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Before she went to New York and became famous, Joni Mitchell played the Half Beat in Yorkville

Before she went to New York and became famous, Joni Mitchell played the Half Beat in Yorkville
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McHugh, who owned the Yorkville-era clubs the Penny Farthing and the Half Beat in the 1960s, recalls meeting “Joanna Anderson” when she came to one of his venues around 1963 to ’64.

“It was at the Penny Farthing that (singer) Cathy Young brought this young lady in with her,” McHugh recalled recently from his home in Jordan, Ont. “Cathy knew that I had folk singers performing in the basement during the week, where people could go and listen to amateurs. I think I paid them $5 a night and they passed the hat around, too.”

Anderson made an immediate impression on McHugh, now 86.

“I was really struck by this young lady’s appearance first of all and then by her talent. I had listened to some really awful people singing, but this was something different. And so I asked her if she wanted to go into the cellar — or the Dungeon, as we called it — and she said, thank you.

“I knew I couldn’t put her upstairs because I had a fellow by the name of Chuck Mitchell singing upstairs at the Penny on the main floor.”

McHugh introduced Anderson to her future husband, whom she married in 1965 and travelled to New York with, accessing the U.S. market and eventually launching an international career.

Aside from providing the circumstance that gave Joni Mitchell her professional name, he also booked her at the Half Beat on Avenue Road on Oct. 21, 1964, and those two sets comprise the majority of the first of five discs that make up “Joni Mitchell Archives — Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967),” which will be released on Oct. 30.

The box set features nearly six hours of previously unreleased audio — including 29 previously unheard Mitchell compositions — and liner notes by noted filmmaker and journalist Cameron Crowe as a result of recent conversations with the universally adored and influential singer-songwriter.

It begins with Mitchell’s earliest known recording: a 1963 performance of the traditional blues number “House of the Rising Sun” at CFQC AM, her hometown Saskatoon radio station, and ends in 1967 with three sets at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Mich.

And while the Half Beat sets focus prominently on a woman who is interpreting traditional folk songs, there are also the earliest renditions of Mitchell originals that would subsequently make their way into her first four albums: “Michael From the Mountains,” “I Had a King (Song to a Seagull),” “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now (Clouds),” “The Circle Game (Ladies of the Canyon)” and “Little Green (Blue).”

Among the gems: a rare Mitchell cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” which she said inspired her to compose “The Circle Game.”

Anyone who has followed Mitchell over the years knows that she has constantly evolved her sound, refusing to be pigeonholed as later albums such as “Hejira,” “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,” “Mingus” and “Shadows and Light” explored new jazz-tinged sonic territory.

But Mitchell also disliked being labelled a “folk singer” — that is, until she rediscovered her earlier material as she was recovering from a brain aneurysm suffered in 2015.

“The early stuff, I shouldn’t be such a snob against it,” said Mitchell in a record company-issued news release.

“A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term, ‘I was never a folk singer.’ I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened and … it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realization … I was a folk singer!”

Bernie Fiedler, local promoter and former owner of the Riverboat, remembers her from this era.

He says he went to the Half Beat to scout her.

“Joni wanted to play my club and I said to her, ‘I can’t hire you because nobody knows you and nobody would come,’” Fiedler recalls. “This is before she started writing her own songs.”

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Fiedler says she left Toronto, had some of her material covered by fellow folkies Judy Collins and Tom Rush, and had enlisted former William Morris Agency mail courier Elliot Roberts (who would also become Neil Young’s manager) as her manager before he heard from her again.

She subsequently played the Riverboat five times between 1966 and 1968, with people “lined up around the block” waiting to see her.

“During her second or third run, Joni stayed at my place,” Fiedler said. “She actually knew when she was going to be famous. She was funny and she was smart and, after some of her performances, she and I went to Chinatown, had Chinese food and just talked until 4 or 5 a.m.

“We got along very, very well.”

When smaller venues could no longer contain Mitchell’s popularity, Fiedler and Bernie Finkelstein, his partner at the time, promoted her shows at Massey Hall.

Fiedler and Mitchell have since remained friends, although he admits they haven’t spoken in a while.

“The last time I spoke to her was when Leonard (Cohen) died,” Fiedler said. “We all used to hang out together at her West Coast property in Sechelt (British Columbia).”

With limited vinyl editions of “Early Joni” and “Live at Canterbury House — 1967” being extracted and made available from the boxed set, “Joni Mitchell Archives — Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)” is just the first chapter of a series that will eventually cover different periods of her artistry, a 19-studio-album output that include such classics as “Blue” and “Court and Spark.”

Practically any artist you can think of — Taylor Swift to David Gilmour to Herbie Hancock to Janet Jackson to Courtney Love — all owe some creative debt to Mitchell, whether it’s sonically or rhythmically or poetically, and her compositions written in open tuning have given her a sound that is uniquely hers.

This is an intimate glimpse at the gestation of one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time, in which Yorkville played a formative role.

As for John McHugh, who sold the Half Beat not long after Mitchell’s appearance, the last time he saw the budding superstar was while he was walking with his wife Patricia at Bay and Bloor in the ’70s.

And Mitchell wasn’t in a big yellow taxi .

“There was this traffic jam as we were walking by and we heard somebody go, ‘John! John McHugh!’” he recalls.

“We turned around and there was this big black limousine. The sunroof was open and there was somebody waving at me. It was Joni.
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