Interview with godfather of Canadian rock critics

Interview with godfather of Canadian rock critics

During Ritchie Yorke’s journalism career he witnessed some of rock’s most indelible moments.

Adrian Chamberlain  / Times Colonist
April 11, 2014

Was Ritchie Yorke the Forrest Gump of rock ’n’ roll?In his day, the Australian music writer and broadcaster popped up everywhere: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In for Peace; Aretha Franklin’s recording sessions; on tour with Led Zeppelin; and conducting Jimi Hendrix’s last interview.

In Martin Melhuish’s just-published book, Oh What a Feeling, A Vital History of Canadian Music: The Next Generation, there’s a black-and-white photo of two scruffy guys holding signs that say “War is Over (If You Want It)” at the Chinese-Korean border in 1969. One is singer Ronnie Hawkins, the other is a long-haired Yorke.

Yorke — in Victoria this week to visit friends — is widely regarded as the dean of Canadian rock critics. In 1968, he was hired as the first full-time rock writer for the Globe and Mail at a time when newspapers considered pop and rock almost beneath notice.

“I pioneered the arrival of coloured shirts at the Globe and Mail,” joked Yorke, 70, who wore a bright green shirt for our interview.

Yorke succeeded as a mover and shaker in the rock business back when the stars weren’t shielded by a phalanx of publicists. He was talented and audacious, with a genuine passion for music recognized (and rewarded) by industry honchos such Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of Atlantic Records.

Yorke didn’t see himself merely as an observer of the scene. He aspired to be part of the scene.

And he was.

Arguably, Yorke’s biggest claim to fame is assisting Lennon with his Bed-In for Peace in Montreal in 1969. As John and Yoko lay in state at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, talking about peace and love, Yorke (who’d befriended the Beatle previously as a Globe writer) hung out for days, taking notes and snapping photos. Later, Lennon sent Yorke and Hawkins out as his global emissaries, spreading the peace-’n’-love message.

He witnessed Al Capp’s notorious confrontation with Lennon at the bed-in, during which the right-wing cartoonist insulted the couple. Capp, says Yorke, was a “nasty man” who’d hoped to provoke Lennon into punching him, something that would have scuttled the peace movement’s credibility.

Yorke also oversaw a meeting between Pierre Trudeau and Lennon. The musician was thrilled to meet a Canadian prime minister.

“He finally had a politician who listened to what he was saying and didn’t just rubbish him,” he said.

Tellingly, Yorke parted ways with the Globe when the editor presented him with an ultimatum. He could either work for Lennon or the newspaper — but not both.

“They said you have to make a choice,” he said. “It took me about three seconds.”

Born in Brisbane, where he now lives, Yorke pulled an early career stunt that proved to be a template for his take-no-prisoners approach to life and work. As a 19-year-old in 1963, he was hired as a DJ in Toowomba, a conservative town outside Brisbane.

One Saturday night Yorke, a die-hard soul fan (and the first Australian member of Britain’s Tamla Motown Appreciation Society), played a new hit single: Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips Part 2. On Monday, his bosses told him they didn’t “want any more of this nigger music on air.” Believing a line had been drawn, Yorke retaliated by locking himself in the studio the following Saturday and playing the cut eight times in a row.

“That’s how long it took them to get down there and fire me,” he said.

He moved to England, where Yorke was hired by Islands Records’ founder Chris Blackwell. He did publicity for the Spencer Davis Group, then ripping up the charts with I’m a Man and Gimme Some Lovin’. When lead singer Stevie Winwood left to form Traffic, Yorke was offered the opportunity to manage the new band destined to become one of the U.K.’s hottest acts.

Yorke said no. He was desperate to go to America, the birthplace of rhythm-and-blues music. When the U.S. denied his immigration bid, he settled on Canada, which was open to him as a Commonwealth country.

Yorke presented himself as a music writer to the Toronto Telegram. The newspaper turned him down. Then Beatles manager Brian Epstein died in 1967. Seizing the opportunity, Yorke successfully pitched an obituary to the Telegram and subsequently landed a column with the paper.

His journalistic career was now underway. Yet Yorke was never a typical journalist. The outgoing Aussie made connections, got involved and formed friendships. That’s why producer Wexler invited him not only to write the liner notes for Aretha Franklin’s Soul ’69 album, but to attend recording sessions in Miami.

Yorke recalls it as a tempestuous time for Franklin, then feuding with her husband. Yorke was just thrilled to be witness, listening to Franklin and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section burn it up. Duane Allman even stopped by.

“It was unbelievable. Words fail to describe it. It was electric,” Yorke recalled. “That afternoon, watching them record, I realized I’d gotten to the top of whatever tree I was trying to climb.”

He was an early champion of Led Zeppelin, whose debut album in 1969 was dismissed by Rolling Stone and other publications as overblown electric blues. This led to Yorke being invited to hang out with Led Zeppelin (then enjoying a life of full rock ’n’ roll excess) and later being invited by manager Peter Grant to write their biography.

Yorke believes he was the last journalist to interview Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970. Yorke had previously met the guitarist after Hendrix was busted with pot before a big concert at Maple Leaf Gardens. Yorke successfully argued a riot would break out if Hendrix was jailed. The grateful rocker gave him a trademark wide-brimmed black hat with a red band, which he still owns.

During that final interview, conducted over the phone, Hendrix spoke mysteriously of going to Memphis, Egypt, to “meet his maker” — something Yorke has pondered often over the years.

Unlike many, Yorke managed to survive a life in the rock ’n’ roll trenches of the 1960s and ’70s. He “smoked a bit of pot and stuff along the way” but sidestepped destructive habits that took so many lives. Well, all but one. Years of smoking — first cigarettes and Old Port cigarillos — left him with emphysema, which means he occasionally relies on a portable oxygen tank.

Nonetheless, Yorke, who last July married his partner, Minnie Cherry, still bristles with vitality and good humour.

When I asked what he thinks about being dubbed the godfather of Canadian rock criticism, he responded with Aussie bluffness.

“Well, I don’t mind if people want to call me names,” he said with a smile. “It’s better than calling me an a–hole.”