Blog

Nicholas Jennings, photo by Gilbert Bélisle

This blog page is where you’ll find occasional postings from Nicholas
that reflect his interests, tastes and activities.

These postings could be anything from his latest playlist or a recent
concert review to news about his current projects or his views on local
history or current events.

We promise to keep this page updated as often as possible
and welcome your comments and feedback on all postings.

 



A Few Questions with: Rufus Wainwright PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nicholas Jennings   

rufusRufus has had an eventful summer, celebrating a significant birthday and performing everywhere from the prestigious Teatro Real opera house in Madrid to England’s Glastonbury Festival. The charismatic singer tells us about his favorite current music and his continuing efforts to honor the memory of his late mother, folksinger Kate McGarrigle, with the release of a tribute album, Sing Me the Songs, and a documentary concert.

Do you enjoy touring now as much as when you were younger? I’m lucky because I get to play all these gorgeous opera houses, so everything is pardoned and replenished once you get into those beautiful halls.

What was it like to play Glastonbury? It was amazing. I was playing solo in front of 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop. The Rolling Stones were on the same bill. I don’t know how they do it. That, to me, is one of the world wonders, how they still go out on the road so much.

What do you miss most about home when you’re on the road? My bathroom (laughs)! You really start to pine for the things you’re familiar with, like what kind of water you’re going to get from the sink or if there’ll be enough water pressure for your bath or shower. It becomes very animalistic.

How did you feel about turning 40? The bark was worse than the bite. There was so much buildup and suspense about what one should feel and the trauma of turning 40, but the next day it was like ‘oh my god, that was nothing.’

You celebrated in Madrid? Yes, I performed an opera and Placido Domingo came and told me afterwards that he was very moved. To have the greatest living tenor tell you that is a big deal!

What are your three current favorite songs? Norah Jones’ version of “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino” from Sing Me the Songs is great. Norah is so flawless and subtle and deep at the same time. Plus, that song fits her voice like a glove. I would include Placido singing any main aria from Otello, because that really gets me going and is a perennial favorite. Finally, my husband (Luminato artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt) has turned me on to The XX’s “Angels.” I definitely feel hip when I listen to that—and that’s very important when you’re 40!

You’re been busy with tributes for your mum. We’ve been celebrating her life and legacy and the fact that she left us this beautiful treasure of songs. We’ve started the Kate McGarrigle Foundation to raise money for sarcoma research. Sarcoma is the very rare cancer that killed Kate. So that is the onward battle that my sister Martha (Wainwright) and I would like to keep waging on cancer.

What have you got coming up? I’m working on a new opera. This one has a big Canadian connection—that’s all I can say at the moment. And I wrote and recorded a duet with Robbie Williams called “Swings Both Ways” for his new album, and that’s very exciting.

Hello! Canada magazine July 2013

 
Q&A with: Cassadee Pope PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nicholas Jennings   

cassadeeWhat a difference a win makes. Cassadee Pop took the crown on the third season of The Voice, the first female to do so. Now the Florida native has a debut solo album out, Frame by Frame, on Taylor Swift’s label, Big Machine. A former pop-rock singer with the band Hey Monday, she transitioned to country on The Voice after being mentored by Nashville star Blake Shelton. Cassadee, 24, tells Hello! Canada about her musical shift and how life has changed since her big win.

Did Blake push you to sing country? Not at all. I’d sung country as a kid and have always loved it. I had not intention of going country when I went on the show. But Blake encouraged me not to think about what genre I was doing and to just be me and country is what came out.

How have things changed for you since The Voice? I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I’ve got a song on the radio (“Wasting All These Tears”). Basically I have a career now, where before I was struggling even to pay rent.

What did you learn from working on your album with legendary producer Dann Huff? He taught me that it’s really important to have a dynamic vocal range, otherwise you’re going to have a hard time touring, having to sing these crazy ranges every night and possibly losing your voice. That was a great lesson.

What advice do you have for aspiring singers? Keep yourself open to new things—that’s what I did on The Voice. I just decided to go whichever way the wind took me and see what happens. That turned out to be the best thing to do because look where I am now. So, be open-minded and don’t forget to have a good time!

Hello! Canada magazine October 2013

 
Letter to Globe & Mail re: Sam's sign PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nicholas Jennings   

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The Citgo sign near Fenway Park in Boston. The old neon lights that lit up the sign for years (L) have been replaced by much brighter LEDs, the glowing chips found in digital clocks. Officials say the sign will stand up to the tough New England weather.

Re: Preservation of iconic signs is admirable, but not at the expense of common sense (Sept. 12)

Ryerson knew full well the challenge it faced with the Sam the Record Man sign, but chose not to embrace it. The university's agreement with the city, dated August 15, 2008, stated that it would use "reasonable best efforts to identify an opportunity to incorporate the signs on Yonge Street." There is no evidence that "best efforts" were made. It appears Ryerson never directed its architectural firm to include the sign in any of its plans at any stage. This is disappointing, because Ryerson has an opportunity to honor the spirit of its agreement with the city and demonstrate it is a good and creative downtown neighbor (the way it has been with Maple Leaf Gardens).

If Ryerson or the city planning department's Heritage Preservation Services want to find ways to incorporate the sign, they only have to consider innovative cases of neon restoration in other cities, such as Boston's Citgo sign near Fenway Park. Ryerson president Sheldon Levy has stated: "We have always said that we will put it up if that's what the people of Toronto want." Mr. Levy and city councilors should be listening to the widespread support for the restoration of the Sam's sign on Yonge Street.

Nicholas Jennings
Toronto, Ontario

 

 
Deputation to Community Council - on the Sam the Record Man sign PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nicholas Jennings   

 

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 Deputation to Toronto and East York Community Council – September 10, 2013

Speaking in opposition to TE26.34 (Proposed Amendments to Agreements between Ryerson University and the City of Toronto - Sam the Record Man Signage)

Madam Chair and Councilors:

My name is Nicholas Jennings. I am a journalist, historian and a graduate of Ryerson. I have spent my entire career writing about music, including books, TV documentaries and, for 20 years, as feature writer and reviewer for Maclean’s magazine. One of my books, Before the Gold Rush, focused on the history of Toronto’s music scene in the 1960s, especially that of the Yonge Street Strip. I also lead walking tours, exploring the Strip’s musical history.

Yonge Street from Queen to Gerrard during the 1950s and ’60s was a hotbed of entertainment and the entire stretch was lit by the dazzling neon signs of dozens of live music clubs, all featuring local and international jazz, blues, country, soul and rock and roll acts.

At Queen, there was the Town Tavern, featuring jazz giants like Lester Young, Stan Getz and Canada’s own Oscar Peterson, who recorded his classic album On the Town there in 1958.

A little up the way, there was the Colonial Tavern, which opened in 1947 with Canada’s first all-black swing band, Cy McLean’s Rhythm Rompers, and went on to feature jazz greats like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and blues legends like B.B. King and Muddy Waters.

Friar’s Tavern, where the Hard Rock Café now stands, was the scene of Bob Dylan rehearsing local heroes Levon & the Hawks as his backing band in 1965, an occasion that Time magazine called “the most decisive moment in rock history.”

At the northeast corner of Yonge and Dundas stood the Brown Derby, featuring comedians, bands like Joe King & the Zaniacs and an eye-catching row of giant showbill posters lining the windows along Dundas.

On the current site of the HMV store sat Le Coq D’Or, a three-storey live music emporium where rockabilly rascal Ronnie Hawkins held court and shared the stage with such stars as Bo Diddley, Ike & Tina Turner, Funkadelic and the Kinks.

Next door at the Edison Hotel, a heritage building that was sadly destroyed by arson in 2011, you could catch the likes of Cab Calloway, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers.

Canadian legend Gordon Lightfoot and American blues pioneer Lonnie Johnson held forth at Steele’s Tavern.

The Zanzibar was home of the Frank Motley & the Hitchhikers and a talented Little Richard-like singer named Jackie Shane, a cult star whose legend continues to grow.

And the Bluenote was an after-hours club that featured visiting stars like the Righteous Brothers and Motown’s Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross of the Supremes.

Only the Zanzibar still operates, although it is now just a peeler bar playing recorded stripper music.

Yonge Street was the birthplace of the Toronto Sound, the fusion of r&b and rock made famous by local bands like the Mandala, Steppenwolf, Jon and Lee & the Checkmates, David Clayton Thomas & the Shays and the group that went on to become world famous, known simply as The Band.

Here’s what Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Robbie Robertson, of The Band, has to say about that era: “Toronto was a Mecca of talent in the 1950s and ’60s. It was the centre of Toronto’s nightlife and entertainment. There should be more of an effort to preserve that centre. Yonge Street shouldn’t become a discarded part of the history of the city.”

Nor should it be sanitized as to eradicate all traces of that era.

Toronto needs reminders of Yonge Street’s rich cultural past. The Sam’s neon sign is just that kind of reminder. It stood smack in the middle of the Yonge Street Strip, casting a glow that drew millions to its three creaky, uneven floors, which were decorated with posters, promotional banners, autographed artist photos and contained aisle-upon-aisle of 400,000 records across all genres. Visiting artists from Liberace and Tony Bennett to Elton John and Alice Cooper frequented the store, while the diversity of Sam’s selections became a vital source of influence for many Canadian musicians.

The Sam’s neon sign was a landmark for Torontonians and visitors alike, and was certainly the most identifiable symbol of Toronto until the CN Tower came along. Its preservation and resurrection on Yonge Street would be an entirely appropriate way to recognize the city’s past in an ultimately very cool way. And, as a friend of mine put it, it sure beats a tombstone in the sidewalk and a brass plaque on the wall (although a plaque would provide the sign with some useful contextual explanation).

Madam Chair and Councilors, you did the right thing in 2008 in trying to give the Sam’s sign a heritage designation. You also did the right thing in reaching an agreement with Ryerson, my alma mater, to ensure that the signs would be remounted on Yonge Street. Now you have a chance to do the right thing again and reject these proposed amendments to that agreement, save the Sam’s sign and see that is reinstalled where it belongs.

Respectfully submitted,

Nicholas Jennings

 
City of Toronto: Have Ryerson University remount the neon "Sam the Record Man" sign. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Nicholas Jennings   
Wednesday, 04 September 2013 17:47

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Sign this petition and help save a vital part of Toronto's cultural heritage.

 Click here to sign: City of Toronto: Have Ryerson University remount the neon "Sam the Record Man" sign.

 


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Reviews

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Harry Connick Jr. - Smokey Mary

2013 | Administrator | Saturday, 2 February 2013

Everyone’s just wild about Harry. The singer-pianist’s breakthrough came in 1989 when his smooth jazz caused Tony Bennett to call him “the next Frank Sinatra.” His lean good looks quickly...

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Lenka Lichtenberg - Songs for the Breathing Walls

2013 | Administrator | Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Passionate and prolific, Lenka Lichtenberg is a force of nature within Canada’s world music scene. Born in Prague of East European heritage, she is a composer, vocalist, producer, ethnomusicologist and...

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Destiny’s Child - Love Songs

2013 | Administrator | Saturday, 2 February 2013

It’s been over a decade since Beyoncé eclipsed her girl-group origins. The artist who introduced “bootylicious” to English dictionaries and helped single ladies get over ex-boyfriends has risen to become...

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Boz Scaggs - Memphis

2013 | Administrator | Thursday, 14 March 2013

Boz hit the big time in the 1970s with his Silk Degrees album and hits like “Lido Shuffle.” Now running a successful vineyard with his wife, the “Lowdown” singer is...

Features

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Passing the Torch

2012 | Nicholas Jennings | Sunday, 9 September 2012

When Dustin Bentall was 12, he spent the summer with his parents at a cabin they bought in Cariboo Country, in British Columbia’s interior. There...

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A Tribe Called Red

2013 | Administrator | Thursday, 10 October 2013

Ian Campeau will never forget the first Electric Pow Wow night. It was 2008 and he and fellow aboriginal DJ Bear Witness had the idea...

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The Midway State - From Riches to Rags and Back Again

2012 | Administrator | Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Nathan Ferraro doesn’t seem the least bit bitter—which is surprising, given everything he’s been through. In fact, the affable, afro-haired frontman exudes all the serenity...

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Alex Cuba - A Magical Musical Blend

2011 | Administrator | Monday, 21 March 2011

  With his oversized Afro and razored sideburns, Alex Cuba cuts a cool figure, a cross between ’70s soul man and stylish rocker. It’s a...