A complete history of Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern, “the Birthplace of Canadian Rock,” to coincide with its seventieth anniversary.
Like the Queen Street strip that has been its home for seven decades, the Horseshoe Tavern continues to evolve. It remains as relevant today as it did when Jack Starr founded the country music club on the site of a former blacksmith shop. From country and rockabilly to rock ‘n’ roll, punk, alt/country, and back to roots music, the venerable live music venue has evolved with the times and trends — always keeping pace with the music.
Over its long history, the Horseshoe has seen a flood of talent pass through. From Willie Nelson to Loretta Lynn, Stompin’ Tom Connors to The Band, and Bryan Adams to the Tragically Hip, the Horseshoe has attracted premier acts from all eras of music. In The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, David McPherson captures the turbulent life of the bar, and of Canadian rock.
About the authors
David McPherson is president and chief creative officer of McPherson Communications — a writing and public relations consulting business. He is a regular contributor to Words + Music, Hamilton Magazine, and No Depression. Over the years his writing on music has also appeared in Paste, American Songwriter, Canadian Musician, Exclaim!, and Chartattack.com. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
Jim Cuddy is a Canadian singer-songwriter primarily associated with the band Blue Rodeo. He attended North Toronto Collegiate Institute, where he met and befriended Greg Keelor, his future bandmate. He also went to Upper Canada College and Queen's University. Cuddy was born in Toronto, Ontario.
- Long-listed, Toronto Book Awards
- Long-listed, Heritage Toronto Award, 2018 Historical Writing
Excerpt: The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History (by (author) David McPherson; foreword by Jim Cuddy)
Since 1947, except for a few blips and lean years best forgotten, the Horseshoe Tavern has stood guard just around the corner from Queen and Spadina. While other North American landmarks such as New York’s CBGB and the Bottom Line now exist only as commemorative plaques and music memories in people’s minds, the Horseshoe has somehow survived for more than seventy years. The more the landscape changes around 370 Queen Street West, the more the tavern remains the same. From the sidewalk, the facade is nondescript; it’s no architectural marvel. Inside, the dirty old lady is cramped, cozy and rough around the edges. For music lovers, though, the building, more affectionately known as the ’Shoe, is a shrine. It’s a place of firsts: One of the first places in Toronto where you could order liquor. One of the first places you could hear live music. And, one of the first bars to have a TV set. For the long-time staff members who have called the bar home — some for almost three decades — the timeless tavern means family. For many, bonds that became marriages — musical and otherwise — were first formed here. Their memories, along with the list of bands that have played the ’Shoe, are what make the venue so legendary. While some may call it a dive, it’s a beautiful dive.
Take a journey with me now. Dive into this icon’s past. Begin with a stroll through the ’Shoe’s front bar. Stop to peruse the posters, framed autographed photographs, newspaper clippings, and scrawled set lists that line the walls across from the pool table, where most nights you’ll find the regulars, who show little interest in the live music coming from the back bar as they shoot a game of stripes and solids. These artifacts tell only some of the stories from the past twenty-five years. Unfortunately, much of the memorabilia from the first half-century of the tavern’s existence were either lost or destroyed during the early 1980s. Only a few fragments from those early days remain, such as the huge movie poster advertising the 1963 musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie, plastered to the ceiling and peeling away but, like the venue itself, still hanging on near the stage in the back bar. Fortunately, thanks to newspaper reports and memories of those still around to recount their time spent there, there was much research to draw upon for this labour-of-love project.
The Horseshoe is a beacon for music lovers, a pilgrimage destination for those who understand its significance as part of Toronto’s rich musical history. One word sums up why it has survived: passion. Almost all the owners shared this passion — for the music and for the patrons. As original owner Jack Starr once told Toronto Star writer John Goddard, “It was family. I don’t mean we had kids there. I mean everyone seemed to know everyone.” More important, from the moment Starr booked music in his home away from home in the downtown core, he cared for — and showed congeniality toward — the musicians he booked. They, too, were like family. There are stories of Starr packing picnic lunches for Loretta Lynn and her band to take as they boarded their tour bus. Another famed story you can read about in more detail later in this book is about how Starr’s offer to give Stompin’ Tom Connors a raise made the late, great Canadian country outlaw cry.
Over the years, thanks to the ’Shoe and its owners, hundreds of Canadian bands have had their starts or have been helped to take that needed step to the next level in their careers. The list is endless: from Dick Nolan and other rising Canadian country stars in the 1960s to Stompin’ Tom Connors in the 1970s, to Blue Rodeo in the 1980s, to Nickelback, Rheostatics, Skydiggers, the Lowest of the Low, and the Watchmen in the 1990s. As most Canadian musicians attest, you’d “arrived” if you played the Horseshoe Tavern. Starr began this bequest to the Canadian music industry in the 1950s; today, current majority owner and music aficionado Jeff Cohen, along with his partner Craig Laskey, continue this tradition for the next generation of rising Canadian stars.
That same passion is what led me to write this book. For me, music is the elixir of life. A jolt of live music is always the best medicine when I’m feeling low. The thousands of ticket stubs I’ve saved over the years — and the lack of funds in my bank account — attest to my love of attending concerts. I came to the Horseshoe Tavern later than most. Like all the musicians I interviewed for this project, I felt its soul, its historical significance, and its pull from the first time I walked through those doors. A spirit lives there. The musicians feel it. So do the regulars. Even first-timers catch a whiff of these ghosts.
I watched my first show, the Old 97’s, in this cavernous, low-ceilinged room more than twenty years ago. Immediately I was hooked. Later, I recall seeing a young Serena Ryder summon the ghost of Etta James — who also once graced that storied stage — with an a cappella version of “At Last” that left the room stunned. I once drank Jack Daniel’s from the bottle with the Drive-By Truckers in their dressing room, and did tequila shots on the checkerboard dance floor with singer Jesse Malin following his set on a night the place was packed, fuelled by rumours The Boss was going to join the ex–D Generation singer. People often say about the ’Shoe, “If only these walls could talk.” Yes, the stories they would tell. Crazy shit happened inside the dimly lit, blue-collar tavern over the years. I share a few of those tales in these pages, but what this story is really about is a place, a Toronto institution seven decades young that has acquired a personality and mythology all its own. It’s part of the social fabric and the history of the city. While much of the Queen Street West strip surrounding the ’Shoe has changed and undergone gentrification, transformed from a desolate street surrounded by factories to a yuppie hangout with high-end fashion stores, the Horseshoe and its raison d’être has remained relatively intact.
Even though the Horseshoe Tavern has always been isolated musically and socially from its surroundings, this venue remains a cultural icon in the Canadian music landscape.
This project combines my love of music with my love of history. Through first-person interviews with musicians who have played the venue to extensive secondary source research, I’ve dug deep to unearth what has led to the bar’s longevity and to discover what makes the ’Shoe so legendary. I hope I’ve succeeded in bottling this passion and distilling it for your enjoyment.
Come with me now, dear reader, on this journey. Find out why this dame has survived when so many others, like the Beverley Tavern, the Ultrasound, the BamBoo, and the Silver Dollar Room, have come and gone.
Here’s to another seventy years of the Horseshoe Tavern. I hope one day my grandkids will walk through those fabled doors at 370 Queen Street West as I once did to hear the latest band on the rise, share a moment in time with fellow music lovers, and discover the ghosts and the soul of the place that are forever etched into the tavern’s walls.
A living, breathing entity that encapsulates everything good about live music — this is the Horseshoe Tavern I know and love; it was the first place the Northern Pikes ever played in Toronto (1985). I’ve had so many great nights since then on that stage, in the audience, and at the bar. This book truly captures the vibe of the best live music venue in Canada: the sweat, the history, and most of all, the sound, and, did I mention the sweat? A love song for the musical Grande Dame of Queen Street.
Jay Semko, the Northern Pikes
At a time when music venues are under attack by gentrification and development, the Horseshoe remains immortal. I’ve long wondered what those checkerboard floors would say if they could talk. Now they can.
Alan Cross, internationally renowned radio broadcaster and music writer
David McPherson’s tall cold pour of a story left me smacking my lips, nodding my head, and feeling just fine. My recommendation: pull up a chair, drain off one chapter, then another, and the next. Before long, you’ll feel absolutely giddy about the Horseshoe and its raffishly distinguished history, Toronto, music, this excellent writer, and the whole wide world.
Charles McNair, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Land O’ Goshen
McPherson’s dexterous unearthing of some of The Horseshoe Tavern’s history is most welcome.
The Country Standard Time
David McPherson does an amazing thing with this affectionate and informative book about the “Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.” As someone who has performed there and attended countless shows there over the years, it made me feel like I was a witness to something much bigger and more integral to the history of Toronto’s ever-changing music scene.
In 1986, moving from Montreal, between late nights at Rock ’N’ Roll Heaven and equally late nights at the Horseshoe Tavern, my initiation into the Toronto music scene began. David McPherson has encapsulated that remarkable feeling of what the ’Shoe brought to me and countless other rabid music fans; fans that knew that it was almost as much the spirit of the venue as it was the live music you saw there that made the ’Shoe the legend that it is.
Steve Anthony, CP24 Breakfast co-host
There are stories aplenty but the book has been tightly edited so the true music fan’s only criticism is that they might wish for even more.
Penguin Eggs Magazine (
Pays serious homage to a venue we can only hope will be around far beyond the 70 years it has already lived.
A valuable document of the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern history. One of Toronto’s most enduring music venues that fostered both local and international performers. Jack Starr’s legacy lives on!
Josh Finlayson, Skydiggers
The Horseshoe Tavern has long been the most important club in Canada, down at the corner of Queen and Spadina in Toronto. Whether it’s legendary residencies from Stompin’ Tom to the Rheostatics, or a super-surprise concert by the Rolling Stones, or my own band playing a string of New Year’s Eve shows in that room that I will never forget, the Horseshoe is Canada’s beating heart of rock ’n’ roll. David McPherson’s book does a brilliant job illustrating just that.
Grant Lawrence, The Smugglers
It’s an important piece of work for Canadian music fans, lovingly written and researched from a fan’s perspective.
The Hamilton Spectator
A worthwhile addition to the Canuck bookshelf.
Over the years, Toronto has had its fair share of legendary clubs including the El Mocambo, the Colonial Tavern, the Matador and the Riverboat. Arguably, none of these are important as the Horseshoe Tavern. Open since 1947, the Horseshoe started as a country bar, for a short while was at the center of Toronto’s punk scene and for the past 35 years has booked a plethora of eclectic up and coming Canadian and international acts, many of whom have gone on to become superstars. On the eve of its 70th birthday, author David McPherson finally tells the fabled club’s story.
Rob Bowman, Grammy Award-winning author and professor
The Horseshoe is one the most beloved clubs in North America. Certainly Toronto would not be the same without it. David McPherson takes us on a wonderful journey that shows the reader why the club is called the Legendary Horseshoe and where those legends came from.
Bernie Finkelstein, founder True North Records and manager, Bruce Cockburn
A rigorously researched account of one of Canada’s most storied music clubs.
The Globe and Mail
David McPherson has captured the soul and the sweat, the joy and the chaos of the hands-down greatest music parlor in Canada. This book takes you through a journey that began before rock ’n’ roll and keeps the ghosts humming with you long past closing time. From Stonewall Jackson to the Last Pogo the spirit that is the Horseshoe lives in these pages.
Colin Linden, musical director of the TV show Nashville and member of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings
A nostalgia trip for those who were there, and an intriguing primer for those who weren’t.
The definitive history of the venue from its original owner, Jack Starr, through all its various incarnations, owners, and bookers and their families, up to the present day.
a glorious two-handed plunge into the loam of the most famous rock ’n’ roll club in Canada; digging in the weeds to find the bones that find the ghosts who played there, from Hank Williams to Tom Connors to Frankie Venom to Townes Van Zandt and beyond.
Dave Bidini, author of Writing Gordon Lightfoot
Whether your interest is music, history or nostalgia, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern is worth reading.
Expect to learn more than you ever imagined about this venue at Queen and Spadina.