Juliette Jagger, a frequent contributor to these pages, wrote this history of Toronto’s Horseshow for the National Music Centre, which is set to open Calgary later this year. (Go here to learn a little more about the NMC.)
To some, The Horseshoe Tavern might appear to be just another local live music venue, but to most patrons of the Toronto music scene, The Shoe (as it is affectionately known) is a place that they hold dear to their hearts and somewhere where they belong. The walls, which are plastered with newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and other memorabilia, reveal a rich musical narrative that is steeped in close to 70 years of tradition. It’s a place that has bridged genres and decades, withstood the effects of urban planning and the fallout of recession, has hosted artists as fiercely rousing as Etta James and as infamous as The Rolling Stones, and has allowed a revolving cast of local weirdos, aspiring rock gods, and musical devotees, to stomp feet, drip sweat and dance wildly, and to break bread and bottles together to a beat that has long made The Shoe the lifeblood of the Toronto music scene.
Though the property itself dates back to 1861 and had previously housed everything from a blacksmith and an engineer to two butchers, a shoe shop and a fancy goods store, when local entrepreneur and business owner Jack Starr opened The Horseshoe Tavern on December 9, 1947, his vision was a simple one: he wanted to convert his recently purchased commercial property at 368-370 Queen Street West into a friendly local eatery-tavern where patrons could come to hear country, roots and rockabilly music. Thanks to loosened liquor laws, which came into effect in Ontario earlier that same year, bars such as The Shoe were able to start serving alcohol for the very first time. Unfortunately despite this, Starr’s efforts were a bit premature. Even in the late forties, country music wasn’t yet considered “socially acceptable” and so his then 87-seat tavern quickly became something of a shit-kicker drinking hole for the genre’s most devout.