Seventy Years of The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern

Seventy Years of The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern

Posted on October 3 by David McPherson in Non-fiction
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As I’ve done interviews over the past month, one of the most frequently asked questions is: what prompted you to write this book? For me, music is the elixir of life. Without it, I don’t know what I would do. My iPod with more than 83,000 songs is my constant companion. It’s there when I am high and when I’m low. Nothing beats up a sombre mood better than music. By the same token, there’s no greater feeling than cranking up the stereo and singing along to one of my favourite songs.

The first big concert I saw was The Who when they rolled into Toronto, playing the CNE in 1989 as part of its twenty-fifth anniversary tour. I was fifteen years old, in Grade 10, and took a bus with friends down to the show. Hearing classic rock songs like “Pinball Wizard” and “Baba O’Reilly” live impacted me. I was hooked. Since then, I’ve attended hundreds of shows in venues big and small. Just in the past week alone, I’ve watched Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and others at Farm Aid in Pittsburgh; Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson in my hometown; and dozens of artists such as Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, k.d. lang, the Arkells, and Randy Bachman paying tribute to Young and to Bruce Cockburn as part of the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame induction at Massey Hall.

I digress. You get the point. As Neil sang in “Union Man,” I subscribe to his call that “live music is better bumper stickers should be issued!” I also love history. Writing my book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History, combined all of these passions. It was a labour of love from start to finish.

Another common question I’m asked about my book is what makes The Horseshoe Tavern so legendary?

A postcard of the Horseshoe Tavern depicting what it looked like circa 1950s.

First, it has not just survived, but thrived for seventy years. The Horseshoe is not just a music bar. Nor is it just a drinking establishment. The building is a Toronto landmark. As such, the ’Shoe deserves to be preserved as part of the heritage of the city. As Queen Street West evolved from a blue-collar strip to the more gentrified streetscape today, the Horseshoe has stood the test of time; each era and decade of the tavern’s seventy years are intertwined with the history of the city. It has kept pace with the trends and played a vital role in showcasing—and preserving—the heritage and music of Toronto. It’s a home away from home for so many musicians, as well as a cultural icon in the Canadian musical landscape. It remains as relevant today as it did when Jack Starr founded the country club back in 1947 in a place that once housed a blacksmith shop. The more the landscape around it changes, the more The Horseshoe remains the same.

Second, just stop and think of the endless list of bands that made their mark on the Horseshoe’s stage and then took their careers to the next level: Blue Rodeo, Lowest of the Low, The Skydiggers, The Watchmen, Great Big Sea, Nickelback, to name just a few iconic Canadian bands that, in one way or another, credit The Horseshoe for helping propel their way to further success. 

Ron Hawkins of Lowest of the Low

Of course people often ask, what’s your favourite Horseshoe memory? That’s a tough one, as there are so many and some memories are a little fuzzy, but a few definitely stick out. Seeing the Old 97s on a Dave Bookman Nu Music night nearly twenty years ago ranks up there since it was the first time I walked into that hallowed hall at 370 Queen Street West. I felt the ghosts, like everyone who had come there to see a show before me. I also discovered a new band, which in the ensuing years came to be one of my new favourites for their cow-punk attitude and energetic live shows. Other ’Shoe nights that top the list are: seeing The Drive-By Truckers on the day before Halloween turn the amps up and sweat and serve up their brand of southern rock long after last call; seeing Jesse Malin sing on the famed checkerboard floors on a night Bruce Springsteen was rumoured to be a surprise guest; and finally hearing a young and rising Serena Ryder belt out an a capella version of Etta James’ “At Last.”

I would love to hear your favourite Horseshoe memories. Tweet them to me. Email them. Post them to my website or Facebook page. Long live live music and here’s to another seventy years of the legendary Horseshoe Tavern.

David McPherson

Posted by Dundurn Guest on November 15, 2016
David McPherson photo

David McPherson

David McPherson 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 at Chartattack.com. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.