From the Archives: Ontario's Musical Greats (Part 1)
Some of the world's most renowned and talented music artists were born and raised in Ontario. Many photos of these musicians have been digitized from our Toronto Star Photograph Archive, searchable on Toronto Public Library's website, Digital Archive Ontario.
The images below — all from the Toronto Star Photograph Archive — feature a few Ontario singers, songwriters and bands who have shaped Canadian music history and culture. But it is by no means exhaustive, constrained in part due to the limited historical record offered by the newspaper. Feel free to leave a comment to suggest other great Ontario musicians for a future post — we will try to find images of them in our collections to digitize!
(If you live in Toronto or are visiting, you can check out the library's free exhibit about the emergence of the hip hop scene in Toronto.)
Born Karen Lynn Greening in Belleville, Ontario, July 21, 1962. To sum up Lee Aaron’s career in one paragraph is near impossible. This legendary rock diva started out singing jazz and Broadway standards in musical theatre in the Toronto suburbs, hanging out in music class after school, practicing and learning from her instructors. By the age of 15, she had formed a rock band. Aaron sang, played the keyboards and sax, and began playing all-ages shows. Aaron has been nominated for ten Juno Awards and has won three times.
Born on November 5, 1959, in Kingston, Ontario, Bryan Adams got his first guitar at age 10, an electric guitar at age 11 and moved to Vancouver at age 14 to audition as a guitarist. At age 15 he left school and joined a band going on tour. He met drummer Jim Vallance in 1977 and together they wrote songs that were covered by several artists. A&M Records were given demos and Adams was signed to a contract at age 18. Since then, he has released over a dozen albums, had numerous chart-topping songs, won eighteen Juno Awards and received many accolades including induction to Canada's Walk of Fame, the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. Proving he is a man of various talents and interests, Bryan Adams is also a professional photographer.
Considered Canada’s first teen idol, international rock and roll superstar and regarded as the godfather of Canadian pop, Paul Anka was born July 31, 1941 in Ottawa, Ontario. Anka had multiple number one hit songs, was nominated 12 times for a Juno Award and won twice. He has also written songs for other artists including Tom Jones. One of the biggest accolades of his career was writing the song "My Way", which was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1969 when Sinatra was seriously considering taking an early retirement from show business. Anka also wrote the theme song to Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
Winning nine of their 19 Juno Awards nominations, Barenaked Ladies formed in Scarborough, Ontario in 1988. The bands has made music for three decades, selling over 15 million albums worldwide. The band’s style has evolved significantly over the course of their career, favouring acoustic in the early days and growing to encompass a mixture of genres. The current members are Ed Robertson, Jim Creeggan, Tyler Stewart and Kevin Hearn. Past band members include Steven Page and Andy Creegan.
One of Canada's most popular roots-rock bands, Blue Rodeo blends the sound of country, folk and rock. Formed in Toronto in 1984 by high school friends Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, the band have a definite pop appeal that underlines their devotion to later-period songs by The Beatles, in addition to expected influences like Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan and The Band. Consistency has been the hallmark of Blue Rodeo's output.
From 1969 to 1970, most of the would-be-members of this group were part of a backup band for Ronnie Hawkins, under the name And Many Others. However, in early 1970, Hawkins fired them and gave them the idea for their band's name while yelling profanities at them! The rock band recorded their first album in 1970, titled Official Music, as King Biscuit Boy and Crowbar. King Biscuit Boy left the band later in 1970, but continued to appear as a guest performer.
Crowbar disbanded in 1975, revived in 1977 and performed intermittently during the 1980s. In more recent years, Crowbar played shows around Hamilton, Ontario including a performance at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.
Gordon Edgar Downie, who passed away from brain cancer in 2017, was born in Amherstview, Ontario on February 6, 1964 and raised in Kingston, Ontario. He befriended the musicians who would become The Tragically Hip (Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay, Bob Baker and Gord Sinclair). He attended the high school, Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute. Downie was the winner of his own Juno Awards and 16 more with The Tragically Hip (he released six solo albums). He is missed by Canadians who had the privilege to be touched by his humble ways and bravely fighting terminal cancer to perform one last Canadian tour in 2017. Downie will be remembered as one of Canada's most famous and mystical performers of music — a singer, a songwriter, a poet and an activist for Indigenous Peoples with his work on Secret Path.
Born in Orillia, Ontario on November 17, 1938, Gordon Lightfoot is one of the leading singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s. Winner of 13 Juno Awards, he is one of Canada's most successful contemporary folk artists. He established himself as an important songwriter in the mid-60s and went on to become a major international recording star in the following decade. Lightfoot's songs are literate but down to earth, dealing with personal matters and global issues in a manner that is poetic yet accessible. His rich, strong voice is a superb vehicle for his material, though his songs are versatile enough that many artists have enjoyed success by covering his tunes.
Shania Twain was born Eileen Regina Edwards in Windsor, Ontario on August 28, 1965. A music lover early on, she started writing songs at the age of 10. Her second album, The Woman in Me (1995), was a big success. Come on Over (1997) went on to sell 40 million records, making it the bestselling album by a female artist, as well as the top country music record.
Neil Percival Young was born in Toronto on November 12, 1945. He is one of rock and roll's greatest songwriters and performers of all time, an influential guitarist, screenwriter, producer and director. Winner of nine Juno awards, he was drawn towards music at an early age and has been part of many famous bands in his career including Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Pearl Jam. (To my surprise, Neil Young also has patents for seven inventions related to model trains and he was a former part owner of Lionel Trains, LLC.)
Discover more of your favourite Canadian music artists in Digital Archive Ontario. We would love to hear your suggestions of other Ontario artists to profile in future posts!