Music critic Ritchie Yorke was on the ground floor of rock ‘n’ roll journalism and played a large role in promoting homegrown Canadian musical talent in the seventies. (Minnie Yorke)
Audacious and entrepreneurial, Ritchie Yorke was the rock star of rock critics. No Roman conqueror ever strode through a crowd with as much majesty as Mr. Yorke did at press receptions in the late sixties and seventies, wrote one of his peers, of whom there were few.
Mr. Yorke may have been a jet-setting Aussie with unparalleled connections to the British rock royalty of the day, but it was his love of Canadian music that he wore on his velvet sleeve. He was a tireless advocate for this country’s music at a time when the Canadian music industry was only just beginning to happen.
He drank cold tea with milk and smoked Old Port cigarillos and other things while pounding out copy with two fingers on an Underwood typewriter. During marathon writing sessions at his house in the shadow of Toronto’s Casa Loma, he would fulfill his obligations to The Globe and Mail, Rolling Stone, syndicates, Canadian music trades, Billboard magazine and book publishers. His legs would jiggle and his feet would tap nervously, meanwhile, as the music of Procol Harum, Van Morrison and Led Zeppelin played in the background.
In addition to writing, Mr. Yorke had other music-related engagements, such as an emcee gig at the Toronto club the Rock Pile. It could be said that the industrious and gregarious Mr. Yorke had an idiosyncratic understanding of professional ethics when it came to mixing promotional duties with his journalistic ones. “I think ethics are a personal thing,” he told the Toronto Star in 1972. “It’s the end result that counts. I think the end justifies the means.”
In 1969, his editor at The Globe told him he couldn’t work for John Lennon and the newspaper at the same time, and that he had to make a choice. He chose the Beatle.
Mr. Yorke, who died on Feb. 6 at the age of 73 from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was undoubtedly one of a kind.
He was born in Brisbane on Jan. 12, 1944, as Ian Annable, the son of nurse Joyce Annable and shoe salesman Alfred Ian Annable. Issues with his father, he once explained, would prompt him to change his name, adopting a moniker inspired by the late rocker Ritchie Valens and actor Dick York from the television series Bewitched.
He began his career writing for the Northern News and TV Week in Brisbane in the early 1960s. He also worked for radio stations, including a rural post in Tamworth, New South Wales. During the week, he wrote ad copy; on Saturday nights, he hosted an on-air program. A yarn Mr. Yorke enjoyed telling had to do with the 1963 single Fingertips by Little Stevie Wonder.
When told by conservative station programmers not to play the R&B track, Mr. Yorke rebelled against the edict. The story goes that on the following weekend, he played Fingertips over and over again – eight times in total – until the station’s program manager arrived to lock him out of the studio.
It’s the stuff of legend – the kind of flamboyant shenanigan that coloured the man’s life and career.
With a dream of moving to the United States – “the spiritual home of rhythm and blues music,” as he described it – Mr. Yorke got married and ventured from Australia. Initially he made it as far as England, where he struck up connections in the music business. In 1966, he published his first book, Lowdown on the English Pop Scene.
In mid-1967, Mr. Yorke immigrated to Canada, where he would stay for nearly two decades. His break in the newspaper business came that summer with the death of Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles. Claiming he knew Mr. Epstein (and somewhat exaggerating their closeness), the opportunistic Mr. Yorke was pegged to write the obituary for the Toronto Telegram. It was his entry into music journalism in Canada.
Blond and brash, the mutton-chopped Mr. Yorke made quite an impression. “People working in the music industry in Toronto felt they had to play it safe,” says the author and music writer Martin Melhuish, a friend and protégé of Mr. Yorke. “They were conservative, and Ritchie was not that. He was something else.”
What he was, was on the cusp. Rock ’n’ roll was a new animal, and not many wrote about it fluently. “Ritchie was one of the few who had a handle on it,” says Bernie Finkelstein, founder of the Toronto-based record label True North. “He got it. He had a way of expressing it in writing that the people who were making the music and selling the music didn’t know how to do.”
Mr. Yorke’s fortunes took an upswing when he formed a relationship with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. A close look at photographs of the famous couple’s “Bed-In for Peace” at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969 reveals Mr. Yorke, bedside, taking notes during the event that produced sing-along anthem Give Peace a Chance.
Later that summer, while holidaying in England with his wife, he dropped into the Apple Corps offices in London to confirm an interview with the Beatles’ George Harrison. At the same time, Mr. Lennon happened to be on the phone with John Brower, a Toronto promoter who was attempting to persuade Mr. Lennon and Yoko Ono to appear at his festival, the Toronto Rock ’n’ Roll Revival.
Recognizing Mr. Yorke’s voice in the corridor, Mr. Lennon asked him about the festival. “Can you imagine,” Mr. Yorke recalled years later, writing about the experience for The Globe. “The honour of being asked by a sage such as John for any kind of advice.”
Seizing the opportunity to be of use to one of the most famous individuals on Earth, Mr. Yorke vouched for the concert promoter. The next weekend, Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono (as the Plastic Ono Band) appeared at an event at Varsity Stadium that included performances by Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and the Doors.
Mr. Yorke, along with rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins, became involved in Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono’s international War Is Over If You Want It peace campaign.
Fellow music writers were not always enamoured with Mr. Yorke’s pseudo-celebrity status and heavy connections. “Were we jealous? You’re damn right we were jealous,” says Larry LeBlanc, a peer and an influential figure in Canadian music. Mr. LeBlanc recalls a reception for Bruce Cockburn in the 1970s at which Sony Music executives stumbled over themselves to light Mr. Yorke’s cigarillos, all the while ignoring the other rock critics in attendance.
Still, Mr. Yorke’s passion for Canadian music and his ability at the typewriter were rarely questioned. “He was slippery and he cut corners,” Mr. LeBlanc says, “but when he really wanted to write he was pretty well untouchable.”
One of Mr. Yorke’s closest friends was Frank Davies, a Northampton-born record producer and music publisher whom Mr. Yorke persuaded to come to Canada in 1970. Mr. Davies, a key figure in the growth of the Canadian music industry, remembers his friend as controversial, in speech and in print.
“He was no saint,” says Mr. Davies, the founder of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. “He was given to exaggeration to make his point, and sometimes he was a loose cannon, but usually for a good cause or at least with the right intent. There was no middle ground or reason to beat around the bush when it came to issues where he saw one side as the enemy.”
Among his enemies around 1970 were Canadian radio stations, which were not inclined to play records by Canadian artists. Mr. Yorke was involved in the introduction of a system in 1971 that required radio stations to devote a quarter of their playlists to home-grown artists.
Mr. Yorke documented the growth of the Canadian music industry in his 1971 book Axes, Chops & Hot Licks. That same year, he was named the country’s top music journalist at the Juno Awards ceremony in Toronto.
In the summer of 1972, Mr. Yorke organized the Maple Music Junket, a boozy endeavour that involved flying in an army of foreign record producers and media to help lift international awareness of Canadian music. A series of concerts in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal spotlighted Canadian artists.
Around that time, the Toronto Star published an exposé about Mr. Yorke’s entangled promotional, publishing and writing arrangements. Headlined as Ritchie Yorke: The self-promoting rock promoter, the feature article revealed, for example, that when Billboard objected to Mr. Yorke writing simultaneously for its rival Canadian trade publication, RPM, Mr. Yorke merely switched his RPM byline to E.K. Roy (Yorke spelled backward).
“I don’t think people know how badly that article cut him,” says Peter Steinmetz, Mr. Yorke’s long-time lawyer and friend. “Here he is promoting Canadian content, and they really took a piece out of him.”
After the article came out, Mr. Yorke shifted away from freelance writing and into the burgeoning field of music books. He is responsible for 1975’s Van Morrison: Into The Music and 1976’s Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography.
According to those who knew him well, there was a gentle side to Mr. Yorke. “To artists he was reverent – almost docile – and forgiving as a fan might be,” Mr. Davies says.
His hobby was gardening, with his green thumb applied to orchids and towering stalks of plants more medicinal in their effect. “I think he found it cathartic,” says Mr. Davies, who recalls Mr. Yorke talking over his back fence with a neighbour one afternoon. “He was growing some very large cannabis plants that were already almost up to his shoulders. In fact, he had to part them to speak with the gentleman.”
The neighbour was the city’s chief of police. “Nice fella,” Mr. Yorke nonchalantly told Mr. Davies.
In 1986, Mr. Yorke returned to Australia, where he lived out his professional life working in newspapers and radio. In 2015, he self-published Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy: John and Yoko’s Battle for Peace.
Though not a musician, Mr. Yorke is credited for playing the anvil on the Crowbar song Prince of Peace and tambourine on the band’s classic hit Oh What a Feeling. What he will be remembered for, however, is a much more important credit. He banged the drum for Canadian music, at a time when it was badly needed.
Ritchie Yorke leaves his third wife, Minnie Yorke; four children, Samantha, Chris, Ian and Emily; and five grandchildren. In honour of Mr. Yorke’s love of trains, a portion of his cremated remains will return to Canada this summer to be placed in a railway setting.