On 464 Spandia Avenue in Toronto, Canada lies the legendary El Mocambo. This old building is famous for being a popular nightlife attraction. Patrons can drink and listen to great live music. The El Mocambo, or El Mo for short, has always been a venue for live music. Artists from multiple genres have appeared at the small club and performed for loving audiences.
In September 2020, El Mocambo reopened after years of inactivity. To celebrate the grand re-opening, let’s take a look at the colourful and rich history of Toronto’s premier night club.
The original El Mocambo was located at 462 Spandia avenu. It opened in 1850, and was first used as a haven for escaped slaves from the American South. The current building was constructed in 1910. Multiple businesses operated out of the building: a barbershop, a grocery store, and a restaurant.
In 1946, Ontario passed the Liquor License Act. This act permitted the sale of liquor in taverns and restaurants in the province for the first time since World War I. The owners of the El Mocambo took full advantage of the new act. Restaurants Joseph Brown and John Lang bought the building and installed the club’s famous neon palm tree sign. These two men were also responsible for the club’s name. Lastly, the El Mocambo held the distinction of being one of Toronto’s first cocktail bars.
The origin of the club’s name lies with Joseph Brown. Brown’s inspiration for the El Mocambo name and neon palm tree sign came from a San Fransisco nightclub he frequented.
The name and neon sign stood out from the other Toronto nightclubs. Those two elements soon became the El Mocambo’s calling card.
At first, the El Mocambo did not feature live music. At the time, Ontario did not permit live music in those types of venues. To make up for it, the second floor of El Mo was converted into a dance floor.
In 1948, the Liquor License Board of Ontario reversed the ban. Suddenly, people were able to watch live music at the El Mocambo. For many years, the El Mocambo featured big dance music. These bands either played on the main or second floors.
Rock and Roll Music
In 1972, the El Mocambo was bought by Michail Baird and Tom Kristenbrun. Under this ownership, the El Mocambo became a bastion for blues and rock music. Blues greats like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy played at the El Mo. To appeal to younger blues fans, The Downchild Blues Band became the club’s house band.
During the early years of the Baird-Kristenbrun ownership, the main musical acts were either older performers (unaffectionately called “has-beens” or “retreads”) or up-and-coming acts.
There was a hierarchy system for musical acts performing at the El Mocambo. The musicians would start on the main floor, and if they generated a sizable revenue, they then graduated to the second floor. This graduation was seen as a mark of distinction; it signified that your band was a premier act. Emerging artists like U2 and Elvis Costello, were among the many new acts to play the El Mocambo.
During the 1970s, the El Mocambo became a popular spot for university students. The building was not far from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and George Brown College; students were able to walk to the El Mo.
The mid to late 1970s was also the time of disco. Disco not only dominated the airwaves, disco clubs were the primary music venues. However, the El Mocambo was the one club in Toronto to feature blues and rock music and still attract large audiences. Acts like the Ramones, Devo, Joan Jett, and Blondie performed at the club. And in 1976, the greatest rock and roll band played a surprise gig at the El Mo.
The Rolling Stones
The El Mocambo is either famous or infamous for a surprise concert held by the Rolling Stones.
In 1976, the Stones were planning to record a live album. And they wanted to record part of the album in a small club in order to capture an intimate atmosphere. Lead singer Mick Jagger and his manager, Peter Rudge, scoured for the perfect night club. Finally, the two discovered the El Mocambo. It was the perfect place to record the Stones’ album.
The plan seemed solid on the service. But there was one problem. If word got out that the Rolling Stones, the world’s greatest rock and roll band, were playing the El Mocambo, the building would surely be overrun by thousands of fans. As a solution, Rudge devised a plan: a secret, two-show agreement at the El Mocambo with only die-hard fans in attendance. All of this would have to be directed via a ruse.
The El Mo’s booker, Dave “Blue” Bluestein, hatched the perfect smoke screen. Bluestein booked Canadian rock band April Wine for March 4-5, 1977. Another band called the Cockroaches would also appear on the bill. But this was actually the Stones’ alias.
To select the audience, Toronto radio station CHUM-FM ran a contest. Contestants were to answer the question “What would you do to see the Rolling Stones play live?” The top 300 entries were then selected. The 300 lucky fans were shepherded to the El Mo by bus, and then snuck into the building at the back enterance.
The surprise concert had its share of controversies. During the week leading up to concert, guitarist Keith Richards was busted for possessing 26 grams of heroin. Richards narrowly avoided jail time and the show went on, but his bust was front page news.
The second controversy revolved around then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau and his wife Maragaret were estranged, which was well known to the public. She was spotted in the Rolling Stones’ dressing room, conversing with various band members. She was also photographed with Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. Maragaret Trudeau’s appearance with the Stones garnered international tabloid headlines. Some Canadians were shocked that the Prime Minister’s wife was partying with the bad boys of rock.
A Legendary Show
The Rolling Stones played their two shows at the El Mocambo. The crowd loved it, and part of the set was included on the live album Love You Live. The concerts are now celebrated for the expert planning and spontaneity of the event. Arguably, it’s what the El Mocambo is best known for.
Heading into the 1980s, the El Mocambo continued to thrive as a live music venue. In 1983, guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble played a concert at the El Mo. The entire performance was filmed and released on DVD some years later.
However, several factors contributed to a decline in business for the El Mocambo. First, changes in touring practices limited international acts from performing at the club. Second, promotional agency Concert Productions International struck a deal which prevented other promotions from booking the club. Third, the El Mocambo was deteriorating and in need of renovation.
Fewer and fewer famous groups appeared at the club. As a result, smaller crowds turned out each night to watch local acts. In 1986, Baird and Kristenbrun sold the El Mocambo. This sale brought several years of constant ownership changes and a rapid decline. In 1989, the doors to the club were padlocked twice. And in 1991 and 2001, the El Mocambo was briefly closed. All of these temporary closings were over rent disputes.
Throughout the 1990s, the El Mocambo hosted numerous unknown acts. The quality of the music was often a gamble. One night may feature an incredible band no one had heard of. The other night may feature a band whose members were barely able to play their instruments. Club promoters who would book little-known acts referred to them as “slightly off the radar screen”.
When Dan Burke became El Mocambo’s booker in 1998, he turned the club into a garage rock and underground music venue. Just as it did in the 1970s, the El Mocambo served as a launching pad for various bands in these two genres. The White Stripes played many gigs at the El Mo. Artists like Dank Jones, the Deadly Snakes, Peaches, and the Sadies also got their start at the club.
Artist Will Munro hosted a monthly queer rock and roll party at the El Mocambo called Vazaleen. The show became a regular feature at the El Mocambo. Several artists used this feature to launch their international careers. Musician Peaches regularly performed at Vazaleen before gaining international recognition.
The New Millennium
In 2001, Abbas Jahangari bought the El Mocambo. His ownership would turn into one of the most controversial and turbulent times in the club’s history.
Jahangari announced that he planned to turn the upstairs into a dance studio and the other areas would be transformed into a spiritual centre and women’s shelter. Dan Burke and his partners were removed from booking. This ignited a war of words between them and Jahangari. Burke and his team attempted to claim the El Mocambo name and use it elsewhere. While this battle dragged on, media outlets began writing obituaries for the El Mocambo. While Jahangari’s plans for the El Mocambo were for worthy causes, they didn’t quite mesh with the El Mocambo. The club was always seen as a live music venue, and the idea of the El Mo as a dance studio/spiritual centre/women’s shelter was something many people couldn’t envision.
The situation seemed to improve because of the El Mocambo in 2002. At the end of that year, music returned to the ground floor. The building also received some much needed renovations.
After holding onto the building for so many years, Jagangari sold the El Mocambo in 2012. He used the money to support his missionary work. The new owners, Sam Grosso and Marco Petrucci, began renovations to the building: These included a new stage, a rooftop patio, and a restored palm tree sign. Unfortunately, the pair had difficulty booking acts. Once again, it looked as if the El Mocambo would be closed for good. The final show was scheduled for November 6, 2014.
And then something unexpected happened. On the eve of the closure, it was announced that El Mocambo had been purchased by banker Michael Wekerle for 3.8 million dollars. Additionally, Wekerle intended to maintain the El Mocambo as a live music venue.
Wekerle spent years and a considerable amount of money fixing up the building. The entire interior of the building was redone. Now the El Mocambo looked nothing like it did back in its heyday. But Wekerle made sure the renovations were done to maintain the live music aspect of the El Mo.
In preparation for the grand reopening, Wekerle reached out to the Rolling Stones. He wanted the band to recreate the atmosphere of their 1977 surprise show. Talks between the two parties occurred while work was still being done on the El Mocambo. Wekerle informed the band’s management that he had an important sponsorship that would provide a sizeable dollar incentive to perform at the El Mo. The Stones’ management informed Wekerle that they would get back to him.
It seemed like progress was being made. Then an event occured, one that shut down the entire globe.
The Covid-19 pandemic effectively ended any chance of the Rolling Stones performing at the El Mocambo. The band was forced to cancel their 2020 tour, and Wekerle delayed El Mocambo’s reopening.
But it would take more than a global pandemic to stop Wekerle from achieving his goal. In September 2020, the El Mocambo finally reopened. Even though it was small scale (maximum 50 people indoors according to Ontario restrictions), the El Mocambo reopening was an historic event.
The new El Mo boasts a recording studio on the top floor and two stages that can serve live performances, video shoots, recordings, parties, weddings, and more.
An Iconic Club
The El Mocambo remains one of the most iconic clubs in all of Toronto. Since the late 1940’s, the club has been a home for live music. Whether it be blues, rock and roll, punk, or avant garde, El Mocambo is a perfect place for artists to perform their music.
After many turbulent years, the El Mocambo is finally up and running again. And the owner is committed to preserving the El Mocambo as a live music venue. With Canada’s easing of Covid-19 restrictions, the El Mocambo is sure to continue it’s legacy as a premier place to witness live music.