Toronto's Historical Plaques
Discover Toronto's history as told through its plaques
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The Purple Onion
Photos by Alan L Brown with transcription
by contributor Wayne Adam - Posted September, 2016
In front of 41 Avenue Road on the east side, just north of Yorkville Avenue, can be seen this 2016 Heritage Toronto plaque. Here's what it tells us:
Opened in 1960 as an investment project by accounting students Barry Witkin, Allen Lastman, and Sam Gutmacher, the Purple Onion was one of Yorkville's most successful early folk music coffee houses/clubs. With its prominent location in a Victorian rowhouse on this site, the coffee house attracted an audience of over 30,000 people during its first three years of operation. Each person paid $1 for a membership, plus admission fees, to see up-and-coming artists perform.
The coffee house's stage featured the blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the comedy of Rich Little, and early folk performances by Ian & Sylvia, Judy Collins, Josh White Jr., Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, The Travellers, and the Two Tones. In 1962, the jazz trio Three, consisting of guitar legend Lenny Breau, singer Don Francks, and bassist Eon Henstridge, recorded the album At the Purple Onion (first released in 2004), and it was here that Buffy Sainte-Marie, between sets, wrote "Universal Soldier" (1964), a Vietnam War protest song that became popular in later recordings by other artists.
As Yorkville's music scene began diversifying in style, the Purple Onion changed owners in 1965. They booked rock and blues acts, including local favourites Luke & The Apostles, until the club closed one year later.
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