Backstage at Ottawa’s Barrymore’s 1982–87
The most private of the private parties in Ottawa nightlife in the ‘80’s was the backroom at Barrymore's the premier Nightclub on Bank St.
Carl “Sonny” Thomson held court nightly after closing time. It could be Burton Cummings meeting up with Sonny then taking the stage alone to play all of his “Guess Who” hits for a private audience of a couple of us.
Sonny booked in Tina Turner a full year before her “Private Dancer” tour took off electrifying the charts. Four shows over two nights and he lost money on it! (But, I saw every show…)
Sonny was a convicted felon, the estranged nephew of Roy Thomson, “Lord Thomson of Fleet” the richest man in Canada, and through these years my best friend and drug dealer.
Sonny was the “black sheep” of the Thomson's. He had gone to jail and Lord Roy had nothing to do with him thereafter.
The story goes that Sonny got out of jail and came to Toronto, walking to the door of Lord Thomson's Rosedale home. (You could do things like this until recently) He knocked on the door and Lord Roy himself answered.
Sonny was cap in hand asking his uncle for a job doing anything for Thomson Ltd., then one of Canada’s leading newspaper publishers. Sonny would work in the loading dock, anything to get a start with his uncle.
Uncle Roy told him to “apply to personnel and see what they could do tomorrow morning at the office”, and begged to be excused because he had dinner waiting.
Sonny piped up that he was “really hungry too”.
Without missing a beat, Roy recommended a restaurant around the corner to him and closed the door. They never met again.
Sonny's dad was Roy's brother Carl. Business partners in the beginning, Carl Thomson was the brash successful salesman of the family and Roy the bookish numbers guy.
Carl sweet talked CFRB Toronto out of an old breadboard transmitter, minus the tubes in 1931 and for $201 Roy financed their first radio station CFCH, North Bay, Ontario. That was only the start. Roy is later quoted saying a broadcast licence is a “permit to print money” (often misquoted as a “licence to print money”).
Sonny got nothing from Roy.
Even his father is pretty much written out of the family history. But, Sonny never gave up hope of ever being taken home again. (He never was) He spoke only with pride of his family, and took pride in himself as a “self-made” if “unlawfully-bent man”.
Sonny was proud of being a strong-man, He was shaped like a “V” working out regularly and taking pride in his flaming red hair.
Barrymore's itself was all Sonny Thomson as “Showman”. He brought all the best entertainment to town.
Before they were names I saw U2, Simple Minds, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, T-Bone Burnett, Jerry Doucette, Bryan Adams, Woody Herman, and the list goes on forever. I was permanently on the Guest List at Barrymore's.
The theater itself was the old “Imperial Theater” of Ottawa. Practically gutted by the 70's Thomson and son in law Gord Rhodes brought the old shell back to life, replacing chandeliers with scavenging from another old Ottawa Movie Palace. This was a classy music palace.
They re-gilded cheaply with bronze paint, but it still sparkled! The carpeting muted any echo. And the room was acoustically amazing. The fact it was on 4 levels with bars at top and bottom was a challenge to the waitstaff. The girls looked like beautiful gazelles (and I was married to one) All those stairs in spike heels night in and night out. But, the view from any seat was front-row.
My first meeting with Sonny Thomson was after I was invited to the club by a manager, punctuated by Sonny being introduced and then throwing the soon-to-be ex-manager down the main staircase to the street. (about two stories of stairs…)
As fast as he could turn on his heel, my new acquaintance, “Mr. Thomson” (No, call me “Sonny”…)was apologizing for his behavior and pouring me a drink. He apologized for “the business” I had witnessed and did his best to put events out of my mind.
(Was he kidding? I just wasn’t sure whether it was safe to run yet…)
Still, I didn’t have much choice about the relationship. This man was bringing huge stars into town to perform and part of my job was to talk to those same stars. This was dicey, but with Gord Rhodes running the main job of booking talent I didn’t have to interact with Sonny that much: Until I did…
My relationship with the club kept growing as Barrymore’s was able to get most major acts on an “off night”. A night between dates in Montreal and Toronto which could be taken as a night off, or a date in Ottawa.
Sonny and Gord went all out to lure the acts in. Whatever it took to close the deal, and the acts became easier to obtain once they found what awaited them in Ottawa. We made sure they had a good time. A Great time if possible.
Many times the stories made negotiations easier because connections made things very accommodating. Airplay on radio was one big draw…I had a lot of pull that way. But, really it boiled down to “personal relationships” where these performers knew they’d have a fine reception.
I looked forward to sitting with John Lee Hooker to talk about blues and who he learned it from. Jeff Healey was a young blind guitarist discovered by Stevie Ray Vaughan and I had the pleasure of charting his first song ever. It meant a lot and led to a friendship he nor I ever forgot. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Promotion is everything in the music business and Barrymore’s did promotion 24/7 looking for any way possible to give the club a bigger name.
Kim was my wife at the time and she took a job waiting tables at Barrymore’s around 1982. We had two girls under age three at home and were living in what once was a luxurious town home on Kent Street in Ottawa. (Even split in half this was a 3 bedroom, central location a block from the club.)
This could be handy for entertaining, and we did. I understand I threw some good parties! (And some bad ones too!)
Meatloaf showed me his tour schedule for Ottawa when he came through town, and it said at the bottom after “Load-in”, “Check in at Hotel”, “Rehearsal” etc… “For a good time call Mark Elliot at 613–237–0…”
I seem to have developed a reputation…
Connections were the name of the game as it’s still played today. And you made those connections socially at shows. Stars are regular folks like you and me and they like you when you’re friendly. Especially when you’re memorable.
Sonny Thomson was the most memorable person I ever knew up to that point. I caught hell at my radio station when his name came up around the office. I got called in to the General Managers office for a talk and I was told “This is not a person we want you associated with”.
My only defense was that I wanted to interview stars that were being booked at the club and that as long as they booked the talent it was my job to be there. “I had to go to the bar” was too true.
But, I was to find someone who is one of the Greatest Showmen I’ve ever known!
Sonny Thomson and Gord Rhodes booked talent, the likes of which I’d only dreamt of seeing in my lifetime. Let alone, met. Got to know as friends and usually looked forward to seeing again.
I sometimes can’t believe that Bryan Adams was a seventeen year old kid who pressed his nose up against the glass in my studio saying “Play my record Mr. Elliot, please?” (I have interviews both before and after his voice changed from adolescence) He was always incredibly polite to me, which even after he became a big star he always showed. He was my friend apart from a rock star.
I first saw Bryan perform at Barrymore’s, because that was where you went to when you were starting out in music then. I could perhaps qualify that statement by saying “When you started out in Canada” but that’s untrue.
During Sonny and Gords day into the 1980's Barrymore’s debuted almost any artist I can name from Canada (of course), the U.K., and at that time “newbies” like Chris Isaac, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, and so many, many more!
Stevie Ray is a particular favorite of mine because I met him on assignment for ABC News.
New York wanted to run an anti-drunk driving campaign for Christmas one year. The assignment was to get as many rock stars as possible to say their name, and “Don’t Drink and Drive!”
Stevie Ray was playing Barrymore’s that week and I caught up with him at a hotel. His publicist was a man named Charles (Charlie) Comer. I can introduce you to Charlie here. ( I feel so sad when I look up an old friend after 25 years and find their obituary written so lovingly!)
Charlie became a source for more stories than I had ever had access to. He found me to be a good mouthpiece for any stories he wanted to release about The Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray, or anybody else he wanted to get into the news.
You see, once I was connected to ABC Radio the door was open to anything good I could provide them.
More to come…but first read: Mark Elliot for ABC News, Toronto