Cantab Lounge

Cantab Lounge

The story of the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, cannot be told properly without at least mentioning the origin of the legendary venue’s name “Cantab” is an abbreviation of “Cantabrigian,” the adjective referring to what comes from or pertains to the cities of Cambridge (in both Massachusetts and England).

The name fits perfectly, since with variety of entertainment that the Cantab Lounge provided, you could’ve thought you were in different Cantab Lounges every night, even though you were still in Cambridge’s Central Square. For over 50 years, “the Cantab” (as it was known) was much more than a place “where everybody knows your name”; it was a place where many of the patrons were on a first-name basis with those on stage.


As anyone familiar with the Cantab will tell you, the venue’s musical backbones were R&B and soul. While a number of famous musicians took to the stage, the majority of regulars would likely agree that Little Joe Cook & The Thrillers were the most popular one, since Cook was the man who put the Cantab on the list of “you have to go there” spots when it came to Cambridge’s nightlife.

For 27 years (from 1980 until his retirement in 2007), he and The Thrillers were iconic elements of Central Square, as was Cook’s yellow ’70s Cadillac Seville, which he often parked nearby and featured a golden peanut hood ornament and the vanity plate “Nut Man”(references to his 1957 hit single “Peanuts”). The group played at the Cantab five nights a week and fans lined up all the way down the street and around the corner to see them.


With such an assortment of colleges and universities within just a few miles of the Cantab, students from Harvard, MIT, Emerson, Roxbury Community College, Northeastern and others knew that if you had a case of schoolbook blues, the Cantab had the remedy. And it did something very few other bars, nightspots or music venues were able to do: keep its historic music foundation intact by providing the area’s best blues and R&B while at the same time, keeping in tune with changes in culture and entertainment over the years.

For example, in October 1992 the Cantab began hosting the Boston Poetry Slam every Wednesday, allotting an entire night devoted to the performance, craft, and enjoyment of poetry. It became the longest-running slam in the Boston/Cambridge area. The Cantab was also home to a massively popular Tuesday Night Bluegrass series, run by Mickey Bliss (who booked bands in the Cantab’s basement under his production company Club Bohemia) and hosted by a singer/songwriter Geoff Bartley.

And then there were the open-mic nights on Sundays and Wednesdays. On those evenings, if you had the gumption, the stage was yours for a song or two. “It was a wonderful experience, a place to hone my skills as a guitarist,” says Jay Scott Henderson of the Boston-based blues rock band Red House, who appeared at the Cantab’s open-mic nights for over four decades. “To see the joy on the faces of the people who came every Sunday was heartwarming. The audience saw average-to-top-quality musicians, all of which contributed to the legacy of blues and R&B in the Cambridge/Boston area.”


When the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdowns arrived in early 2020, the Cantab, like countless other venues, struggled to stay afloat, as its doors were closed for months on end. In late 2000, the news that no one wanted to hear came from owner Richard “Fitzy” Fitzgerald: “After 50 years of good times and good friends, I have made the decision to put The Cantab Lounge up for sale.”

Enter Tim Dibble, a partner in the private equity firm Alta Equity who’d fallen in love with the Cantab several years before when he lived in Cambridge. “I think anybody who went to see Little Joe Cook & The Thrillers once [then] went twice and three and four times [and] knew there was no other place like it,” he said. Putting his money where his mouth was, Dibble bought the Cantab in 2021 and announced that customers could expect newer bathrooms, credit card machines and some other upgrades when the venue reopened, reassuring people that it would be basically the same club as it’s always been. “You’ll walk in and it’s going to be the Cantab that you remember,” he said in an interview with Boston magazine. “But you’re going to notice all these little, subtle things – some of them not so subtle, like a nice granite bar top.”

In November 2021, after being closed for 20 months due to the pandemic, the Cantab reopened. For me, just knowing that the last bluegrass performer, the last poet or the last blues or R&B act has not played the Cantab brings sweet music, sweet homegrown local music to my ears.

(by Edwin Sumpter)

Published On: July 14, 2021