DURHAM’S MUSIC SCENE: The day the Rolling Stones played in Oshawa

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards perform at the CNIB benefit concert in Oshawa, 1979. Photo credit: Courtesy Concertaholics.com

Thousands of young men and women flock to the Oshawa Civic Auditorium hours before the schedule printed on their tickets.

Before long, the venue starts to fill up but the lineup only seems to be getting longer. A haze of smoke surrounds the arena, as around 5,000 fans clamour to get a good glimpse of the stage.

Time passes as the crowd continues to breathe in a palpable mixture of excitement and impatience before Saturday Night Live and Blues Brother star, John Belushi, along with Cliff Lorrimer, a blind DJ are on stage to emcee one of Oshawa’s most iconic concerts of all time.

Belushi’s banter is brought to a halt after introducing the evening’s main act – The Rolling Stones.

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Stones guitarist Keith Richards croons away at the Oshawa concert. Photo credit: Courtesy Concertaholics.com

The band emerges under a spotlight and countless sets of eyes. The crowd goes wild.

On April 22, 1979, The Rolling Stones and their opening act, The New Barbarians, played two benefit concerts called ‘Blind Date’ for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in Oshawa. The concerts were guitarist Richards’ sentence for his conviction on heroin charges after being arrested at the Harbour Castle Hilton in Toronto in 1977.

During his sentencing in 1978, the Crown suggested a jail term of six to 12 months, but Richards’ lawyer Austin Cooper argued against it, saying prison was necessary only to kick his drug habit or prevent him from committing crime. He added that his client was rich enough to fund his habit without stealing, and was also receiving treatment, which defeated the purpose of a jail term.

“It kind of gave the general public the idea that there are really two laws,” says Eric Alper, music commentator and publicist. “There’s one for the rich and the wealthy, and there’s one for everybody else.”

His argument was effective and Judge Lloyd Graburn ended up sentencing Richards to a benefit concert for CNIB that was to take place within six months.

Keith Richards outside his sentencing in Toronto in 1978.

“There’s no reason to put a Keith Richards in prison,” Alper adds. “You can’t make an example of it so they did exactly what you would hope a judge would do, and if he cleaned up his act, then everybody wins.”

The soccer field at the Civic Recreational Complex, Oshawa used to be a hockey rink. In 1979, The Rolling Stones played a benefit concert here during which the rink saw more than 10,000 fans. Photo credit: Soyra Mokashi

The concert was held in Oshawa because venues in Toronto were not available.

While one portion of the tickets was set aside for the blind, the other was sold to the public. Tickets went on sale months before the event. This was well before the internet and Oshawa saw thousands of fans lining up for days just to get a hold of a ticket. The concert sold out in no time, sending many home empty-handed.

“In 1978, the Stones were earning their keep and proving to the world that they truly were the greatest rock and roll band,” says Alper. “Many boomers of that generation grew up on their music and they were as big of a celebrity as you can be.”

Donna and Dave Sheridan stand at the Civic Recreational Complex, which used to be the Oshawa Civic Auditorium in front of the rink where The Rolling Stones benefit concert was held in 1979. Photo credit: Soyra Mokashi

Then 20-year-old Donna Legree and her now-husband Dave Sheridan didn’t have tickets to the show.

They were at home, watching a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game.

Shortly before the evening show, the two Oshawa residents received a phone call from a friend who was a police officer and had acquired a couple of extra tickets. He asked the couple what they would rather do – go to the Stones’ concert or watch the game.

“It didn’t take us too long to make a decision,” Dave says. “Within 15 minutes, we were at the Civic Auditorium.”

“We actually went through the long line that was lined up all the way around the arena. We cut through, went up the steps and got let in through the side door for free,” he chuckles.

A newspaper clipping of The Oshawa Times on April 23, 1979 covering The Rolling Stones concert that took place the previous day. Photo credit: Oshawa Public Library

The highlight of the evening for Dave was the “electric” atmosphere and the moment the Stones came on stage as the whole arena erupted into excitement.

For Donna, the highlight was just being there after not expecting to be there.

“The Stones, right in your own backyard and for free…that doesn’t happen,” she says. “Usually, if you want see any big group, you’ve got to get in your car or plane or train and travel somewhere.”

Most of the audience wasn’t so lucky.

Rob Sweeney recounts his experience at the Rolling Stones concert in Oshawa, 1979. Photo credit: Soyra Mokashi

Rob Sweeney, a diehard Stones fan, had waited in line with friends from about 7 p.m. on a Saturday night till Monday morning, when the tickets went on sale.

“It was just one big party from Saturday night to Monday morning,” Sweeney says.

His long wait paid off as he got to choose seats close to the stage.

“John Belushi, who looked like he was well on his way, came up and exchanged a few words with me,” he recalls. “He even got up on the bench and gave my sister a kiss! Everybody was having a good time.”

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A ticket stub of The Rolling Stones benefit concert in Oshawa, 1979.

At one point, Sweeney says he was offered $100 for his used ticket. He had initially bought the ticket for $15.

“Being there and now being part of something you’re never going to forget…it’s just great,” he says. “It’s historical. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, but that one’s very special.

According to Alper, the event set the tone for court systems realizing there are other, more efficient ways to dole our punishments.

“The Rolling Stones are still one of the biggest bands of all time and those years in Oshawa and Toronto will forever be embedded in rock and roll history books as the place where Keith Richards finally got his act together,” he says.