April 08, 2015

Singer’s stories bring underworld memoir to life

As published in The Erin Advocate

I’m reading a book called Davy the Punk, a tribute to a famous Toronto bookie, published by Porcupine’s Quill in Erin.

It was written by his son Bob Bossin, one of the founders of Stringband, an independent group that had its heyday in the 1970s with songs about Canada and issues of politics and the environment.

“Bob is a great political singer-songwriter,” says Erin’s Jay Mowat, who knew Bossin from the folk festival circuit.

Bossin retells stories about his dad, and by his dad, some of which are probably true. Davy the Punk was a Jewish bookie who ran a horse racing wire in the 1930s and ‘40s, broadcasting information to other bookies using the telephone system.

He was a “bookie’s bookie” who connected Toronto’s underworld to the North American betting racket and later ran a talent agency that brought in big name performers.

Davy the Punk is about anti-Semitism in Canada, the mob and the colourful characters that played their parts on the flip side of Toronto the Good.

Tim Inkster of Porcupine’s Quill was acquainted with Bossin when they both freelanced for the Varsity newspaper at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s.

“I was a bit of a fan of Stringband, and especially their big hit, Dief Will Be the Chief Again,” said Inkster. The 1974 song was a jowl-in-cheek tribute to former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, based on a comment made by Bossin’s buddy Bob Rae after watching Muhammad Ali regain his boxing title.

Stringband never had a deal with a major record label or much play on commercial radio, but developed a loyal following through performances. They were also known for their independent methods, including an early form of crowdfunding – soliciting donations from friends and fans to finance an album in 1977.

Porcupine’s Quill has developed a national reputation for publishing memoirs and was in a good position to present Bossin’s stories (and historical photos) in an attractive format. The book came out last year and they have just completed the first reprint. For more information, go to davythepunk.com or porcupinesquill.ca.

I am about halfway through the book so far and it is quite engaging – a mix of family history, horse racing, the scramble to prosper in hard times and a culture in which criminals could earn public respect. It is about corruption in business, law enforcement and politics – and the crusaders who were determined to stamp out the evils of gambling.

Bossin has done his research and included many factual details about organized crime and Toronto’s sporting scene, but readily admits that he cannot be certain about how much his dad may have embellished the truth. It doesn’t really matter though, since it is a story about storytelling. The outrageous tales give the book some real sizzle.

More than 10 years ago, Mowat made a contribution to a fundraising effort for a Stringband album. In thanks, Bossin promised him a performance, but they were never able to arrange it, until now.

I’m looking forward to Bossin’s touring one-man show, coming to David’s Restaurant in Erin on Saturday, April 25, at 8 pm. The Winnipeg Free Press calls it “humorous and sentimental”, and Eric Stein of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto says, “Bob’s intelligence, erudition and folksy charm combine in an intimate musical theatre experience.”

Tickets are $20 and can be obtained by calling Mowat at 519-833-3383 or emailing info@willowcreekonline.ca. The price does not include dinner, but reservations can be made for dinner before the show by calling 519-833-5085.