The name Stagger Lee?s kinda says it all. That?s what the Horseshoe was called when Kenny Sprackman and his cohorts, Michael (X-Ray) Macrae and Richard Kruk, took the place over in 1983.
The Garys were gone, the old country twang was long gone, and a few prospective owners - including Marcus O'Hara and Randy Lancot - had come and gone after running the joint on a temporary basis.
The place was stumbling toward bankruptcy, and Sprackman and the gang saved it from oblivion.
"During the Stagger Lee's phase the bar was designed to be a 50s dance club," says Sprackman, looking surprisingly clean-cut. When I knew him from my band days, his hair fell to his ass and his beard came halfway down his chest. Now he's got a short bob and way tidied-up facial hair.
"You can still see signs of it - the checkered floor, the poster of Bye Bye Birdie on the ceiling, the orange walls. It was making about $5,000 a week." Which was not much even then, for those of you sans business sense.
Marcus O'Hara was one of the principals at that point, "a hugely talented man," allows Sprackman. "He was running a horseshoe tournament in the back alley - is that cool or what? - but he was not exactly a businessman."
Patrons loved Sprackman for saving the 'Shoe from killer debt - and totally appreciated the air conditioning when he installed it 20 years ago - but we working musicians loved him for liberating us from the hard-assed music monopolies.
"We decided to give the bands the proceeds from the door - in a way we helped make these bands their own independent promoters."
It was Sprackman and company who broke the stranglehold David Bluestein's agency had over club bookings. I remember that it felt like we couldn't play a club in Toronto - let alone get booked outside the city - unless we signed with Bluestein and his crowd. Sprackman took the sidestepping action that got us out from under The Agency's thumb.
Sprackman also urged record companies to show up for bands he knew were going to make waves. But when the record companies started asking for a piece of the live action, Sprackman turned them away.
He happily confesses to squeezing out the musicians union, too. "We just wouldn't allow them to collect a piece of the gate. Unions are effective when it comes to TV and touring, but when bands are playing a bar, that's different. We believed that the bar belongs to the bar and the gate belongs to the band."
Though he attributes the 'Shoe's recovery to the explosion of Canadian talent in the 80s - Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip, k.d. lang - and to the emerging Queen West scene in general, he knows that the most memorable Horseshoe gig was the famous "secret" Rolling Stones concert in 1997.
"It was the biggest clusterfuck ever," laughs Sprackman.
Rumours of an impending gig with the Stones, who were rehearsing for their upcoming tour at a local private girls' school, circulated for weeks before the actual September 4 date.
"The word was so strong that we couldn't get people to leave the bar after 2 pm. It was the worst-kept secret, except that the only ones who didn't know when it was going to happen were us."
Sprackman actually can't remember the show.
"Did I ever get a chance to look at the stage and listen? No. They wanted chaos - they got chaos. You had CPI [Concert Productions International] doing security - and scalping tickets at the back door. We also had Dan Aykroyd doing security, and a completely obliterated John Goodman behind the bar [both were in town shooting a Blues Brothers movie]."
And it was goodbye Bic lighters, hello cellphones. Happy Horseshoe patrons who had called up their pals held the cells high to deliver sound proof that something amazing was taking place.
Since then the club scene has changed dramatically in T.O., specifically in the area we call Clubland, just around the corner from the Horseshoe. But Sprackman never worried about Clubland eating into his market.
"The live scene is so vibrant, it's driven by people I call musoids, who'll keep an eye on who's coming up and hunt down the next big thing no matter what."
Two years ago, when he realized he was losing interest in attending shows at his own club, he sold his share to Craig Laskey and his bookkeeper, Naomi Montpetit.
"You gotta give back. I'm not greedy," Sprackman says with a smile.
His advice to aspiring club owners and bookers? Be artist-friendly, whether the talent is famous or not.
"A club is like a movie theatre," he explains. "It's only as good as whatever's on the marquee. If you own an Odeon Theatre, you want a blockbuster. If I run a bar, it's totally talent-driven. You sell popcorn, we sell beer."
Susan G. Cole?s band No Frills played the Horseshoe many times, including the night John Lennon was assassinated.