The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: The Lifeblood of Toronto’s Live Music Scene

The Horseshoe circa 1970. Credit: Patrick Cummins, courtesy of The Horseshoe Tavern’s website.

To some, The Horseshoe Tavern might appear to be just another local live music venue, but to most patrons of the Toronto music scene, The Shoe (as it is affectionately known) is a place that they hold dear to their hearts and somewhere where they belong. The walls, which are plastered with newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and other memorabilia, reveal a rich musical narrative that is steeped in close to 70 years of tradition. It’s a place that has bridged genres and decades, withstood the effects of urban planning and the fallout of recession, has hosted artists as fiercely rousing as Etta James and as infamous as The Rolling Stones, and has allowed a revolving cast of local weirdos, aspiring rock gods, and musical devotees, to stomp feet, drip sweat and dance wildly, and to break bread and bottles together to a beat that has long made The Shoe the lifeblood of the Toronto music scene.

Though the property itself dates back to 1861 and had previously housed everything from a blacksmith and an engineer to two butchers, a shoe shop and a fancy goods store, when local entrepreneur and business owner Jack Starr opened The Horseshoe Tavern on December 9, 1947, his vision was a simple one: he wanted to convert his recently purchased commercial property at 368-370 Queen Street West into a friendly local eatery-tavern where patrons could come to hear country, roots and rockabilly music. Thanks to loosened liquor laws, which came into effect in Ontario earlier that same year, bars such as The Shoe were able to start serving alcohol for the very first time. Unfortunately despite this, Starr’s efforts were a bit premature. Even in the late forties, country music wasn’t yet considered “socially acceptable” and so his then 87-seat tavern quickly became something of a shit-kicker drinking hole for the genre’s most devout.

The Shoe’s early reputation wasn’t helped any by the fact that legendary bank robber Edwin Alonzo Boyd, was also a regular fixture there––something that captivated the interests of local media and overshadowed Starr’s attempts to cater to what he prophetically saw as being a burgeoning young sound. Though it wasn’t until a few years later in the mid-1950s that Toronto’s musical temperament finally turned, when it did, Starr was ready. He gutted the kitchen, put in a stage and turned his little tavern into the sort of bustling five hundred seat live music venue he’d always envisioned it to be. He hired Dick Nolan & His Blue Valley Boys as the house band and started booking country greats like Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, The Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and most famously the Granddaddy of Canadiana himself, Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Starr soon became known as one of the most welcoming and most enthusiastic small club owners in Canada, often putting up artists in his own home. He was committed to the development of both national and local Canadian acts, which fueled the tavern’s day-to-day success early on. As country acts began to give way to the folk artists of the 1960s and early 1970s, local talents such as Ian and Sylvia Tyson, The Band, Bruce Cockburn and The Good Brothers all found a home at The Horseshoe.

By the time Starr decided to retire in 1976 (he sold the business while his family––daughter Natalie and her husband Arthur “Art” Clairman and son Bobby and daughter-in-law Brenda Starr––retained ownership of the building), a whole new sound was on the horizon and it was crude, loud and sloppy, pissed off and belligerent––a far cry from the swingin’ melodies and uppity acoustic romps that defined the cowboys of yesteryear.

And so entered The Garys––that is local indie promoters Gary Topp and Gary Cormier. The Garys’ time at The Shoe was fast and furious––they were in and out in 8 months flat––but not before bringing in some of the era’s most electrifying acts.

The Garys, who were introduced by mutual friend David Andoff of A&M Records, bonded over their love of music, and particularly over the band Little Feat. At the time of their meeting, Topp, whose background was primarily in film, had had previous success operating two local movie theatres, the first of which was The Original 99-Cent Roxy (’72–’76). Akin to the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York, The Roxy was something of a local counter-culture hotspot where a regular cast of characters would congregate to catch midnight screenings of things like 30s cult classic Reefer Madness, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, to smoke pot out in the open, and to be exposed to the sounds of Roxy Music, Be-Bop Deluxe and AC/DC––the sort of stuff you couldn’t hear anywhere else at the time. But it was really at The New Yorker Theatre (’76–’78), which was a bit-of-a nicer lookin’ joint located along the Yonge Street Strip, that The Garys first got their feet wet promoting up-and-coming talent. They booked everyone from The Ramones and Wayne County to Cecil Taylor, Ali Akbar Khan, a young Tom Waits and even Lightnin’ Hopkins––they were all over the map. By the time they and partner Jeff Silverman took over management of The Shoe in May of ‘78, The Garys had become local underground celebrities, punk rock and new wave were making their way upstream and with their ears to the ground, they could hear it coming.

“Even in our early days, we never used trade papers or the industry to dictate what we wanted to book,” says Topp. “We booked out of our record libraries. Gary [Cormier] and I always used to call the industry types ‘closet queens’ because they never actually believed in the music like we did. We always had to fight for the acts we wanted because the record labels thought they should play The El Mocambo. I mean, someone at Capital Records once told us we’d never be able to book their bands because we didn’t have carpets. That’s just the kind of stuff that went on in those days.”

But with the city in the midst of a coming-of-age, The Garys went ahead and billed The Horseshoe as Toronto’s first ever concert club. They renovated the space, put in good PA and lighting systems, and moved the stage to its current location at the far back of the room (the stage used to sit where the bar is now). While they booked acts like The Talking Heads, The Cramps, Nash The Slash, and Richard Hell, they also famously booked The Stranglers (a show that Topp estimates was at least six hundred people over capacity), Sun Ra, Rita Marley, and a then unknown three piece out of England called The Police. The Garys’ programming also extended well beyond the punk scene and ran the gamut from jazz, folk and reggae acts to comedy nights and even the occasional film screening.

But, even though word had gotten out that something was happening at The Shoe and The Garys were steadfast in their approach toward only booking acts that they truly loved, they often had a hard time filling the place (the Shoe took up a lot more square footage in those days) and so were soon asked by the owners to leave.

On the evening of December 1, 1978, eight hundred people packed into The Shoe for what was supposed to be the first of a two-night celebration. Dubbed The Last Pogo, the show featured an all-star lineup of local punk bands including The Scenics, Cardboard Brains, The Secrets, The Mods, The Ugly, The Viletones and Teenage Head.

Though they had hoped to go out with a bang, The Garys got a bit more than they bargained for that night when an off-duty police officer that was sitting in the bar attempted to shutdown the show during Teenage Head’s set. Bassist Steve Mahon tried to warn the officer that if the band didn’t get to play there would surely be trouble but he had had enough and insisted they leave the stage after their first song. Following a shortened rendition of their biggest hit, “Picture My Face,” the band dropped their equipment and walked off. The crowd, completely confused, suddenly erupted into a riot. Tables were overturned, bottles broken and chairs thrown about, Topp once described the scene as, “Sounding like a hundred chainsaws ripping down Algonquin Park.” Not only was the madness captured on film by now producer/director Colin Brunton and filmmaker Patrick Lee in their legendary short film, The Last Pogo, but the show will forever be remembered as a pivotal moment in the history of the Toronto music scene.

“You never knew what was gonna happen at The Shoe,” adds Topp. “It was an exciting time. The world was changing and we had no agenda, we just liked promoting music and we liked the music that we were promoting. For us, it was as simple as that and so that’s what we did.”

Unfortunately throughout the remainder of the seventies and into the eighties, The Shoe was a bit of a bust. Though a few owners came and went during that time, the building was eventually divided into three retail spaces before briefly changing its name to Stagger Lee’s and even operating as a strip club for a couple of months. That is until 1982 when Jack Starr came out of retirement in hopes of finding someone who could help breathe a little life back into his beloved club.

Then by chance in the spring of 1983, the Starr family crossed paths with a young enterprising businessman named Ken Sprackman. At the time, Sprackman had been hired to drive a vehicle owned by Harry and Hettie Clairman (Art Clairman’s parents) from Florida to Toronto. Having managed to deliver the car on time and in one piece (a task that had proven seemingly difficult for previous drivers) the Clairman’s were both appreciative and impressed. They quickly formed a bond with the young Sprackman, who also happened to be the former owner of The Hotel Isabella, another Toronto club that had played a prominent role in solidifying the city’s emerging punk, new wave, and rockabilly scenes.

Sensing that he may be able to help the family turn things around, it was actually Hettie Clairman who recommended Sprackman to her son Art and Bobby Starr. Over the next couple of months the three men became fast friends and soon solidified a partnership (which also included talent buyer X-Ray Macrae and Richard Crook) that would seat Sprackman at the helm of The Shoe’s day-to-day operations for the next 20 plus years.

Sprackman and co. were motivated by a desire to turn The Horseshoe into both a real tavern––in the truest sense of the word––and into one of the best sounding small live music venues in Toronto. And that’s exactly what they did.

They started by radically altering the building’s layout including moving the stage yet again (the owners had moved it back after The Garys’ departure) and splitting the space into two distinct rooms. With the new venue being only a fraction of its original size, Sprackman then brought in Rick Boffo and Brock Adamson to address the sound. At the same time, he and X-Ray made major changes to the venue’s booking policy and pay scale.

The times were changing yet again and so too was the industry. By shifting away from the one week residencies of Starr’s day and moving toward weekend showcases with American and European touring acts booked early in the week, The Shoe provided both up-and-coming and nationally touring Canadian acts like Blue Rodeo and Prairie Oyster with a platform upon which to develop their sound. Also pivotal to this time was the introduction of door splits, something Sprackman and X-Ray created and perfected at The Shoe. Up until the eighties, it was customary for local acts to be paid flat union rates. These days, their system is pretty much the standard at most live music venues across the country.

As far as the venue’s history goes, the Sprackman/X-Ray era was surely one of its finest. Their sweeping efforts to overhaul the space and update its business model, repositioned the now legendary Horseshoe Tavern as the local place to be to catch rising talent and put what ultimately became known as “The Queen Street Sound” on the musical map.

As the 90s came creeping in, X-Ray stepped aside and Yvonne Matsell was hired to oversee bookings. Under her guiding hand The Shoe became home to some of the country’s best emerging folk and rock acts. Bands like The Barenaked Ladies, Lowest of The Low, Moxy Fruvous, Furnaceface, Great Big Sea, and The Rheostatics all took to The Horseshoe stage but the fallout of a recession and further changes within the music industry eventually caused business to decline. By ‘95 Sprakman, who was then the venue’s majority owner, was ready to close out what had been a lengthy chapter in The Shoe’s history and start the venue on a road toward something brand new.

That’s right around when Jeff Cohen and Craig Laskey came into the mix. Prior to arriving at The Shoe, Cohen, who came to Toronto by way of Ottawa and Montreal where he had been heavily entrenched in both the punk rock and ska scenes, had already had previous success booking both The Apocalypse Club and the El Mocambo. Knowing this, Sprakman with whom he shared a music accountant (Kenny’s brother), approached Cohen about coming onboard to revitalize the venue.

“I came to The Horseshoe at a time when it wasn’t really happening and it wasn’t making money,” says Cohen. “I hired Craig as my assistant talent buyer and just basically went in on a program of how to rejuvenate the place. The Shoe had gone through a cycle where it was booking some of the same bands ten years in a row, and it’s going to sound horrible but some of those bands, all of which were amazing in their time, were just at the tend of their line and ready to move on to smaller rooms. The Horseshoe needed someone to come in and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to start with a brand new set of bands that are going to be here for the next ten years.’ And those ended up being bands like The Mahones, Chixdiggit, The Planet Smashers, The Smugglers out of Vancouver, and even Nickelback.”

Once Cohen and Laskey had refocused The Shoe’s programming on a new crop of emerging Canadian talent, they turned their attention to younger acts as well as up-and-coming American touring bands.

At the time The Shoe had become a place that catered more to the 40 and over crowd, and had sort of forgotten about the 19 to 30 demographic. Though Cohen and Laskey revered the blues acts and the singer-songwriters that Sprakman and X-Ray had brought in, they also recognized that The Shoe could benefit from catering to a much younger audience.

“We definitely wanted to continue the tradition of The Horseshoe,” says Cohen. “But, there were all of these really great artists who were putting out acclaimed debut records and getting really great reviews in the CMJ Music Journal (this was pre-Internet), and we felt strongly that we needed to start booking these outside acts if we were ever going to bring that younger crowd into The Shoe.”

Cohen and Laskey also started going to South By South West where they were able to hear first hand what their intended audience was listening to. But probably most significant to their success at the time was the creation of a brand new company called Against The Grain Concerts, which they formed in conjunction with then MCA promoter Elliott Lefko. Under the canopy of ATG (and later Collective Concerts, a second venture which Cohen and Laskey formed with promoter Amy Hersenhoren in 2010) the three did something that was almost unheard of in Toronto at the time––they began acting as independent promoters, not only promoting all of the shows that they booked into The Horseshoe but promoting shows outside of it as well. Modeling their system after the 9:30 club in Washington, D.C., a venue that Cohen still regards as, “One of the best live music clubs in all of North America,” they went to town on turning The Horseshoe back into a vibrant and bustling hotbed for rising talent in turn once again positioning it as the true heart centre of the Toronto music scene.

In the midst of excitement and the spirit of change (which included an additional round of amendments to the building’s physical layout), Cohen, Laskey and Lefko, in conjunction with 102.1 The Edge’s Dave Bookman, decided to turn the now famed Bookie’s Nu Music Night (a free of charge artist development showcase that had first been introduced to The Shoe back in 1993), into a central feature of their weekly programming.

“When Jeff and Craig came in that’s when we were really able to take Nu Music Night to a whole new level,” says Bookman. “Canadian independent music and alternative music was really going through its renaissance period and so there was a real appetite for new music in Toronto. Not only were there an abundance of bands at that time but also an abundance of fans and people really wanted to go out and hear live music. You have to remember that everything that was happening at that time was still exciting and new and so everyone wanted to get involved. Opportunities were developing that weren’t there previously because people didn’t know what alternative music was and they were scared of what they didn’t understand––it just didn’t exist in a mainstream world. But in a post-Nirvana world everyone wanted to know how they could be apart of it and so all of those things started to converge at the same time and that made for a really positive musical atmosphere at The Shoe.”

The beauty of The Horseshoe was that at that moment in time it had developed an attentive and like-minded built-in crowd, something Cohen and Laskey saw as more important than charging $10 cover so that bands could play mid-week to a half-empty room. Through their marketing efforts via The Edge and by way of simple word of mouth, Bookie’s Nu Music Night soon took off and it wasn’t long before local agents and managers working with a whole slew of new up-and-coming acts wised up to the benefits too. Bands like Goldfinger, Matchbox 20, The Old 97’s, Whiskeytown, Reel Big Fish, The Trews, The Constantines, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Franz Ferdinand, Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, The National, Sneaker Pimps, Bloodhound Gang, The Strokes, Big Wreck, Spoon, Kathleen Edwards, Matt Mays, Billy Talent and countless others, all got their start playing at The Shoe.

Committed to providing a platform upon which young bands could hone their chops and grow their own loyal followings, Cohen, Laskey, Lekfo and Bookie turned The Horseshoe into a local stomping ground for industry folk and music fans alike. Not only did The Shoe become the place to be during annual festivals like Canadian Music and North By North East as well as the site of a number of “secret performances” by everyone from Thom Yorke and the Foo Fighters to the Rolling Stones, but it became a place where music lovers of all facets could cohabitate on a regular week night.

“I think the secret weapon to The Horseshoe is the front bar,” says Bookie. “It’s an incredibly warm space that allows you to come in and get settled, get a drink or talk and mingle. It’s a really amazing hallway into that back room. It’s inviting and unintimidating and I think it really helps to create that vibe and environment that people now expect when they enter The Shoe.”

“For us the music has always been in the forefront ahead of the business part,” adds Cohen. “But I think that atmosphere has less to do with Craig, Kenny, Bookie and I, than it does with the staff––they create it, not us, and they’re incredible at what they do. Some of them [guys like Teddy Furry and Bob Maynard] have worked at The Shoe for 25 or 30 years and I think you’ll find that if they see you a couple of times they’re likely to ask what your name is or try to remember what your drink is or ask you what sort of music you’re into. They’re genuinely interested in having a conversation and treating you like a human being and I give them full credit for that.”

After more than 65 years in the live music business, nobody would fault a venue for succumbing to the times, especially not The Shoe. But even now in 2016, The Horseshoe Tavern remains a relevant fixture of the Canadian musical landscape in an era when most people and places are too busy trying to be everything to everybody at all times.

“You simply can’t be all things to all people because then you just end of being nothing to nobody,” says Bookman. “When you go to The Horseshoe you know what kind of music you’re going to get now. Part of being successful in this business is knowing who or what you are, being who you are, and following the music that speaks to you. Let other people who are passionate about other forms of music do what they do and you just worry about basking in the music that you love and trying to make that really special. I think that’s what The Shoe has always been about.”

“There are a lot of things at play here that make this place what it is,” adds Cohen. “I mean not everything is perfect––the building is old and certain things don’t work [laughs], but we’re very lucky to be located in a great music city like Toronto where we have the kind of rabid audience that still wants to come out and not only support our tastes but experience live music. Where things get tricky is that every three to five years musical styles change and the scene changes and different people are in college and university. At any point, we could go out of favour or someone could open up another club that displaces us––you just never know. But we continue to sharpen our tools and listen to new music, we rely on a great many advisors like Bookie to tell us about new records and alert us to what’s happening and what’s really good, and we just hope that nobody takes us out. You definitely can’t rest on your laurels in this gig. I also have to say that the landlords have been really cool too (the building is still owned and operated by members of The Starr family). We could have had landlords that just saw the building as a moneymaker and didn’t care what was in there, but they’ve really worked with us to try and make sure that it stays The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.

“The key now as we all get older will be to find a whole new crop of people to takeover who care about The Horseshoe the way we do. It’s not that you can’t make a living doing this job, but none of us are ever going to be very wealthy doing what it is we do. This place is a labour of love, and we’re going to have to find someone who treats it that way too.”

The Horseshoe Tavern is today an institution of the Toronto music scene because it came-of-age right along with the city. Despite its many ups and downs and all of its various incarnations, The Shoe’s roots run deep. Will it still be standing 65 plus years from now? Here’s hoping. But, for the moment she continues to prevail and that can be attributed to the level of constant care and dedication on the part of people like Jeff, Craig and the rest of The Horseshoe crew but also to the swarms of Canadian music lovers who are fiercely loyal to a place that has informed so much of who they are and what they do.

“It’s because of the people and their spirit,” says Bookie. “That’s what keeps this place going. It’s something that has been passed from generation to generation and without those people who care and who are passionate and want to do things for the right reasons, The Horseshoe couldn’t survive. If you go back and look at its history, that’s the common denominator right from the beginning––it’s passionate people who really live it, who want to share it with others, and who would do anything for the music, that keep this place alive.”