Born Birrell Josef Mendelson in Toronto, Ontario, Mendelson Joe was a self-taught tour de force in multiple artistic disciplines including music, painting and writing.
Joe taught himself to play his sister’s Gibson guitar at age eleven. His musical idols were Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1964, at age nineteen, Joe Mendelson became a professional singer-songwriter-musician. His debut was at The Depression coffee-house in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Four years later, he formed a bluesy rock band with Toronto guitarist Michael McKenna. They made five albums under the banner Mainline.
In 1972, Joe recorded his first of many solo albums. Mr. Middle of the Road (on GRT label) was a solo project with Mr. Joe playing all the instruments, singing, and writing the songs. Joe recorded two more albums, Sophisto, and a reunion LP with Mike McKenna entitled No Substitute. He also became Mendelson Joe. From 1979 to 1981, Mendelson recorded three more albums for the Stompin’ Tom-owned Canadian label Boot Records – Not Homogenized, Jack Frost, and the controversial Let’s Party. In 1984 Stony Plain Records released Some of the Best of Mendelson Joe – The Name of the Game Ain’t Schmaltz. Several of Joe’s songs have been covered by the likes of guitar-genius Amos Garrett, crooner Noel Harrison, and the characters of Sesame Street.
In 1988 the Anthem label released Joe’s Born To Cuddle followed in 1991 by Anthem’s release of Joe’s hard edged bluesy Addicted LP, along with the video Passion. Boutique label Pacemaker released Mendelson Joe’s Everyone Needs A Pimp CD in June 2007. Joe’s work reflects his passions and convictions as reflected in the albums Humans Bug Me (1999), Live at Sixty-Five (2009), Spoiled Bratland (2010) and Women Are The Only Hope (2012), Canuckian (2012), Humans (2013), Art Is The Healer (2013), and Buried Treasure (2014).
The year 1975 marked the beginning of Joe’s career as a painter. Joe’s unstoppable creative nature sought an alternative outlet from music as he became disenchanted with the business aspect of the music business (as always – ahead of his time). Joe recounted that he got his start painting when he found some paints in the garbage and thought he would give it a try.
Mendelson Joe painted each and every day until Parkinson’s Disease took away that facility in 2022. Along with making music, painting was Joe’s way of understanding the world and coping and celebrating human life and nature. Joe’s subjects include landscapes, portraits, and political and social commentary. Joe’s paintings are vivid, colourful, sometimes playful, sometimes scathing representations of the world according to Joe. Joe’s bold colour palette was much like the man himself – larger than life in impact. Unforgettable.
Joe sold his artwork himself for many years from various different Toronto studios with occasional representation from several Toronto commercial galleries. In 2000, Joe moved north from Toronto to an area adjacent to the west side of Algonquin Park called the Almaguin Highlands. Joe has been represented by Karen Robinson Gallery since 1999. Karen Robinson (aka Mrs. Joe) continues to show Joe’s work at their gallery (Karen Robinson Gallery) located just north of Huntsville, Ontario.
Lyrics, letters, postcards, prose, fiction, and autobiographical stories were all part of Mendelson Joe’s written work.
Every day began with the writing of letters for Mr. Joe. Mendelson Joe was not a social person and preferred to speak to people one-to-one instead of in groups or at dinner parties. Joe was not one for small talk and firmly believed in the inverse relationship between the quality of a conversation and the number of people involved. However, Joe was a keen and engaged citizen of the world and a firm believer in the power of the written letter. The letters took the form of letters-to-the-editor as well as unsolicited letters of encouragement, condemnation, compliments and criticism to various members of the media and politicians and entertainers who had come to Joe’s attention through various news media. Joe also communicated extensively with his friends and colleagues through letter-writing.
Mr. Joe was introduced to Jack David of ECW Press of Toronto and enjoyed a friendly working relationship with Mr. David over the years. ECW Press was the publisher of most of Joe’s books including a biography on Joe by Nadia Halim (Alien: The Strange Life and Times of Mendelson Joe), five picture books with Joe’s commentary (Working Women, Joe’s Politicians, Joe’s Toronto, Joe’s Neighbours, Joe’s Ontario), and most recently a book of Joe’s music lyrics (Joetry). Joe also wrote a novella called The Family Embolism which is self-published online. In addition, there are several unpublished manuscripts including a children’s picture book about beavers (Joe versus Beaver) and an auto-biographical treatise called A Man & His Philosophy; Formerly a Man and His Penis.
Following is Mendelson Joe’s final message to the world prior to his death in February 2023:
At this juncture in my life at the age of 78.6 all I can say is, with sincerest of thoughts – I did the job. I’ve been doing the job in music since 1964 when I wrote my first song. I did my first painting in 1975 and I haven’t stopped, but I have slowed down to painting blue rabbits. You have to look and you have to listen. Please. Look and listen.
If someone wants to listen, they can try one of my thirty albums. I recommend a recent one called “Canuckian”. The book “Alien” (by Nadia Halim) tells my story well. I’ve also written a work of fiction, a novella called “The Family Embolism”. My children’s picture book “Joe vs Beaver” is not yet published. I’ve had several books of my portraiture published by ECW Press (“Working Women”, “Joe’s Politicians”, “Joe’s Toronto”, “Neighbours”) as well as a book of landscapes called “Joe’s Ontario”. One of the more interesting books I’ve written, still unpublished, is “Mendelson Joe; A Man and His Philosophy”. It’s a geography book so to speak – where I’ve been. My most recently published (ECW Press) work “Joetry” covers song lyrics going back to the 1960s.
In the process of writing songs and letters to the editor, I learned how to write. I was driven to write as I believe I exist as a vessel for free speech and that free speech was often published by newspapers. My long-time friend, artist and activist Anne Hansen of Victoria, lives by the quote “democracy is not a spectator sport”. Letter-writing was one of my forms of participating in our democracy.
My vast body of paintings include portraits of Canadians you may have known such as Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Dr. Robert Bondar to name a few. I thank everyone who sat for portraits throughout the years. But there have also been many portraits for which the people did not sit for me, my political and social commentary paintings. I’ve done Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, Rob Ford, Mike Harris, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Pierre Poilievre, Conrad Black and many more. Some will know of the numerous depictions of politicians as rectal orifices that I did. It began as a series called “Liars” for which I was the grateful recipient of a Canada Council Senior A Grant. I am indebted to Canada Council for the Arts. My landscape paintings are celebrations of what is possible. Beauty is my healer. You have to look.
I’ve learned my craft the only way I know how. I’m a self-taught writer, painter, musician. It’s the way I learn. I did the job.
Medically speaking, I’m shaking and rattling as it’s been over five years since Parkinson’s Disease surfaced. Parkinson’s is a dead end for me. The Parkinson’s interrupts my creative flow of writing, painting and making music to say the least. I have ended my job as multi-media artist with the provision of MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) on February 7, 2023. I see MAID as a sign of a civilized society. To be born Canadian is a great blessing. We have free speech. We have healthcare. We have MAID. Thank you Canada.
Mendelson Joe (Birrell Josef Mendelson) born July 30, 1944 in Toronto, died February 7, 2023 at his home in Emsdale, Ontario, through the provision of MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) with his wife, Karen Robinson by his side.