By Meggie Sylvester
When Elvis Presley played Ottawa in 1957, some students were expelled by their Catholic school nuns who considered the king too risqué for young audiences.
In fact, Presley’s show was deemed too controversial for Montreal and Ottawa became the host for his Canadian debut.
For many in Canada and the United States, Presley embodied the new phenomenon known as rock n’ roll, a genre that infused country music with rhythm and blues.
The King, in fact, is now celebrated at a new exhibition at City of Ottawa Archives as one of many milestone performances since the emergence of the genre. The exhibition Ottawa Rocks! runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31 and showcases the untold story of Ottawa’s rich musical past.
Some of the artifacts displayed include ticket stubs, vinyl records, and Canada’s first music video recorded in 1963 by local band The Esquires.
But the exhibition wouldn’t have been possible without students from applied museum studies and the library and information technician program at the college.
“We’ve had a long standing partnership with Algonquin College, both from the museum studies program and the library information and technician program,” said city archivist Paul Henry.
“We have worked with students on field placements or on special projects to help us with a number of goals that we’ve had, whether it’s conservation or to help us with our exhibition program.”
Part of the applied museum studies program requires students to plan and develop an educational exhibit and find an institution interested in a new plan.
When Ottawa’s history of rock n’ roll became a serious proposal last fall, applied museum studies coordinator Michael Wheatley approached the library and information technician program to develop an interdisciplinary project.
“Michael really wanted to beef up that research component and that’s what my students do,” said library and information technician program coordinator Helena Merriam.
“That’s really what we’re all about.”
Students proposed that the display incorporate text, photographs, artifacts, audio and video components, and interactive music stations.
The proposal also suggested the exhibit be in chronological order, which is exactly how the gallery looks today.
“You can certainly tell what the students had done because when you go look at the exhibit, you’ll notice that it looks very similar to what you saw in the proposal,” said Wheatley.
The layout depicts rock n’ roll history from the 1950s right up to The Rolling Stones concert at Lansdowne Park in 2007.
Some of the big names also include Jimi Hendrix, who performed at Capitol Theatre in 1968, and Joni Mitchell who performed at Le Hibou, a coffee-shop style club on Sussex Drive.
“We also have music playing from each of those decades so you can experience what the music sounded like,” said Henry.
But the exhibit showcases more than just big names in Ottawa’s music history.
The archives wanted to expand its collection to include local bands that have brought fame or notoriety to Ottawa and other personal stories.
“What we wanted to tell was a personal story so we went out to the public through CFRA, CBC, and the Ottawa Citizen to try to bring those personal stories to the archives,” said Henry.
According to Henry, the most memorable shows were at small venues where local musicians played.
“It was the small bands and small venues where local musicians made their living that people really remember,” said Henry.
Some of the early local bands include The Staccatos, who would later become The Five Man Electrical Band most famous for their song Signs, and The Esquires. Both would sign record deals with local CFRA DJ John Poser.
But before the early 1950s, early fans of rock n’ roll in Ottawa had to cruise AM stations from the U.S.
According to the museum’s display panels, it was virtually impossible to find records at department stores like Ogilvy’s.
It wasn’t until the fall of 1954 when Gord Atkinson, a DJ with CFRA, convinced station owner Frank Ityan to broadcast a show for Ottawa’s youth called Campus Corner.
Although city archives conducted most of the research, Michael Wheatley asks that Algonquin students get credit for their efforts.
“I just ask that they give students the credit for planting the seed and getting everything going in the first place,” said Wheatley.
Algonquin library and information technician student Christina Peterson worked with Nicole Allen, Sarah Robinson, Caitlin Hudson, and Alyssia Panuso to research and propose the exhibit to city archives.
“I was there for three weeks and was finding all of the different venues and all of the different artists,” said Peterson.
“I was looking to see who they were and all of the different shows from the time period.”
According to Paul Henry, it was the initial work by Algonquin students that stimulated further research on the subject.
“All of that was made possible by the work that Algonquin students did last fall,” said Henry.
“It got us started on this rock n’ roll odyssey.”
For more information or to view the exhibit, visit 100 Tallwood Dr.