a literary review
There’s no such thing as a wrong note.
Art Tatum’s dilapidated childhood home sits on City Park Avenue along the Dorr Street Corridor just on the outer edge of downtown, a total wreck, abandoned for decades. Out front, a gleaming bronze historical marker notes the sad relevance of the gaping hole in the foundation, the overgrown lot, the paint long-past chipping. The only splash of color offered on the drab scene is a few muraled boards guarding the long-open windows painted by teens from a nearby junior high school a few years ago. This is the perfect metaphor for Toledo music. We can’t talk about what is without talking about what was.
For a while, Toledo couldn’t get anything wrong. Like a lot of industrial cities, Toledo’s early years were thriving, culturally fertile, and innovative. In its prime, Toledo gave the world some of its greatest gifts: we invented light beer (you know it now as Miller Lite), the automated bottling machine (you’re welcome for your beer bottles and mason jars), the electric dryer, the spoked bicycle wheel, paint-by-numbers, Yatzi, sheet glass, cabaret, the Girl Scouts of America, the Boys & Girls Club, and even invented not just the technology that made space suits possible but also provided the flight director for the first moon landing.
In the 1930s, Toledo became home to the first and longest-running production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” in America. It’s wealthy boom attracted writers and intellectuals of all kinds, including F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose short story “The Camel’s Back” hilariously recounts a night in Toledo’s boozy heyday), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and America’s first famous black poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, whose collection Oak and Ivory, which brought him international acclaim, was written during his Toledo residency. The city was also home to the first black major league baseball player in 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker.
If that weren’t enough, we even gave Michigan its Upper Peninsula when Michigan traded us to Ohio as an outcome of the “Toledo War.”
With the largest port in America, Toledo boomed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It teemed with jobs and beginning in the 1920s the Dorr Street area, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods founded by Polish and Hungarian immigrants, became the settling place of African American laborers moving north during the Great Migration.
This is the Toledo Art Tatum was raised in. Dorr Street bustled with shops, retails, blues and jazz clubs. Legends like Duke Ellington would stop while passing through just to witness the young prodigy play. Tatum is, to this day, regarded as the greatest piano player of all time. The lore goes that young Tatum, predominantly blind, learned on a player piano in his home. Unable to read the scrolls he played by ear and assumed the two parts being played at once were supposed to be played by one person. That’s Toledo. You’ve got to work twice as hard here if you’re gonna work your way out.
Tatum eventually moved to New York where Fats Waller famously introduced him, saying, “Tonight, God is in the house.” In true Toledo fashion, Tatum drank himself to death by 1955. Here the gods are neither benevolent nor forgiving.
Jazz is an art form that depends on its antecedents, there must be respect for people that have gone before.
Jon Hendricks grew up following Tatum and others around when he was as young as ten. Later beckoned to New York by Charlie Parker, Hendricks was a master of “scat” singing. With his legendary trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, he invented the style known as “Vocalese” and would become known as the Poet Laureate of Jazz. Hendricks split his time between Toledo and New York performing regularly until he passed away in 2017.
In the same era but out in the sticks, a young couple named Frank and Sarah Hines transformed their family farm into a kind of African-American community center for resettled sharecroppers. Hines Farm offered horseback riding, drag races, a negro baseball league, a roller rink, 9-hole golf course, and most famously, concerts on their property. Beginning in the basement of their home in the early ‘40s and later in a club and outdoor pavilion built in the 1950s, it was known as the northernmost “juke joint” in America. The club hosted a who’s who of the day: Count Basie, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Freddy King, Big Jack Reynolds, Louis Jordan, The Falcons, and a slew of others.
When the Hines fell ill the club closed in the early ‘70s before being bought and re-opened by Henry Griffin a few years later who’d grown up as a kid going to the farm. Henry ran the place for another 30 years before he passed away and it closed again. Miraculously, the club still stands and was re-opened in 2018 by Henry’s son, the club’s third owner. Eighty years on, Hines is hosting a regular schedule of shows on the weekends.
While legacy venues in Toledo are not rare, not all have had the same fortune. In the early 1960s, an enterprising young woman named Rusty Monroe opened Rusty’s Jazz Cafe, which became heralded as the third-oldest jazz club in America behind the Village Vanguard in New York and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Everyone played at Rusty’s, with Detroit greats like Cannonball Adderly and members of Motown’s Funk Brothers as frequent guests. Toledo was so proud of this history it renamed Tedrow Avenue, an unassuming street in a light industrial area of South Toledo, “Jazz Avenue.” Rusty retired and sold the business in 2003 with a promise that it would remain a home to jazz and the countless musicians who cut their teeth on its unforgiving stage. A year later it was turned into a sports bar and the Jazz Ave sign is long gone.
Similarly, Murphy’s Place was a long-time Toledo staple, held down by its house band, The Murphy’s, the dynamic duo of Clifford Murphy and Claude Black. Murphy was influenced by hanging out with Tatum as a kid and was later inspired to the bass by jazz legend Ray Brown. Murphy began touring in the 1940s and performed alongside Black for decades. Black was a widely regarded piano player and over the years played regularly with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, and David “Fathead” Newman. From 1991 until 2011, Murphy’s Place, like Rusty’s, hosted many friends, jazz legends, and tutored countless regional students of the genre. Murphy’s was situated in the architecturally-stunning Fort Industry Square building on the Maumee River, which was filled with architectural treasures salvaged from the city’s many lost buildings. Fort Industry sat vacant for nearly a decade. In 2019, it was bought to be renovated into storefronts and high-end apartments. Its contents, dating back to the city’s founding were parsed out and sold at online auction.
This fertile history spread Toledo’s talent and influence. Local legend Blind Bobby Smith—a one-man raw blues band—played on a number of Stax tracks in the 1960s. Rance Allen, a bishop who can still be found preaching and performing in Toledo today, was the first signed to Stax’s Gospel Truth label. The Griswolds, formed by brothers Art and Roman Griswold, were one of the best-known and revered Toledo blues bands, recording multiple singles for Detroit’s Fortune label in the 1960s. The Griswolds performed regularly until Roman Griswold passed away in 2012.
This is the bedrock of Toledo music.
Hello, Detroit! We’re Boston from Toledo, Ohio!
—Tom Scholz, 2017
Just before the British Invasion spat American music back in its own face, Toledo entered its second phase of music history very appropriately, making marks with bizarre footnotes. Formed in 1957 in the innocent, pre-invasion rock ‘n’ roll era, Johnny & the Hurricane’s scored a massive cross-continental hit with their instrumental “Red River Rock.” In doing so, they became one of the few American bands The Beatles opened for, and in Hamburg to boot.
Ever in the shadow of Detroit, the incendiary scene that exploded out of the Motor City in the mid- and late-1960s made many of its first stops in Toledo. The city was home to countless early performances by The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, SRC, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Alice Cooper. If Toledo fans here weren’t there on day one, they were certainly there on day two (a trend that continued through the likes of ICP, Kid Rock, Eminem, The White Stripes, et al).
About a decade later, a kid from the Ottawa Hills neighborhood named Tom Scholtz nearly single-handedly wrote, recorded, played and produced on the eponymous debut of his band Boston while attending MIT. Here, with the city just beginning its economic freefall, we firmly enter the era of Toledo exporting talented kids. Regardless, the album obliterated the charts and for that we’re holding on to Scholz.
About another decade later, another kid from West Toledo, not far from the Scholz home, named Jonathan Poneman was buying up records at Toledo’s first independent music store, Boogie Records (later Culture Clash records). Soon after high school, in the late 1980s, Poneman moved to Seattle where he co-founded Sub Pop Records, signed Soundgarden, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, et al., and effectively gave birth to the ‘90s grunge scene, and later the early 2000’s indie scene via the likes of The Postal Service, The Shins, Fleet Foxes, and many others.
It is important here to note the influence of Boogie and Culture Clash Records and their owner Pat O’Connor. Few people have had a bigger impact on the local scene. O’Connor opened Toledo’s first independent record store in 1973 and over the years hosted in-store performances by everyone from Lou Reed to The Black Angels. O’Connor mentored every music fan in the city across generations and was an instrumental part of helping to found Record Store Day, a national celebration of independent retailers and the reinvigoration of vinyl records. O’Connor remained a dedicated purveyor of music and influenced every band that came out of Toledo over 40 years until his untimely death in 2016.
Do the people in Toledo know that their name hasn’t traveled very well?
For a mid-sized city nestled into the crook of the Great Lakes, Toledo has had a bizarre and surprising impact on popular culture. In fact, you can’t really talk about Toledo musically without referencing some of its references.
Most famously (at least in Toledo) is John Denver’s scathing lament about how much the city sucks in his quasi-hit, “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio.” If you live here gnawing on the bone of this city all day, it’s hard not to take the tune personally. When you hear a live recording and the uproarious laughter of the audience throughout, it stings. Here are a few lines to swallow (go ahead and laugh, it’s OK):
Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio is like being nowhere at all
All through the day how the hours rush by
You sit in the park and you watch the grass die!
Ah, but after the sunset, the dusk and the twilight
When shadows of night start to fall
They roll back the sidewalk precisely at ten
And people who live there are not seen again!
Just two lonely truckers from Great Falls, Montana
And a salesman from places unknown
All huddled together in downtown Toledo
To spend their big night all alone!
You ask how I know of Toledo, Ohio? Well I spent a week there one day
Ouch, John. Look, here’s the rule for any down-trodden town: We can say anything we damn well please and you won’t hear worse words or harsher criticism about the place than from its own inhabitants. But it’s ours, damnit. And if you ain’t from here you better keep your trap shut. Denver acknowledged it himself after being accosted by Toledoans after a show one night and eventually apologized to the city for the song.
That said, we’ve got our odd points of pride and appropriate nods too. Kenny Rogers classic, “Lucille,” was written at a now defunct bar-cum-late-night diner near the train station, with its opening lines, “In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot, on a barstool she took off her ring.” Now, that’s some Toledo shit! That’s a guy who gets it. Conversely, proto-prog-rockers Yes in their hit, “Our Song,” were a bit more bright-eyed with their refrain, “Toledo’s got to be the silver city in this good country.” Thanks fellas. Yet, in what is sometimes regarded as his saddest song, Elvis Costello teamed up with Burt Bacharach for his tune simply titled, “Toledo,” in which he croons, “But do people in Toledo know that their name hasn’t traveled very well? And does anyone in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?” The answer to both questions, Elvis, is yes. We’re keenly aware.
All the best Detroit bands come from Toledo.
By the 1980s, Toledo was a hell hole of urban decay and suburban sprawl. In this setting, a strange thing happened. Toledo became a weird home to the very early hardcore punk movement. Most closely (and rightly) associated with the D.C. scene, Toledo’s The Necros became an innovator of the burgeoning genre. Their self-titled EP remains one of the most rare, expensive, and sought-after records among collectors. Early on they toured and played with Black Flag, Minor Threat, and became the de facto “little brother band” of The Misfits. Necros drummer Todd Swalla sat in with The Misfits for Glen Danzig’s final performance with the band.
Another fun footnote fact: Swalla convincingly claims the infamous cardigan worn by Kurt Cobain during Nirvana’s Unplugged set was actually his. Cobain swooped it up after crashing at a mutual friend’s house on tour where Swalla had forgotten it a few months prior.
A significant part of this early history was laid by Necros bassist Cory Rusk who co-founded Touch and Go Records. Later, based out of Chicago, he signed underground bands such as The Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers who poured the foundation for the grunge scene. In those days, bands like Black Flag were coming through Toledo crashing on couches and eating the 50 cent spaghetti buffet at Rusty’s Jazz Cafe. Oddly enough, and unrelated, years later, Minor Threat drummer and Discord Records co-founder, Jeff Nelson, would resettle to Toledo from D.C. for his love of Jeep Wagoneers and Victorian mansions (in addition to being home to the Jeep, Toledo’s Historic Old West End has one of the largest collections of Victorian homes east of the Mississippi).
All of this leads to Frankie’s Inner City. A former Italian restaurant on Toledo’s East Side, in the early ‘90s Frankie’s was the first real home of alternative music in the city. Countless bands formed out of its smoky woodwork and the stage was graced by lots of up-and-comers such as The Smashing Pumpkins. One of the venue’s most interesting tales, however, revolves around a little-known band called Henry and June.
Childhood understudies of Swalla, the band was at the forefront of a new sound that would become known as “garage blues.” Inspired by the Rolling Stones, Robert Johnson, and the Necros, these Toledo teens were soon playing early-90s gigs with the Gories and that ilk in Detroit. But, just before they and the sound they helped inspire really broke, they broke up.
Drummer Ben Swank and guitarist Johnny Walker moved to Detroit and became the Soledad Brothers. Swank moved in with an upholsterer named Jack White and Walker, who learned open tuning and slide blues guitar from Henry and June frontman Dooley Wilson taught what he’d learned to White. On the DVD Under Blackpool Lights you’ll hear Jack White scream, “This song was written by a band from Toledo, Ohio – and they live in my house!” That song is Henry and June’s signature jangly drone, “Going back to Memphis,” which is also the first song The White Stripes played when they debuted on Conan O’Brien. In 2019, White named Swank a co-owner of Third Man Records.
Toledoans can be found making their marks in multiple genres all over America and the world. R&B sensation Anita Baker was born in Toledo, and R&B singer Lyfe Jennings and E-Swift of ‘90s hardcore hip-hop group The Alkaholiks credit their upbring in Toledo to their craft. Jessica Bailiff was signed to Kranky Records for a stint, electronic artist Le Youth can be found playing all over Europe, 2000s alt-pop acts like Rediscover and We Are The Fury hail from here, as does New York’s Jeremy and the Harlequins, American Idol star Crysal Bowersox is a hometown hero, Weezer bassist Scott Shriner is local native, Christian rock stars Sanctus Real call Toledo home, and emo-hardcore giants Citizen also hail from here. Indie-folk outfit Oliver Hazard recently debuted at Bonnaroo and is earning critical acclaim around the nation. One of the biggest blues bands in Europe, Five Horse Johnson, can be found hanging in the local bars and helping book gigs at Hines Farm.
So what’s it all mean? I don’t know exactly, but you’re never that far from Toledo.
Why I’m feelin’ like they don’t wanna see me shine?
Sandwiched between the two, Toledo never grew quite as big as Detroit or Cleveland and it never fell near as far. It’s like a slightly more stable and apathetic half-brother separated by divorce (thanks, Toledo War). In that, it lacks the cache and swagger that drives those larger cities’ respective renaissances. The Glass City shattered and today artists are cobbling the pieces back together. The music scene is arguably the most fragmented it’s been. But that’s not a dis on the quality of what’s going on. There’s a wealth of good music to be found, even if you have to paw pretty hard at the surface to find it. Venues and “scenes” surrounding them often aren’t readily apparent.
This might not be a bad thing. In little corners all over Toledo, you can find a small group of maybe 30 to 100 people here or there doing their thing in a way that’s among the most genuine and authentic you’ll find anywhere.
Toledo has a long history of supporting local musicians. In that regard, certain elements of it remain prominent. On any given night you can hit the local bars throughout the city and its suburbs and find any number of talented players and songwriters on a stage.
With its signature tagline “Live Pizza, Great Music,” Maumee’s Village Idiot has a consistent roster of killer rock and Americana, featuring both local and touring bands (as well as genuinely great pizza). Rocky’s Bar is a gathering place for gigging musicians on Tuesday nights and you’ll see some of the best players in town jump in and out of sets just having a good time. The Glass City Cafe’s Bluegrass Breakfast remains one of the city’s most unique offerings, hosting a number of notable players on Saturday mornings while serving up homestyle breakfast.
Acoustic and Americana veterans like Jeff Stewart, Kyle White, and Chris Shutters gladly sneak their own songs into weekly cover sets. Andrew Ellis and Dooley Wilson are some of the best Delta-style blues players you’ll see anywhere (Wilson is, for my money, the best slide-blues player in the region). And indie-folk acts like Vestor Frey, The Amelia Airhearts, and Chloe and the Steel Strings bring a fresh zest to their respective acts. Kentucky Chrome is one of the best rockabilly outfits you’ll find anywhere. Period.
Toledo’s jazz clubs are long gone, but the musicians remain prevalent. In 2019, Toledo’s Arts Commission celebrated Tatum’s 110th birthday with a multi-venue Jazz Loop throughout downtown. Rusty’s and Murphy’s veterans such as Gene Parker, Bob Rex, and songstresses Kim Buehler, Jean Holden, and Ramona Collins remain elder statesmen and women of the scene (Rex holds a weekly Sunday gig at the Village Idiot that’s a must see). A younger generation carries the torch as well. Jason Quick, Brad Billmair, Ben Maloney, and The Smokin’ Dandies from nearby Monroe, MI nod to the past while phrasing their own voice. A longtime mainstay, the New Orleans-style ensemble, Ragtime Rick and the Chefs of Dixieland are swingy perfection.
DIY and pop-up venues hold down the punk, hardcore, folk, and experimental scenes. After-hours at retail shops and restaurants—like the indie-craft store Handmade Toledo and the Original Sub Shop—and house venues like Holland Haus, you’ll find some of the city’s best indie, rock, and punk acts.
The Old West End neighborhood is Toledo’s (relatively) cheap rent historic mansion district. Long home to artists, musicians, creatives, and eccentrics of all types, the neighborhood also boasts a number of pop-up spaces, with random ballrooms, porches, and backyards playing host to shows. The Over Yonder Concert House hosts national traveling folk acts throughout the warmer months. The Robinwood Concert House has been hosting some of the best-known names in New Music and experimental music by international touring artists for nearly two decades. Held the first weekend in June each year, The Old West End Festival serves as an unofficial front porch music festival, featuring dozens and dozens of bands of all genres on multiple stages, on floats in an eccentric parade, and on literally dozens of porches and backyards throughout the neighborhood.
Art studios also serve as performance spaces for Toledo’s many genres of music, with the gallery/studio/event space Bozarts among the best known, and local recording studio, Dream Louder, books a network of regional acts in an intimate space with a striking view of the riverfront. Occasionally, you’ll find a pop-up show at a non-venue bar like the serene party patio of The Attic on Adams, or the cozy tiki-ish cocktail vibe of Toledo Spirits’ Bellwether Bar.
There are too many bands to mention, but some of Toledo’s most original rock bands include the elecro-pop of golab, the croony chamber pop of Violent Bloom, the jangly high-energy glamy rock ‘n’ roll of The Matt Truman Ego Trip, groovy reggae dub of The Essentials, the eclectic world grooves of Dream Louder purveyors Heavy Color, dreamy synth-pop of Bliss Nova, sublime electronic vibes of Elmhurst, Irish-punkers Katie’s Randy Cat, the thoughtful singer-songwriter craft of Ben Stalets, jump-pop of Teamonade, tight melodic rock of Twin Frames, and seasoned hardcore from the likes of Bone Folder and Take Weight.
Toledo’s rap, hip-hop,and R&B scenes are producing an incredible amount of content, but performances and showcases are somewhat rare and suffer the same lack of consistency as the rock scene. Most of the work thrives in production and is readily accessible streaming (with impressive numbers) on YouTube, Spotify, etc. A range of styles are present. The art/hip-hop collective Black Market Rx is probably the most unique, original, and chaotic. Much of the rap world dwells heavy in trap, but rappers like AocObama, Rocky Duh, Stinkbomb, FatCatWitDaCheese, B. Wills, and Mone Da Don spit real content with genuine flow backed by solid, original, locally-made beats. Artists like Elevated Thinkin and Tracey the Rare Breed keep a foot deep in R&B while blending genres held together by poetic lyrics.
Toledo’s hip-hop community took a nod from our local Triple A baseball team, the Mud Hens, and have rebranded the city perhaps more aptly for a river town that’s built on a drained swamp going through rebirth—“from the mud.” A lot of these artists can be found on the series of Mudd Made compilations on Spotify.
As the city slowly rebounds, events like The Arts Commission’s Momentum Music & Arts Festival and monthly Art Loop series, as well as the ProMedica Summer Concert Series have reinvigorated downtown and the waterfront. The Adams Street Zombie Crawl is the largest such event in the nation and features multiple stages with live music of all genres. The Toledo Museum of Art (a genuine gem of the city and a literal world class museum) is featuring acclaimed experimental artists such as Harold Budd, Tim Story, Roedelius, and the audio-visual stunner, Telesonic 9000, all lending a contemporary leg-up to the city.
Laborare Est Orare (To Work is to Pray)
—Official City of Toledo slogan
Toledo is a city of rich, complex history, and one of multiple truths. Perhaps what is interesting about Toledo is that there is no definitive sound. We are a melting pot city of people who are typically most famous for leaving. In that regard, aside from just working hard constantly, the culture is that there is no prescribed culture. It is accidentally the most zen city in the industrial Midwest.
Toledo is a city of shattered glass and today the music scene reflects that, glinting across asphalt under grey shield skies. The music can be found and you can have existential experiences in raw places. It’s both mostly intentional and also pure happenstance. Sure, lots of times there is nothing happening here. But if you’re in the right place, on the right night, you can surf on the cusp of the center of the universe. And it feels that way because you know no one else in the world is paying attention. And that’s precisely what matters.
The weeds crawl through the holes in Tatum’s childhood home and yet it stands, waiting.
Ryan A. Bunch is a writer, poet, literary performance artist, and arts administrator from Toledo, Ohio where he manages community arts and creative placemaking for The Arts Commission. He is the former Arts & Entertainment Editor at Toledo City Paper and Music Editor at Toledo.com (both excellent sources for finding music in Toledo). His most recent album, Kyrux Macist, “The Botched Summer of Big Dreams in a Small Town,” a poetry collaboration with musician Lance Hulsey is available on Spotify, Apple Music, and most streaming platforms.