Clyde McNeil Obituary: Oh shot, boy! Aaah…Save, Clyde!

Clyde started his adult career as a lab technician at Toronto General Hospital. Although he enjoyed the locally progressive nightclub and concert scene, which featured a plethora of Black arts and musicians at every level, the same could not be said of Caribbean arts.

Clyde McNeil Obituary: Oh shot, boy! Aaah…Save, Clyde!

Clyde McNeil (deceased)

The first thing you noticed when you met Clyde McNeil is that he was large. Large in any way you cared to assess. Large in stature: his hands, feet, chest, grin, embrace, personality…and his ideas. Nothing small, nothing medium …only large.

 

The first thing you noticed when you met Clyde McNeil is that he was large. Large in any way you cared to assess. Large in stature: his hands, feet, chest, grin, embrace, personality…and his ideas. Nothing small, nothing medium …only large.

The Fatima College old boy and cadet, who emigrated to Canada in the latter 1960s, spent the next 50 years in Toronto, chiseling a niche in its frigid granite soul, firmly establishing a platform for Caribbean arts and culture, before returning to his familial roots in Tobago.

Clyde started his adult career as a lab technician at Toronto General Hospital. Although he enjoyed the locally progressive nightclub and concert scene, which featured a plethora of Black arts and musicians at every level, the same could not be said of Caribbean arts. His first forays as a presenter/producer in 1970 were simple, little “parties” featuring Caribbean deejays who played a mixture of R&B, popular music, and calypso, with some simple food dishes, and a bar that sold beer for 50 cents. Clyde had provided an occasional meeting place and touchstone for our “transitioning immigrant culture” that was affordable, invigorating and comforting. He had also provided the opportunity for the deejays to develop their skills and reputation.

The audience and demand for such activities grew. What was once a month in a basement became twice a month in a hall. At the same time Clyde had been busy.

He was goalie for the football team called “Iere” (the pre-Columbian name for Trinidad), but devoted time to his other interests: photography, playing All Fours, listening to music, and enjoying visual and performing arts. His dedication to his former steelband, “Ebonites”, was quick to surface with: “Boy! You ain’ really LISTEN to we band playing Roses From The South, Eh!"

Clyde involved himself in every Caribbean activity he could find time for. Through his charm and unassailable wit, he became a popular figure in a variety of those communities, at every level, political, social, recreational, and cultural. So when “Fat Man” or “Fat Clyde”, as he later became popularly known, recognized the opportunity, he left TGH to open Club Trinidad, the first large Black-owned and operated nightclub in Toronto.

The rest, as they say, is “history”. Club Trinidad became a fixture in Caribbean culture in Toronto, a permanent venue for the audience that also provided exposure and employment for entertainers and others who needed it.

As the club got more successful, he also noted the need for providing Black music that wasn’t readily available to Toronto. He began importing and selling records under “Big C Records”. I am sure that company never made any money because it operated out of his apartment, and when you went there to pick up your music, you were invariably treated to refreshment. Such was the quality of the man.

Club Trinidad advanced to such success that the city allowed it to take over the empty block across the street to host a “live music blockorama” on Caribana Sunday. Molson Canadian supplied some 33,000 beers on consignment for the occasion.

But Clyde saw a still larger picture. He wanted to expose the expanse and wealth of broader Caribbean culture to Canada. In 1973 he broke new ground by promoting the first major concert at the Ontario Place Forum, featuring Byron Lee, Johnny Nash, Ken Lazarus and Tomorrow’s Children, The Fabulous Five, Swinging Stars, and The Tradewinds. The Forum seated 15 hundred people but more than 2,000 turned up and eventually mashed down the security fences. Talk about success!

The next year, another something new. Clyde had already formulated another plan, a three-day Caribbean Cultural Exhibition. It was held at Masonic Temple, featured visual and performing arts, book displays and readings and, of course, music and food. Cultural exhibitions had been held before, but no one had dared to import art and artistes to exhibit at this magnitude. “Fat Clyde” was again raising the bar.

The former presenter could now well be termed impresario and cultural stalwart. He took to that mantle and waded into the larger community. Clyde established himself in the much larger provincial political circles and was soon campaigning for Roy McMurtry in downtown Toronto. McMurtry was elected, and became the Attorney General of Ontario.

Clyde had supported and attended many “Carifesta”s and the World Festival of Black and African Arts, (Festac), in Nigeria, in 1977. Through those experiences he yearned to see his beloved culture on Canada’s biggest stage, so he set his sights on bringing calypso to the number one concert hall in Canada, the home of the Toronto Symphony, the Roy Thomson Hall. Through an alliance with Sickle Cell Canada, in the mid-80s, he was able to achieve just that. Soon, the names of Sparrow, Rose, Baron, Gypsy, David Rudder and a coterie of Caribbean artistes appeared on the grand marquee.

But Clyde’s life was not all about entertainment. In the In 1996, he was on the steering committee for Citizens for Local Democracy, a group concerned about broad community representation in Metro Toronto politics. Notably on that committee were former Toronto Mayor John Sewell and not-yet-a-politician, Kathleen Wynne, the current Premier of Ontario. Ten years later, working at CHIN radio, he organized a public forum to ask, “why Black children were not doing as well as White children in school”. That prompted the Toronto School board to empower an investigating committee.

In between all of that there were some misadventures and he like all of us -- through hubris, callous disregard, or mere fate – had occasion to difficult times. It finally led to his return home.

Clyde McNeil’s reach was wide because he made friends quickly and easily. He had friends in every ethnic community in Toronto.

Who could resist this large, happy man, of good manners, who was always willing to listen, willing to lend a hand, willing to explore new ideas, and willing to try for higher heights.

We remember him for all those qualities. But perhaps most significant, however, was an ironclad optimism that refused to accept failure even if it was staring him in the face. It might have been the thing that allowed him to create the template for cultural entrepreneurs in Canada.

We remember him for his physical agility. “Big C” liked referring to his dance prowess by announcing, “Twinkle Toes…here”. He could be childlike and self-effacing but also ruthless and determined. Angelic, but no angel.

It was his curiosity that impressed me most. And how he would advance his primary probe, “ah have ah idea for a lil’ something… Ley me run it by yuh”.

We have all been enriched by Clyde’s life. By example, he lifted us up. He stands as a forerunner in the propagation of Caribbean culture in Canada. In that, he was stunningly successful.

Clyde McNeil created new platforms for our exhibition and development. Indeed he painted his life on a large canvas.

To summarize, I choose his quote referencing his performance as a goalkeeper.

“Oh shot boy!

Aaah! Save, Clyde!”


----Daryl Auwai,

Toronto, Canada



(There is sacredness in tears.

They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.

They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.

They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition,

and of unspeakable love.)