Luke & The Apostles were one of Yorkville's hottest draws back in their day. They were an R&B band from Toronto who cut their teeth on the local circuit alongside many of the cities up and coming bands. R&B had a home here in those days, and well into the 1970's. Bands such as Bobby Kris & The Imperials, Jon-Lee & The Checkmates, The Mandala, David Clayton Thomas' Shays, Robbie Lane & The Disciples, and Ronnie Hawkins band were popular purveyors of the raw, honest sound.
The founding force in the band was Mike McKenna. Born in Toronto on April 15, 1946, Mike began playing guitar professionally at the dawn of the 1960's. At around sixteen, he was a member of Whitey & The Roulettes, with future Mandala drummer Pentti "Whitey" Glan. But this group didn't feel right for the young guitarist. He'd leave the band later that year, with plans of starting his own group with school friend and bassist Graham Dunsmore. The pair auditioned a few drummers before settling on Rich McMurray. With the line-up together, the group undertook the arduous task of naming themselves. Mike, the eternal realist, liked the sound of the name "Mike's Trio."
Mike Trio started gigging at the Cellar club in Yorkville, during 1963; playing mostly Jimmy Reed covers. They quickly began to garner a bit of a reputation and talk amongst the members about getting a singer began to flourish. In early 1964, Rich introduced his friend Luke Gibson who quickly was brought on as vocalist and harmonica player. Shortly afterwards, they brought in keyboardist Peter Jermyn to round out the line-up. He also brought with him, a new name for the group; Luke & The Apostles.
The group became a fixture on the Toronto club scene, mostly in the Yorkville neighborhood. Getting there start with residencies at The Cellar Club, they moved up to the El Patio, followed by The Purple Onion club. They became such a draw at the latter club that, they were still the house band and biggest earner over a year after their debut performance at the club.
Before their meteoric rise however, Graham Dunsmore was replaced by Jim Jones, while Ray Bennett came in solely to take over on harmonica from Luke. Ray Bennett only stayed with the band for a few months (leaving in the summer of 1965) but in that time, he composed their defining song "Been Burnt;" a scorching garage rocker with a rave-up in the middle.
One evening in September 1965, not long after the departure of Ray Bennett, Elektra talent scout Paul Rothchild caught the band at the Purple Onion during one of their stellar sets. He was so blown away that he asked singer Luke Gibson to audition the band for his label boss, Jac Holzman by singing over the phone! The song in question? Been Burnt!
After signing a deal with Elektra, the band flew down to New York and recorded their debut single in February 1966. Bennett's "Been Burnt" was the de facto A-Side, backed by Mike McKenna's "Don’t Know Why." The single was being readied for release that spring; everyone in the groups corner was excited, but then.... Tragedy struck!
During April of 1966, Paul Rothchild was arrested for marijuana possession and the band's single was put on hold for a year while he served a prison sentence. It seems that with Paul being the main person championing the band's cause, the single lived and died with him. Nobody else at Elektra believed in the group half as much as he did.
In June of that year, Jim Jones, disillusioned with the whole ordeal, left the band and was replaced for five months by Dennis Pendrith. The group continued onwards, performing as much as they ever had. July saw them hired as the temporary house band at Boris' club in Toronto. This was a venue the group would play frequently over the following year. Over the remainder of 1966, the band performed dates at the El Patio and the Gogue Inn among other venues. The group also began to find work beyond the city's limits, travelling east to Oshawa on July 24th to play at the Jubilee Auditorium.
Pendrith’s brief time with the band came to an end in late September of that year when former bassist Jim Jones, came to regret leaving and rejoined the group. It seemed like this was a shaky time for the back line, as Rich McMurray was fired and replaced with young drummer Pat Little and Peter Jermyn briefly left the group (replaced by future Bedtime Story and Edward Bear keyboardist Bob Kendall) before returning in December.
Changes aside, the group managed to regain their composure, and resume their residency at Boris’ club. Their show was constantly being put to the test however, as they’d constantly share the bill with top talent from around town; The Ugly Ducklings, Mandala and The Paupers among others. The Apostles almost always came out on top and it was around this time that their reputation and popularity began to really grow.
The fruits of their labour began to show that October. They were asked to open the show for popular singer Neil Diamond when he performed at the newly opened Club Kingsway on October 15th. This was followed by their first tour, heading to Montreal for some concert dates in November and December.
1967 held a number of opportunities for the band, but their single still not being released loomed large over their head; Elektra really didn’t seem to care. In the spring the group returned to New York for some live dates and recording sessions, but for now they were still stuck in Ontario. January and February saw the band almost exclusively playing at Boris’ and its newly opened upstairs counterpart “Boris’ Red Gas Room.” They’d also make brief stops at The Villa Inn and Club Isabella in February, followed by a brief trip to Ottawa in March.
After a pair of farewell shows at Boris’ on April 8th and 9th, the band was packed and off for New York. Their first show at the Cafe au Go Go was so well received that they were asked to return the following month for another string of shows; where they’d open for The Grateful Dead. During this engagement, McKenna became fast friends with Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who hounded Mike to sell him his recently acquired Les Paul Special.
Elektra booked the group into its New York studios for a day to record an album's worth of material, including the tracks, "I Don’t Feel Like Trying" and "So Long Girl". None of these recordings have ever been released. Surprisingly however, the group’s shelved single saw a release in late April of 1967. “Been Burnt/Don’t Know Why” was released on Elektra in Canada and Bounty in the USA. The song’s unfortunately failed to chart but in the intervening years, the A-Side has been comped relentlessly; a testament to its garage rock greatness.
The band’s New York shows were going extremely well. It seemed every time they visited something amazing and unexpected would happen. Firstly, Mike McKenna (after being recommended by Paupers bassist Denny Gerrard) was asked to return and audition for Mike Bloomfield’s spot in The Paul Butterfield Blues Band after their April dates had finished. Next, during one of the Cafe au Go Go shows, Albert Grossman and Bill Graham approached the band offering a management contract. Bill Graham also promised the band a slot at the Fillmore West in California that summer.
Here, the band began to fragment. Unable to reconcile differences over the potential offers as well as differences in personal ambitions, the group returned to Toronto to reassess its future. Shortly afterwards however, Bill Graham approached Luke & The Apostles and asked them to open for Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead at Toronto’s Nathan Philips Square. This show would take place on July 23 and was to be in front of nearly 50,000 people. Personal turmoil aside, the band would have been crazy to pass up this show. They performed a high-octane set featuring tight, amazing covers, including a version of Neil Young's "Mr. Soul.” Graham was suitably impressed by the band's performance and asked they repeat their support act at the O'Keefe Centre from in a week-long stint starting on July 31st; the group accepted.
The fantastic reception did little to heal the problems of the past however. Luke Gibson accepted an offer to join Kensington Market in September, immediately thereafter the other band members began to splinter off. Peter Jermyn passed on an offer to replace Al Kooper in The Blues Project, instead moving to Ottawa to join the band Heart, which evolved into The Modern Rock Quartet. Jim Jones went on to play in a number of smaller, lesser known groups; including The Artists’ Jazz Band.
Mike McKenna and Pat Little were left bandless; having only their name intact. Missing it’s lead singer however, this mattered little. The two decided to officially go their separate ways and disband the group. McKenna immediately found work with The Ugly Ducklings before forming the highly respected blues outfit, McKenna Mendelson Mainline in 1968.
Pat Little was busier than most members of the old group. He started as an early member of Edward Bear before joining up with David Clayton-Thomas’ newly founded Combine group. After the short-lived group folded due to David Clayton-Thomas’ leaving for New York (to join Blood, Sweat & Tears), Pat alongside two of his band mates joined The Georgian People (later known as Chimo) in June, 1968. He’d then move on to Transfusion, the house band at Toronto’s Rock Pile. They stayed together until late 1969.
With 1970 mere months away, a new decade on the horizon, many ex-Apostles were reminiscing about their former band and the good times they had. The nostalgia felt by not only the band, but many local fans, saw a meeting between Luke Gibson, Mike McKenna and Pat Little take place in December of 1969. They met up to swap stories and reminisce, but reforming the group was on everyone’s mind.
Pat Little brought in former Transfusion band mate Danny McBride on guitar alongside McKenna, Mike brought in bassist Denny Gerrard, and the group enlisted the management of Bernie Finkelstein. Bernie was the manager for Luke’s band Kensington Market and had recently founded his own record label; True North Records.
With a line-up and manager in place, Luke & The Apostles had officially risen from the dead. However not everything was perfect in the band’s camp. Denny Gerrard at the time was struggling with drug addiction and mental problems and was unfortunately a liability. He was quickly replaced by Bruce Palmer; formerly of Buffalo Springfield.
With Bruce in place just before the band’s debut show, they had just enough time to rehearse. Their week-long residency at Ottawa’s Café Le Hibou went over well and they were on the road almost as soon as they got off stage. After a quick arrival back In Toronto, the band readied for their show backing Johnny Winter the following evening at Massey Hall. After some low-key gigs around town, Bruce left; wanting to work on his own solo album. He couldn’t have left at a worse time however, as the band was booked to record their debut single in a few weeks. Jack Geisinger (of Damage, Milkwood and Walter Rossi’s “Influence”) joined just in time to rehearse and perform on the recording.
Recorded in March and released in August, “You Make Me High/Not Far Off” represents a high point for both the band and Toronto rock of the time. The songs carry a psych energy in a more contemporary package; buoyed by the top-quality musicianship on all sides. Both songs were the result of a collaborative jam session between Luke Gibson, Mike McKenna and Pat Little, before they solidified the lineup; with the B-side being written by Luke Gibson. You Make Me High managed to reach #27 on the RPM charts.
The success of their single allowed the band to return triumphantly to the live scene, performing at The Strawberry Fields Pop Festival (August 7-8), The Woodbine Arena (August 13th) and a pair of CNE Bandstand gigs backing Lighthouse/Crowbar/Soma on August 20th and Mashmakan on August 27th.
By this stage however, the band was unravelling. Mike McKenna had left back in April due to disputes in the band and receiving an invite to reform McKenna Mendelson Mainline. He was replaced with Walter Rossi, who had previously headed Influence alongside Jack Geisinger.
September 1970 saw their fortunes turning upwards once again when they were asked to play at one of New York’s many popular clubs; Ungano’s. There was even talk of the band recording an album, but it never materialized. With nothing on the horizon, Luke Gibson began to grow restless. Luke left to start a solo career while Pat Little left to rejoin Chimo! for the band’s final single and then joined Heaven & Earth with former band mate Denny Gerrard. The remaining members recruited ex-Wizard drummer Mike Driscoll, performing as The Apostles before splitting in early 1971.
The band’s legacy in the intervening years has only been helped by the relative success of its members. They’ve all gone on to greatness, pursuing their own path or joining other successful groups. One of Toronto’s finest groups and one of the standard bearers of the ill-fated Yorkville scene, Luke & The Apostles represented a truly special band and a fine example of the varied brand of R&B our city was known for.
The band reformed in the late 90’s due to demand in Toronto, and have played frequent reunion shows over the years with a varying backline, boosted always by the singing of Luke Gibson, and the distinct guitar of Mike McKenna. 2017 would see the release of their debut studio album, bringing to rest the clamoring of fans, and giving a happy ending to a great story.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH