Fret Fever: Domenic Troiano’s Extraordinary Life as a Music Influencer & Inspirational Mentor

Big-hearted. Legendary guitarist. Mentor.

In a time not so long ago, guitarist/songwriter Domenic Troiano was caught up in the very middle of the massive cultural changes sweeping the world of music.

Back in the summer of ’66, the crashing waves of the British Invasion had smashed into North America, with the Beatles and bands like the Kinks and the Who, leading the way.

The second biggest invader was The Rolling Stones who hit Toronto to a frenzied city-wide reaction much like the Beatles at New York’s Shea Stadium, two years earlier. CHUM-am ran a contest to find two “TO” bands to open the show at Maple Leaf Gardens, and mobilized “Hogtown” fans, already pumped by the Stones’ appearance, chose the Rogues and the Ugly Ducklings. Each of these hip bands was helping to create another unique musical genre, the “Toronto Sound” — full of the blues, rock and a lot of soul.

The Rogues and Troiano opened for the Rolling Stones in TO

The Rogues’ flashy lead guitarist was twenty-year-old Domenic Troiano who got his younger brother Frank as a “roadie” into the hockey arena, packed with thousands of deliriously happy fans. The Ugly Ducklings opened to a great response followed by the Rogues who then earned a rapturous reception from their fans. The air was electric, the kids wild. The McCoys (with Rick Derringer), the Standells and the Syndicate of Sound followed next. Wow! But things were just getting started.

After the concert promoters had served up such a tasty entree, it was time for the mind-blowing, main course. Watching from backstage for this entire musical repast was fifteen-year-old Frank Troiano with eyes wide open. Can you imagine the colours, sights and sounds he witnessed? Frank recalls fans swooning and screaming, then losing their freaking minds for Jagger and his bandmates.

“Donnie” playing his famous Tele

The younger Troiano enthusiastically recalls being so proud of upcoming star and brother “Donnie” and even happier that he’d been allowed into this historic moment — eleven years later in 1977, the Stones returned to Toronto to infamously play at the El Mocambo Club, secretly billed as “The Cockroaches.”

Anyway, Frank brings us right back into that summer night in ’66:

“One of the swooning fans seated behind the stage let herself down from above and rushed towards Jagger but she was restrained. Encouraged, many more jumped on the stage. It was pandemonium even more so when the Stones performed their new hit ‘Satisfaction.’ After doing some frenzied encores, the band rushed off stage. But I took my cue to head onto the stage and saw that the fans had thrown all kinds of trinkets, bracelets, and film containers with phone numbers. I waved at the fans as if I was meant to be there. My brother Donnie had gone back into the dressing room after the Stones’ set and then came out. He was startled to see me onstage, but smiling at my boldness, he told me to get off, as it was time to go home. So I did my only duty that night by carrying his special ’63 Telecaster into the car. It was the beginning of my future career of being a roadie and road manager for Donnie’s latter bands.”

This is where this writer comes in.

Ten year later in 1976, I was a cub reporter, still in school, when I sought out the Domenic Troiano Band at the famous Colonial club on Toronto’s Yonge Street. After ten glorious years, playing with the Mandala, the James Gang, the Guess Who and others, while working with the crème de la crème of musicians from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles, Domenic had set out on his solo career. In another ten years, his multi-channeled music path had led him to scoring music for network TV and movies.

But that night at the Colonial, Donnie befriended this reporter, and he became my first music legend interview. In that time period from ‘76-‘80, this young reporter also interviewed the likes of Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townsend, YES, the lovely young Wilson sisters of Heart, the dynamic trio of RUSH, among others on the burgeoning Canadian music scene — many have gone onto the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But the “Almost Famous” start to my own writing career began with interviewing Donnie who later introduced me to the world of television and movies through the French Connection detective turned producer, Sonny Grosso. Indeed, Domenic Troiano was at the heart of that exciting time period for not only me but hundreds of musicians.

Here’s just a sampling of some amazing stories on Troiano’s influence on others’ musical lives.

Olliver (centre) and Troiano (right)

George Olliver was the lead singer in the Mandala on the Troiano-penned song, “Opportunity” which topped the charts in ‘65/’66, and was recently inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Olliver recalls meeting Troiano:

“Donnie had been working with Ronnie Hawkins and heard about and came to see our group, Whitey & the Rouletttes. At that time, he was known as Toronto’s number one guitarist. He loved our band and asked if he could join. Needless to say, we welcomed him in with open arms. Donnie took over leadership of the band, which we collectively renamed ‘The Rogues,’ and he brilliantly procured the amazing management services of Randy Markowwitz — who changed up our look and onstage visuals. That was the beginning of the amazing story of the Mandala.”

By the way, the Mandala’s awesome 1968 “Soul Crusade” album with such legendary tunes as “Love-itis” is now available on Spotify.

Burton Cummings, who co-founded Canada’s the Guess Who, wrote the lyrics for “American Woman,” which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. Troiano joined the band in 1974, and he co-wrote and contributed to two albums, “Flavours” and “Power in the Music.”

Burton Cummings and Domenic Troiano in Guess Who days

Cummings recently posted his favourite Guess Who songs on Facebook. Five of them are from the Troiano era (1974–1975) including “Dreams” about which Cummings gives credit to Donnie’s influence: “The song probably wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Troiano’s guitar licks that start it all off. I listened intently to those guitar riffs, and really absorbed the rhythm of them… Of all the Guess Who records, this is one of my absolute favourites… ‘Dirty’ is a good rocker, again all built around Troiano’s guitar riff… ‘Coors for Sunday’ would never have happened were it not for Troiano playing me another guitar riff and saying ‘Got anything for this…?’ And he sure did a spectacular guitar solo in this one…” By the way, Cummings is hinting at a Guess Who reunion in 2020…

Troiano promised to record Shawne Jackson…and he did

The lovely and talented actress/singer/songwriter, Shawne Jackson, whom I first met at that Colonial gig with Donnie, and later married her musical friend and mentor, chimes in with her wonderful memories of his influence:

“I first met Donnie at The Bluenote when I was 16 and he was 18. I was the band singer and he was the guitar player. We became close friends instantly. From day one, Donnie said, “I love your voice and some day when I get the money, I’m going to record you.” True to his word, we recorded ‘Just As Bad As You’ in LA in 1974 and the album, ‘Shawne Jackson’ in 1976. Without Donnie behind me, I probably would not have had a career in singing. He always encouraged and pushed me to sing — although, it was never a true love of mine. He bought me all the latest records and shared his love of music and opened my mind to many different kinds of music. Donnie also affected every guitar player of our generation. He was idolized and respected by ALL…deservedly so! He shared his knowledge with everyone he came into contact with. He was and still is the nicest, kindest man I’ve ever known. I am truly blessed to have had him in my life.”

Speaking of Troiano’s influence, here’s a musician who’s even played the legend’s famous Telecaster which is presently exhibited at the Friar’s Music Museum in downtown Toronto along with some other awesome Canadian musical artifacts.

Troiano’s famous Telecaster—created the soul of the Toronto sound

Bernie LaBarge was the frontman and/or guitarist for a number of Ontario bands, including Bond, Rain, Sweet Blindness, Zwol, Stem, Stingaree, and the George Olliver band. His debut solo album, “Barging In” was released in 1984 and helped him earn a nomination for Most Promising Male Vocalist at the 1984 Juno Awards. LaBarge recalls:

“The Mandala was the first live band I ever saw at a high school dance, and they changed my life. Donnie and I later became close friends around 1980, and I first got to hold his Tele shortly thereafter, due to a great deal of persistence on my part. Fast forward many years, coupled with the untimely passing of Donnie, his brother Frank asked me if I’d like to hold on to the guitar for a bit. I can’t describe what it felt like to have come full circle from that high school to actually playing his guitar, which oozes The Toronto Sound. It IS that sound, although Donnie was the only one who could squeeze those sounds from it. I am merely a facsimile of what I learned from my friend. Not a gig or session goes by where I don’t try to ask him for guidance. That guitar should be in every soul and music museum everywhere. I wouldn’t have had the capacity to be any more thrilled if I had the chance to play Hendrix’s Strat or George Harrison’s Gretsch.”

Scott & Julian — Domenic inspired nephew Julian (left)

Julian Troiano, one of Domenic’s two nephews, along with Marcus, is one half of the cool music duo, Scott & Julian. As a kid, following in his famous uncle’s music steps by studying clarinet, Julian recalls: “He’d come over and jam on the guitar with me. When he came to my recitals, he once told me ‘If you make a mistake, pretend nothing happened. The only way the audience will know is if you react to it.’ Good advice, especially since I’d just stuck my tongue out and grimaced when screwing up a passage of music. I also remember being mesmerized by his awesome recording studio — it had so many buttons, keys, screens, and strings, which I loved to play with. Thing is, I knew he was a guitarist and that he wrote music for film and television. But I had no idea how respected he was until I started working in the industry myself. I’ve met people all over the place — at music stores, performances, award shows, and schools — and they all say the same thing. His skill, work ethic, and talent as a musician were equally matched by his kindness, humility, and generosity as a person.”

That humility was evidenced in Donnie’s own words when he was nominated for a Gemini Award for his new musical shift into television and movies: “I wasn’t really looking to move into that area. I met a few people, they suggested a few things, I tried it, they liked it. But, it is always an honour to be nominated for anything. For me, the true value is the opportunity it presents to advance the state of the art on a public level.”

Friars Museum houses some of Troiano’s soul including his Tele and spiffy suit

That’s just a sample of people telling their awesome stories about Domenic “Donnie” Troiano who passed way too early in 2005 — tales told from the talented and famous to the average people who were inspired by the great man. Sounds like a possible biography in the making — Fret Fever: Domenic Troiano’s Extraordinary Life as a Music Influencer & Inspirational Mentor.

So, when’s the next chapter, you ask — stay tuned.

Check out Troiano Music, and the Mandala on Spotify and on YouTube; drop in on the Facebook page for Domenic Troiano Fans; and, sample songs that Troiano arranged and produced for Shawne Jackson

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.