"Back in the Old Folky Days": The Riverboat Coffee House
Today, standing at 134 Yorkville Avenue, one is surrounded by hair salons, fine dining and Starbucks Coffee in the midst of one of Toronto’s most upscale neighbourhoods. If you could rewind forty or fifty years, and take a trip below street level, you would find yourself in the middle of one of Canada’s most important and influential music venues and the neighbourhood would look a lot different. Walking down the street, perhaps barefoot, you’d see a mix of hippies, beatniks and bikers roaming around. The streets would be lined with taken-over Victorian houses turned into coffee houses, art galleries and hangouts. As you walked down into 134 Yorkville, a large sign reading THE RIVERBOAT would greet you before pine paneled walls and cozy red booths. If you were lucky you might listen to Gordon Lightfoot or Joni Mitchell serenading the crowd.
1964 marked the opening of The Riverboat coffee house and the start of an era of amazing music to come from there, all under the careful watch of owner/operator Bernie Fiedler. Although it wasn’t the first coffee house in Yorkville, it became the most influential. Almost everybody important who came out of Toronto played there. Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and more played there, often getting a start at the open mic “hoot nights”. Phil Ochs even wrote “Changes” here!
Harry Belefante and Gordon Lightfoot at the Riverboat in 1967. This photo is from York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram but I got it from globeandmail.com. No copyright infringement intended!
Neil Young playing at The Riverboat in 1965. Manfred Buchheit took this photograph but I got it from theglobeandmail.com. No copy right infringement intended!
On June 25, 1978, the final set at the Riverboat was played by Murray MacLauchlan. Although the coffeehouse has now been closed for a long time, it is immortalized through the works of many artists, particularly Neil Young who sings of it in Ambulance Blues and who recorded an album there. Additionally, the site has been made into a National Historic Site. Although it has not been preserved, a plaque has been erected.
If you’d like to read more about Yorkville, I highly recommend you read Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene and Nicholas Jennings’ Before the Goldrush. Each offer a great deal of insight on the music scene and gentrification of Yorkville.