That band played here?

From Stevie Wonder to Joni Mitchell, iconic musicians rocked this town

For people coming of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s — when politics, protest, free love and Vietnam were top of mind — Waterloo wasn’t exactly ground zero for the prevailing counterculture.

Yet the power of music had become a unifying force for an entire generation like never before, and thanks to an enterprising young engineering student, it did more than bring people together at the University of Waterloo. It transformed the social scene.

“That band played here?” is a familiar refrain from those who can’t quite believe their moms and dads got to see the likes of Elton John, the Bee Gees, Joni Mitchell, Ike and Tina Turner, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, Chicago, Frank Zappa, Steppenwolf, BB King, Chuck Berry and Johnny Winter — on campus, in Waterloo of all places — for a couple of bucks a pop.

Now, the documentary Rock This Town, produced by Waterloo alumnus Betty Anne Keller (BA '69), gives alumni of a certain age an opportunity to relive the glory.

Shining a spotlight on iconic musicians who performed on campus and around the region in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the film’s narrative thread is woven around the experiences of engineering student Joe Recchia (BASc '68, MASc '71) and others who helped put Waterloo on the map.

“I came onto the campus and it was a social wasteland,” Recchia said. “There was nothing. But I was driven. People back then were dying to have entertainment in their lives. They came to the University of Waterloo to learn but they also came to socialize.”

Betty Anne Keller

Betty Anne Keller (BA 69)

 

Recchia’s wildly successful run as a concert promoter started with a first dance. More bookings followed as Waterloo students showed up in droves. And when word spread across the region and beyond to culture-starved students at other campuses, Recchia knew he needed to attract more talent. He reached out to New York agencies with a lot of big acts on their books, and things snowballed from there.

“They knew Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal,” Recchia said. “They were like, ‘Holy shit, there’s another market in Canada?’

Joe Recchia

Joe Recchia (BASc 68, MASc 71)

“I developed a relationship, and they believed in me. If your word is good, people will trust you. They started offering me everything under the sun. We were getting calls when they needed a venue in a hurry — and we were making enough money that we could payroll anything we wanted to.” 

In fact, one of the acts Recchia booked — the supergroup Chicago, then called Chicago Transit Authority — was virtually unknown until they did a gig in Waterloo.

 

“They were nobody,” Recchia recalled. “Their agent sent the act up to be showcased and they got 30 dates in Canada. That’s when the American colleges started to pay attention. The more acts I booked, the closer I got to these people.”

Although hard-pressed to pick a favourite act, Recchia said the Bee Gees, who played on campus in 1975, were particularly awesome.

“It was a time in their career where they were very hot. We paid them the most money we paid anybody. It was a band at their peak, and they lived up to it. They did it magnificently.”

Singer

Given that the University of Waterloo was founded on a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, it’s not all that surprising that Recchia and his engineering peers, who knew so little about the music business when they started, got the support they needed to make a go of it.

“In those days, student politics were pretty left of centre,” said Rock This Town producer Keller, who was dating Recchia at the time and was active behind the scenes.

“A student activity fee was being collected and Joe was given a mandate to spend the money on entertainment, so he set out to buy talent for rock ’n roll concerts for ridiculously low prices (as low as two dollars). I have a memory of these tremendous concerts where everybody just sat on the floor of the PAC.

“My purpose in producing the film was to make the case that for a music scene to happen, one of the key factors is the entrepreneurs who are willing to take the risk to make stuff happen.

“I set out to interview the people I knew had done that kind of work in the community. All these people gave their perspective on the business side of the music, but the juicy bits in the film are the stories people tell of their experiences in a particular time period from ’65 to ’75.

“Music drove the culture, and we were part of the music scene. Kitchener-Waterloo is not Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal. It required a certain level of entrepreneurship to make the music happen here. That’s the message I’m hoping to convey with Rock This Town — that music is a key part of a cultural ecosystem in any community and that it was possible to have that in Waterloo Region.”


“It required a certain level of entrepreneurship to make the music happen here. That’s the message I’m hoping to convey with Rock This Town — that music is a key part of a cultural ecosystem in any community and that it was possible to have that in Waterloo Region.”

Rock This Town producer, Betty Anne Keller (BA 69)

Betty Anne Keller


When Rock This Town premiered at Waterloo’s Princess Cinemas in March 2022, Keller was expecting perhaps five shows. The film ended up running for four months — and although most movie-goers were alumni from the era it depicts, Keller was pleasantly surprised at the reaction from younger viewers.

“The boomers played the music they love and their kids grew up listening to it,” she said. “The film has been very well received. It includes lot of music, about 30 songs. It’s very entertaining.”

Recchia said Rock This Town is a faithful depiction of the Waterloo of that era, and he’s confident alumni will get a major shot of nostalgia from watching it.

“They’re going to get their memories. This is their history,” he said.

As part of Alumni Weekend 2023, a special screening of Rock This Town — produced by Betty Anne Keller (BA '69) and co-directed by Paul Campsall and Tom Knowlton — took place on Friday, June 2 at Fed Hall.


Special thank you: This magazine issue drew heavily from the content and expertise of University of Waterloo’s Special Collections & Archives Department. Archivist Nicole Marcogliese helped our team source photography and information to illustrate Waterloo alumni through the years.