Canadian folk musician Bob Bossin has spent much of his life searching for his father Davy Bossin who died in 1963, when Bob was a teenager. While he remembers a quiet, conservative man who was also an arresting storyteller, Davy was better known as one of Toronto’s most wanted men.
Davy’s Jewish pals and the local authorities knew of Bossin’s dad as Davy the Punk. When the son first heard of this nom de guerre in the mid-1970s, Bossin began an investigation that would define the rest of his life.
In 2014, that search for his father has turned into a one-man show that Bossin is now touring across Canada. The show, Davy the Punk, features original songs and electrifying stories about the underbelly of Toronto the Good that few history books mention.
“When I turned 60, I had this little epiphany,” Bossin says. “I said if there’s something you’ve always wanted to do and haven’t started it yet, when exactly do you think you’re going to. For me, that was to write about my father’s life.”
Bossin spent eight years working on the production ; the first two years doing research, the next six writing the music and bringing the various story strands together.
The show is a tribute to both sides of Bossin’s dad: the loyal patriarch who set his criminal life aside to raise his son right, as well as that “punk” who was notorious to Toronto police.
Davy the Punk also features Bossin’s original music. He says that this was the first time he wrote about his father directly in his music. One of the show’s tunes, Scatter My Ashes on the Racetrack, came from one of his father’s demands to Bossin’s mom for when he died.
Bossin, now 68 and a B.C. resident, says he grew to adore storytelling from his father, who loved to tell tall tales of his life on the street to close friends and family.
In Davy the Punk, Bossin touches on his father’s Jewish upbringing. In the 1920s, Jews were mostly barred from getting white-collar jobs in Toronto and many Jews ended up in the gambling business, which was illegal.
Davy grew to be a leader in the city’s gambling enterprise. He came under the watch of Toronto authorities when he started a race wire, an up-to-the-second soundboard of information from the horse racing tracks.
In 1940, police raided Davy’s race wire operation in what was, at that time, the biggest police raid in the city’s history.
“The prevailing theory was… if they could knock out the race wire, they could stop organized crime in its tracks,” Bossin says, noting that the theory was far from true.
Davy may have been notorious by the standards of the local police, but he was a beloved member of Toronto’s Jewish community. Since he got into the gambling business before the Great Depression, he was quite wealthy during years when his friends were in financial strain.
“He was extraordinarily generous,” Bossin says. “He would take 30 people out to dinner and he was a very honest man. What he did was illegal but in every other way, it was honourable.”
To track down details about his dad’s past, Bossin spoke to old relatives and some of his dad’s acquaintances, although only a few came forward with details. He also dug up dirt by looking through newspaper archives and Freedom of Information requests.
Davy the Punk has music, as well as comedy and Canadian history. Bossin presents his father’s story and performs music while wearing his father’s tie. Meanwhile, Bossin released a book about his father, also called Davy the Punk, which came out in March.
Those familiar with Bossin’s career as a folk singer and songwriter, most notably as a member of the influential Canadian group Stringband in the 1970s and 1980s, will likely enjoy his new material.
Bossin says that his mother, the late Marcia Bossin, told him that his dad left the gambling business to protect his son, saying he didn’t want Bob to grow up with a dad who had a criminal lifestyle. For the rest of Davy’s life, he was a booking agent at Southern Ontario nightclubs.
“I see every year more and more of how he was in me, so I think the influence is profound,” says Bossin, who later named his son Davy.
“There’s a mountain of information that I’ll simply never know. But that’s probably true of everybody and their father.”
The one-man show will stop in Vancouver (June 3-7), Toronto (June 10-15), as well as the fringe festivals in Ottawa (June 19-29) and Winnipeg (July 16-27). Bossin will also perform “Davy the Punk” at Concordia University in Montreal on June 30.