Canadian history is filled with incredible music moments. A myriad of artists have found success and written songs that have resonated far from our borders. From Hank Snow and Neil Young to Leonard Cohen; Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan to Alanis Morrisette; Maestro Fresh Wes to Drake and The Weeknd; Justin Bieber to Shawn Mendes and Tate McRae, the list is endless. Our country has left a large legacy on the world stage.
In our time-starved culture—where the adjective busy is overused as in, when asked what they’ve been up to, people reply: “I’ve been busy!”— music journalism and telling unfamiliar stories is what has kept me occupied lately.
As a lover of both music and history, it was natural to dig deep into the rich well of Canadian music history to discover the wealth of stories, songs, and fascinating facts our artists have contributed to the broader North American canon.
Take any genre and Canada is well represented. Most people can name the famous artists who were born here, some who left—and many who stayed—and found success. All penned songs that linger long and connect with generation after generation. These artists are so well known one only need to say their first name: Neil, Gord, Joni, Leonard, Buffy, Celine, Alanis … and Canadians know who you are talking about.
But beyond these legends there are hundreds and hundreds more that are not as well known like Ruth Lowe; the Toronto songwriter who penned a wistful piano ballad (“I’ll Never Smile Again”) that became the first No.1 hit on the modern Billboard charts for Frank Sinatra.
People love lists. That’s where the idea for my latest book 101 Fascinating Canadian Music Facts came from. And, over the past year, I’ve written many features for GRAMMY.com using this format, like this piece on David Foster or this one on Gordon Lightfoot. In this vein, I offer Six Seminal Moments in Canadian Music History for your consideration.
Like all listicles, this is only a starting point. After reading this post, I hope it sparks conversations and deep discussions with your music-loving friends, and you will be inspired to create your own lists. I could have filled my book with 1001 facts and this list could have been ten times longer.
Finally, I am but one voice. There are so many talented music journalists in this country who share stories like these every day. Support them. Read their work and share it widely. Then support the Canadian artists these scribes are writing about: buy their records and go see them play live. Most importantly, take pride in our homegrown artists — past and present — and our rich history of musical moments for Canada is lucky to claim so many incredible musicians as our own.
May 15, 1953
For only one night, on this spring day back in the 1950s, five of the best jazz cats of the do-wop era gathered inside the three red doors off Shuter Street. The quintet: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Despite the show not selling out, the concert has since become known as “the greatest jazz concert ever” because of this unbelievable line-up of musicians that never again gathered on the same stage.
June 6-7, 1972
The idea you could not make it in Canada unless you made it in the United States first really started in the late 1960s. Europeans were much more aware of U.S. acts and lumped Canadian artists in with those south of the border. In the early 1970s, the music press in the U.K. did not know the variety of unique songwriters and groups that were emerging in Canada. In 1972, music journalist Ritchie York and Arnold Gosewich (president of Capitol Records Canada at the time) invited about 100 European record producers and reporters to Canada for an all-expenses-paid trip to experience the breadth of artists from Canada. Dubbed The Maple Music Junket, the trip included visits to Montreal and Toronto where a pair of memorable back-to-back shows occurred at Massey Hall. For artists who played these gigs, it changed things for Canadian musicians, for the better. Once again, the Hall played a key role in advancing and promoting our culture and our artists to the rest of the world.
3. BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE WINS AN OSCAR
April 11, 1983
Buffy Sainte-Marie, already a trailblazer by this point having already penned such emotive songs as “Universal Soldier,” and “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” made history again when another one of her compositions, “Up Where We Belong,” co-written with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 55th Academy Awards.
4. BIRTH OF MUCHMUSIC
August 31, 1984
As one of our first cable specialty TV channels, MuchMusic arrived three years after its U.S. cousin MTV. For Canadians, the birth of “the nation’s music station” was a game-changer in the music industry established by producer John Martin. The VJs —the new noun created to describe the hosts that introduced and played and premiered these videos — became celebrities in their own right. But, most importantly, MuchMusic offered a new medium for Canadian artists to not just get their songs heard but become hits thanks to the TV's reach. Countless Canadian acts, especially in the mid-to-late 1980s period, from Corey Hart and The Pursuit of Happiness to Lee Aaron and The Parachute Club, benefited from the boost regular rotation on the nation’s music station offered to their careers.
5. 1996 GRAMMY AWARDS
February 28, 1996
Joni, Celine, and Alanis – this trio of Canadian women took home seven awards on this historic night; Alanis alone won three golden gramophones for her worldwide smash Jagged Little Pill — one of the bestselling records of all time — that won Morissette Album of the Year, Best Rock Album and Best Female Rock Performance.
July 30, 2003
Long before COVID-19 in 2020, Toronto faced another pandemic when the SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic arrived in Canada between 2002 and 2004. While not as severe as the most recent pandemic, SARS affected the local economy and took its toll, especially on tourism in Canada’s largest city. The solution: hold a benefit rock concert at Downsview Park in northern Toronto. The event was unlike any the city had seen – before or since – with an estimated final attendance count between 450,000-500,000 strong. The Rolling Stones headlined; Canadian content included Blue Rodeo, Kathleen Edwards, Sass Jordan, the Tea Party, The Guess Who, and Rush.
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David McPherson is the author of the acclaimed Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History and has written for Grammy.com, the Globe and Mail, SOCAN’s Words and Music, No Depression, American Songwriter, and Acoustic Guitar. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.