It wasn’t a surprise that the Rolling Stones were in Toronto in the winter of 1977. The Royal Mounted Police had alerted the world to the band’s Canadian presence due to one of the biggest drug busts in rock history.

In late February, Stones guitarist Keith Richards was found with an obscene amount of heroin and cocaine in his possession. The incident made international news because Richards was initially charged with trafficking (due to the large amounts) and there was a possibility that the rock star could be headed for a long jail sentence.

The other Stones, who had already been in Toronto practicing, were less than thrilled. Not just for the obvious reasons, but because Richards has potentially blown their cover. Months earlier, frontman Mick Jagger and his manager Peter Rudge had set up a pair of secret Stones shows at the city’s El Mocambo Club with the idea of using some of the live recordings for a forthcoming concert album.

Rudge “asked me, ‘Do you think you can pull it off?’,” promoter Duff Roman recalled to the National Post. “I told him that we could and then started thinking about how we could actually do it without anyone knowing.”

Secrecy was paramount because the upper level at the El Mo (as it’s known) only can contain about 300 people. If the Stones’ cover got blown, the shows would quickly become a media circus – especially with what was going on with Richards. The El Mocambo’s booker, Dave Bluestein, came up with a misdirection. He would schedule Montreal’s April Wine to play March 4 and 5 at the club.

“We had natural cover,” Bluestein said, “because if anything got out, we could say, ‘No, look, April Wine is playing. That’s the gig.’

April Wine was billed along with an unknown band, called the Cockroaches. Of course, in reality, the Canadian rockers were set to open for the biggest band in the world.

In order to ensure that the gigs were attended by friendly crowds, Roman devised a radio contest in which Stones fans could enter to see April Wine. He and Stones members handpicked the winners, who were told of the actual plan while on the bus en route to the gig. The guests entered through the back of the club to cut down on any chance hysteria.

That night, after April Wine’s opening set, the Rolling Stones took the El Mocambo stage, the arena-rocking band’s first club show in 14 years. Richards remembers being thankful for having something positive to do, after all of his legal and media woes.

Listen to "Little Red Rooster"

“The minute I got onstage, it felt just like another Sunday gig at the Crawdaddy,” Richards recalled. “It immediately felt the same... It was one of those weird things in Toronto. Everybody’s going around talking doom and disaster, and we’re up onstage at the El Mocambo and we never felt better. I mean, we sounded great.”

Ronnie Wood, then a relatively recent edition to the Stones, has claimed he had a major influence on the setlists for the two El Mocambo concerts. The band’s other guitarist was able to convince Mick and the boys to include some of the group’s earlier, bluesy material.

“Yeah, it was a good time of development for me,” Wood said. “I made them play ‘Come On’ [the Stones actually didn’t play this], ‘Little Red Rooster,’ all those. Right from the first song I felt very pleased at the fact that no one said, ‘Oh, we can't do that one, it’s too old.’ Everyone just went straight into them.”

Although Woody is mistaken about Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” they did play his “Around and Around,” as well as Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” and Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up.” Although the Stones performed plenty of their self-written tunes, from “Honky Tonk Women” to “Hand of Fate” to “Brown Sugar,” the blues and R&B covers must have stood out. It was those songs that eventually ended up on a Stones live album.

In fact, when Love You Live (the band’s third live album) came out on Sept. 23, 1977, side 3 of the double LP set was composed solely of covers recorded at the El Mocambo. Well, they were mostly recorded there. Story goes that both Wood and Richards overdubbed guitar parts and backing vocals while Jagger redid the harmonica part for “Mannish Boy.” Only “Around and Around” went untouched.

It’s not sure if the same can be said for Canada’s then-first lady Margaret Trudeau, who was separated from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She caused a media furor when she was spotted with Jagger in the days before and after the shows (though she was officially Ronnie’s guest at the gigs). When the news of the potential fling reached her estranged husband, he reportedly said, “I hope that she doesn’t start to see the Beatles.”

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