Once a blacksmith shop, Jack Starr opened The Horseshoe Tavern on Dec. 9, 1947. His vision was simple: convert the commercial property of 368-370 Queen Street West into a tavern where people from all over the country could eat, drink, socialize and listen to country music, according to Alan Carter from 16×9.
David McPherson, author of the book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History, said that the tavern specialized in roast beef and was the first bar in Canada to have a television set.
However, country music was not widely accepted, so Starr’s tavern became another place to get drunk according to Carter.
McPherson said, “the clientele was a mix of the blue-collar textile workers in the Queen and Spadina neighbourhood, along with police officers and rounders and other ruffians.”
McPherson just spent the last two years researching, writing and photographing the bar for his book.
One of The Horseshoe Tavern’s, or as their loyal costumers call it, “The Shoe’s,” early customers was the bank robber, Edwin Alonzo Boyd said Carter. The local media were captivated by The Boyd Gang and where they mingled. This overshadowed Starr’s plan to cater to the increasing young population.
“The story goes that one day Starr was walking through the tavern, talking to the regulars, when one of them said, ‘Hey Jack, you should get some music in here!’ He said, ‘Ok, what kind’ – They said, ‘country music of course’,” said McPherson.
In the mid 1950’s, Toronto’s musical temperament finally turned according to Carter. Starr then began his plan to add live country music to the tavern. He renovated the kitchen, put in a stage and turned his tavern into a live music venue.
Teddy Fury, an employee of the bar who has been working before the current owners, said, “people love live music and there’s always been a healthy music scene in Toronto.”
Dick Nolan and His Blue Valley Boys were hired to be the house band.
Starr booked country artists such as, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, The Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and most famously, Stompin’ Tom Connors.
Stompin’ Tom was only known in Newfoundland at the time. He was living out of his guitar case but Starr paid him $150 to play at his bar for the week. That was the start of his successful career and countless sold out performances.
“There is nothing like seeing live music, joining other like-minded individuals and getting lost in the stories and the sounds coming from a stage and leaving away all the troubles and fears of the world for a few hours,” said McPherson.
Starr supported local and national Canadian talents, which added to the success of his business. He often offered artists to stay in his own home.
Andrew Cash, former MP and musician, has performed at the tavern many times. He was a member of the Cash Brothers and also performed with the Skydiggers.
“It’s hard to explain why a kind of dark and gritty club can be such a magical place for a musician to play but for some reason it is,” said Cash.“I think it’s the fact that the fans have to come close to the stage to be a part of it and when the room is full its really exciting”
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Starr shifted his taste in live music to folk artists. Some of the local talents that found a home at The Shoe were Ian and Sylvia Tyson, The Band, Bruce Cockburn and The Good Brothers.
Starr retired in 1976. His daughter, son and their respective partners have ownership of the building.
In a documentary by Global, Gary Topp and Gary Cormier said that the new sound at The Horseshoe Tavern was described to be “sloppy” and “aggressive.”
“I remember the old union waiters in white shirts, black pants and black bowties serving all the punk rock kids getting loaded. The place was about three times bigger than it is now,” said Fury.
Starr’s family renovated the space, put in a new PA and lighting system and moved the stage in the early 70’s.
Acts like The Talking Heads, The Cramps, Nash The Slash, The Stranglers and The Police were booked.
The Police was a British band that made their North-American debut at The Shoe. The owners thought the band was going to be very successful.
The Police went onto win Grammys and had their name written in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, in 1978, they couldn’t fill up the tavern said Topp and Cormier.
“It’s what has happened – and what is yet to happen inside those hallowed walls – that makes it unique and stand out among live music venues in North America,” said McPherson.
Not only did the tavern play punk bands but performances consisted of some jazz, folk and reggae acts to comedy nights and even the occasional film screening.
“As we increasingly consume culture individually…, a place like the Horseshoe reminds us of the importance of actually coming together and doing things and sharing a culture communally,” said Cash.