Hello everyone and welcome back after my TOcityscapes hiatus! If you’d like to see what I was up to while in Tuscany, Italy you will find my blog here.

This past weekend I attended Doors Open Toronto and visited a couple of venues. Of most interest to me was The El Mocambo on Spadina Avenue. As someone with a passionate interest in pop/rock music history, I’ve always wanted to see inside the “El Mo” to see what it’s like.

That famous Spadina Avenue palm tree

A Bit Of History

The venue has played a crucial role in the development of popular music in Toronto since 1948 – the place is Toronto music history personified!

Opening in 1948, the El Mocambo was one of the city’s first cocktail bars. The establishment’s name and iconic neon palm sign were inspired by a San Francisco nightclub. At that time, the main floor was converted into a dining hall with a dance floor on the second floor that featured Latin music. Live music was not permitted until July 1948 (imagine that!?), when the Liquor Licence Board of Ontario reversed an earlier ban.

Stairs leading up to the upstairs stage. These are the names of the many acts who performed at the club.
Leading up to the stage

Bring On The Rock n’ Roll!

The business and building were bought in 1972 by Michael Baird and restaurateur Tom Kristenbrun. Under the pair’s ownership, the “El Mo” became a youth-oriented blues and rock music venue. It brought bands like Downchild Blues Band (which became the club’s house band), as well as Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and many others, “up the street” and paid them a regular fee to perform. During the early 1970s, the upstairs featured mostly “retreads” and “has-been” acts, with the occasional group on the rise. Most of the time, drink sales determined which bands would return. The bands would start out downstairs and if the revenue they generated increased, they would sometimes graduate to upstairs. Up and coming performers such as Tom Waits, U2 and Elvis Costello performed at the El Mo in the 1970s.

Debbie rocks out: From a Blondie concert at The El Mocambo, sometime in the late 70s

The Rolling Stones Surprise Gig

On March 4, 1977, looking for a low-key venue to record in, The Rolling Stones played two performances at the club. The second performance occurred the next night, March 5, 1977. The Stones billed themselves as “The Cockroaches”, and club patrons got the surprise of their lives when this band turned out to be the Rolling Stones. The live album of these Stones performances, entitled El Mocambo 1977, was released in 2022.

The stage and club floor, seen from above
Bird’s eye view of the stage
The upper balcony looking down at the stage
El Mocambo stage on the ground floor

Saved, Renovated, Rejuvenated

The club was expected to close after a last show on November 6, 2014. However, on the eve of its impending closure, it was announced that the club had been purchased for $3.8 million by Michael Wekerle, who arranged to renovate it and maintain it as a live music venue. Currently, the El Mocambo is open and operational after its 30 million dollar renovations to two stages, several different bars, a recording studio, private rooms, and dance floors. It looks terrific and has been beautifully restored, with a strong emphasis on the club’s past (and rightfully so).

Concert memorabilia
Ticket stubs from from concerts past
The lower level bar
The original booking schedules for acts. The logs showed who was booked, how much they were paid and how much tickets cost to attend the concert. For example, above, Blondie was booked for August 2 and 3, were paid $2,750 for the gig, and tickets were an outrageous $5.50 each!!
In the lobby: the original 1948 “Tavern” neon sign, plus an announcement of a concert by “The Cockroaches” (aka The Rolling Stones) during their surprise concerts here on March 4 and 5, 1977.
The original 1948 drinks menu – Wow!… drinks for .75 cents!