September, 1971 - The Horseshoe Tavern, Queen Street, Toronto City, Canada
From its inception in 1948 until the late 1970s The Horseshoe Tavern (or Hotel) was one of Toronto's prime country music and entertainment venues. Today the tavern is one of Toronto's foremost rock palaces, and although the bar has remained very much the same, the rest of the place has changed. Used to be that there was a dining lounge in a separate room with a separate door off Queen Street. That has now been converted into a private shop with no access to the tavern. And the main entertainment lounge now faces a stage on the back wall; it used to face west where a smaller bar has been installed, near the stairs going down to the washrooms. One thing that has remained the same though is the windowless basement dressing room.
(This is how the Horseshoe looked when it was still Torontos C&W palace)
In 1971 I walked into the Shoe for a pre-arranged interview with Stompin' Tom Connors. He had been a hero of mine since I was just a kid up in Timmins, Ontario, where I used to listen to his daily radio program "Live from the Skyway Room at the Maple Leaf Hotel" over CKGB. After he left Timmins I lost contact with him until one day, after watching Hockey Night In Canada (which used to end when the game was over and CBC would switch to the program already in progress) I watched Countrytime with Vic Mullen from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I wasn't really into country music back then, in 1968, but I kind of liked it. It was basically the only music we had to listen to up North because 'our music', rock music, could only be heard late at night during the Hilltop Rendezvous program on the French station, CFCL. So out comes this special guest star dressed in a black leather vest, big cowboy boots and a hat and a board to beat his heal into and he sings, "Twang twang, a diddle dang a diddle danga - twang twanga diddle dang another dang twang", and I said, "That's the guy from Timmins!"
Stompin' Tom Connors was only known as Tom Connors back in Timmins. Now he was an up and coming country music star singing Canadian songs, most of which he wrote. By 1971 he had already recorded a number of albums for the Dominion label owned by Canadian Music Sales in Toronto, including a box set of Old Time Favourites containing 5 LPs. Bud The Spud and Sudbury Saturday Night were synonymous with Stompin' Tom - everybody knew those songs. I had been sneaking into the Horseshoe as an under aged 18 year old; when I was 19 the Ontario provincial government of Bill Davis lowered the drinking age to 18. I'd go to the Shoe with my school friends, get a good seat which was a difficult thing to do even on a week night, and get right into it. I purchased my first Stompin' Tom album, Bud The Spud, at the Horseshoe and got Tom to stomp on the cover (having removed the record first). For a kid into The Who, early Zeppelin and stuff like that, this was rather different indeed.
So I'd go to these Connors shows, got to meet the man and speak with him a bit, told him that I used to listen to him in Timmins and imprinted myself into his incredible memory. I was doing a radio program at Thornlea Collegiate, what we called Radio Thornlea, and asked Tom if I could interview him sometime. Sure, he said, how bout tomorrow afternoon, right here in the Horseshoe? He said 2 pm would be just fine, that I would find him eating in the dining room.
I walked into the Horseshoe that day and this is what I wrote down:
Stompin' Tom has just started his own record label called Boot Records. He plans on re-releasing all of his Dominion records on Boot and also told me to look out for these newly signed acts: Humphrey & the Dumptrucks, Stevedore Steve, Bud Roberts, The Gleasonairs and Joe Brannigan & Brannigan's Boys.This was the first I ever heard of any of those acts. When I asked Connors about them he was most enthusiastic about Stevedore Steve.
I found a copy of Steve's second album (the first for the Boot label), called "Hard Workin' Men", at Sam The Record Man's main store. The cover flipped me out: a guy in a basement with a sledge hammer in his hands, shovels, axes and picks, rolls of coiled wire and a guitar strapped around his shoulder, hanging off his back.
(Hard Workin Men, BOS 7102, released in 1971)
I took the album home and
put it on the record player and was shaken much the same as I had been
when I first heard Stompin' Tom. It was all-Canadian, no mistake about
it, passionately Canadian without the patriotic non-sense. No Canadian
flag wrapped around the shoulders like the Americans liked to do. This
was just being Canadian, and Steve Foote was singing about Canadian subjects
as a Canadian. That was all it was. I was hooked.
Son Of A Real Hard Workin' Man
Stephen J.H. Foote was born in Saint John, New Brunswick in January 3, 1936. His father was a hard working man and a Pentecostal "holy-roller"1. Discipline was extreme in the Foote household: no music on Sundays, church get-togethers, picnics, Sabbath-camps when the weather was good. Steve wasn't all that interested in it but it certainly left its mark upon him2. He was a free spirit with wanderlust in his eyes. The thought of working the waterfront docks of old Saint John, as his father did, did not appeal to him. Either did going to school.
Fate is a very interesting thing and just about everybody develops their own take on it. Call it destiny, whatever you like, but although it sometimes seems improbable when looking at it from the NOW end, looking back reveals that it's all those small things, those succinct things, and sometimes those difficult events in our lives that propel us into our uncertain futures. For Steve Foote it happened when he was only 7 years old coming out of the anaesthetic in the Saint John hospital after having undergone an appendectomy.
"I began to check out my surroundings. Along two walls there were a half a dozen or so beds containing a half a dozen or so gentlemen of various ages. The third wall had no beds along it, as it was largely made up of two doors; one of which led to the toilet, and the other I never did find out about. The two large swinging doors that formed the entrance to our room, were housed in the fourth wall, and left only enough space for two beds, mine and the one to the right of me. The occupant of this bed was sitting up, watching me come to from the ether-induced sleep. He said he, too, was seven years old, and that his name was Tom something-or-other. His middle name could have been "Hell-Raiser", for in the ensuing couple of weeks, he got into more mischief than a half a dozen other kids his age would ever have!"3
Soon both boys would be released from the hospital and would have to double their age before another chance encounter which would cement their lives together.
Steve would sit around the old Philco radio listening to music programs when his father wasn't around. The old man forbid music in the house - the radio was strictly designed for weather reports or listening to the evening news. He would turn on "Maritime Frolics" and other country music programs and was fascinated by the simple charm of blue collar music. It was most likely the music of Hank Snow, Wilf Carter (Montana Slim), the Carter Family and stars of the Grand Ole Opry that he heard. Certainly local celebrity gone national: Don Messer, broadcasting from the Charlottetown studios of CFCY over the CBC Dominion network. And certainly another local star, Ned Landry.
The music and the programs that Steve Foote listened to in those chilling days of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the world was changing ever so rapidly after years of depression and second world war, sent him places that he could only marvel at in magazines. Texas! Nashville! New York City! He longed to go to places that he could only dream about. The reality of his home-life were the strict edicts enforced on his family by its patriarch which only forced the boy away. If he had to sneak and do things behind his parents' backs, so be it. If it meant the swift back of a hand, it was still worth it. Steve was strong within himself and was determined to be a strengthened soul.
Then it happened! He walked his fifteen year old half-man, half-boy frame into the Silver Rail, a late night diner in Saint John where he would sometimes hang out. He put some money into the juke box and was just about to choose a selection when somebody shouted: "Play a good one, huh?" He turned around and found himself staring at a long, tall, stringbean with an ear to ear grin. "And what's a good one," Steve asked? "Anything by Hank Snow," came the reply. Steve obliged and sat down at the table with the guy. After a long chat they discovered that yes, they were the two lads from the hospital when they were only seven.
Tom invited Steve up to his
room in the boarding house he was renting. At 15 he was on his own, having
worked the coal boats for a couple of years after escaping from his foster
home in a forlorn western part of Prince Edward Island. He wanted Steve
to listen to some of the songs he knew so they made arrangements to do
so. They were a couple of kids with visions in their eyes and could see
that in each other. In their own ways, they were both loners, and wanted
to do something about it. The world was a big and formidable place and
the odds seemed stacked up against them; two teens from old Saint John.
Steve finally got it together and took leave of his parents, taking a bus
to Montreal. Connors worked a coal boat for the winter. But when they hooked
up the following spring they knew what they both had to do. Young Tommy
Connors with his guitar and street-smarts; Steve Foote with a belly full
of grit and determination. They bonded a friendship that would take them
a million miles to the very places of their dreams.
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