The new clientele’s so straight, the bouncer had to go on short hours
When I was young and 20, taking journalism at Ryerson, it was considered very daring and chi-chi to drink at an establishment at the corner of Yonge and Gould called the Edison Hotel. The Edison, alas, is now gone, leaving only the renovated remnants of a landmark in Country and Western Toronto style.
It handled the raunchiest in C&W: the Billie Joe Carvers and their perfumed ladies; the Memphis bands who were more notable for their animal sexuality than their pick-and-twang talents. For us, it was strictly hardboiled eggs and draught. At 25 cents a glass, we couldn’t afford not to drink there. And besides, we thought of it as a down-home version of an Algonquin Round Table.
The problem was that after two years of fending off the rowdies at the Edison, we got a little bored with the small-time hoopla and began promising each other that next Friday afternoon we’d get stony drunk over at the Horseshoe Tavern. The Horseshoe was the epitome of a heavy country saloon, replete with a Who’s Who of singing talent. But as I said, we were young and 20, so we never made it over to Queen and Spadina. It would have been too big a transition. By word of mouth, we knew that if we did our slumming there, we’d encounter untold numbers of drunken and belligerent men, who would find our tender souls (and equally tender bodies) uncontrollably ripe pickings.
Now, the whole point of this snotty dissertation on the Horseshoe Tavern is to illustrate just how much it has upgraded its image in the past five years. Although it’s been presenting top-class country and western entertainment for more than a quarter of a century, the Horseshoe has only recently managed to drop its joke-butt image. You’re no longer slumming if you go there, partly because country music is now an acceptable style of contemporary pop, and partly because most of us have undergone a healthy cutting away of our great expectations. The SRO at the Hyatt House is a bore; the Horseshoe is not.
The place itself (a dining room, bar and lounge) boasts a certain ambience but words can’t really do justice to something that is just as much a state of mind as an environment; it looks, smells and feels dingy, dark, smoky, macho and real. What is interesting is the clientele, which defies classification. C&W entrepreneurs are fond of saying: “The people are a real cross-section.” The Horseshoe attracts hippies and winos, the Chic-Freaks, the Avenue businessmen, and, of course, your clichéd country folk. The Horseshoe is very big on masculinity; this is no Quest. And beneath the film of honest male sweat lies an inexplicable undercurrent of pending disaster; there is danger here surely.
I’m not a sexually neurotic woman (okay, maybe just a little bit) but I swear I feel that at the Horseshoe I stand a good chance of being a) beaten up, or b) raped. And that, I guess, accounts for why I am madly attracted to the whole scene. Like most little old lady spinsters, I have not had any fear/wish realized; the joint, as they say, is clean. According to co-owner and manager Morton Starr, the Horseshoe hasn’t had a fight in years: “I know our image, but we have one of the best records in town. We don’t even have a bouncer during the week. No one comes here for trouble. They just love country music,
that’s all, and they just want to hear a good performance. And you'd better give them a good performance or they’ll throw a chair at you — but that’s not fighting.”
Morton maintains that the Horseshoe is the best known spot in the whole of North America. Or as he puts it: “There isn’t nobody who doesn’t like the Horseshoe.”
He tells me that the Horseshoe has presented every big name in C&W with the exception of Johnny Cash. Morton has seen them all — Charlie Pride, Hank Williams, Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn, not to mention Ian Tyson (Morton's favorite performer in the whole wide world), the Carlton Showband, and, of course, Stompin’ Tom.
Stompin' Tom. in fact, was given his first real exposure at the Horseshoe, courtesy of Morton’s uncle, coowner Jack Starr, who “believed in Stompin’ from the very first.” Now, taking a gamble on Connors five years ago was a very big risk indeed. Sure he’d go over with the Maritimers who constituted a sizable portion of the Horseshoe’s clientele, but what about everyone else?
No worry. Stompin’ was dynamite from the start. Indeed, Morton in his sombre, understating way now refers to him as the Eighth Wonder of The World, a helluva performer who knows what his audience wants and gives it to them straight! However, Stompin’ is uniquely Canadian, and for many of us, an acquired taste. For Americans, he’s strictly a no-go. “Americans don’t under-
stand Stompin’,” says Morton. “Anytime anyone’s up here from Nashville and they see him perform on that board of his, they go nuts. They fall over the table.”
Morton thinks in terms of draws. Off the record, he’ll name you names that, in his well-chosen words, can’t draw flies. Connors, Tyson and the Showband are the heaviest at the Horseshoe. The whole new crop of Canadian performers, in fact, are doing so well that he now only has to book an American once a month. Not to mention the fact that most of the U.S. stars, cashing in on hillbilly chic, have overpriced themselves out of the Horseshoe’s budget. About the highest Morton will cough up these days is $3,600 for a one-night gig from Bill Anderson.
When black singer Charlie Pride hit the big time a couple of years ago and had left the Horseshoe in favor of the CNE stadium and 17,000 fans, he closed his act by telling the audience that he was going over to the Horseshoe after the show and wouldn’t they all like to join him. Which, unfortunately for the waiters, a goodly number did. But that’s not the point. The point is that a big star like Pride didn’t forget where he got his start in Toronto. He remembered Morton and the Horseshoe.
Jt’s been like that since the beginning 25 years ago when Jack Starr booked his first country act. That, like Stompin’ Tom, had been a flier; nobody else was booking C&W. But Jack signed the late Hawkshaw Hawkins, and the smell of success was in the air. Hawkshaw unfortunately never lived to see much of the Horseshoe’s climb to fame; he perished in the 1959 air crash that also killed singer Patsy Cline.
And so the beat goes on at the Horseshoe, Monday to Saturday, cover charge on weekends only. It paved the way, took a risk on a music style that had no urban track
record. The Starrs never regretted then decision. “A lot of people think country music is for the mentally deficient,” says Morton. “But music is music. If it’s good, it’s worth listening to. And a lot of country music is very good.”
Molly and Albert Nightingale agree. Better known as the operators of Toronto’s Brunswick Hotel, the Nightingales have only recently entered the C&W saloon business. Their bar, Molly and Me, opened December 3 at Bloor and Lansdowne, and is already gaining itself a nice little reputation as a clean, brightly lit centre for country fans and performers. Some people might call this cashing in on a trend, but opportunism is mitigated by sincerity and the Nightingales are nothing if not sincere. They’re also trailblazers in the sense that they pioneered the bright lights/cheap drinking theory of clientele attraction.
The Nightingales don’t believe you have to sit in the dark to drink; Molly and Me is a cheery and wholesome respite from the devilish dark of the Horseshoe. They also think there’s more to life than slinging beer, and their other purpose in opening up was to find new Canadian talents not otherwise getting exposure.
“When we decided to open a new spot,” says Molly, “we did a lot of homework and met many country singers who’d dropped out of the business because the only places they had to play in were dingy bars — places you would never take your wife or girl friend to. We want to provide a Canadian centre where artists can meet and discover each other, and where the clientele can feel relaxed and comfortable. In other words, you can bring a lady here.”
You can also hear some extremely fine Canadian music. The Nightingales aren’t booking any Americans, concentrating instead on promoting such singers as Darken Madill, Bev Marie, Jerry Warren, Don Haggard, Dick Damron and Tim Daniels. The Nightingales confirm that Canadian country music is definitely the up-andcoming trend: all it needs is promotion. And anyone who could make a landmark out of a dive like the Brunswick Hotel understands promotion. And they’re following the same formula with their new bar as with the old one; the same slogans and gimmicks, only countrified — “If You’re Country Folk, You’re Kin Folk.”
Although the club’s been running since December, the official opening won’t be held until May 12, when Albert Nightingale will be sufficiently recovered from a recent heart attack to attend the festivities. Joining him will be Premier Bill Davis and Mayor Crombie, so who says.Country hasn’t come uptown?
Molly and Me has been relatively hassle-free thus far. The room takes a dim view of excessive drinking and fake IDs, and if you’re not interested in listening to the music, you can take your person elsewhere.
Molly has no time for people who won’t give country music a chance. She admits herself that she never used to like it. “I always thought it was all like that awful twangy stuff. But it’s so much more. It’s really beautiful. How can you say that Help Me Make It Through The Night isn’t rather beautiful?”
It’s that kind of open-mindedness and enthusiasm that will probably make Molly and Me the same huge success as the Brunswick. As I leave, I hear conversation in the air: “They’re the Nightingales. Own the Brunswick. Nice people, very nice people.”
The last time I interviewed them at the Brunswick, Molly and Albert gave me an i. LOVE THE BRUNSWICK T-shirt. This time they gave me a white, I’M A BIG SHOT AT MOLLY AND ME stetson. I am touched. I am also acutely embarrassed as I ride home on the subway. Damned if I’ll wear it, and it won’t fit in my purse.
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