By B. Simm
CALGARY — By the 1970s, the music scene in Toronto had spread beyond Yorkville’s vibrant folk clubs and coffee houses as rock and roll began to take its residency along the mythical corridors of Yonge St. and Queen St. West. Yonge, in particular, with its seedy lounges, burlesque rooms and head shops was full of intoxicating, hard-to-resist adventures — a walk on the wild side, TO style.
Still a wee lad, well under the legal drinking age, John Rutherford fled his quiet suburban streets to roam inner-city playgrounds — grounds for the young and restless. Without question, those evirons could be dangerous like any big-city, bright-lights pleasure trip. But in the first wave of Toronto’s burgeoning rock heyday, Rutherford was mining the mysteries of music more than making mischief. He was a regular at many of Toronto’s established performance venues going two to three times a week, his parents often paying for tickets. By the time he was 18, Rutherford estimates that he probably saw close to 500 major concerts.
In the early ‘80s, wanderlust and curiosity brought him to Calgary where he quickly became entrenched in the music community and started a radio show on CJSW called Blues Experiment before moving over to CKUA for several years. Off-air, Rutherford gravitated to the King Eddy Hotel, showcasing his own songwriting and blues playing, sharing the stage with world-class talent and helping to cultivate the renowned blues bar the Eddy once was.
After performing in numerous musical projects and now as a solo artist, Rutherford remains an integral part of Calgary’s blues and roots community as a musician, historian and blues connoisseur. He wasn’t just a fixture at the Eddy when it was in full swing, he was one of its prominent, goodwill ambassadors who has more than a few stories about those glory days.
BeatRoute: Toronto, going into the ‘70s, certainly not the urban sophistication and bevy of boutique bars and cafes that it is now. Back then, it was a little grubbier, and street-tough with an underlying working-class vibe. How did you view all that through adolescent eyes?
John Rutherford: It was rich and fascinating to me, and I glommed onto it incredibly early, 12 or 13 years of age. I was allowed to get on the subway and go down to Yonge St. and go where I wanted with my buddies. My parents were very liberal and supportive. Once they figured out I could get around safely they were pretty lenient and I could come and go, the doors were never locked.
I remember going to this place called The Market, it was some sort of hippie market housed in this big building with booths. Some of these booths were filled with leathers, pillows, hookahs, beady cigarettes and I’m sure there were lots of other things they sold that we weren’t getting access to at that age. It had all the flavours and smells and feel of what we were starting to read about with hippie and drug culture.
BR: What was your foray into music at that time?
JR: We were going into a music store called Whaley, Royce (& Co.), which was fairly well known on Yonge St. And along with this shop piled high with gear, amps, pedals and guitars there was an amazing palette of all walks of life all around — the guy selling chestnuts on the sidewalk, the doorman standing in front of the strip club with all these nude shots of girls with stars over their nipples. That was the hustle that was going on Yonge St. back then.
A few years after, when I was about 16, I got into the Le Coq D’Or, a very famous strip club in Toronto. Bo Diddley was playing in the afternoon between strip shows, but, of course, we couldn’t get in. So my friends and I were hanging outside the club, looking at pictures of Bo, goofing around, then all of a sudden a car pulls up, he gets out with a couple of band members and strolls on by. The doorman, who’s keeping an eye on us, comes up and says, “Ok, you can go in, stand at the back, watch his show then come right out.” He was pretty firm on the “come right out.” So we got to see about 30 minutes of Bo Diddley in 1972 or ‘73.
BR: Did Bo prompt you to pick up the guitar?
JR: I was hanging out with a community of musicians who were starting to make some headway, although I wasn’t playing in a band then. They directed me to this hotshot guitar teacher, Jeff Peacock, who was a real blues player. He was located down town on Spadina, and after my lesson he’d tell me what records to go out and buy, then I’d whip straight over to Sam the Record Man. The first one he told me to get was Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues, then Taj Mahal’s debut record, some Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, BB King and Otis Rush records. I’d go home, study and practice the solos.
BR: From there how did you make the transition to putting together bands and performing?
JR: I had a cousin in Calgary. He said, “If you come here, I’ll get you a gig.” That was 1980-81. I went out and he made good on his word. We played a ton as a duo; it was a great experience.
BR: When and how did the King Eddy start up as a blues bar?
JR: About 1982, ’83 a fellow named Jack Karp bought the hotel and decided to go down the blues route. There’s no real record why he did that, although there’s a story about a couple who came in for some drinks, Jack asked what kind of music they’d prefer and they said, “the blues.” So he took that cue. A criticism circulated that Jack didn’t know much about the blues. But he didn’t have to; he didn’t have to be a bluesologist, he was a businessman. Someone else told him to phone this booking agency in Chicago. He did, and they sent up Sam Lay, a drummer who played with tons of greats including the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Lay comes up with this all-star band, people show up, the band gets fed, they get rooms, they get paid and have a great time. This agency has a long list of artists who had some serious blues pedigree. So they send up Luther Guitar Johnson a couple weeks later, then Eddie Shaw, Howlin’ Wolf’s old band leader for a two-week gig.
BR: That was customary, to play these extended dates?
JR: Oh yeah, six-nighters and sometimes two-week runs. The bands would get paid an advance, and get all Sunday and Sunday night off, which was really significant because they got to know people in the community. There were backyard BBQs where you’d be having a burger with these legends!
BR: They became part of the community, part of the fabric.
JR: Absolutely. They just didn’t fly in and fly out. One of the great stories is the gas station next door to the Eddy used to do a lot of repairs to the vehicles the bands drove. They’d put 50-60,000 kilometres a year on their vans touring, wearing out the motors. But while they were staying at the Eddy, the mechanics, at an exchange rate much like today, put in new motors for all these blues greats.
BR: Besides playing and being a regular at the Eddy, what else was your involvement with the venue?
JR: All these people I was lucky to be hanging out with wanted to go with it, do something more. I had a radio slot Wednesday evenings at CJSW called Blues Experiment. So Jack Karp and I chatted, and he started running artists up to the station every Wednesday and I did interviews with all these blues guys over the years. That show ran from 1983 to 1990.
BR: Some of the legends: who played there?
JR: Well, there are so many, so many of them, a continuous flow of tremendous talent. It’s endless, an encyclopedia of names. Some of the big ones were extraordinary… Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Buckwheat Zydeko, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Koko Taylor and Jimmy Rogers who played with Muddy Waters. And then there were guitar players that were lesser known out of Chicago like Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy “Faster Fingers” Dawkins, Michael Coleman. Harmonica players like Billy Branch, and Sugar Blue who played the unmistakable lick on the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” John Hammond also came up and so did Paul Butterfield. In fact, he died two or three days after he left when he got back to the States.
BR: His last gig was at the King Eddy! Is it true that BB King played the Eddy?
JR: No. I’m one hundred, or ninety per cent sure that didn’t happen. He was way bigger at the time than what the Eddy was booking. Some people claim he came down, got up and played or came down to see someone else play. But I never saw him there. I’m sure that didn’t happen.
BR: Those artists that did play the Eddy, what were they like as stage personalities?
JR: Here’s a few quick snippets. Nappy Brown, who was originally from Texas I think, then moved to the West Coast. A really interesting singer with a deep voice who had recorded 78s in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a very powerful performer. This guy would flirt with women straight off the stage. It was so blatant and over the top, unbelievable! Eventually, Nappy, as one of his trademark tricks, would get down on the floor and wiggle around like a snake making his way through the audience while he sang. Here’s this big man, six-foot-four, bald head, doing his snake dance on the floor of the King Edward Hotel. Amazing! And done with such conviction. Even if you thought it was strange or wondering what the hell he was doing, you also realized, “Watch carefully. This is the real deal.”
And then Otis Rush, who in many ways was a legendary and mysterious figure in the blues. He had a troubled life, was kind of a recluse, but had a reputation that any big guitarist, Clapton or Mark Knofler, would bow at his feet. The intensity of his singing and playing, you just didn’t see stuff like that up here. So real, and so powerful. Gatemouth Brown was similar the way he looked at people and stared them down. And when up to them while on the dance floor, you’d get sweat on by these guys working it, giving it all. It was so gutsy, so stinky, so powerful, just so wonderful.
BR: What is your assessment of the blues going through the ‘80s into the ‘90s. I mean, here you have these blues greats, by all accounts true stars, but they’re still playing roadhouse bars. Even though they’re giving it all they’ve got, they still must have been disgruntled to some degree?
JR: To be honest I think many of these artists were aware of the fact that they had kind of been ripped off all their careers. That they had been short-changed for their talents, their efforts, their contributions to music, rock music and culture. But they still looked upon it as this is what they did, this was their job, and they found the joy and magic of what they did onstage. And they knew they had that, that richness that others didn’t have to enjoy.
But there were moments, where I had an open window and saw people who were severely disappointed just by arriving to see their rundown rooms at the Eddy, not the most welcoming. A lot would flood out from that. I remember once when John Hammond came through, he was not in a particularly good spot career-wise, and I think he may have been dealing with a relationship crisis. He showed up at the Eddy, the place was locked up, it was 25 below zero and this just exasperated the knowledge that he was having to play some pretty rough rooms and some pretty low paying rooms to get by at that particular time because there wasn’t that kind of buzz going on for blues. Of course, now he’s another incredibly distinguished artist who I think is enjoying the fruits of his labour in a way today he couldn’t have realized back then.
BR: Let’s go back to the Eddy itself, what was room really like inside?
JR: When you first walked in, it had a low ceiling with asbestos, it was dark and the smoke so thick you could sew a button on it. It had wood walls. The Eddy existed as a country rock bar for eight or 10 years before, and that was the décor they inherited. There was an old wood dance floor and carpets elsewhere. I remember setting up on stage one time, and kneeling down on the carpet beside the stage and I had this brand new pair of jeans on that I was real proud of. And after I got up there was a wet stain on my knee that never came out. Who knows what was in that rug?
BR: With respect to the Eddy, it was scuzzy, but was it scary?
JR: Not overly. But there were definitely moments. I saw a few bar brawls and some horrific tales of stuff that went down in the bar, but even more so up in the rooms. I clearly remember packing up my guitar to leave one time, and the doorman telling me I had to wait. He went back and got a blackjack, then escorted me to my car and saw that I got on my way. So there was definitely a sense that he knew something was going on outside, and they would do they same for their bar staff.
The neighbourhood was a bit rough with the St. Louis Hotel around the corner and place called Chaplin’s, a late night dance club where hookers and pimps met to pay out. It was the first time in Calgary where I had ever seen a gun. It fell right out of a guy’s belt, and I thought, “Whoa, this is a dangerous place.” But overall, people looked out for one another inside the Eddy. It was one of self-policing, having a good time, letting your hair down. There were bikers, students, oil and gas execs, politicians, even the police chief. But everyone bought into that for the most part.
Once a brawl broke out while Jimmy Johnson from Chicago was there on break between sets. And he took off like a scared rabbit out the back door. When things settled down, he came back in and I asked him what made him so nervous. He said, “Son, when a fight breaks out like that where I’m from, the next thing you know there’s a pistol.” And then he told me the real reason he was frightened is because they wouldn’t let him bring his gun over the border!
BR: In the back of the Eddy was a stripper showcase of sorts?
JR: Yeah, every day, five days a week from mid-afternoon to seven at night until the bar switched over to the blues shows. The peelers were a bone of contention for many people as part of the Eddy’s reputation as a seedy place. There’s tons of sordid tales that went down there. Some of what happened at the Eddy stays at the Eddy. Haha! There’s stuff about the strippers that’s real grouty. It was pretty down-home.
BR: Who were some of the employees or regulars that also gave the Eddy its character?
JR: One of my favourite guys was Bert. He was a desk clerk who sometimes did maintenance work to pay the rent. He lived upstairs. He was a super sweet guy that had a real interesting history. He’d flown in the Air Force during the war, drove truck across Canada for many years, a really sensitive guy, skinny as a rail, elderly, that had some rough goes along the way. One of the stories is that he had to do a couple chores every Sunday down in the bar, and he’d wash his socks and underwear on the conveyer in the glass washer. I always drank bottled beer when I was at the King Eddy. But he was a wonderful guy. Amos Garrett wrote a song about him called “Bert’s Boogie.”
Gordie was a bouncer, a big dude, 300 pounds, ball cap on backwards, greasy and sweaty, but a real teddy bear. He was really caring, looked out for other people and wouldn’t hurt anyone unless he felt he had to.
Jack Karp, who owned the place for 20 of the 22 years it was a blues club, was a funny guy: well-spoken, super articulate, really sharp and on the ball. He may have not known much about the blues when it all started, but he learned a lot over the years. But it was his keen business sense that made the Eddy work. And it did well, very well during certain periods. I remember the capacity being way over limit, like so packed you could barely move and you’re thinking, “Man, I hope there’s not a fire tonight.” But that’s how it worked back then. A great band was in town, a line up down the street, overflowing inside, and the backdoor open to let people out and new ones in. It was lively. It wasn’t always that way, especially in early stages. But Jack stuck with it and made it grew. There was an article published after the Winter Olympics in 1989 about the Eddy’s wild reputation and it seems everybody had to check the bad side of town. Everybody had to come down and see this crazy, exotic, rough side of town stuff. And the moment you walked through that door, the band, the regulars, the staff, the groove, you just had to be part of it.
The King Eddy will be opened for full service in the “not too distant future.”AB, Alberta, John Rutherford, King Eddy, National Music Centre, Studio Bell