By: Bob Mersereau
It seems almost a ridiculous billing today, akin to the famous tour where Jimi Hendrix opened for The Monkees. But when Edward Bear opened for Led Zeppelin 50 years ago in Toronto, not once but twice within a three-month span, they were a much different band than the pop hitmakers we remember today. Three years before “Last Song” made the group soft pop heroes and sold a million, Edward Bear was one of Toronto’s hottest blues-rock outfits, and some say the band even bettered the mighty Zeppelin on those 1969 shows.
To get a sense of what Edward Bear was like in those early days, you have to look at the original membership. Danny Marks was a Toronto whiz-kid teenage guitarist when he answered an ad in Toronto’s After 4 magazine in 1967 he figures, for a blues guitarist. The group he joined, which became the Edward Bear Revue, featured keyboard player Paul Weldon, singer Larry Evoy, a bassist and a drummer. The drummer left, and Evoy did double-duty, singing behind the kit. Then the bass player left, and to skip going through more auditions, Weldon took over on piano bass duties, similar to the style of The Doors at the time. It was this three-piece sound that soon became a big favourite of Toronto’s famed Yorkville Village scene, the band playing at clubs such as the El Patio and The Night Owl, and around southern Ontario.
“We became hot in the Village and the underground scene, we were writing our own songs, and people were experimenting with all sorts of things,” says Marks, today the host of the long-running BLUZ FM show on JAZZ.FM91 radio in Toronto. “The music was changing and we were there with all of it. We had a brand, we had a look, and with only three people in the band, each guy had plenty to do.”
The sound was a unique combination of the three individuals. “It’s what kids call psych music now,” says Marks, “and (rock critic) Marty Melhuish called us an enigma. We had sort of a jazzy lean, courtesy of Paul Weldon, we had a pop vibe courtesy of Larry, and we had a blues thing courtesy of me. But also all three of us were into each other’s bags too, it wasn’t like we were just one thing. In those days, the charts were eclectic. You didn’t have to be only one thing. Edward Bear was a blend.”
They were hot enough to catch the attention of the country’s top talent scout, Capitol Records A&R exec Paul White, who signed the group to a national deal.
Meanwhile, the band were honing the material that would make up their first album, Bearings, which included heavier originals “Mind Police” and “Toe Jam,” and covers of Freddie King’s “Hideaway” and B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have The Blues,” which were showcases for Marks on guitar. Oh, and Evoy’s pop side came through on the very catchy “You, Me and Mexico.”
Things peaked just a few weeks before the release of Bearings, when the group got the ultimate prestige booking on August 18, 1969. They were picked to open for the hot new group, Led Zeppelin, at Toronto’s Rock Pile club at Yonge and Davenport (now The Masonic Temple). Of course, the two shows that night were sold out. Some 2,000 people were in the audience while hundreds more waited outside unable to get in. The place was packed, humid and hot thanks to the August weather. Edward Bear did themselves proud, holding their own during their opening sets, earning praise with their version of “Everyday I Have The Blues” and a strong review from the Globe and Mail’s new rock writer Ritchie Yorke, the most important critic on the scene.
“We did our best,” says Marks. “I think it elevated our status incredibly. We knew all along that we were dedicated and unified, and we were very proud of ourselves. We were proud of our sound. We felt that with everything that each one of us brought, that there was no stopping us. We really felt we were on our way.”
It went so well that the band were given another slot with Led Zeppelin when they returned on November 2 for two shows at the O’Keefe Centre. This time, an up-and-coming guitar player and blues fan from Burlington, Bernie LaBarge, was in the audience to see his British heroes.
“Led Zeppelin II had just come out, and I’d just picked it up the day before,” remembers LaBarge. “I stayed up all night memorizing it.” He was already a fan of Edward Bear, especially of Marks’ playing, but was really there to see Led Zeppelin.
“So Edward Bear opens up, and Danny is on fire,” says LaBarge. “He’s just playing great, he sounds great. Danny was fantastic. Then Zeppelin comes out, and they played basically the second album. And they were just too loosey-goosey for me, and I thought Jimmy Page kinda sucked, and I was really looking forward to it, because he’s so awesome on record. I like things to be played like on the record, and they weren’t anywhere near that.”
LaBarge went on to be a guitar player of note himself, with a solo career, and playing with bands from Rhinoceros to The Irish Rovers. “A couple of years later, I was doing a session with Danny, and I got to tell him, I thought he blew Jimmy Page off the stage.”
With the Zeppelin billings a success, the Bearings album came out, and the group had a hit on their hands. The single “You, Me and Mexico” was a Canadian smash, making it to No. 3 on the influential CHUM radio chart. It was certainly enough to warrant a U.S. release too, and the group then set their sights on the States.
Enter the group’s teenage friend Michael Watson, who had been involved in managing a local Toronto group, Buckstone Hardware, but was now adrift.
“I ran into Mrs. Evoy, Larry’s mom,” says Watson. “She says, ‘Mike what are you doing?’ I’m going to L.A. ‘Oh, the boys are going to L.A., can you find them a place to stay? Would you do some advance work, phone up the radio stations, sniff around?’ I said sure, and they slipped me a bunch of cash, and I went down, set up this apartment in the same building I was staying in on Hollywood Blvd. I just assumed I had this mandate from Edward Bear that I’m the local promo guy. I’m like 19, I’m having a great time.”
The band headed to the U.S. on a big promo tour that started in New York, where they opened for the group Badfinger. They worked their way west, pushing their single and album.
“So for a couple of months, I saw this record that I knew from the year before, ‘You, Me and Mexico,’ going up the charts,” says Watson. “I remember how thrilling it was watching it hit the charts in places like Des Moines, Iowa, which lead it to get played on KHJ in Los Angeles. So they ended up headlining a show at the Whisky a Go Go, in December of 1970.”
It was part of a series of shows around the Los Angeles area, plus limo trips to radio stations and interviews, all to promote the single. “It was a Saturday night, the joint was frigging hopping, and my eyes were bulging. The place was full, Sunset Strip, I was astounded. I was hanging around them, they had something happening, we hung out down there a couple of weeks, and I just pretended that I did this stuff all the time.”
Watson parlayed his brief promo job with the band into what became his full-time job in the ’70s, doing promotion for Columbia Records in Toronto. The group scored as well, with “You, Me and Mexico” breaking them in the U.S., peaking at No. 68 on the Billboard charts, laying the groundwork for future success.
“They were in the pipeline already,” says Watson. “Once you’re on the conveyor belt, you’re moving forward. Then bang-o, those were real hits a couple of years later,” he says of Edward Bear’s future chart singles.
Meanwhile, the group was ready for another album, but Danny Marks was starting to have some misgivings. “It was only after people started coming up to me, saying, ‘“You, Me and Mexico,” that’s bubblegum, aren’t you guys supposed to be a heavy band, what are you doing?” I said, ‘Quick, let’s release something funky.’ The record company said, ‘No no, wait wait. This isn’t how it works, you need to set your style, you need to make your follow-up almost the same as your first record.’”
But Marks pushed his blues side, and got his tune “You Can’t Deny It” as the next single, a riff-heavy number miles away from “Mexico.” It flopped, both home and abroad. “That’s a lot of the reason why I left,” says Marks. “I thought, they did what I asked, it didn’t work, and I don’t want my friends to think I’m a bubblegum guy. I shouldn’t have listened.”
Marks brought in his great friend Roger Ellis to replace him on guitar, and the band reworked their efforts, concentrating on Evoy’s songs. There’s no denying that worked, big time. 1972’s “Fly Across The Sea” put them back on the Canadian charts, “Masquerade” was an even bigger hit, and then “Last Song” broke through in the U.S., the band finally capitalizing on the inroads they’d made a couple of years before. It peaked at No. 3 on Billboard.
“As soon as I left, and they had ‘Last Song’ out, everybody said, ‘Aren’t you sorry you left? Why did you quit? Look at that hit record, you’d be rolling in it.’ I thought, ‘Wow, I gotta stop listening to my friends,’” laughs Marks.
His love was the blues, and Marks has had a fascinating career following it. He went on to the band Jericho, then teamed up with Neil Young’s old Yorkville bandmate Rick James in the Stone City Band (pre-“Super Freak” for James). That was followed by a long, respected solo career, several albums, his radio career, and the acclaimed Cities In Blue TV documentary series. But he still thinks of those early Edward Bear days with pride.
“Imagine finding yourself in the record store racks, on Capitol Records, alphabetically between the Beach Boys and the Beatles,” says Marks. Not a bad place to be in 1969.