The History of The Horseshoe Tavern
1947 – Present
1947: Jack Starr purchases the Building at 368-370 Queen Street West
In November 1947, local entrepreneur Jack Starr purchased a small piece of property at 368-370 Queen Street West. With the objective of opening up a restaurant-tavern, specializing in prime rib roast beef, with slaw, & maybe some live music on the side, he named it The Horseshoe Tavern.
The club officially opened on December 9th, 1947.
The property itself dates back to 1861, when it opened as a blacksmith shop. In the intervening years it had been home to an actual shoe shop, and then a fancy goods store. Under new provincial liquor license laws (circa 1947), which permitted him to convert the commercial property to an eatery-tavern, Starr started serving alcohol. The Shoe’s first license had a legal capacity of 87 seats.
1947-1960: Jack Starr’s Country Roots & Rockabilly Music Tavern: The Willie Nelson Era
Starr’s first booking was ‘Marvin Rainwater’, and in the early days, the media paid little attention to the live music aspect of the business. The ‘Shoe had a rep as a rough place, due to the fact that legendary bank robber Edwin Alonzo Boyd was a regular patron.
It was in the mid 50’s that the venue became a cultural musical institution, when Starr re-converted the bar to a larger than life 500 seat live music club (even to the point of doing away with the food), and began booking strictly country & rockabilly music. Over the next 25 years, the ‘Shoe hosted soon to be country superstars like Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lyn, Charlie Pride, and Ian & Sylvia Tyson
1960-1976: Promoting Canadian Talent: The Stompin’ Tom Connors Era
Starr became known as the friendliest and most dedicated small club owner in Canada, often putting up artists in his own home, and revered by the likes of Willie Nelson and Stompin’ Tom. While looking back historically, the American country superstars made the place famous; it was really Starr’s dedication to the development of national Canadian and local acts that fueled its day to day success.
In an era where artists performed full weeks (instead of one night stands), Stompin’ Tom not only recorded a live album at the ’Shoe, but once played 25 consecutive nights. Local artists like the Band, Bruce Cockburn, and the Good Brothers played the venue regularly.
1976-1982: Jack Starr retires – The Gary’s Last Pogo, and Bankruptcy
In 1976, Jack retired, and sold the business (retaining ownership of the building), and with the change came a new wave of musical expression. Promoters Gary Cormier & Gary Topp came on board and introduced Toronto to punk & new wave bringing in the era’s edgy musical sounds of the Police, the Talking Heads, The Cramps, The Ramones, MC-5, & The Stranglers.
Unfortunately, from the new owners standpoint, (& Jack’s) the Garys vision was at least a decade ahead of their time, & when a musical change was dictated, their going-away party-dubbed ‘The Last Pogo’ ended an era, if not almost destroying the building and venue itself.
Featuring the likes of the The Mods, Viletones, Scenics, Cardboard Brains, and Teenage Head, the concert was raided by the police, who tried to shut down the show. A riot ensued. Much of this was captured on film by Colin Brunton, who later turned his film into a documentary.
Unfortunately for the ‘Shoe, while the Gary’s went on to become Toronto’s foremost indie promoters, the venue and the building remained empty. A couple of prospective owners came n went, (Marcus Ohara: Squeeze Club, Randy Lancot: Barrymore’s – Ottawa) and in an attempt to revive the country music legacy, the building was divided into 3 retail spaces, with the ‘Shoe changing its name, (of all things), to Stagger Lee’s! It was even a strip club for a couple of months!
In 1982 Jack Starr, reluctantly, came out of retirement and imported Kingston, Ontario natives Michael (X-Ray) Macrae, Dan Akroyd, and Richard Crook, to run the venue for him, albeit on a temporary basis. It was the eventual collaboration of these 3 and Ken Sprackman, which not only saved the business, but also historically defines the modern era of what we now call the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern.
1983-1986: The Ken Sprackman & X-Ray Era; Blue Rodeo, Handsome Ned, and Prairie Oyster
Sprackman began his business career working at his father’s accounting firm. However, unlike most of his Jewish friends & contemporaries, he sought success outside the family tradition. He moved to Vancouver, B.C to open up a Mr. Sub, and then to Oshawa to open a Howard Johnson’s franchise, and then back to Toronto where he opened up an automobile dealership while selling real estate on the side.
Sprackman’s true calling came in 1979, when his father, working as a bankruptcy trustee, tipped him off about a failing alternative night club called the Hotel Isabella. Sprackman took the downtown Toronto club (from receivership), and within a year, the venue was a major force in the emerging local punk, rockabilly, and new wave music scenes, until it’s closure in 1982.
In the spring of 1983, Sprackman drove cars to/from Florida, (seriously-lol) where by chance he landed a job to drive Jack Starr’s car from Florida to Toronto. Within months, the meeting led to a partnership between Sprackman, and three others (Dan, X-Ray, and Richard).
With Jack’s guiding hand, and his family’s assistance, (son in law Art Clairman and son Bobby Starr oversaw the building for Jack) Sprackman and co sought to re-create the initial success of the Hotel Isabella/Horseshoe Tavern, by emplacing up and coming local talent but with a modern twist. To do so, Sprackman radically changed the layout of the venue. He moved the stage (from the center of the space) to the rear, splitting the space into two, and in doing so, created a local neighborhood bar. The ‘shoe would now really be known as a tavern, separate from that of simply a live music venue.
With the live portion now only a quarter of its original size, Ken brought in Rick Boffo and Brock Adamson to create what many still describe as the quinsessential sounding small live music venue. Under the artistic direction of talent buyers X-Ray & Derek Andrews, the likes of Blue Rodeo, Prairie Oyster, The Bopcats, Handsome Ned, & Leslie Spit Treo developed their sound.
Thus the Queen St sound, a blend of Toronto roots music, country, blues, and punk was born!
Kenny and X-Ray also made radical changes to the venue booking policy and pay scale. In Jack Starr’s era, artists played full weeks. (Mon-Sat) X-Ray created a new system featuring local and Canadian national touring acts on the weekend, (usually one band, Thur-Sat, 3 sets a night), mixing in monthly once a week mid-week residencies, and American-European touring acts early in the week. The venue became a preferred showcase for local promoters, CPI, & The Garys, who were almost assured that the Shoes built-in audience (accentuated by the music industry types, and celebs drinking in the newly created front bar) would accelerate an artists career development.
Prior to the 80’s, local acts/musicians were paid flat union-scaled fees. It was Kenny and X-Ray whom introduced the ‘band-artist takes the door-the venue the bar’ policy. Perfected at the ‘Shoe, it’s this system which is now the standard modus-operandi of just about every original live music venue in the country.
The success of the Sprackman-X-Ray era not only re-established the ‘shoe as a legendary venue to hear live music and catch rising talent, and not only saved the business and building from bankruptcy, but more importantly they re-created the family-community, & artist-patron friendly atmosphere of which Jack Star originally created. So much so that before Blue Rodeo was singed to Warner, they ran an independent label out of the basement of the Horseshoe Tavern. (Risque Disque) Kenny/X-Ray really were the KINGS of QUEEN ST.
1987-1990: Queen St Rocks, The ‘Hip, Amanda Marshall, The Phantoms & The Skydiggers
X-Ray took more control of the booking and with help from local agent Ralph James (the first music industry person to adopt the Horseshoe pay system as advantageous to artists) they provided a space to see new up and coming original Canadian alterna rock talent, over and above the roots music acts, such as The Tragically Hip, The Watchmen, Pursuit Of Happiness, Amanda Marshall, The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, The Phantoms, & The Skydiggers
The 3 day weekends morphed into Fri-Sat headliners, with new emerging artists from the Maritimes and Western Canada being increasingly showcased mid-week.
Under Kenny & X-Rays direction, the tavern won countless accolades & awards but more importantly, the venue continued to be a hit with its patrons. They hired new staff, often musicians like Joe Toole (Phantoms), Teddy Fury (Bopcats), and Sean Dean (Sadies) whom made the customers feel like gold regardless if they were coming in for a just pint, a game of pool, or to see a live band….
1991-1995: Ultrasound, a recession, splitting ownership; Lowest of the Low & Rheostatics era
In the early 90’s, fueled by the stability and success of the ‘Shoe, the owners opened another Queen St venue, Ultrasound, and a restaurant, called X-Rays. Yvonne Matsell was hired to book the new club. However, the Toronto economy was not doing well at this time. While Ultrasound was initially successful in featuring alterna folk & roots music, the rock at the ‘shoe fizzled out.
Eventually X-Ray stepped aside so Matsell could book both venues for the ownership group. Yvonne re-committed the venue to the new emerging rock n folk sounds, be it Moxy Fruvous, The Bare Naked Ladies, the Waltons, Lowest of the Low, Furnace Face, One, Great Big Sea, or 13 Engines. The Rheostatics did week long residencies at both clubs.
However, whether it was the recession, or just continuous changes in the music industry, business was flat, and more change was in the works. It was decided Richard and Dan would solely own and operate Ultrasound (with Yvonne as the booker) and Kenny and X-Ray would solely own and operate the ‘shoe (with a new talent buyer).
In the summer of 1995, on the same night Wilco played the H-Shoe on the AM recording, former Apocalypse Club and El Mocambo booker Jeff Cohen, and his assistant Craig Laskey were hired with the objective of revamping the ‘Shoe’s artistic mandate for the 21st Century.
1996-1997: The Jeff Cohen, Craig Laskey, & Ken Sprackman Era: Against The Grain
Jeff Cohen grew up in the Promised Land of Montreal with child-like dreams of playing CF for Les Expos. When a summer sporting injury ended his baseball career, he turned to listening to new wave, punk rock, and Bruce Springsteen. On Jan 23rd, 1981, a chance meeting at the Montreal Forum with Canada’s then most infamous Boss fan, (Howard Bloom who also worked at then Canada’s only Campus-Community Radio Station), convinced Jeff he should attend Ottawa’s Carleton University with the goal of becoming a DJ at CKCU-FM.
Many overnighter shifts, and 3 Boss tours later, JC opened Canada’s first dedicated all-ages venue, ‘One Step Beyond’, (in Ottawa) and began a career as an alterna music promoter. By the end of the 80’s, he’d produced over 100 shows for the likes of No Means No, SNFU, Dead Milkmen, Circle Jerks, Ministry, and the Gruesomes, many of them benefits for CKCU-FM.
In the early 90’s, with the ESB breaking up, JC moved to Toronto and became the club talent buyer (replacing Elliott Lefko and William New) for the Apocalypse Club, and later the El Mocambo. He promoted shows for the likes of the Sepultura, DRI, COC, GBH, Agnostic Front, Snuff, Headstones, BTC, James Cotton, and the Holmes Brothers, all while doing a punk rock radio show at CIUT-FM called Mods n Rockers.
In 1993, He took a turn to the dark side, first working in the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir’s management office, and then becoming an agent, (replacing Jack Ross) at the ‘Agency’. In assisting Ralph James, he helped book acts (via X-Ray & Yvonne) into the H-Shoe Tavern.
As an agent Jeff signed signed Big Sugar, The Mahones, and Big Rude Jake, (all eventual ‘shoe weekend headliners) and was the responsible agent for the Waltons, Lowest of the Low, One, 13 Engines, & the Rheostatics, One of his signings was a band called Bender, managed by a young lad from the Oshawa region, named Craig Laskey. JC’s artists dominated the lineup of the first two 102.1 Edgefest’s at Ontario Place (Programmed by Elliott Lefko).
With the SLF buy out of the Agency, Jeff went back to club talent buying, bringing Craig along as an assistant. The team become the artistic director of the Mariposa Folk Festival (in 1994-1995), then helped re-open the Elmo in 1995, before finally joining The Horseshoe Tavern team in Aug 1995. It was at the ‘Shoe, where JC and Craig created a new business model for booking club venues in Canada.
1998-2005: The 102.1 Nu Music Night Era; Wilco, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, & the Old 97’s
With the creation of ‘Against the Grain Concerts’ (ATG), JC and Craig did something almost unheard of in the city of Toronto, they not only booked their venue but they started promoting bands outside of it. In doing so, ATG promoted every show in the ‘Shoe as if it was a concert, rather than just a club-tavern play. For the first time, advance tickets were made available for shows at the venue. Similar to what Ken Sprackman did in 1983, Jeff and Craig made physical changes to the venue, raising the stage, opening up walls to create better sightlines, and building fixed seating on one side of the venue
The booking policy was also overhauled. In the past, natural talent, and the ability to play your instrument got you on the stage. Under JC-Craig, bookings were opened up to more raw punky and much younger emerging artists, similar in spirit to that of the Gary’s booking policy circa 1978.
Borrowing heavily from the new music scene unveiled yearly at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin Texas, JC and Craig, in conjunction with 102.1’s Dave Bookman and then MCA-HOB promoter Elliott Lefko, introduced an innovative artist development program to showcase emerging North American talent at the venue’s No Cover Tuesday Nu Music Nites.
They convinced agents and managers that in order to book their baby bands, instead of charging a $5.00 to $10.00 cover, and playing to an 1/8th filled venue during the mid-week, the ‘Shoe could provide a built in and appreciative like minded audience, (via marketing at 102.1, and word of mouth) making it more worthwhile to send the act to Toronto in the early stages of their careers.
Artists like, Matchbox 20, The Old 97’s, Whiskeytown (Ryan Adams), Slobberbone, Blue Mountain, Vic Chesnutt, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Sneaker Pimps, Bloodhound Gang, 7 Mary 3, Eels, Therapy, Ash, Nada Surf, Imani Coppola, Spoon, Son Volt, Kathleen Edwards, Thrush Hermit, Matt Mays, The Strokes, Big Wreck, Nickelback, and Billy Talent, all benefited greatly (if not actually signed while showcasing) from this program.
During this era the Pixie’s Frank Black did a 5 night stand. Neutral Milk Hotel, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab For Cutie played the venue for the first time. Thrush Hermit played their last shows at the venue morphing into The Joel Plaskett Emergency. The likes of Chixdiggit, The Smugglers, The Planet Smashers, and Danko Jones became weekend headliners. New rockabilly bands like Rev Horton Heat, Amazing Royal Crowns, The Royal Crowns, & Southern Culture came to play.
The ‘Shoe became the place to be during club crawl festivals like Canadian Music Week, and North by Northeast, where local patrons and music industry folks congregate to the point where the back room is often sold-out by 10:00 pm.
In the true historical heritage of consecutive night gigs ala Stompin’ Tom, the Rheostatics took over the venue for 14-16 days, once a year, over a 5-6 year span, for its Fall Nationals.
Yet it was Jeff Tweedy’s 5 ‘shoe gigs (3 with Wilco, 2 with Golden Smog ) alongside with Son Volt’s, Jayhawks, Neko Case & Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams concerts, which most defined the ‘Shoe in this era. The ever increasing number no depression alt country shows not only re-established the country roots heritage of the venue, but the gigs themselves took on increasingly surreal historical status, ala the great talked about shows of the past by the Police, Blue Rodeo, The Hip, The Band, and Stompin’ Tom.
With the new emphasis on emerging alternative roots sounds, surprise performances from the vets were more commonplace including The Rolling Stones, Bryan Adams, The ‘Hip, Melissa Ethridge, Live, Sammy Hagar, & The Blues Brothers. As the 50th anniversary of the venue approached, the ‘shoe had clearly re-emerged as the hottest, coolest, and most stable live music venue in the city, so much so, even Blue Rodeo came back to play.
In 1998 X-Ray retired from the business. Jeff Cohen became an owner, with Craig Laskey taking over JC’s position as the talent-buyer-booker-promoter. Over the last ten years, JC’s & Craig’s ATG has overseen/produced more than 4000 shows, and shows no sign of slowing down. Whilst committed to showcasing young and emerging acts, under it’s tutelage, the ‘Shoe has re-emerged as the quintessential Canadian venue for breaking development bands.
Canadian artists like The Trews, Matt Mays, The Sadies, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, The Deadly Snakes, & The Constantines still cut their teeth in the venue, and the likes of Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, Brigth Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, The National, The Shins, Calexico, and The Decemberists did all their early Toronto shows at the ‘Shoe.
In 2001, the venue’s owner’s purchased sister club Lee’s Palace.
2005-2013: We’re still rocking
In 2005, Ken Sparkman retired from the day to day operations of the venue, with Craig Laskey and Naomi Montpetit coming aboard as owners. Craig Laskey is still booking local bands, still going to SXSW every year, and still dreaming of bringing the Waco Brothers to Toronto, which after chasing them for years at The Yard Dog on South Congress; they started playing the Shoe now on a yearly basis.
In 2008, John Berry was hired to renovate the old lady, putting in an estimated $25,000 worth of checkered tile floors, sanding down and re-staining all the bars. Rock Boffo’s original PA and Adamson’s innovative speaker system eventually gave way to a Clair digital system
In 2010 Craig and JC wound down ATG and formed a Collective partnership with local promoter Amy Hersenhoren, who in turn introduced electronica and new forms of music into the venue. The Shoe would run the bar at 3 major outdoor shows on Toronto Olympic Island
Jack Starr’s family still owns the building. The grandsons and the grandsons in law, Gary Clairman and Colin Mackeller oversee the space. (Jack Starr left this earth a couple of years ago) The Clairmen family signed a new lease with the current venue ownership that guarantees live music will be heard on Queen Street through 2020 and beyond
Both Teddy Furry & Bob Maynard recently celebrated their 25th years working at the ‘Shoe.
Through the years JC has managed to see 204 lifetime Bruce shows celebrating his 200th at both Fenway Park in Boston and in Toronto’s Sky-Dome in 2012, and celebrating buying a second home in Austin Texas in the same building the E Street Band played it’s only ever show at SxSW
The H-Shoe Tavern is still musically relevant in 2013 as much as it has been in any era since it’s inception in 1949, some 65 years ago! The venue is still winning awards, is still a home for the very best Toronto local bands, and is still the place to play for a young Canadian Touring band.
The ‘Shoe recently celebrated it’s 65th B-day with 3 weeks of concerts from the likes of Elvez, the Sheepdogs, the Watchmen, Lowest of the Low, The Sadies, and The Skydiggers.