ARTS April 17th, 2008

By Lorianna De Giorgio

Silver Dollar Room shining bright 50 years later

From its humble beginnings as a cocktail lounge for the Waverly Hotel to one of Toronto’s top blues bars, the Silver Dollar Room is still shining after 50 years.

The Spadina and College landmark has been the go-to place for live blues, bluegrass and rock music since it opened on Jan. 1, 1958.

Like the El Mocambo and the Horseshoe Tavern, the club is credited with launching the careers of both homegrown and international musicians. The minstrels who have played there say the Silver Dollar is one of the only places where they can develop their craft and gain a wider audience.

Some of today’s stars having graced the Silver Dollar’s stage include blues legends Bobby “Blue” Bland and Fathead, and the city’s rock elite, such as the Zoobombs and the Deadly Snakes.

“It’s all about the music,” says Gary Kendall, a bassist for local blues band Downchild, who has worked as the Silver Dollar’s talent buyer since 1994. “It’s a live music club and that’s what comes first.”

Kendall said the setup gives musicians an opportunity to make things happen.

“The Dollar has provided us with a stage,” he said.

Having changed hands through the years, the club has been under David and Elsa Yarmus ownership along with several silent partners for the past 11 years. The actual building is owned by the Wynn Group, which owns the neighbouring Waverly Hotel.

Live music has always been a staple at the Silver Dollar. Even in its incarnation as a strip club in the 1970s, the strippers danced to a live blues band.

In order to reach a wider audience and compensate for the declining numbers of blues listeners in the new millennium, the club began to increase its bluegrass and rock music.

“It’s hard to do six nights a week of one kind of music,” Kendall says. “It made sense to diversify than to just fold.”

The Comfort Zone, an after-hours dance and rave club operating out of the basement, has also helped the Silver Dollar survive.

Nowadays, with the help of fellow talent buyer Dan Burke, rock music takes over every Thursday and Friday night. Bluegrass is on Wednesdays, with blues rounding out the week on Saturdays.

“It’s a classic blues bar,” says Jason Nowicki, lead singer and guitarist for Winnipeg-based band, the Perpetrators. “Few of those are left nowadays.”

While he has played at the Silver Dollar only four times in the band’s seven-year history, one thing that keeps them coming back is the club’s openness to other music genres, he says. They play there again on Feb. 1.

“Gary (Kendall) lets us do what we want to do,” Nowicki says, describing the Perpetrators’ music as a mix of bluesy rock and punk. “Everyone who comes there — the musicians and the audience — are there for the music.

“People like to cut loose and have a good time.”

Bluegrass guitarist Chris Coole agrees.

As a member of many Toronto-based bluegrass and folk bands, including Crazy Strings, Coole has played at the Silver Dollar every Wednesday for the past eight years. What he loves about the place is how it supports both well-established musicians and emerging artists who are looking for a lucky break, he says.

Playing there has led him to get other gigs, and to form another blues band, the Foggy Hogtown Boys.

“I know it sounds cliché, but it’s got a lot of history,” Coole says. “I love to play in an old bar that has a lot of atmosphere in it that hasn’t had it built in the last five years.

“At the Silver Dollar, the feeling is really there.”