In 1964, an old Victorian row house in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood emerged as a new underground coffee house. What started as a small venue for students and struggling musicians soon transformed into a coveted rehearsal space for up-and-coming Canadian folk artists to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot. In the wake of an urban counter-culture takeover, merging lattes with blues may have been an unforeseen combo, but owner Bernie Fielder certainly knew what he was doing when he turned a basement into 'the best-known coffee house in Canada'.
An early review in the Toronto Star credited Riverboat for the success of Canadian singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot's career, as it initially provided him consistent gigs. In fact, it did this for many who were experimenting with blues, folk, and rock in the 60's. It was actually within those pine walls and porthole windows that Lightfoot wrote Steel Rails Blues and Joni Mitchell first performed Both Sides, Now. We can all nod to this old lounge for the coffee shop playlists we hear today.
Come the late 70's, Lightfoot had moved on to headlining shows at Massey Hall. Most of the other musicians that once donned the boat's humble stage had made a name for themselves in LA. As other lounges, bars, and hole-in-the-wall businesses surfaced, 60's coffee culture and the Riverboat's star status faded. The real nail in the coffin was when Ontario's drinking age dropped and students sought other venues with liquor licenses. It was in 1978, just over 10 years after opening the doors that Fielder closed them with a final performance from Murray McLauchlan.
Today, a condo building stands 11 floors tall at 118 Yorkville Avenue where a commemorative Heritage Toronto sign remains the only piece of Riverboat Coffee House still afloat. To us, these lyrics from Neil Young immortalize the site more than any plaque ever will.
"Back in the old folky days, the air was magic when we played. The riverboat was rockin' in the rain." - Neil Young, Ambulance Blues
Gordon Lightfoot Performs at Riverboat circa 1970 (c/o Toronto Archives)
Joni Mitchell performs at Riverboat in April 1968 (c/o The Globe and Mail)
Murray McLachlan plays for Riverboat's closing show in June 1978 (c/o The Canadian Press)
A commemorative plaque sits at 118 Yorkville Avenue in Toronto (c/o Toronto's Historic Plaques)