Luke & The Apostles

  • by Nick Warburton

    The Doors and Elektra Records’ producer Paul Rothchild is reported to have once lamented that Toronto R&B outfit, Luke & The Apostles were the “greatest album I never got to make”. Indeed, the group’s lone single for Elektra, released in early 1967, a year after it was recorded, hardly does justice to a band that provided a training ground for several notable musicians who went on to McKenna Mendelson Mainline, Kensington Market and The Modern Rock Quartet (MRQ).

    Luke & The Apostles found their roots in the blues band Mike’s Trio, which had been formed in 1963 by school friends, guitarist Mike McKenna (b. 15 April 1946, Toronto), formerly a member of Whitey & The Roulettes, and bass player Graham Dunsmore. Together with drummer Rich McMurray, Mike Trio’s started gigging at the Cellar club in the city’s Yorkville Village playing Jimmy Reed covers. Sometime in early 1964, McMurray introduced Luke Gibson (b. 5 November 1946, Toronto), a singer with great commanding power and presence, who was joined soon afterwards by classically trained keyboard player Peter Jermyn (b. 6 November 1946, Kingston, Ontario).

    It was Jermyn who coined the name, Luke & The Apostles, in imitation of another local act, which had chosen a biblical reference, Ronnie Lane & The Disciples and soon became a regular fixture on the local club scene. At first the group found work at the Cellar in Toronto’s hip Yorkville Village before moving on to the El Patio and ultimately the Purple Onion. In fact, such was the demand from local fans that, according to respected Canadian rock journalist Nicholas Jennings, the band was still playing at the Purple Onion a year on from its debut!

    Before Luke & The Apostles started its run at the Purple Onion, Jim Jones was brought in to replace Graham Dunsmore on bass while Ray Bennett augmented the line up on harmonica for several months. Bennett ultimately composed “Been Burnt,” the a-side to what would become the band’s solitary ’45 for Elektra, before moving on during the summer of 1965 (later joining The Heavenly Government).

    It was shortly after Bennett’s departure that Paul Rothchild caught the group at the Purple Onion one evening in September. As Gibson recalled to Nicholas Jennings in his book, Before The Goldrush, Rothchild was so enthused he asked the band’s front man to audition the band to label boss, Jac Holzman by singing “Been Burnt” down the phone!

    McKenna remembers the audition vividly. “He actually called Jac and said, ‘listen to the guys’. I don’t know if it was too much smoke or whatever, but at the time they were just starting to get going and I think they were releasing that album that had all those bands on it, including [Paul] Butterfield. That was the first time we heard Butterfield and Rothchild brought it up to us and let us hear it and we were knocked out!

    Inking a deal with Elektra, the band flew down to New York in early 1966 and recorded two tracks, Bennett’s “Been Burnt” backed by McKenna’s “Don’t Know Why” for a prospective single. The two recordings were readied for release that spring but then tragedy struck. Paul Rothchild was arrested for marijuana possession and the band’s single was put on hold for a year while he served a prison sentence.

    Undeterred, Luke & The Apostles resumed gigging in Toronto and began to extend their fan base beyond Yorkville Village, performing at venues like the North Toronto Memorial Arena on 28 May. But uncertainty over the single’s release and the band’s long-term future began to take its toll, and in early summer Jim Jones announced that he was leaving because he wanted to give up playing. Former Simon Caine & The Catch bass player Dennis Pendrith (b. 13 September 1949, Toronto), who was still in high school at the time, had the unenviable task of filling his idol’s shoes.

    With Pendrith on board, Luke & The Apostles found a new home at Boris’ coffeehouse in Yorkville Village where they made their debut on 21-22 July. The group also began to find work beyond the city’s limits, travelling east to Oshawa on 24 July to play at the Jubilee Auditorium. Later that summer, Luke & The Apostles returned to play several shows at the North Toronto Memorial Arena, and on one occasion (23 August), shared the bill with Montreal’s The Haunted and local group, The Last Words. But the most prestigious concert date during this time was an appearance at the 14-hour long rock show held at Maple Leaf Gardens on 24 September 1966, alongside a dozen or so local bands.

    The show proved to be Pendrith’s swan song. The following month, Jim Jones had a change of mind and returned to the fold, leaving the young bass player to find work elsewhere – he subsequently rejoined his former group before hooking up with Livingstone’s Journey in mid-1967. At the same time, Gibson and McKenna decided to dispense with McMurray’s services and recruited a new drummer, Pat Little. The changes, however, did not end there. Sometime in October or November, Peter Jermyn briefly left the group and was replaced by future Bedtime Story and Edward Bear keyboard player Bob Kendall before returning in December 1966.

    Amid all the changes, Luke & The Apostles resumed its weekly residency at Boris’, sharing the bill at various times with The Ugly Ducklings and The Paupers among others. They also got the opportunity to perform at the newly opened Club Kingsway on 15 October, opening for singer/songwriter Neil Diamond and travelled to Montreal at the end of the year to play some dates.

    By early 1967, Luke & The Apostles’ single had still not been released. Nevertheless, the opportunity to return to New York in mid-April and perform at the Café Au Go Go buoyed spirits. The previous month, McKenna’s friend, bass player Denny Gerrard was opening for Jefferson Airplane with his band The Paupers and during that band’s stay in the Big Apple, Gerrard had met Paul Butterfield who was looking for a replacement for Mike Bloomfield in his band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Gerrard immediately suggested McKenna and passed Butterfield his Toronto number.

    “Denny had met Paul Butterfield and said, ‘if you’re looking for a guitar player’ because Bloomfield had gone into hospital or something,” remembers McKenna …[Paul] called me and I actually thought it was a joke! When I realised it was Paul I was absolutely blown away that he had called me.” With Bloomfield looking to form his new band, The Electric Flag, Butterfield asked McKenna to come down to New York and audition but the guitarist kindly declined the offer. “I couldn’t go because that’s when Luke and I were going to go back to do some recordings and I said, ‘well if I leave Luke and the guys now, the band will probably break up and we’ve got recordings to do.”

    While Elektra had not seen fit to release Luke & The Apostles’ first recordings, the label still expressed an interest in recording the band. During its time at the Café Au Go, the label booked the group into its New York studios for a day to record an album’s worth of material, including the tracks, “I Don’t Feel Like Trying” and “So Long Girl”. During its first stand at the Café Au Go Go (where incidentally the group shared the washroom with The Mothers of Invention who were playing at the Garrick Theatre upstairs) Luke & The Apostles backed folkie Dave Van Ronk but were so well received that the club owner asked the band to return for on a second week in late May-early June, opening for The Grateful Dead.

    During this engagement, McKenna stuck up a friendship with Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who hounded McKenna to sell him his recently acquired Les Paul Special. “I think it was the one that was on the Rolling Stone cover,” recalls McKenna. “I bought it in one of the stores in New York and he paid me a handsome sum for what I had paid for it.”

    One night Paul Butterfield and his rhythm guitarist Elvin Bishop turned up to check out the band. According to Suzi Wickett, McKenna’s first wife, both were extremely impressed with McKenna’s guitar-playing style and unique sound. When Bishop asked McKenna how he created such “a sound”, the guitarist graciously explained his secret was in his mixture of Hawaiian and banjo strings used in combination, along with controlled feedback. “It was something I learned from Robbie Robertson and The Hawks,” explains McKenna. “The big thing in Toronto was playing Telecasters but you couldn’t get light gauge strings so what Robbie did was use banjo strings.”

    The following night at the Café Au Go Go was standing room only remembers Wickett and everyone who was “anyone” had turned out to see this new band from Toronto. Among those attending were Bob Dylan and Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s manager Albert Grossman and rock promoter Bill Graham who each wanted to sign Luke & The Apostles to a management contract. Bill Graham even offered the band a slot at the Fillmore West in California that summer.

    But behind the scenes the band was slowly disintegrating, as Wickett explains. “The pressure was ‘on’ for Luke & The Apostles to decide which manager they were going to sign [with]. The band had been away from Toronto for three weeks; they were in a prime position for national exposure [and] the hottest people in the industry were vying for their commitment to a management contract. Unable to reconcile differences of opinion and personal ambitions, the group fragmented returning to Toronto disillusioned and hostile.”

    Luke & The Apostles, however, were not quite ready to implode and resumed their regular gig at Boris’. More importantly, Bill Graham approached Luke & The Apostles and asked the band to open for Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead on 23 July when both groups performed at Nathan Phillips Square in front of 50,000. Graham was suitably impressed by the band’s performance that he asked Luke & The Apostles to repeat their support act at the O’Keefe Centre from 31 July-5 August. During the show the band performed a version of Neil Young‘s “Mr Soul”, as well as covers of blues favourites “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”.

    The concert, however, proved to be the group’s swan song and after a final show at Boris’ Red Gas Room on 6 August, Luke Gibson accepted an offer to join the progressive folk-rock outfit, Kensington Market where he would develop his song writing skills. Peter Jermyn was also ready to move on. After passing on an offer to join The Blues Project because he would have been liable to be drafted, he subsequently moved to Ottawa to join the band Heart, which evolved into The Modern Rock Quartet. Jim Jones meanwhile played with several Toronto bands, including The Artist Jazz Band.

    Left with only the band’s name, McKenna and Little decided to go their separate ways. McKenna immediately found work with The Ugly Ducklings before forming the highly respected blues outfit, McKenna Mendelson Mainline the following summer. Little briefly joined forces with future Blood, Sweat & Tears’ singer David Clayton-Thomas in his group Combine (appearing on the original version of “Spinning Wheel”) before joining The Georgian People (later better known as Chimo!) A sad end to what was a great band.

    But the story doesn’t end there. In December 1969, Gibson, McKenna and Little met up to discuss reforming the group. “People didn’t forget,” Gibson explained to Bill Gray in an article for The Toronto Telegram on 19 February 1970. “We used to get asked constantly, all of us, about The Apostles. Everyone seemed to have good memories of the band. We were, after all, kind of unique around Toronto. “The trouble was, it was only after we broke up that the scene here started to change. Other bands started to come around to the kind of things we had been doing. The blues and rock thing began to dominate and I guess our influence was recalled, that’s why our posthumous reputation has remained so high.”

    Completing the line up with former Transfusion and Leather guitarist Danny McBride on second lead guitar and McKenna’s pal, ex-Paupers bass player Denny Gerrard (b. 28 February 1947, Scarborough) during January 1970, the group enlisted Bernie Finkelstein (today Bruce Cockburn‘s long-standing manager) to represent them.

    But the new line up remained unsettled and by the end of the month former Buffalo Springfield bass player Bruce Palmer (b. 9 September 1946, Toronto) came on board in time to for the band’s debut at Massey Hall on 15 February opening for Johnny Winter. After several low key dates around the city, Palmer dropped out and Jack Geisinger (b. March 1945, Czechoslovakia) from Damage, Milkwood and Influence arrived in time to play on a lone ’45, issued on Bernie Finkelstein‘s True North Records.

    The resulting single, Gibson, McKenna and Little’s “You Make Me High”, is arguably one of the best records to come out of the Toronto scene from that period, and even managed to reach #27 on Canada’s RPM chart in October of that year. The b-side, “Not Far Off,” written by Gibson has a Led Zeppelin feel and some tasty guitar interplay between McKenna and McBride. The band returned to Toronto’s live scene, supporting Lighthouse at a show held at Convocation Hall on 1 March. A few weeks later, the group performed at the Electric Circus (13-14 March) and then towards the end of the month appeared at the Toronto Rock Festival at Varsity Arena (26 March) on a bill featuring Funkadelic, Damage and Nucleus among others.

    In the first week of April, Luke & The Apostles embarked on a brief tour of Boston with Mountain but behind the scenes, the band was slowly unravelling. Following a show at the Electric Circus in Toronto on 9 May, McKenna dropped out to rejoin his former band, now going by the name Mainline. The band ploughed on appearing at the Peace Festival at Varsity Arena on 19-21 June on a bill that also included Rare Earth, SRC, Bush and George Olliver & The Natural Gas among others.

    But soon afterwards McBride also handed in his notice and later became a mainstay of Chris de Burgh’s backing band. In his place, Luke & The Apostles recruited Geisinger’s former Influence cohort, Walter Rossi (b. 29 May 1947, Naples, Italy), who had played with The Buddy Miles Express in the interim.

    With Rossi on board Luke & The Apostles made a prestigious appearance at that summer’s Strawberry Fields Pop Festival held at Mosport Park, Ontario on the weekend of 7-8 August 1970. A short tour followed, including several appearances at the CNE Bandstand in Toronto where the band shared the bill with Lighthouse, Crowbar and Dr John among others. Then on 1 September, the group headed down to New York to perform at the popular club, Ungano’s.

    In an interview with Peter Goddard for Toronto Telegram’s 17 September issue, manager Bernie Finkelstein was confident that the band had a promising future ahead. “We’ve been asked to go back to Ungano’s in New York City for the middle of October,” he said. “But we might wait to get the material for our first album ready so that we can release it around mid-October.” Unfortunately, the promised album never appeared and soon after a show at Kipling Collegiate in Toronto on 9 October, Luke Gibson left for a solo career followed shortly afterwards by Pat Little. The remaining members recruited ex-Wizard drummer Mike Driscoll, performing as The Apostles before splitting in early 1971. Rossi subsequently recorded a brilliant, Jimi Hendrix-inspired album as Charlee in early 1972 with help from Geisinger and Driscoll before embarking on a successful solo career which continues to this day.

    Gibson’s solo career meanwhile proved more short-lived and after recording a lone album for True North Records with help from Dennis Pendrith, Jim Jones and Bruce Cockburn, he eschewed a singing career and now works as a film set painter. Little rejoined Chimo! for the band’s final single and then hooked up with Rick James in Heaven and Earth for two singles on RCA Victor in late 1971. He also reunited with McKenna to record an (as yet unreleased) album with the band, DiamondBack.

    Legend surrounding the band, however, has grown over the years and in the late ’90s, early members Gibson, Jermyn, Jones and McKenna reformed the group with future Downchild Blues Band drummer Mike Fitzpatrick for the “Toronto Rock Revival” concert held at the Warehouse on 2 May 1999. Later that year Jermyn, Jones and McKenna became house band at Yorkville club, Blues on Bellair and were joined intermittently by Gibson.

    As recently as 1 June 2002, Luke & The Apostles were playing at the club and local label Bullseye Records recorded one of the shows for a proposed live CD, comprising the old favourites and more contemporary material but so far nothing has been released. Nevertheless, the band still commands a loyal following and hopefully a full length CD release detailing the group’s colourful career will finally do justice to one of Toronto’s most overlooked and talented bands.

  • With notes from Mike McKenna, Peter Jermyn, Mike Harrison, Carny Corbett, Bill Munson, Craig Webb, Suzi Wickett and Walter Rossi.

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