Leonard Cohen Recalls Seeing Josh White
[Question:] What was the first gig you went to?
[Leonard Cohen:] Josh White in Ruby Foo’s, a Chinese restaurant in Montreal, 1949. Josh White was a black blues singer, once associated with the leftist folk song movement in New York City but allegedly turned federal witness in the investigation of communistic folk singers and lost a lot of credibility. Still played a great guitar. He knew how to bend a string.1
Leonard Cohen was certainly correct about Josh White knowing “how to bend a string.” His playing style influenced many guitarists, including Pete Seeger, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio, Merle Travis, Dave Van Ronk, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Mike Bloomfield, David Crosby, Richie Havens, Don McLean, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, Eva Cassidy and Jack White.2
And Leonard Cohen’s summary of White’s political conflicts was similarly accurate. As Wikipedia notes,
White also became the closest African-American friend and confidant to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, White’s anti-segregationist and international human rights political stance presented in many of his recordings and in his speeches at rallies resulted in the right-wing McCarthyites assuming him a Communist. Accordingly, from 1947 through the mid 1960s, White became caught up in the anti-Communist Red Scare, and combined with the resulting attempt to clear his name, his career was damaged.
Josh White was also – before he was blacklisted – in demand as an actor on radio, Broadway, and film.
Josh White on Video
Ruby Foo’s – Montreal
The legends on the postcards call Ruby Foo’s “The Showplace of Montreal,” and give its address: 7815 Decarie Blvd Montreal.” They go on to note that the restaurant “specializi[es] in Chinese & American Dishes, Sea Food, and Entertainment” and offers “3 Cocktail lounges, 4 Dining Rooms, seating capacity 600 and Free Parking.”
Although Leonard Cohen’s description of Ruby Foo’s as a “Chinese restaurant” is technically correct, Ruby Foo’s, as can be inferred from the documentation that follows, was actually a center of Montreal’s night life and social activity, especially for the Jewish community, that happened to serve Chinese food:
An article from Billboard Oct 25, 1947 credits Ruby Foo’s with starting a boom in cocktail entertainment in Montreal.
Still further north on Decarie were the drive-in curb service restaurants. The Bonfire, Miss Montreal, Orange Julip. Also Piazza Tomasso where Uncle Tom did his magic tricks and Ruby Foo’s where you could have your picture taken and have it appear on match covers. This was a watering hole for the 3 martini business types during the day and at night a gathering place for mostly Jewish folks who wanted to see and be seen. From Spacing Montreal
Big Band and Dixieland Jazz came first to Montreal where it was in full swing by the 1940s, and could be danced to at the Palais d’Or, the Verdun Pavilian, the Black Sheep Room at Ruby Foo’s, the Bellevue Casino, and Dagwood’s. From A Canadian Family
In the early 50s, Bruce [Ho] worked a variety of jobs, notably at Ruby Foo’s on 52nd Street and Broadway, smack in the middle of the Great White Way. Ruby Foo’s fun and successful style is still being copied today – she first opened in Boston and then New York, followed by Montreal and a small place in Miami much later. It’s believed that the Italian underworld helped Ruby come to New York. From The Ineffable Bruce Ho: Restaurateur
Irwin Leopold, who owned the landmark Montreal restaurant Ruby Foo’s and was a founder of Mondev International, the development company responsible for Westmount Square and the Banque Canadienne National Building at Place d’Armes, died of cancer yesterday. … “He was a magnet. Everybody from every community in the city wanted to know Irwin Leopold at Ruby Foo’s,” his son Stephen told The Gazette. … “Until it closed, Ruby Foo’s was a place where everyone congregated. It seated up to 1,300. No place has really replaced it in terms of just everybody being there.” The Decarie Blvd. restaurant closed in 1984 after a protracted labour dispute. From Wednesday Night July 7, 2004 .
About That Date
Leonard Cohen recalled seeing Josh White at Ruby Foo’s in 1949. And, Josh White did play in Montreal at least as early as Oct 15, 1946, although the venue is not listed.3
The March 12, 1953 edition of Jet, however, indicates that when Josh White didn’t open at Ruby Foo’s until March 13, 1953, at which time “he would be the first Negro ever to appear t the Canada night spot.”
Leonard Cohen’s recollection of seeing Josh White at Ruby Foo’s in 1949 may be inaccurate, Jet may have been mistaken about March 13, 1953 being White’s first appearance at Ruby Foo’s, or, in contradistinction to Mr Cohen’s song, both he and Jet can be wrong.
Given that Leonard Cohen was born September 21, 1934, he would have been 14 or 15 in 1949. While it is not impossible that he made his way into an adult-oriented club at that age, one has to wonder if it is not more likely that he saw Josh White at Ruby Foo’s in March 1953 when Cohen would have been 18.
Note: Originally posted Dec 2, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric