Entertainment

Toronto’s Kensington Sound recording studio turns 50

It’s rare for recording studios to reach the half-century mark of existence but, when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, Toronto’s Kensington Sound hit that milestone.

It hasn’t been easy, says studio musician-owner Vezi Tayyeb, who launched his Kensington Market business in 1972 in the Baldwin Street location that it still calls home.

“We’ve had some very dark times, but we’ve survived,” he said during a mid-November visit to the studio, which over the past five decades has hosted clients ranging from Murray McLauchlan, Tower of Power, Ron Sexsmith and David Wilcox to Chris Spedding, the Drifters, Teenage Head and Sharon, Lois & Bram.

Tayyeb is also well-known in musical circles for his tasteful guitarmanship as a sideman, and his valued engineering and production skills — he’s been the musical director of classic soul-pop legends the Drifters for more than 35 years; accompanies McLauchlan when the singer-songwriter tours with a band and was a staple of the Prakash John-led Lincolns when they frequently appeared at the Orbit Room. He hadn’t planned a career as a studio owner.

“My father was a professor at the University of Toronto and I was supposed to become an academic like him,” he said. “I started courses in math, physics and chemistry, but I just ended up hating it. I kept transferring courses, trying to find something in university that would sustain my interest, but I never did.

“It was the ’60s. I became a musician and started learning guitar for real and grew my hair long.”

He also formed a band called Harbour in the early ’70s and admitted, “We weren’t very good at all.”

But they toured and eventually Tayyeb found himself in a New York recording studio for a vocal session and instantly fell in love with the process.

Vezi Tayyeb inside Kensington Sound recording studio, which turned 50 on Jan. 1.

“I flipped out and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I was already writing songs and I thought, ‘I’ll just record them.”

He and his Harbour bandmates returned to Toronto and looked for a rehearsal hall when they stumbled upon the building that would eventually house Kensington Sound. Going into business together, they bought a TEAC 3340 quarter-inch machine “that you could record four tracks on fairly pristinely,” Tayyeb recalled. “By today’s standards, it was a joke, but back then it was a trail-blazing piece of equipment and cutting edge for the time. Bands found out that we had a new fancy machine and came calling.”

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Tayyeb said the biggest advantage that Kensington Sound held over its competitors was that it was musician-friendly and cheaper than larger Toronto studios of the time like Thunder Sound and Eastern Sound, which charged a few hundred dollars per hour.

Another advantage was the quality of musician that could be hired for projects, Tayyeb said.

“For some reason, we attracted a very eclectic but interesting bunch of musicians that could really play. Also, at that time I had signed a publishing contract with Prakash John, who had just come back from touring with Alice Cooper. He took interest in my songs, and the reason I mention that is because we recorded all my songs here and he brought in all these incredible players. It was a shot in the arm to the studio. Prakash was a big part of stepping the studio up into a different level.”

By the time the 1980s rolled around, business at Kensington Sound was booming, and Tayyeb and his partners expanded into other facets.

“In the ’80s, we started a record label, Quantum Records, which released albums by Mad About Plaid — who won ‘Star Search’ in the U.S. — Belinda Metz, Rex Chainbelt, the Look People and others,” Tayyeb recalled. “We put out good records, shot our own videos, were supported by FACTOR and got a couple of Juno Award nominations. We did all the hard work ourselves for 10 years and were very active; we visited MIDEM (a yearly global music industry conference) every year in Cannes, France, and ended up in a partnership with a U.S. label called SWS Records.”

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This ramped-up activity still wasn’t enough for Tayyeb and company, so they looked beyond the music business for further opportunities.

Tayyeb said in the early days the biggest advantage that Kensington Sound held over its competitors was that it was musician-friendly and cheaper than larger Toronto studios of the time.

“We made an error. We got a little too cocky and we opened a restaurant at Front and Church called Peppermint Park. That went bankrupt.”

Tayyeb and his partners opened a second restaurant, the World of Henry Orient, with predictable results.

“That was kind of a turning point because we lost a lot of money. It was during the ’80s recession and was just bad timing. So there were years of attrition there where there was massive debt to pay off,” Tayyeb said. “But the studio paid it off.”

While Kensington Sound certainly recorded its share of hit records — platinum albums for Teenage Head’s breakthrough “Frantic City” and Sharon, Lois & Bram’s “One Elephant, Deux Éléphants” adorn the studio walls — its biggest album has been the Alannah Myles self-titled smash of the ’90s that sold one million copies in Canada alone and yielded the chart-topping “Black Velvet” and a few others.

At least, it was kind of recorded at the studio.

“(Project producer) David Tyson called me up and said, ‘Do you know Alannah Myles?’” Tayyeb remembered. “I was skeptical, but they came in and from day one, Tyson, (songwriter and producer) Christopher Ward and myself were here — Alannah came in and out — and I thought the results were stunning. The entire album was recorded here and then they got a record deal. Then they re-recorded the whole album at Sounds Interchange and that’s the album that got released.”

But the real story is how Tayyeb missed out on a windfall.

“The studio bill was about $3,500 and it came time for Tyson to pay the bill just as Atlantic Records in the U.S. expressed interest in signing her. And David had said, ‘Well, instead of paying the bill, would you take a point (a percentage of record sales)? We don’t have a deal yet, but we’re pretty confident we’re going to get one.’”

Instruments at Kensington Sound recording studio, celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Tayyeb had to convince his partners to accept Tyson’s terms, but he managed to do it and returned to Tyson the next day to confirm the studio’s acceptance of his offer. Except Tyson had changed his mind overnight.

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“David said, ‘Nah, Christopher and I talked about it and we’re just going to settle your bill,’” Tayyeb said, jokingly grimacing years later over just missing a potential six-figure bonus.

Over the years, musicians as disparate as guitar phenom Joe Bonamassa, married pop duo Wild Strawberries and acclaimed cellist David Darling have recorded at Kensington Sound, and Tayyeb assumed sole ownership of the business some time ago.

He said his favourite memories are “the late-night sessions where you drift off into a funny zone.” He recently authored a book for hybrid publishing house Iguana Books called “On the Record” that details his professional life.

So why is he still in it after 50 years?

“The music,” Tayyeb said. “I’m still astonished at how I can still be completely moved by music. A couple of days ago I played the Eva Cassidy version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and I was in tears. Plus, the vibe here is good; we still have an old British board from the late ’70s called a Midas … and musicians love its warmth.

“It all boils down to the music.”

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