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A brief history of the Horseshoe Tavern

Posted by Benjamin Boles / March 23, 2014

Horseshoe Tavern HistoryThere is no live music club in Toronto with more history attached to it than the Horseshoe Tavern. Beyond just longevity, the Queen West institution has played a central role in each generation of Toronto's music scene since the '50s, and continues to thrive. Even more impressive is that it's managed to maintain its unique country-bar-in-the-city identity, adjusting only slightly with each passing of the torch.

The building at 370 Queen West was originally built in 1861, and was initially a blacksmith shop (which is perhaps the source of its later name). It went through several other incarnations for many decades, including a shoe shop and a fancy goods store. It wasn't until 1947 that a change in Ontario's liquor laws inspired Jack Starr to convert it into a tavern, which opened December 9 of that year.

In the beginning, the focus was more on beer and food, but in the mid-50s Starr gutted the kitchen, built a stage and began booking country and rockabilly acts. Even as the rock'n'roll revolution swept the rest of the world, Starr continued to keep the focus on country acts by hiring Dick Nolan and his Blue Valley Boys as the house band, and by bringing in big name touring acts.

horseshoe tavern stompin tomThis first golden era of the 'Shoe was a great success, and attracted twang royalty like Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, the Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and many more. It was also where a young Stompin' Tom Connors started building a name for himself. Connors played extended residencies at the Horseshoe, at one point hitting the stage for 25 nights in a row, and eventually recorded a live album as well as two concert films at the venue.

The 60s and early 70s saw folk acts like Ian and Sylvia becoming part of the mix, and rock acts like the Band also found a home there. However, trends were shifting, and Starr wanted to pass the reigns to someone else, so in 1976 local promoters the Garys (a.k.a. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier) took over operations and opened the doors to the emerging punk scene.

Their bookings were wildly eclectic, and far ahead of their time. You could catch proto-punk acts like the MC-5, the Cramps and Talking Heads, but also people like blues innovator Taj Mahal and a young Tom Waits. They famously brought the Police to Toronto for the first time in 1978, although they played to embarrassingly tiny crowds. Unfortunately, that kind of thing was more common than not, and the cutting edge approach wasn't paying the bills.

Horseshoe Tavern 1970sOn December 1, 1978, the Garys' reign came to an end with a bang. Their final night at the club featured some of the biggest names in the Toronto punk scene, but by the end of the Viletones' raucous set the mood was starting to get rowdy. One song into headliners Teenage Head's set, Gary Topp announced that the cops were shutting down the show, and the club erupted into a riot. The infamous night was captured on film and released as The Last Pogo, and is considered one of the defining moments of that era. The Garys would go on to become major players in the local concert promoting business, but at this point Toronto wasn't quite ready for them.

Horseshoe tavern 1970sThe venue struggled for several years after that notorious night. It was briefly a strip club and was also turned into a 50s themed dance club called Stagger Lee's for a period. It wasn't until 1983 that a new group of partners came in with a vision to turn the bar around and to bring the focus back to live music. Kenny Sprackman had already turned the Hotel Isabella into a new wave hotspot, and had struck up a friendship with Starr, who still owned the building. Sprackman teamed up with Michael Macrae and Richard Kruk (and according to some accounts Dan Aykroyd), and started a new era for the Horseshoe.

One of the things they brought to the table was to completely rethink how to approach booking. Instead of dealing with the musician's union, they offered bands the proceeds from the cover charge and kept the bar. This system is now fairly standard across Canada in live music bars, but at the time it was quite new, and provided opportunities for emerging acts that were willing to work hard to get a crowd out.

They also redesigned the layout, and created the separate front and back rooms we know today. But while they were making some big changes, country and roots music began to become more of the focus again, thanks to the explosion of the Queen West scene. Acts like Blue Rodeo (whose label Risque Disque was run out of the basement) and Handsome Ned were playing country with a punk-inspired attitude, which fit as well with the new wave bands as it did with the old time roots rockers.

Horseshoe Tavern 1980By the time the early 90s rolled around, the club was in transition again. Yvonne Matsell took over bookings, and focussed more on emerging folk rock acts like Lowest Of The Low, Rheostatics, Barenaked Ladies, and Moxy Früvous. However, the combination of the recession and the beginnings of the grunge boom hampered that approach, and by 1995 it was time for a major rethink.

Enter Jeff Cohen, who'd been building a name for himself as a booker at places like the El Mocambo and the Apocalypse club. Together with assistant Craig Laskey, they created Against The Grain promotions and brought a new energy to the club. Their combination of punk rock and alt-country fit in perfectly with the history of the venue, and CFNY personality Dave Bookman's Nu Music Nights on Tuesdays helped brand the bar as the place to go to see tomorrows stars.

Arkells HorseshoeYou might have stumbled upon Radiohead's Thom Yorke playing a solo set there in 1995, or maybe you remember early gigs by Arcade Fire, the Strokes, Billy Talent, the National, Death From Above, or Wilco (or maybe even Nelly Furtado). You probably didn't actually make it into the Rolling Stones' legendary 1997 "surprise" show, but you definitely heard about it, and probably know the legend of Dan Aykroyd and John Goodman doing security and working behind the bar that night.

Cuff the Duke HorseshoeSince the 90s, the partners took over sister club Lee's Palace, ATG joined forces with promoter Amy Hersenhoren to create Collective Concerts, and ownership of the venue shifted to Jeff Cohen, Craig Laskey and Naomi Montpetit. Still, the Horseshoe feels very familiar: twangy guitars are still blaring from the stage, Teddy Fury and Bob Maynard are still behind the bars, and Tyrone is still one of the friendliest bouncers in the city.

Horseshoe Tavern Ted FuryIn a city where so much history is torn down every month, it's comforting to see a living link to our cultural past continuing to thrive, and not just as a historical relic.

Lead photo by Patrick Cummins



Kim Clarke Champniss / March 23, 2014 at 08:07 am
The NewMusic story on the closing of the Horseshoe featuring Teenage Head @ The Horseshoe hosted by JD Roberts. Interview with Stewart Copeland (The Police) and promoter Gary Topp. Also story about The Edge venue. Circa 1982

Headly Westerfield / March 23, 2014 at 11:30 am
As I like to remind people, two of the bands I managed played at The Last Pogo: Drastic Measures and Ishan People.

Oddly enough, they are the two bands rarely mentioned when people talk about The Last Pogo. I'm proud of that. All the other bands were in the Punk genre. Drastic Measures was Art Rock and Ishan People was Toronto's first Roots Reggae band.
Jeremy / March 23, 2014 at 11:53 am
Typo to correct. Danny's last name is "Aykroyd" not "Akroyd" - 2 instances. Great article though!
Andrew / March 23, 2014 at 12:06 pm
I'm surprised people still put up with Amy's attitude. Collective Concerts are usually way overpriced too.
Dan Taco replying to a comment from Andrew / March 23, 2014 at 12:47 pm
Oh look it's a Hate Troll from Toronto
Derek replying to a comment from Jeremy / March 23, 2014 at 01:01 pm
This has been corrected — thank you.
Warren Cosford / March 23, 2014 at 01:39 pm

(This article was publish in 1982 when Barbara was the editor of the Toronto Sun). - Last Saturday night down at the Horseshoe tavern on Toronto's Queen Street West, the cover charge went up to a staggering $6 per person. For those of us who drop in to the Horseshoe from time to time, it was an unprecedented hike from the usual $2 or $3 we generally fork out for the pleasure of sitting there. The Horseshoe is not one of your posher spots in town. The Imperial Room crowd doesn't make it there. It may be that the bar has heard of campari and can handle martinis. But the specialty of the house is beer. It has a decent size bar, a smallish bandstand and a dance floor in front of it with tables that can probably manage a couple of hundred or more people. There's a games room, too, with darts, video games and other bizarre practices into which I rarely delve. The house wine is not memorable. Nor is the music, sometimes. But the ambience is pleasant. The crowd is young, working-class and utterly benign. If there are fights, I've never been discomforted by them. They must be handled with swift merciless dispatch.
GRAFFITI, BEER AND CRINOLINES The sound coming from the bandstand is usually distinguished by its loudness and thumping beat. I've enjoyed some good reggae there. Most of all I enjoy watching the people. The more things change, the more they are the same. The young people are utterly indistinguishable from those of my time some 20 years ago. Their behavior is no more sophisticated, no more aggressive. Downstairs, in the washroom the graffiti has the same charming simplicity. Beer is the intoxicant of preference, not cigarettes or related products. When I went to use the telephone, I had to steer around a necking couple who were reasonably embarrassed but sufficiently engaged to continue. They enjoy themselves. They seem about as pragmatic as we were - and about as idealistic. Fashions and tastes change, of course. But these are superficial indicators. Those who are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps want to go into marine-biology now. In my day they wanted to become lawyers. Those who concentrate on appearances choose clothes that defy my pen, but look terrific.

We did the same. And our bizarre tastes in crinolines, pony tails and batwing sweaters probably looked terrific on us. I don't know. I only remember that I would have killed for a skirt made of felt with appliques on it. But last Saturday night at the Horseshoe was not only for them. It was for me. For my set. For those of us who went to school in the fifties and early sixties, whose social lives revolved around the sock-hop, the Sadie Hawkins dance and the terrible fear that no one would ask us to dance. It was for people who remember the exquisite thrill of necking in the front seat of a car and wondering how far you should let him go. The reason for the $6 cover charge was the appearance at the Horseshoe tavern of country-rock singer Jack Scott. His name, curiously enough, never quite made it into the coinage of the period I'm talking about. He sang when the Platters were on every juke box along with Presley, Bill Haley, the Everly Brothers and singers whose first name was always Bobby. But I remember the songs Scott wrote. "Goodbye Baby," "My True Love," "Leroy." He had 19 hit records between 1958 and 1961 and back in 1958 I sweated forehead-to-forehead through his lyrics, with one arm held rigidly down at the side while the other arched artificially over my partner's neck. It was called dancing.

Scott surfaced again recently in the score of the film Diner. That dark blue beat with its insistent pounding started to come back again. It was quite crowded at the Horseshoe in spite of the six bucks. The crowd divided into two: those who remembered and those who took a certain camp delight in what was "old-time." It was not altogether enjoyable to be a part of the first set. Scott doesn't have The Fabulous Chantones backing him up any more. He had a five-piece band. And before his set, he sat alone at the bar.

ROCKIN' WITH JACK SCOTT Once he made a fortune. He was the Canadian boy from Windsor who moved across the border at age eight and grew up to become a real pop star. Last Friday night he was missing the piece of equipment that picks up the bass notes in his voice and gives them reverb. But the bass notes were still there. The voice is strong, powerful and dark blue. Usually, at the Horseshoe, the dance floor is jammed when the band is on. Not Friday. They were listening. A few kids jived. One girl had it all together - almost. Her Varsity cardigan was just long enough. Her bobby socks were as white as the white part of her two-tone saddle shoes. Only her hair was wrong. She didn't have a pony tail. The lyrics spoke of another time when boyfriends were "untrue" and "cheating women" left a man "broken and alone" with the pain of a "two-timin' woman." After the set Scott was not alone. Someone gave him a planter of roses. There was a kid with albums to be autographed. And Scott was flogging his new Attic record release of all his old hits. But it must be a long way from the concert halls to the Horseshoe and it takes a real man, a mensch as we say, to put your heart and soul into a performance for the $6 cover charge crowd on Queen Street West. And he did it. May we all.

MK / March 23, 2014 at 01:58 pm
"Instead of dealing with the musician's union, they offered bands the proceeds from the cover charge and kept the bar. This system is now fairly standard across Canada in live music bars..."

This isn't necessarily a good thing... It's this "business" model that results in shit club owners taking advantage of musicians.
Kimberly / March 23, 2014 at 02:06 pm
Great article! Great times/memories. I knew that things would change with this place after, when I helped with the Last Pogo.
Al / March 23, 2014 at 02:46 pm
No explanation for, or even mention of, the Bye Bye Birdie painting on the ceiling ? C'mon, you've gotta admit that if you frequent the place you've wondered about it.
BF replying to a comment from MK / March 23, 2014 at 02:47 pm
I am curious how it allow bar owners to take advantage of bands? Seems pretty straight forward. You walk in to see a band and you pay the band directly. No one has to spend time guessing as to what the ticket sales will be and taking the risk of underpaying or overpaying. The bar keeps the alcohol sales to cover all the hard costs like rent, cleaning, permits...etc. Looking forward to your response.
Randy Shook / March 23, 2014 at 02:48 pm
Every year that goes by, my dream of playin' the legendary Horseshoe Tavern slowly fades away.
Crash replying to a comment from Randy Shook / March 23, 2014 at 03:00 pm
Don't give up, Randy, it shouldn't be that difficult to get a spot -- an opening slot on a weeknight isn't that hard to come by. I've played on that stage at least a dozen times, and my band sucked. :)
JFK / March 23, 2014 at 03:02 pm
Right on BF, most people have no idea what it takes to run an establishment like that.
Kate replying to a comment from MK / March 23, 2014 at 03:31 pm
yeah, really, this like lowering the standard, not upping it...getting bands to work on commission more or less. Not good for bands just starting out, I'd imagine.

Hard to picture Lady Black of Crossharbour (or whatever) hanging out in the Horseshoe.
David / March 23, 2014 at 04:19 pm
Many years ago, in the early 80s, I attended a show there featuring Connie Kaldor, Jane Siberry and Margaret ?. Lovely
MK / March 23, 2014 at 08:42 pm
old model:

-band/artist negotiates fee with venue, venue pays fee, venue advertises and encourages attendance, establishes a "brand" of quality for booking music that people will enjoy.

new model:

-venue "allows" band/artist to perform for no guaranteed income, band must do own promotion, quality varies from act to act, harder to establish a brand of quality.

as an earlier person remarked, almost any shitty band can play at the horseshoe on a weeknight. plenty of times there are shows at the horseshoe that are poorly performed and poorly attended. the bar is continually lowered because lots of sub-par bands are eager to play anywhere under any circumstances.

as a disclaimer - i'm not shitting on the horseshoe in particular - in fact, they are far better than average as venues go. but, i was struck by the line in the article that i quoted earlier, because it seemed to be sold as a positive change, when in reality i think it's a bit more complicated.
Toronto Jim / March 23, 2014 at 10:31 pm
Too bad they changed the venue to what it is now.
Used to span the whole width of the original building.
Layout was a little weird because those three stairs went all the way across the building so you can imagine how many people they could jam into a sold out show. Also had a ma and pa snack bar at the front near the door that had very tasty munchies. Saw the Stranglers there that turned into a sweaty punked out night.
The Police played the Edge (owned by the Gary's) the first time they played Toronto. Alas I did not know who they were and did not go. That club was another punk hangout that had great bands as well. Both clubs bring back some great memories of days gone by.
rude / March 24, 2014 at 12:52 am
I've found the bartender pictured in the last picture to be rude.
Ryan / March 24, 2014 at 01:39 am
I agree with the above comment. People shower Teddy with love, but I find him to be impolite. But who takes the cake? Amy from Collective Concerts. She's the worst
Colin Campbell / March 24, 2014 at 10:38 am
Thanks for the memories, we always had good time at the "Shoe"
I didn't see a photo of Cookie Monster Bob, LOL
I know you are still there Dude.
stan shikatani / March 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm
Just a note to add to your history of Horseshoe Tavern.
Bernie Black Trio played at the Tavern in the early days of jazz in Toronto.Many clubs then known as taverns featured trios as entertainment.Bernie played piano and also sang.It was the early years of Jazz in Toronto aside from occasional jazz heard on CBC radios.
Glenn / March 24, 2014 at 02:32 pm
OH I saw the Wind Mobile sign how much for a monthly cel phone?
kt / March 24, 2014 at 06:00 pm
hey, is the saddle still there?

James / March 25, 2014 at 01:20 am
Was there one night and watched Buckwheat Zydeco perform with his band. Great show.
#façadeMontagé: / March 26, 2014 at 01:14 am
We Love setting up visuals at the Horseshoe Tavern! #scénographie #résidence
Archie / March 27, 2014 at 09:52 am
How sweet to see this. I grew up in this place as a kid in the late 60's and early 70's as my mum was a waitress there for years. Have lots of great memories of Saturday matinees at the Shoe.
Scarlett / June 13, 2015 at 07:46 pm
Anyone know what year they chopped down the size?
Judy Keeler / June 15, 2015 at 11:21 am
I saw John Hammond and Abbie Hoffman there too !!
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