Monday, May 16, 2016

John Lennon, The Toronto Rock ‘N Roll Revival and the Phone Call

I arrived in Canada a month after the Toronto Rock ‘N Roll Revival, which took place September 13, 1969. The city was still buzzing from the visit of music royalty that included John Lennon, The Doors, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Alice Cooper, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Chicago Transit Authority, Screaming Lord Sutch, Doug Kershaw, Tony Joe White.

It really seemed to me as that this was Woodstock North – the second coming of Haight Ashbury, Greenwich Village. Time would reveal Toronto was very much a bar band town, still beholden to Vegas style booking agents and under the extreme influence of rhythm & blues, due mostly to its close proximity to Detroit.

You had to be a visionary and reckless to pull off a feat such as the Revival, and the coming Festival Express, of which I was to become a participant.

Promoter John Brower and I hooked up during the Canadian production of Jesus Christ Superstar  where I assumed the role of co-musical director.  We reconnected again recently when he dropped by my radio show and shared his side of the massive rock concert story. Enjoy!

This was a Hail Mary call by (American cult pop producer) Kim Fowley. You know the Eatons (family) financed us at that time – on an as needed basis. The Toronto Pop Festival in June was a huge success. We did 30,000 people with Sly & the Family Stone, Steppenwolf coming back to Toronto, Johnny Winter, The Band. This was enormous – two months before Woodstock. But for some reason The Toronto Rock & Roll Revival did not take off. A week Monday of the show we had 2,000 tickets sold. We needed 8,000 to break even and the numbers were not going happen even though we had The Doors as a headliner.

Morrison had just been arrested in Florida for exposing himself. Toronto was a pretty staid community and kids needed their parents to give them money. Thor Eaton called and said, “you know what, we are just going to pull it. Cancel everything, we are going to write off our losses on this one.”
(Partner) Kenny Walker and I had no choice; we weren’t in control of the money. Kenny said, “you better go tell (emcees) Kim Fowley and (US DJ) Rodney Bingenheimer at their hotel. They might as well go back to L.A. , let’s save some hotel money.” I went to the hotel and Kim Fowley -- a legendary guy from L.A. , wrote “Alley Oop” and was in the Hollywood Argyles -- said, “you can’t pull show, it’s a classic. If this was in Dodger Stadium this would sell out.” I’m like thinking, can we move this to Dodger Stadium – what are you talking about?

He then said you have to call John Lennon first thing in the morning and tell him you need Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, and Bo Diddley and ask him and Yoko  to come and be the emcees. John Lennon loves all those bands. The Beatles opened for Gene Vincent at the Star Club in Hamburg. These were John’s heroes. Don’t tell them about The Doors, or any other bands. It may scare him off. Just tell them about the rock n’ rollers.

In my inimitable fashion I was the guy who had to make the call. I called information and got the number for Apple Records and this girl answered and I said, “this is very important – this is John Brower calling from Canada and I need you to write these names down. I gave her the names and told she had to tell John Lennon all these acts are playing on Saturday in Toronto and we are inviting John and Yoko to come be the emcees. So she goes, “Brilliant” and puts me on hold. Literally moments later John Lennon comes on the phone and goes, “who is this, what can you tell me about these acts?”

 I give him the story and tell him we’d like him and Yoko come be the emcees. He pauses for a fraction of a second and says, “we wouldn’t want to come unless we could play.” I go, “you mean the Beatles?” he says “no, me and Yoko and we’ll bring a little band.” That began the odyssey of that week, which was insane. Everybody went crazy except CHUM radio. They didn’t believe us. Kenny and I had pulled a fast one earlier in the year when we were promoting the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour  movie. We sold it out at the O’Keefe Centre – at Kleinhans in Buffalo, sold it out in Montreal – in Ottawa it was a stiff.

The night before I got a little waitress at the Chateau Laurier to call the radio station and tell them she just saw George Harrison having dinner there with some friends and they went on the air with it. It was in the paper and we sold the show out that next day. We came back to Toronto telling people this story so when we go to CHUM with ‘John Lennon’s coming on Saturday.’ Duff Roman goes, “the Beatles must just really love you guys. First George Harrison shows up down there in Ottawa for you, and now John Lennon is coming to Toronto. Get out of here.”

I told John I had to call the next day to get the names of the band members. We had to get visas and plane tickets. So we call, put a tape recorder on the phone and say I need to speak to John Lennon about the plane tickets. She goes, 'fine'. On comes Anthony Fawcett, John and Yoko’s personal assistant, and he gives us the names including Eric Clapton. We take the tape up to CHUM and now they are so mad they literally throw us out of the place. Duff says, “we’ve been promoting shows for you for two years. How could you come in here with a phony tape with a guy with a pretty good English accent and make this stuff up and want us to go on the air with it. Eric Clapton; that was a nice touch.” We are really dead now.

Russ Gibb in Detroit, the promoter of the Grande Ballroom, had a radio show every night from seven to midnight in Ann Arbor and he and I were friends. I called him and said, “Russ. you’ve got to help me here.” So he listened to the tape and said one thing, “Brower, I have to ask, did you talk to John Lennon yourself?” I said yes, and he says, “OK I’ll go with it.” We sold 10,000 tickets in Detroit and Ann Arbor in three days. People couldn’t understand how every car around Varsity Stadium had Michigan plates.

I wanted the Vagabonds and their president, Edjo, to escort John and Yoko in and by this time (filmmaker) D.A. Pennebaker had called up wanting to film everything. He didn’t even know Lennon was involved. He was coming in with a crew and this was to be the third in a trilogy; Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop and now the Toronto Rock n’ Roll Revival. 

Edjo had done security at the Rockpile for us and fought off the Scotty Mods--but that's a whole other story. So he lines up eighty bikes, this is the crème de la crème – bikers are coming in from all over Ontario to be in this ride. Rumblings all over town is, this is bull shit and not going to happen. Brower has made it all up to sell tickets and there’s not going to be John Lennon here and you guys are going to look like idiots hanging out at the airport on your bikes.

Edjo comes to me the night before and says, “Look man, now is the time for you to tell me this is all bullshit because tomorrow if there is no John Lennon you better move.” I tell him it’s happening. George Eaton put the tickets on the credit card, its happening.

4 o’clock in the morning I get a call from Anthony Fawcett saying he’s at Heathrow Airport. It's nine in morning their time and he's with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, Mal Evans - the Beatles tour manager - and he’s just talked to John Lennon at
Tittenhurst Park and John Lennon says he and Yoko can’t make it, send flowers. It’s like I I just got hit with a cattle prod. I jump out of bed like the springs have broken through and I see the flowers that Edjo is going to be putting them on my grave. I said no, - no – no – no put Eric Clapton on the phone.

I had brought Blind Faith in to town in July, and lost $20,000 when the record didn’t come out (when it was supposed to). Kenny and the Eatons didn’t want to do it with me so I did it with some guys in New York. We lost our ass. So I say, “Listen Eric, you probably don’t remember me but I lost $20,000 in July on Blind Faith; great show but the record didn’t come out on time. I said, you need to help me, if John Lennon doesn’t come today I have to leave my city, I have to leave my country, in fact I’m coming to England and moving in with John Lennon. Edjo would not find me at John Lennon’s place.

Clapton starts yelling, he’s upset, he doesn’t get up at this time of the morning and come to the airport and wait around for somebody to send flowers, so I say would you get John on the other payphone please, and tell him he has to come. They get Lennon back on the phone and Clapton starts yelling at him – you’ve dragged us out to the airport, the other guy on the phone is ruined. We find out from Fawcett later than Lennon was mortified Clapton was mad at him because Clapton was God.
They did get out of bed, came and caught the next plane.

Then a few months later we bring John and Yoko back to announce the Toronto Peace Festival, which was a very bad idea during the Vietnam War. Try doing a peace festival on July 4th. The White House really cranked up some opposition to that. That went down like the Titanic but regardless, John came back and held a press conference at the Science Centre and we rented a private railway car to take Lennon to meet Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

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