As Toronto’s R&B scene goes global, this Canada Day provides a rare opportunity to see a band that helped laid the foundation nearly 40 years ago.
As befits their name, Toronto soul/funk phenomenon Crack Of Dawn has had a Janus-like history that draws from the past while looking to the future. They’re a perfect fit for Canada Day—a Janus holiday in July—at Harbourfront.
In 1975, Crack of Dawn became the first black Canadian band to sign with a major label—and, in doing so, they became the last, most successful product of the soon-to-be-extinct Yonge Street soul scene. But their own demise a few years later seeded Canadian music with multi-faceted talent.
Trevor Daley was/is the band’s trombonist but has spent most of the past several decades as a manager. For him, it’s no surprise things have come together again.
“Everyone realizes that the most important thing is the Crack of Dawn” he reflects. “It’s funny how it’s gotten this way and come full circle.”
The band evolved in part from The Cougars, a band of soulful expat Jamaicans (chronicled on the essential Jamaica to Toronto series from a few years ago). The Cougars stood apart from most of their contemporaries on the waning Toronto R&B scene who tended be comprised of white personnel fronted by black singers doing covers. With Toronto reggae icon Jackie Mittoo in the band, The Cougars mixed original material with fresh approaches to cover versions.
“They broke the mold,” Daley remembers. “They opened up the marketplace which Crack of Dawn went [down] a bit further”.
Crack of Dawn dawned in 1975. Daley and guitarist Rupert Harvey decided to further their funky tendencies and put together a project focussed on recording as much as performing. A nine-member combination of Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Grenadans, and Haligonians took a mixed bag of influences and honed them into up-to-the minute funk.
“We really don’t know why we ended up like that—why we didn’t do more Caribbean music with members from Trinidad, Jamaica and Grenada,” Daley says. “We were more influenced by the R&B sound and our singer Glen Ricketts was, too, more than reggae.” Perhaps there’s a bubbling reggae feel to the organ part in one of their signature songs “It’s Alright (This Feeling),” but mostly it’s about the Hustle.
Daley says that, once their management sought out reps from Columbia/CBS Records, the label eagerly pursued them. Considering how hard it was for The Cougars to break into Yonge Street clubs less than a decade earlier, this history-making record deal seems to have come about surprisingly easily.
Crack of Dawn only released one album for Columbia, but these were golden years. With a major label behind them, they embarked on the quintessential Canadian rite of musical passage: the cross-country tour.
“The [audiences] got it in Toronto, but I didn’t think the rest of the country would,” Daley recounts. “We went to Calgary; we didn’t really want to go. But we got there and it was widely appreciated so we were kind of surprised. Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, all across the country. We were doing a lot of colleges and universities. We were doing well.”
After a couple of jaunts across the country strained by increasingly different musical viewpoints on the tour bus, things started to unravel. Changing tastes also played a role.
“We were playing in Montréal in Place Des Arts and we were opening for Tina Charles. [Writer's note: Stop what you’re doing and listen to this.] The record company was so much into Tina Charles, they came to see her and they saw us. I overheard one of the record execs say we were too much like Earth Wind & Fire. If we were going to be on the same label [as them], we should cut it down. The horn section was the first to say, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ The rhythm section stayed for a little bit then they left, too”.
Fortunately, given how these tales often go, people landed on their feet career-wise. Ricketts became “the Al Green of Jamaica” and fathered Toronto soul star Glenn Lewis. Rupert Harvey went on to form one of Canada’s most important reggae bands, Messenjah. His brother and fellow Crack of Dawn member Carl Harvey produced Messenjah and Sway, as well as playing guitar for Toots & The Maytals for more than 25 years. Drummer Carl Otway also turned to production.
Everyone stayed in touch. Now, in spite of earlier revivals in the ’80s and ’90s, the time feels right for a reunion.
“We were in the same place at the same time,” Daley explains. “We said, ‘Why would we do this again?’ We started off like, ‘Yeah right, sure’… and then it got serious. It’s getting better and better every rehearsal. Last night, we said, ‘Wow this was awesome.’ It’s like we never quit.”
Canada Day will be your only chance to see Crack of Dawn live for quite some time, as they haven’t planned any more shows over the summer. They are recording, though. Given the strength of Toronto’s R&B scene right now, this show will be a well-deserved celebration of a band that helped jumpstart the city’s soul movement.
Crack of Dawn perform as part of Canada Day: Going Global on Sunday (July 1) at 2 p.m. at Harbourfront Centre’s WestJet stage (235 Queens Quay St. W.). Free.