Massey Hall

By David McPherson
Foreword by Jann Arden

Massey Hall
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The fascinating story of Canada’s most revered concert hall and the myriad artists who have graced its stage.

Known for its intimacy and sense of occasion, a night at Toronto’s Massey Hall is magical for both audiences and performers. For many musicians, playing the hall ... Read more


Overview

The fascinating story of Canada’s most revered concert hall and the myriad artists who have graced its stage.

Known for its intimacy and sense of occasion, a night at Toronto’s Massey Hall is magical for both audiences and performers. For many musicians, playing the hall is the surest sign that they have made it. Looking out over the crowd, performers often comment that they feel they have joined history as they stand on the stage where Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and so many other legends have stood.

Based on scores of interviews and meticulous research, Massey Hall chronicles not only the historical and musical moments of the past 127 years, but also the community of artists and supporters that has built up around the hall. Covering both emerging artists such as Shakura S’Aida and William Prince and musical giants from Herbie Hancock to the Tragically Hip, this full-colour book is a celebration of music, community, and our shared cultural heritage.

David McPherson

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.

Excerpt

Introduction
Massey Hall Forever

Time. That wise marker of the days of our lives. It’s the seconds, hours, months, and years that have united all the unique and outstanding performances made, speeches given, and songs sung for the first time on Massey Hall’s stage over the past 127 years.

Designated as a heritage building in 1975 under the Ontario Heritage Act and a National Historic Site of Canada in 1981, Massey Hall is one of Toronto’s oldest links to our collective cultural past. It has survived when so many other heritage buildings and concert halls in the city have gone the way of the wrecking ball. This iconic building is a symbol of the history, not only of the artists that graced its stage, but of Toronto itself.

The venue recently underwent its first major upgrade in nearly seventy years. This was not simply an exercise in fixing the blemishes of a century-old building. It was a $184 million project that saw the hall close temporarily for only the second time in its history. For more than three years, no crowds gathered on the sidewalk outside in anticipation of a show, no performers waited backstage to step out to play for the first time, or the tenth. But with the revitalized hall opening once again in November 2021, years of intermissions now await, new memories will be made, and many more relationships between artist and audience will be forged and developed. Thanks to the vision of current and past leadership, donors, patrons, and all levels of government, my grandchildren’s children will have the opportunity to enjoy a show of perhaps some yet-unknown genre in the grandeur of Massey Hall and understand in their own way what makes this place special. The hall that Hart built will continue to be a place “for the people” for at least another century.

Many have called Massey Hall Canada’s answer to Carnegie Hall. And the two buildings do share many similarities. Both were built and gifted to their cities by wealthy industrialists (just three years apart) and are woven into the fabric and cultural identities of their cities. And both still stand. But what makes Massey different is that, unlike Carnegie, which has always been a destination for the well-to-do, this is and always has been a blue-collar hall; a gathering place for the entire community, for people from all walks of life and with different tastes and styles. Patrons feel just as comfortable walking through the doors in a three-piece suit as they do in denim and a favourite band T-shirt. Name most any genre, and you’ll find that Massey Hall is considered the temple of music in Canada for that group of fans.

Like a comfortable pair of shoes, or a friend you can always turn to in good times and bad, Massey Hall has been there. When the ushers say it’s time, patrons walk through those three red doors, gather with fellow music lovers, sink into their assigned seats, and forget about life for a while. The music envelops the audience, from the orchestra to the upper balcony. It’s a collective experience.

So many memories have been made for people over the years. There is the story of a woman going into labour at a concert and refusing to leave until the encore. One woman even named her son Massey because the hall and a Gordon Lightfoot concert played a part in his creation. For anyone who was born and raised in Toronto, who has ever lived here for any stretch of time, or who has made the trip to the city for a performance, Massey Hall is a special place.

As you travel through these pages, take time to savour these special moments in history, to recall and cherish your own Massey memories: your first or favourite show; the first time you heard a particular song; your favourite seat in the house. Then plan a trip to Shuter Street to experience the revitalized hall, generate new memories, perhaps even share the visit with a family member or friend experiencing their first concert at the hallowed hall.

One wonders if Hart Massey, a strict Methodist and teetotaller, would be rolling over in his grave if he knew they now served alcohol in his Cathedral to the Arts. And imagine if he heard some of the acts that have stood on its stage, such as Iron Maiden singing their refrain “666, the number of the beast,” with twentyfive hundred fans screaming along. Not to mention the illicit acts of rock ’n’ roll excess that have occurred backstage. I like to think he would be pleased and proud to know that his gift to Toronto has become, as well, a gift to the country he loved — one that keeps on giving more than a century after its inception. Sure, the programming has changed to reflect the zeitgeist of each era, but the reality is this: the raison d’être of the philanthropist who created the hall — and his mandate that it be a gathering place for the community — is and will continue to be the essence of Massey Hall. Over the years, Hart’s act of charity has touched and enriched the lives of generations of Canadians. And, thanks to this recent revitalization, will continue to do so for generations to come.

The incredible acoustics and intimate ambience at Massey Hall are an audio engineer’s dream, the ideal space to capture live performances. From the 1950s to the 2000s, more than a dozen albums were recorded at Massey. I will highlight those that stand out for their unexpectedly high sales, quality, and importance to the artists’ careers.

Asked what makes Massey special, artists unanimously agree on the aforementioned two traits: its intimacy and its acoustics. When you are on that storied stage and set to perform, you feel as if you could hug the audience. It feels that intimate.

For 127 years, the hall has withstood depressions, gentrification, calls for its demolition, and most recently a pandemic. Yet, the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street still stands, a beacon of hope and guardian of the arts.

Massey Hall forever.

Awards

  • Toronto Book Awards 2022, Long-listed
  • Heritage Toronto Book Award 2022,

Reviews

A lavish love letter to Canada’s queen of concert halls, packed with vivid tales from and about her most famous performers and intimate photos of those artists, taken onstage and off. Long may Massey reign.

David McPherson brilliantly weaves together several strands of western culture in the history of Toronto’s revered venue, the Massey Music Hall. He juxtaposes the logistical, economic, architectural, and political challenges in creating and maintaining the theatre and guides the reader through more than a century of classical, folk, blues, jazz, rock and roll, comedy, and philosophy through the prism of Massey’s stage.

Massey Hall is one of the great iconic concert venues in the world for both classical and pop music. Now it has an iconic book to go with it. If one day we would have to explain to extraterrestrials the magic of the human invention of music, this book would suffice to make their ears (assuming those extraterrestrials have something like ears) burn and yearn.

In his reverential look at Massey Hall, David McPherson captures not just its long and storied history but the true spirit of a remarkable cultural icon and why it means so much to so many. Rock stars and rogues, politicians and wrestlers, even the Canadian Typewriting Championship, Massey Hall has seen it all and McPherson presents it all, brilliantly.

David McPherson chronicles the history of one loving and beloved home to music — and so much more — that has become legendary in Canada and admired all around the world. The legacy of Massey Hall is long and illustrious and features so many of the greatest artists of our times, Canadian and otherwise. By tracing this great hall's story through many decades of highs and lows, triumphs and challenges, McPherson reminds us all how important a living cultural centre can be to one city like Toronto and to the whole world that art and artists connect.

David McPherson's appropriate reverence for Toronto's most enduring palace of musical art is abundant on every page of this lovingly crafted and impeccably researched book. David has created a living and tactile testament to a building that isn't just a hall of music, it's a hall of magic.

McPherson not only tells the rocking, rollicking history of this iconic temple of music in all its glory; he somehow captures the elusive soul of Massey Hall that makes it so unique. A must for any music fan.

This book is a masterful tribute to the triumph of our beloved Massey Hall. To read of her astonishing survival through the countless pressures that threatened her with the wrecking ball time and again is incredible. Enriched by the memories of the musical icons strewn throughout, this book is a delightful account of the extraordinary vitality that magically still haunts and enriches this treasured hall.

No matter how many times I play Massey, I feel like there’s a new magic that spills over from the walls and that beautiful wooden stage. It’s like I’ll never really get to know it, but it always feels familiar and exciting. Either from the audience or the stage, every time I’m inside, it's an honour and a gift that takes me in its grounded, nourishing mystery. David’s book covers all the familiar and magical ground I feel when I walk through those doors backstage or front of house. It feels like I’m inside those walls again when I open this book. That’s the kind of magic worth sharing.

David McPherson captures the magic and the spirit of Massey Hall in his beautiful book. It makes you want to be there and makes you remember why you wanted to play there more than anywhere else.

This is a book that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about Massey Hall and even more. Terrifically researched and written, with loads of great pictures, it’s all you need to spend some special time at a fabulous theatre, and you don’t even need a ticket.

The tribute and testament this great venue, Canada's venue, deserves.

David takes us past the holy red doors and inside the beating heart of Canada's most important and loved cultural venue. A room where dreams have been ignited and kicked from the stage's wooden boards to the dusty corduroy seats, unknowingly giving us a better understanding of who we are to one another and who we can become. Rave on Massey Hall!

It is hard not to be moved by the story of the long and fruitful life of this hallowed building. Born out of philanthropic zeal, Massey Hall is a cultural institution that has given so much to so many in our great city. Sharing the many highs as well as the countless times the Hall was in the wrecking ball’s crosshairs, David’s book brings into pinpoint focus the story of this beloved Toronto landmark.

There are very few North American music venues that deserve a biography as lovingly crafted as this one, but Massey Hall, a. k.a. the Old Lady of Shuter Street, has been a not-so-silent witness to transformative moments in 20th-century history. It’s an essential character in the narrative of Toronto, of Canada, and of popular music itself. If the walls of Massey Hall could speak, this would be the story they’d tell.

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