Both natives of Toronto, Mike McKenna and Joe Mendelson grew up fans of the blues, and both emulated their idols early in life while learning to play guitar.
After McKenna left Luke & The Apostles in the mid ’60s, he was a brief footnote in The Ugly Ducklings‘ story, then began working the local club circuit. He placed a newspaper ad looking for people to start a new band with, which Mendelson, a University of Toronto student, replied to. They decided that instead of toiling through the process of finding other musicians through the same means to round out the group, they’d do it on their own – and the foundations of McKenna Mendelson Mainline were laid with former Paupers bassist Dennis Gerrard and drummer Tony Nolasco, ex of The Spassiks.
After some rehearsals their first paid gig was a week-long run at The Night Owl in Yorkville in August of ’68. They recorded some demos a month later, but Gerrard’s run in the band was short, leaving that October immediately after a show at Massey Hall supporting The Fugs. But with new bassist Mike Harrison, who’d just left the popular R&B group Grant Smith & The Power, they carried on, opening for The Jeff Beck Group at The Grande Ballroom a month later, one of a handful of shows they gained favourable reviews for around the Detroit area.
Before the end of the year, they flew to England, where they filled in for a recently departed Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Utrecht Pop Festival. Hoping to land a recording deal while in the UK, they ended up working the same club circuit that saw the likes of Rory Gallagher, Fleetwood Mac, and the newly-formed Led Zeppelin appearing on a regular basis. They signed with Liberty Records under the United Artists umbrella in early ’69 and recorded the basic tracks to their debut album in a single day. But homesick and with the rigors of the rock & roll lifestyle already getting to them, they returned to Toronto that June.
Their debut album, STINK, was in the stores a couple of months later, and the slide guitar-driven single “You Better Watch Out” got some good airplay around the Toronto area and made them one of the hottest tickets in town. The flipside “She’s Alright,” “Mainline,” “Bad Women,” the cover of Ramblin’ Thomas’ “One Way Ticket,” and the funky second single “Don’t Give Me No Goose For Christmas” helped catch the critics’ and the audiences’ attention, and things were looking up.
Meanwhile, Paragon Records, who owned the rights to the demos they recorded a year earlier in Toronto, released them as the McKENNA MENDELSON BLUES album in September. This notorized the group as arguably the first Canadian act signed to a major label to become victims of a bootlegged album, which featured the eleven-minute original version of “Bad Women” called “Bad Women Are Killing Me,” “Pretty Woman,” “Toilet Bowl Blues (the original version of “T B Blues”), and a cover of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign.”
But partially due to differences in musical vision, the band fell apart in the fall of ’69. Mendelson briefly left the band and was replaced by ex-Mynah Byrds member Rick James, who later went on to be a huge disco star. By the spring of 1970 the band was dissolved due to musical differences.
Mendelson and Nolasco carried on, dubbing themselves Mainline, with Zeke Sheppard on bass and harmonica, who’d spent time in one of Dutch Mason‘s makeshift groups on the east coast, while McKenna returned to a reformed version of Luke & The Apostles for a pair of singles. But one thing led to another and he was back with Mendelson’s new group that fall.
They signed with GRT Records and looking for new inspirations, travelled to California, recording material that became CANADA – OUR HOME AND NATIVE LAND at Pacific Recording Studios in San Mateo in the spring of ’71. It was the first album they used Adam Mitchell to produce, and all the bulk of the material was written by Mendelson. Although no singles were released and with sales that fell far short of the label’s or their own expectations, they had to be satisfied knowing that tracks like “Brain Damage,” the southern rhythms of the Sheppard-penned “You’re My Heart’s Desire,” the harmonica boogie in “Goin’ To Toronto,” and the somewhat out of place horns section in “Honkis de Konkis” gave it the versatility that critics called a future classic.
They stayed around the Toronto area, becoming regulars at The Canberra Playhouse and Wexford Collegiate in Scarborough, among other hot venues. Their live shows were by that point known not only for the on-stage magnetism, but also for the risque and raunchier banter, much to the shagrin of some of the more snootier nightclub owners. They returned with the live album, MAINLINE’S BUMP N GRIND REVUE – LIVE AT THE VICTORY THEATRE in 1972, recorded that February in one of Toronto’s more infamous and seedier former burlesque theatres on Spadina and Dundas.
With Adam Mitchell and Zeke Sheppard among those who showed up to lend a hand, all the material was new, and all were covers, and critics praised it – saying their live versions of “C C Rider,” “Ezmeralda,” “Chicken Shack,” and “Feel Alright” captured the band in their live essence. Along with playing their home turf, they ventured out to Detroit and the area, and also did a series of shows with King Biscuit Boy that took them out to Winnipeg.
Their final album came in the form of NO SUBSTITUTES in the fall of ’72, stripped down without frills and returning the band to its core essence. But the album came and went just as fast, and no singles were released. Worse yet, internal problems were plaguing the band and with burnout setting in, tracks like “Sometimes,” “Give It To Me Straight,” “I’ve Been Lucky,” and the title track went largely un-noticed by an audience that was finding new sounds to relate to. This was despite the critics’ calling McKenna’s slide guitar work among his best.
The band split up and everyone went on to do their own things. McKenna later joined Diamondback, prior to joining a version of The Guess Who in the late ’70s. After joining Downchild Blues Band for awhile in the late ’80s, he formed Sidewinder with Gerrard and Ronnie Jacobs, a saxophonist he’d played with in Downchild that had also worked with Mainline, and released one album in 1997. McKenna also kissed and made up with Luke Gibson (of Luke and the Apostles) in The Luke Gibson Band – the house band for the Blues on Belair Club in Toronto as the decade came to a close.
Mendelson meanwhile renamed himself Mendelson Joe, and became a sessions player, working with the likes ofBen Mink, Gwen Swick and Colin Linden. He also began to make a name for himself as a contemporary artist, pursuing painting as well as music. In 1988, he appeared in an episode of Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Elephant Show titled “Sunday in the Park”. A music video for a novelty song he recorded, “Dance with Joe,” also received extensive airplay on MuchMusic for awhile.
Prior to and following his stint in Sidewinder, Gerrard toured with various bands, including Jericho and Lisa Hartt. After Mainline, Sheppard joined a reformed version of Rhinoceros, now going by the name of Blackstone for one album in ’73. Purdy went back to school and got a Law degree, later becoming a lawyer.
McKenna, Nolasko, Purdy, and Harrison re-united in 1998 for a date at The Warehouse Club in Toronto, playing together for the first time in a quarter of a century. With Bob Adams on harmonica, this led to a semi-reformation and the band playing off and on again, including being the final band to play upstairs at El Mocambo in November 2001. That show was taped and released by Bullseye Records the following spring as LAST SHOW AT THE ELMO.
In 2006, Pacemaker Entertainment re-released the band’s entire catalogue, except the 2001 reunion. None of the releases featured any bonus material.