The story of the Cantab Lounge, located in Central Square, Cambridge MA, should not be told without mentioning the origin of the name of the legendary establishment. The word Cantab is shortened from the word Cantabrigian, an adjective referring to what is of or pertaining to the cities of Cambridge, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s name is appropriate because with the different nights of entertainment that the Cantab Lounge provided you could have believed you were in different Cantab Lounges every night …..yet you were still in Cambridge. For over 50 years the Cantab Lounge, became much more than a place “where everybody knows your name,” it was a place where you may even know the names of those onstage.
It was the Cantab Lounge’s Rhythm and Blues/Soul music foundation that was the backbone of the Cantab. While it is a certainty that many famous musicians may have “popped in” and taken to the stage at the Cantab Lounge, ask anyone who is familiar with the Cantab and they will all agree that Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers is the most famous act to play at the Cantab Lounge. Joe Cook was indeed the man who put the Cantab on the “you have to go there” list when it came to nightlife in Cambridge. For 27 years from 1980 until he retired in 2007, Little Joe Cook and The Thrillers became a local icon in Central Square. Often he parked his yellow ’70s Cadillac Seville on Mass Ave with gold peanut hood ornament and the vanity plate “Nut Man” being a reference to his 1957 hit single, “Peanuts.” Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers started playing at the bar five nights a week. Word spread of his dynamic stage presence and ability to connect with an audience. People started paying attention. The word was out that the Central Square’s Cantab Lounge was to place to be. Lines would go around down the street and around the corner to get a precious seat or stand to see Joe Cook. Joe Cook passed away April 2014 at the age of 91.
With so many colleges and universities within just several miles of the Cantab, soon students from Harvard, MIT, Emerson College, Roxbury Community College, Northeastern and others knew that if you had a case of school book blues, the Cantab Lounge had the remedy. The Cantab Lounge did something very few bars, nightspots or music venues were able to do: keep its historic music foundation intact by providing the area’s best local Blues and Rhythm n’ Blues and at the same time, keeping in tune with the cultural entertainment changes over the years. Want proof? On October 16, 1992 the Cantab Lounge began hosting the Boston Poetry Slam every Wednesday night, an entire night devoted to the craft, performance, 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. The series was run by Mickey Bliss, who booked bands in the Cantab’s basement under his production company Club Bohemia.
And then there were those open mic Sundays and Wednesdays night. On those evening if you had the gumption, the stage, for a song or maybe two, could be yours. Jay Scott Henderson of the Boston-based blues rock band Red House had played at Cantab Lounge for four decades. Joe Cook would introduce Jay to the stage on many open mic nights. “It was a wonderful experience and a place to hone my skills as a guitarist. And to see the joy on the faces of the people who came to open mic night every Sunday was heartwarming. The audience would see average to top quality musicians all of which contributed to legacy of blues and R n’ Blues music in the Cambridge/Boston area.”
When the Covid-19 Worldwide pandemic hit in 2020, like so many venues, the Cantab Lounge seemed to be lost. It struggled to stay alive with it doors closed for so long. Then the news no one wanted to hear came in late 2020 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.”
But that was the Cantab Lounge’s past. And you should never count out the Blues.
Enter Tim Dibble, a partner in the private equity firm Alta Equity. Dibble fell in love with the Cantab “years ago” when he lived in Cambridge. “I think anybody who went to see Little Joe Cook & The Thrillers once went twice and three and four times knew there was no other place like it.” Dibble said. And Tim Dibble put his money where his mouth is and bought the Cantab Lounge in 2021. He has said you can expect newer bathrooms, credit card machines and some other upgrades when the Cantab reopens but it will remain the same Cantab Lounge. Just knowing that the last Bluegrass performer, the last Poet or the last R’B/Blues act has not played the Cantab Lounge at 738 Massachusetts Ave, Central Square Cambridge brings sweet music, sweet homegrown homegrown local music to my ears.
(by Edwin Sumpter)