In the 1960s in Toronto, Martin Onrot at various times ran the Fifth Peg folk club, managed nascent musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and co-directed the Mariposa Folk Festival. By the end of the decade, he was the foremost rock concert promoter in town. But the showbiz tale that stuck to him the most involved a concert he neither booked nor worked.
Mr. Onrot managed to talk his way backstage with his wife to watch the Beatles’ famous, raucous show at Maple Leaf Gardens on Sept. 7, 1964. “It was insane, simply mad,” he would later recall. “Something like 15,000 girls screaming so loud that the policemen who were called out had pieces of cotton, paper, rags – anything they could find – plugged into their ears along with earplugs.”
When all the twisting and shouting was over, the world’s most famous Liverpudlians headed from the stage toward the exit at the back of the arena. Racing through a hallway, Paul McCartney good-naturedly propositioned Mr. Onrot’s wife. “Come with us, love,” the cute Beatle said. Tempting as the offer undoubtedly was, when a police van took the Beatles away, they left without her.
“I said, ‘No, I’m with him,’” Barbara Onrot told The Globe and Mail. The couple, who sometimes worked together, were married for almost six decades. “We laughed about the Beatles story for years – and no, I don’t regret not going with them,” Ms. Onrot said. “It was a crazy time, with the rock and roll and all the nuttiness that goes on, but somehow Martin and I managed to get through it.”
Mr. Onrot died Aug. 24 at Toronto’s North York General Hospital, surrounded by his family. He was 82 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
In his heyday, he was a polished impresario with an air of cool-headed competence about him, at a time when the Canadian music business was still young. “Martin was the cock of the walk and the grown-up in the room,” veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc said. “He brought a real professional attitude to what was the wild west in those days.”
The first show Mr. Onrot staged with his own money was a concert by Ian and Sylvia Tyson in Montreal in 1967. Years earlier he had booked them at the Fifth Peg with up-and-coming comedian Bill Cosby as the opening act. His work with folk-pop favourites Peter, Paul and Mary helped Mr. Onrot establish a relationship with American folk/rock manager Albert Grossman, an associate of Bob Dylan, among others.
In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Mr. Onrot advanced the careers of a generation of Canadian artists and booked the heaviest international acts of the era. With his Encore Productions Ltd. and later Martin Onrot Inc., he brought Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Chicago, David Bowie and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to Toronto venues such as Massey Hall, the Rockpile, Maple Leaf Gardens and the O’Keefe Centre. He produced national tours as well.
“There were very few competent people in Toronto at the time I entered the field,” Mr. Onrot told Billboard’s Martin Melhuish in 1974. “I got hooked on concert production and enjoyed it tremendously. I fell in love with the fact that I could bring so much enjoyment to the audience, and the artists as well, with a concert that went without a hitch.”
Mr. Onrot’s elan, decorum and sense of fairness engendered a spirit of loyalty from performers, managers and booking agents. So much so that Mr. Onrot and his wife became friends with many A-list artists, including Cat Stevens. For a time, the Onrots had an Afghan hound, while the British singer-songwriter had that same breed and a Shih Tzu too. One night over dinner, Mr. Stevens’s manager, Barry Krost, told the Onrots they needed a Shih Tzu of their own.
“We said no, but a few weeks later, a Shih Tzu was delivered to us from Madison Avenue in New York,” Ms. Onrot said. “I think we had to pick the dog up at the airport.”
Once, Mr. Onrot was having dinner out alone while in New York on business, Looking up from his plate, he noticed pop pianist Billy Joel across the crowded room. The two made eye contact and each nodded. Minutes later a bottle of wine was delivered to Mr. Onrot’s table, courtesy of the Scenes From an Italian Restaurant singer.
“It was the way Martin spoke with them and treated them with respect,” Ms. Onrot said about her husband’s cordial relationships with celebrity musicians and comedians. “Even though it was rock and roll he was still a gentleman.”
Being a man of honour wouldn’t be enough, however. In the mid-1970s, Toronto-based Concert Productions International (led by Bill Ballard and Michael Cohl) took over as the city’s dominant player. The company had an exclusive hold on Maple Leaf Gardens, courtesy of the fact Mr. Ballard’s father was Leafs majority owner and Gardens president Harold Ballard. Squeezed out of the city’s biggest indoor venue, Mr. Onrot continued to promote concerts but on a much smaller scale.
“It was a major blow,” he would later tell The Globe.
The changing of the guard marked a sharp change in the environment of the live music industry in Canada. What was once a casual, small-time scene in the sixties turned cutthroat and corporate in the seventies.
In 1984, Mr. Onrot joined the O’Keefe Centre as its programming manager. He left 10 years later as the entertainment venue’s general manager to join MCA Concerts Canada. In his role as senior vice-president at MCA, he was instrumental in the building of the Molson Amphitheatre, a 16,000-capacity lakeside venue that opened in 1995. It is now owned and operated by Live Nation Canada, with different beverage options, as Budweiser Stage.
Although he was better known as a concert producer, Mr. Onrot also had success as an artist manager. His stewardship of Hamilton rockers Crowbar resulted in Larger than Life (and Live’r than You’ve Ever Been), recorded at Massey Hall in 1971. The concert by the Oh, What a Feeling hitmakers was the first to be simulcast on CHUM-FM. The resulting double LP is believed to be the first Canadian-made live album.
Mr. Onrot had less luck with an unproven Neil Young and his band Four to Go in the mid-1960s. “There were times Neil slept on our couch,” Ms. Onrot said. “Martin just couldn’t get him a job in Toronto.”
In the 2002 biography Shakey, by Jimmy McDonough, Mr. Young recalled his brief time in Toronto with Mr. Onrot: “He wanted to be a manager, and I wanted to be an artist. Neither one of us really were what we thought we were – but we wanted to be.”
Martin Howard Onrot was born in Toronto on Feb. 8, 1940. His father, Louis Onrot, was in jewellery and hotel businesses; his mother, Belle Onrot (née Sameul), was a buyer for high-fashion women’s clothing. After graduating from Bathurst Heights Collegiate, he attended (but did not graduate from) the University of Waterloo.
“He didn’t want to be a doctor or anything like that,” his wife said.
Described by Globe rock critic Ritchie Yorke as a “hip-looking tieless man” in the 1960s, Mr. Onrot quickly developed a reputation for class and civility in an industry often lacking in those traits. “Marty always got it right,” former CHUM-FM executive Duff Roman told The Globe. “And he helped grow Toronto’s reputation on the touring circuit and lifted the ambitions of our local artists working in what was then a burgeoning Canadian industry.”
In 1972, Bruce Cockburn’s manager, Bernie Finkelstein, brought in Mr. Onrot and The Riverboat club owner Bernie Fiedler to help organize the first national tour of the rising-star Canadian troubadour. “It wasn’t lost on me that Marty was doing most of the work,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “I give him all the credit for that tour.”
Audiences appreciated Mr. Onrot’s professionalism as well. “If a show was supposed to run at 8 o’clock, it ran at 8 o’clock,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
But some things were out of Mr. Onrot’s control. In the summer of 1972, he produced a concert at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium headlined by British hard-rock band Black Sabbath. Days before the show, the group’s drummer suffered an asthma attack on stage in Rhode Island and collapsed. Though Black Sabbath was no longer able to perform in Toronto, Mr. Onrot opened the stadium’s gates and declared the concert featuring American band Argent a free show.
That same year, he arranged to have Crowbar perform as the opening act of Pierre Trudeau’s 1972 re-election campaign rallies, including a stop at Maple Leaf Gardens. Although Mr. Onrot wasn’t particularly partisan, he was a politician whisperer adept at navigating city bureaucracy.
In 1978, he helped organize Canada Jam, a summer rock festival at Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., featuring the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the Doobie Brothers, Atlanta Rhythm Section, the Village People, Dave Mason, Prism, Kansas, the Commodores and Triumph. In an incident not unthinkable at the time, one of the Doobie Brothers offered a doobie to the Onrot’s young son during a helicopter ride to the festival site.
“He was only 13 years old, so he told them, ‘No thank you,’” Ms. Onrot said. “It was quite funny.”
The festival attracted more than 110,000 fans, making it the largest paying rock audience in Canadian history – until the Rolling Stones headlined Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto (a.k.a. SARSStock) in 2003, a concert that drew a crowd four times that size.
Mr. Onrot also managed the short-lived indie label Dallcorte Records. In later years, he and his wife owned the Group TIX Company, an agency that distributed group tickets for theatre and other events.
He leaves his wife; his children, Scott Onrot and Mia Onrot Hernick; and his brother, Dr. Jake Onrot.