A couple of weeks ago I did a short solo set and sat in for a couple of sets by Arianna Gillis at The Cameron. We had done a show together in her home town of Jordan, Ontario, a couple months back with her dad David Gillis, Kevin Briet and Lori Cullen. Arianna is a very talented and accomplished young performer who is stirring up a lot of interest and respect in the Ontario folky-roots scene. I was happy to be asked to jam on her tunes, but also impressed that she had the confidence to let whatever happen, happen – no rehearsal. I even managed to lull certain audience members into a snore state with my stuff (never wake up Richard Flohill at a show, the poor old geezer needs some extra zzz’s).
I was especially looking forward to gigging at The Cameron, which I’ve played more times by far than any other room in Toronto, and I was hoping that I’d see Paul Sannella ‘s smiling face behind the bar that night. The Sunday before the show I heard the tragic news that Paul had died suddenly of a heart attack.
A few years ago I had a Monday night house gig in the front room that lasted 7 months. Paul worked bar every night, and after every show he would praise a guitar solo or a drum groove or a moment in a song that lifted his spirits. He loved music, and he went out of his way to compliment me and my band each week. He had seen me play many times over the years, and was instrumental in having me do a mural on the outside of the building, have a painting on display inside, and even work there for a year or so. I’ve been a self employed artist for over 20 years now, but back then I was holding down two part time jobs: delivering NOW magazines one day a week, and bussing tables at The Cameron on Friday and Saturday nights when the place was THEE hippest joint in Toronto. In 1987 it was constantly jam packed with artists, poets, playwrights, musicians and heroin addicts. When Handsome Ned OD’d the room suddenly became a destination for the morbidly curious, scene seeking journalists, and narcs.
Paul started the room as we know it with his sister and pal Herb back in 81 when Queen Street was desolate. Today the strip looks like a trendy mall with it’s canyon of glass and familiar logos, but thirty years ago it was bleak. Paul played an important role in giving Queen Street new life, and The Cameron became the artistic epicenter of Toronto.
It’s been amazing to see the transformation over thirty years. Last year the hotel had a for sale sign on it, and my attitude was THAT would be the last straw. If The Cameron went down, there’d be little reason to tolerate the GAPscape with it’s legions of desperate shoppers that dominate the sidewalks of Queen West.
But the sale didn’t happen. A young artist like Arianna Gillis can still play a casual gig with a “pass the bucket” policy. The show will go on, only Paul won’t be working behind the bar.