To mark the 175th birthday of the great city of Toronto in 2009, Mayor David Miller presided over the Toronto Song Contest, inviting Canadian residents 13 years of age and older to submit a song that reflected “Toronto’s amazing spirit and unparalleled diversity,” offering up a prize of $5000 and a place in history as our city’s de facto theme song. He needn’t have bothered, as Toronto already had a de facto theme song, a perfectly legit one at that, called “People City.”
Written by Gary Gray and golden-larynx crooner Tommy Ambrose, “People City” was stealthily commissioned by Moses Znaimer in the summer of 1972 to mark the launch of his small but mighty local UHF station Citytv. The remit was simple – he wanted a love song about the city of Toronto. “People City” bookended each exciting new day of Citytv’s broadcast: the full vocal mix played when the station signed on in the early morning hours, while the more laid-back muzak-y instrumental mix played when they signed off in the late hours. The song was released as a 45rpm single and climbed to 44 in the Canadian adult contemporary chart in 1973.
Ambrose was born in Toronto and cut his teeth as a Gospel singer and frequent subject of CBC’s Cross Canada Hit Parade in the 1950s, which led to his own series, The Tommy Ambrose Show in the early ’60s.
By the ’70s, Ambrose had established himself as a champion jingle maestro able to compose and perform memorable audio campaigns effortlessly across radio and television. As a rallying cry for the boys and their beer, his Labatt 50 jingle “Me and the Boys and our 50” has never been bettered. Ambrose ran a jazz bar in downtown Toronto between 1977 and 1989 ironically called “Jingles”, which by all accounts was a hopping place to drink, smoke and get down on some bad assed sound styling.
“People City” however remains the unquestionable Ambrose masterpiece, a haunting, slightly schmaltzy ode to the friendly multicultural city which in 1972 was brimming with the same magnanimous stuff that still makes us proud today:
“Find yourself in people city
Stay awhile if you can
With folks who will be tomorrow’s faces
Kickin’ the traces
Showing you places
That’s people city
Where love takes hold
Makes old dreams happen
She makes you feel things
So very feeling
Take on old meaning
That’s people city
Winter’s white in people city
Green ravines make summer pretty
When leaves start to turn
Then the rainbow burns
That’s when you learn
That you’re in Toronto
That’s people city“
Not surprisingly, Ambrose was later commissioned to also perform the theme song for the launch of Global TV – “A Point of View,” two years later in 1974. While not as immediate as “People City”, “A Point of View” is yet another maudlin theme which bottles the past, the present and the future into one spooky aural vintage. Global TV used it as well in their sign-off videos in the ’70s and early ’80s, guaranteeing it a place in the warm nostalgic tickle trunk of Ontario ephemera.
Other than the occasional spin on Zoomer 740 AM (owned and operated by a certain Moses Znaimer), you don’t hear much of “People City” these days; You hear even less of the 2009 winner of Mayor Miller’s Toronto song contest, a modest ditty called “Love to Live in Toronto” by George Axon and Aidan Mason.
Perhaps Tommy Ambrose’s love song to Toronto just captured the melancholy vibe of the city in a way that that no one else has in the last 40 years.
Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.