“Lips that touch liquor will never play here.”
Okay, so that quote was a little awkward. But Bill Spence said it and he meant it.
His stated goal in the early 1960’s was to provide the youth of Greater Boston with music venues which were clean, wholesome and alcohol-free.
And two out of three really ain’t all that bad.
Bill made a valiant effort to enforce his booze edict. More than one band was forced to replace a player before being allowed to take the stage at his Surf Ballrooms in Nantasket, Hyannis and Salisbury.
The more resourceful local musicians, naturally, found ways – and substances – to get around the rule. And as “Mr. Spence” booked more and more national acts into town, the battle ultimately was lost.
But The Surf remained as close to drug- free and safe a rock n’ roll environment as any parent reasonably could have hoped for in the Sixties and Seventies.
Because William J. Spence was a man of principle.
When he passed away at age 85 on May 10, 2015, Bill was remembered as “a visionary (who) had the courage to stand up for what he believed” and a person who “made the world a better place.”
He spent six years in the Massachusetts Legislature and twice sponsored bills that raised the Commonwealth’s minimum wage.
He was a decorated Navy officer in the Korean War.
For 50 years, he taught Confirmation classes to Catholic teenagers at Resurrection Church in South Hingham.
He was the founder and long-time president of Massachusetts Bay Lines, the first commuter boats to offer South Coast residents an alternative to the daily gridlock that was – and is – Route 3A.
And, as much as anyone, Bill was instrumental in guiding New England through the changing music scene that followed the onslaught of the British Invasion.
Early on, he brought to The Surf Nantasket the likes of The Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher. A ticket printed in September 1961 states that for $1.00 teens could see and hear Del Shannon singing “Runaway” and “Hats Off To Larry”. The production was so low-budget that the singer’s name was misspelled as “Gel” and nobody caught the mistake.
Influenced no doubt by the glittering success of Brian Epstein and his Fab Four, Bill contracted in 1964 to bring a British quintet called The Rolling Stones to the United States.
The Rockin’ Ramrods were The Surfs’ house band at the time. Bill dressed them in Beatle boots and Beatle suits and sent them off with the Stones on the legendary bus tour that took America by storm.
Back home, groups such as The Mods, The Pilgrims, The Techniques and The Tidal Waves worked The Surf Circuit, opening for acts ranging from The Barbarians to The Doors.
Bill lost his financial shirt as the promoter and sponsor of the first major integrated concert tour in the Deep South. It wasn’t about the money for him, though. It was deeply-held principle.
He was fond of citing his father’s maxim: “You are not one bit better than anyone else, nor one bit worse.”
As a young Harvard graduate, Bill met and married a striking fashion model at Jordan Marsh named Wilma Collins. For 62 years, the two were partners in marriage and in business. He called her his “Precious” and she joined him in final repose on October 3, 2015.
The Surfs have been gone more than 35 years as of this writing. By 1980 The Surf Nantasket had become Uncle Sam’s and an era had ended. But fond memories linger for hundreds of musicians and thousands upon thousands of grey-haired and balding former teeny-boppers.
For a great many of those memories, they can thank Bill Spence.
by Richard Mattulina
Published on May 16, 2016