During a Stompin' Tom performance many years ago, Tom shared a story with the audience about his first gig at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street West. He said playing the Horseshoe for the first time was a sign that he'd hit the big time. Despite much greater fame and success in the following years, he would forever remain the humble hitchhiking troubadour.
For those who knew and toured with Tom, his story was as much about his time on the road -- eking out a living in dirty drunken bars coast to coast, flogging his songs to anyone who'd pay attention, as it was about his sold-out shows at Massey Hall. He never forgot the early years and the friends he made. Tom knew that these were real friends. When he was hungry, they'd feed him. If he needed a place to sleep, they took him home. He'd need a ride to the outskirts of town to hitchhike to the next town, so they'd drive him. These were Tom's people -- the ones he sang to each night.
I was privileged to travel with Tom across Canada on a couple of his larger tours and experienced his special kind of fame first hand. These were the average man tours, not only in terms of the songs he sang but also in the lifestyle we lived. We didn't spend nights in hotels of the rich and famous. Rather, we'd bunk down in the motels on the strip outside town. Back the car up to the door of the room kind of places. No fancy restaurants because Tom preferred roadside diners. We'd stop for a beer, not at a lounge but a smokey bar with a dance floor, pool table and country music playing in the juke box.
When Tom wasn't planning a tour or a new album, he and his family would sometimes host a good old fashion kitchen party to celebrate his birthday. Me and my pal Bob McNiven and our band Whiskey Jack enjoyed a long and illustrious touring and recording history with Tom. When Tom organized a party, we'd invariably be invited to "come on up to the house and pick some tunes". A Tom party meant we were going to play good old time music peppered with Connors family hospitality, great food and drink.
Sadly, this year, we won't be getting the call to celebrate what would have been his 78th birthday. But the party must go on. So many of the musicians, alumni if you will, who toured with Stompin' Tom will be hosting a birthday party in his honour. They're bringing this celebration to the Olde Eton House at 710 Danforth Avenue on Saturday, February 8th. While the Eton House isn't the old beer hall it once was, it still has the necessary pool table, country music playing in the juke box and a fantastic dance floor. Tom would approve.
The event is called Stompin' Tom Birthday Tribute. This show is sponsored by eastTOmusic, a local group of dedicated volunteers working to vitalize the live music scene east of Yonge Street. Advance tickets are $25 plus a food item for Tom's favourite charity, the Daily Bread Food Bank. As Tom insisted at all his own shows, we will only be enjoying Canadian music that night, most of it Tom's.