote Jimi Hendrix at Maple Leaf Gardens. Gibb, who had a club in Detroit called The Grande Ballroom, also hosted a popular radio show in Ann Arbor Michigan that aired every night of the week from 7pm-midnight. “When I called Russ he just said, ‘Hey listen, did you talk to John Lennon yourself?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and so he went with it. He started playing the recording on the radio every hour and by Thursday all of the tickets were sold out in the Detroit-Windsor area. Friday morning one of our guys flew down with 10,000 more and they were all sold out by the end of the day too. “People were lined up for four or five blocks to get these tickets because Russ Gibb was God. He was the critical missing link in getting this information to the public and the public was in Detroit.”
SHIT HITS THE FAN – JOHN AND YOKO BACK OUT AND SEND FLOWERS
Back in Toronto, Brower was able to move another 200 tickets but still couldn’t get people to believe that he was actually bringing John Lennon to town. The only person willing to give Brower a chance was Edjo. Having done security for Brower in the past, Edjo agreed to bring in bikers from all over Ontario to greet John and Yoko at the airport upon their arrival. The only problem was, people had begun to talk and the word on the street was that the concert was bullshit. “Edjo came to my house on Friday night and he was stoned and really angry and just said: ‘You know man, this is the moment right now. Tell me it’s bullshit. Tell me Lennon’s not coming and that you’re scamming tickets and that’s okay, we’ll still be cool, but if you let me and my guys ride out to that fucking airport tomorrow morning and there is no John Lennon, you better move.’”
At 4 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, September 13th, Anthony Fawcett called from Heathrow Airport in London. “His voice was trembling,” says Brower. “He just said, ‘I’m here with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, and Mal Evans [The Beatles tour manager], and I just spoke to John. He says he and Yoko can’t make it, send flowers.’ I came out of bed like I was hit with a cattle prod, my life passing before my eyes. I saw Edjo putting the flowers on my grave; everything was destroyed. I just said, ‘No. No. Put Eric Clapton on the phone.’ Now, I had promoted for Eric back in July in Toronto. It was a great show but we lost twenty-grand. Eric’s record didn’t come out in time and I got the first single, “Had To Cry Today,” on the day of the show. Anyways, Eric came on the line and I said, ‘Eric, you probably don’t remember me but I lost $20,000 on Blind Faith in the summer. Listen man, you’ve gotta help me. If John Lennon does not show up today I am ruined. I have to leave my city. I have to leave my country. In fact, I’m going to come over there and move in with John Lennon, with my wife and kid, okay? You need to get him back on the phone and tell him he has to come.’ Clapton starts yelling, ‘I don’t get up at this time of the morning for anybody. Fucking Lennon gets us out here and then sends fucking flowers?’” In lieu of Brower’s pleas, Clapton wasted no time and immediately phoned Lennon back. “He was furious,” says Brower. “He just said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? There’s some guy on the other end of the phone who is ruined if we don’t go over there. He said he’s going to come over and move in with you!’ We later found out from Anthony Fawcett that Lennon was mortified that Eric Clapton was mad at him. I mean you just don’t get Eric Clapton mad at you. None the less, John and Yoko eventually got their asses out of bed and came to the airport.”
Arriving at Heathrow in a paisley Rolls Royce, which was instantly recognizable, John and Yoko were swarmed by the media. At that moment, John was quoted as saying: ‘We’re going to Toronto to play in a great rock and roll show with all the greats, and it’s the first gig for The Plastic Ono Band.’ The quote was then disseminated to radio stations around the world via a wire service. When CHUM received word at 2pm that afternoon, they immediately changed their tune and went on the air to announce the CHUM Presentation of John Lennon and Eric Clapton. Hearing this, people began to pour down to the stadium. “We sold out the remaining 4-5000 tickets,” says Brower. “People were climbing over the walls. There was an incident at the North West gates-which doesn’t exist anymore-where there were at least 500 people or maybe even more, pushing to get tickets. Kenny wanted to have them driven away by the police horsemen, but I just told the cops, ‘Listen I want those gates open and those people allowed in for free. I don’t want anyone hurt or crushed. We’re sold out. We just don’t have any more tickets to sell.’
TOUCH DOWN IN TORONTO
Plastic Ono Band rehearsing on the Plane/Photo Courtesy of Klaus Voorman's website, Copyright 1969
When John and Yoko finally touched down in Toronto, Brower was met with yet another set back––Yoko didn’t have a health card. “Back in the day, if you didn’t have your yellow health card with all your immunizations on it, they could keep you out of a country,” says Brower. “That delayed us another half hour but we finally got an approval from Ottawa to let her in. Once that was settled, we all hopped in the limo and took off.” At the same time, Edjo had 80 bikes patiently waiting on the service road for the limo to arrive. “Edjo knew I was not stupid enough to let him kill me. He knew me a couple of years and he knew I was sharp so he waited,” says Brower. “Sure enough, we came down the service road and Lennon looks up and sees all these motorcycles and he reaches over and pushes down the doors locks. I looked at him and said, ‘Listen John, I didn’t want to say anything to you until we got here but this is your escort into Toronto.’ These bikes stretched for like 50 yards, and he just turned to Yoko and said, ‘Wow, we had motorcycle escorts for The Beatles but never like this.’ So, we pull into the centre section that Edjo had left open for us and he had to come up to the window to make sure that these were not some Hollywood doubles flown in to save our reputation. Of course the window came down and Edjo looked in and saw the real John and Yoko. He looked then looked at me and just said, ‘John, Yoko, welcome to Toronto.’ He waved his arm and all the bikes fired up and off we went into town. It was like standing next to a landmine wondering if it was going to go off or not.”
THE ROCK AND ROLL REVIVAL FINALLY REACHES VARSITY STADIUM
Plastic Ono Band in Toronto Rock & Roll Revival T-Shirts/Photo Courtesy of Klaus Voorman's website, Copyright 1969
When the limo finally arrived at Varsity Stadium, Brower could hardly believe he had pulled it off. “We were standing there, John, Yoko and I, in this stinky dressing room with wood benches and empty lockers and I was just feeling like a fucking Mack daddy thinking, ‘Check it out. Look what I did! I actually got these two mofos here.’ At the time, Dennis Hill, who was my number one right hand man, was standing at the door and I said to John, ‘What do you guys want? Any food or drinks? What can I get you?’ John just looked at me and said, ‘Can you get us some coke?’ So I go, ‘Dennis, let’s get six Cokes over here right away.’ I look back at the two of them like, ‘No problem. No problem,’ and they just had this horrified look on their faces. They were looking a each other like ‘Where are we?’ And Yoko goes, ‘No, coke for the nose.’ Well, I had never done coke. I made up for it in the 80’s, but at the time I didn’t really know where I could get any. I had heard that this guy David Sniderman had coke and he happened to be there that day.”
So, between acts Brower went out to the microphone and made an announcement. “Dr. Sniderman, please come to the backstage area. Dr. Sniderman.” David, who was sitting out in the crowd and was familiar with Brower, rushed over to the stage. “He came over and I said, ‘Listen man, do you have any cocaine? John Lennon wants cocaine.’ Well, he had the coke but he had thrown it in the fucking grass because he thought it was a bust so I just said, ‘Go back and find it, I beg you!’ He scurried off and when he returned he had what I later realized was probably about a two and half gram vile of coke and a pound of hash. I went backstage to give it to John and I swear to God he looked at me like, ‘You’re Jesus and this is the Lord’s water.’ At that point in time Lennon was still a pretty serious junkie and that’s why he didn’t want to get on the airplane––he didn’t want to be away, he was just terrified. But, I gave him the coke and he said, ‘Thank you man. Can you ask Eric to come in?’ They knew Eric was jonesing too, so he came in and they stayed there for hours until this big problem came up with The Doors.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono Perform Live at Toronto Rock & Roll Revival/ Photo Courtesy of Associated Press
In light of the fact that Brower had worked with The Doors and their manager, Bill Siddons, on a number of previous occasions, the band was well aware going into the show that it was a bit of a stiff. For that reason, they had Brower draw up a contract stating that The Doors would perform last. The only trouble was that with John, Yoko and Eric Clapton in town, they now feared that the crowd would leave before they even took the stage. “Bill Siddons basically came over and said, ‘Listen, Brower, can we talk? Can you and John Lennon come to talk with me and Jim?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So, John Lennon comes out of the dressing room and I’m with him and Bill says, ‘You know John, we’re really worried that everyone will leave after you play and so we’d like to go on before you.’ John Lennon just turned to him and said, ‘But, you’re the headliners! Nobody’s going to leave!’ Siddons and Morrison looked at each other and immediately realized that Lennon had no idea what had gone on. They were looking at me like we don’t know how you pulled this off but Lennon has no fucking idea what’s going on here.’ Just then, Little Richard walked by and overheard the group talking. “Richard came right out and said, ‘I will close the show, the way the show should be closed, by me, The King. You know that Mr. Lennon. You know that Mr. Promoter. You know that Mr. Doors. I am The King and I should close the show.’ Now, all four of us were standing there with our jaws dropped, especially Lennon and Morrison who were getting absolutely spanked and I just said, ‘Richard you’re on next.’ So, he walked off and in his incredible melodious soprano, about 25 feet away, he said, ‘I am The King. You know that!” I just turned to John and said, ‘Why don’t you go back into the dressing room and I’ll figure this all out?’ So, off he went and I turned to Siddons and Morrison and said, ‘Look, you know this show is a stiff. I’m not having John Lennon close the show. He’ll play when he wants to play. If you don’t want to play, just go back to the hotel you don’t even have to, I don’t care. I just have to take care of John Lennon. You get it? John Lennon.’ Siddons looked at Morrison and he nodded and said, ‘Okay, we’ll close.’
KIM FOLWEY INTRODUCES JOHN LENNON TO A SEA OF LIGHTS
Only minutes before The Plastic Ono Band was to make their debut, John Lennon was backstage nervously chain smoking and pacing around the room. Seeing this, Brower asked Kim Fowley to come in and have a word with Lennon to determine how he wanted the band to be introduced. Kim arrived in the dressing room and immediately sensed the tension. John said, ‘No John Lennon Beatles, Eric Clapton Cream, just Plastic Ono Band, thank you.’ And so Kim replied, ‘I understand John and I have an idea I think you’ll like.’ He then turned and walked out. From there Fowley went right out onto the stage and told the crowd: “Everyone get out your matches and lighters please. In a minute I’m going to bring out John Lennon and Eric Clapton and when I do I want you to light them and give them a huge Toronto welcome.’ Naturally, the Fire Marshall freaked out but Fowley ignored him. Minutes later he returned to the stage ahead of the band who entered to a sea of glowing lights. “Now, who knows what was in his mind or what gave him the inspiration, but Fowley created that,” said Brower. “The only problem was that the bikers figured, ‘Well that shit is okay for John Lennon, but we need to welcome The Doors with something real.’ The next thing we knew they had broken open a broom closet, took out all the sweeping brooms, took the fuel out of their Zippo lighters, torched them and came out in front of the stage. You have to realize, Jim Morrison had a very powerful male personality and presence so the bikers related to The Doors. They certainly weren’t Beatles fans. It was absolutely nuts. Truthfully, I never even heard The Doors play that night. I’d heard them before so I left Dennis in charge of the show and we all went up to The Eaton Estate where we had a big huge banquet style dinner for everyone––then insanity followed. All kinds of relationships were organized and then disorganized that night. A couple of the girls banged boys in the band and everybody managed to get their rock star quotient filled. John and Yoko went to bed quietly, came down the next morning to a big breakfast in the kitchen, their limo showed up, and they were gone.
John Brower and his Dog
“There were a great many dominos that fell in this particular situation–any one of which hadn’t fallen could have stopped the whole process that created the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. My old friend Ritchie Yorke, who was the Canadian music journalist at the time, was the one who told me to bring Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer up to Toronto because he knew them. And of course it was Kim who then came up with the idea to call John Lennon. I later found out that Ritchie had happened to be in London at Apple Records when I called––he was waiting to interview George Harrison. John knew Ritchie was in the building and that he was from Toronto, so he asked the receptionist to bring him in and tell him all about ‘this John Brower guy.’ Ritchie and I were really close so he told Lennon that we were the top promoters in town, that it was going to be a really well run event, and that he had to go because it was the perfect place to launch The Plastic Ono Band. Things completely aligned. Had Ritchie not been at Apple, John Lennon might have thought that we were just a couple of crazy kids calling him on the phone. We wouldn’t have sold the rest of the tickets, the show would have been canceled, I would have had to change professions, and this incredible piece of history would have never occurred. Anyways, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Even under oath.”
Juliette Jagger is a rock n' roll journalist living in Toronto - @juliettejagger