Johnny D’s

Drive past 17 Holland Street in Davis Square, Somerville today and you will find another snazzy four- story condo building taking shape, which seem to be springing up all over greater Boston like weeds.  But borrow Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine, set the clock back a decade or two and you will find yourself in front of one of greater Boston’s most famous clubs for live music of all genres.      

Founded by John and Tina De Lellis and eventually taken over and run by their daughter, Carla, until its final day, Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club hosted a line-up of rock, blues, jazz, country and bluegrass artists that would make any booking agent drool.  At a capacity of only 309, Johnny D’s was not the largest venue (for comparison, the Paradise Rock Club in Boston holds more than 900), but its intimate size allowed patrons up close and personal access to up and coming bands who passed through on their way to the top (Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ben Harper, Ray LaMontagne, Jeff Buckley), long-established artists (Leon Russell, George Thorogood, Neil Young, Booker T. Jones, and Maynard Ferguson), and Boston-area stalwarts (Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, Bim Skala Bim, The Fools, Luther ‘Guitar Jr.’ Johnson, James Montgomery, Beatlejuice (with the late Brad Delp from Boston), Duke Robillard, Juliana Hatfield and the late Sleepy LaBeef, to name just a few).  There was often an international flavor to their shows, with artists such as Mariza (Fado), Ashwin Batish (sitar), three-time Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo from Benin, Mali’s Vieux Farka Toure (“The Hendrix of the Sahara”) all gracing the stage in Somerville.  Because everyone could use a laugh, Johnny D’s aligned themselves with The Wilbur to showcase established and up and coming comics and satirists such as Barry Crimmins, Lenny Clark, Wyatt Cenac, Jerrod Carmichael, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Emo Phillips.  There was literally something for everyone.

Johnny D’s began life as a neighborhood bar, when John, a former Somerville police officer, purchased the Murphy’s Uptown Café in 1969, renaming it “Johnny D’s Uptown.”   They expanded into an adjacent property in 1974 and added live country and western music to the menu. After John’s sudden death in the mid-1980s, John and Tina’s children, David and Carla, joined the family business.  It took a few years of persuading Tina, but in 1988 they opened a full kitchen and Carla took over live music booking, expanding the variety to include a cornucopia of acts from all over the country and abroad.  

Carla’s booking philosophy was simple: Mix it up.  “My methodology was that you can’t get the same crowd every night”.(1)   Big, small, on the rise, or fading – all types of performers were welcome.  A country band would be followed the next night by a blues band, followed by a jazz band.  Grammy winners played the same stage as local dance bands. “It was all part of the magic that happened in Johnny D’s that didn’t put its nose up to, you know, any particular music or type of level that a band had achieved.”(2)  Carla recalls that a young Ben Harper “didn’t have 40 people, I don’t’ think.”  It was Carla who set up an arrangement with then Somerville-based Rounder Records to have their acts play regularly at Johnny D’s.  Thus, in the late 80’s, Somerville was introduced to a then-unknown teenaged singer/fiddle player prodigy from Illinois named Alison Krauss, who later became 27-time Grammy winner, Alison Krauss.  “They covered it all and with quality and integrity and they were always great to the artists and had respect for them. It was just a place that people liked to play”(3) said Ken Irwin, co-founder of Rounder.     

Not without a great supporting cast, Carla credits so much of the diversity of the shows to her booking agents throughout the years including John Peters, Flo Murdock, Kevin Baker, Bridget Duggan, Pat Curley, Randi Millman, and Dana Westover.  Dana was the longest running talent buyer, who doubled as Johnny D’s sound engineer. In Carla’s view, “If it wasn’t for Dana and his dedication in terms of time and heart, I am not sure if I would have been able to get half as far.” While Carla outlined the big picture of mix of artists, it was “Dana and the talent buyers who were the real erudite music scholars.”  Carla also credits the “great” Northeastern Co Op interns who passed through for spreading the word on shows and keeping them up to date on the latest music.    

Throughout Johnny D’s history, the De Lellis family was known for running a tight ship, but never forgetting their roots and the importance of looking after their neighbors.  “Every year my mother would have us stay outside the bar for the Memorial Day Parade and we would hand out water to the marchers or the passengers in the parade cars,” remembers Carla.  Loyal patrons would come from near and far for the regular Saturday and Sunday Jazz brunches, listen to a show put on just to showcase homeless singers, tear up the dance floor to the coolest funk or zydeco the area (or New Orleans, for that matter) had to offer, or just hang out with friends.  The crowd was as eclectic as the acts, with suburbanites rubbing elbows with local bikers (who knew enough to pay heed to Tina at all times). Carla proudly points out that, “before it was even trendy, we used Cage Free Eggs and Free Range Meat and always had Vegan and Vegetarian.”   

“As an owner, she (Tina) was a refreshing change from the area’s live music culture, maintaining a family-run operation and embracing blues-soul-roots acts that most clubs routinely ignore”(4) said Sean Nelson of the band Superhoney.   

Sadly, David passed in 1998 as did the family matriarch, Tina, in 2008.  The club honored Tina with a darkened stage and a glass of hot water and lemon at her trademark barstool, while neighbors and friends from near and far shared tributes and stories.

Carla is very clear that were it not for the work of her father, mother and brother, Johnny D’s never would have lasted long enough to become an entry in the Music Museum of New England.   The Somerville of 1969 was not the Somerville of today and it was not for the faint of heart.  It took strong, universally-respected personalities like John and Tina De Lellis to establish the solid roots of Johnny D’s.  “Only from them could they hand over to me and my brother a place to take the next level,” maintains Carla. She makes very clear that Tina’s and David’s dedication to running the business side of the operation “let me take a chance on bands.  (I) Never could have done any of those shows without them.”   

After the passing of her mother, Carla carried on for another 8 years, but ultimately decided in July 2015, ““It’s time for a change.”(5) The club was still profitable, but after a life in the business, she had earned the right to try other things.  Mother to four children, there were just not enough hours in the week to do it all. Carla commented on the Johnny D’s Facebook page, “As I contemplate my stage in life and my children’s security, along with the market, the time is now right to develop the property.”(6)

The weeks and days leading up the closing of Johnny D’s brought friends and patrons back to the much-loved venue.  For example, upon hearing of the closing, a Franklin couple, once local regulars, who had their first date at Johnny D’s at a Barrence Whitfield show in 1991, rounded up their friends (and the bartender) from that fateful night 15 years earlier and met up for one final show at Johnny D’s for old time’s sake.  “The hardest part of [the closure] decision was taking away the ‘home’ away from home that Johnny D’s has become for so many of us”(7), said Carla.       

It was truly fitting then that on March 13, 2016, after almost 17,238 days (over 47 years) of filling Somerville’s Davis Square  with a potpourri of music styles, Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club was sent off into the sunset with a parade through the neighborhood (led by Boston’s Revolutionary Snake Ensemble), which began at the landmark club and proceeded across Holland Street and into nearby Seven Hills Park.  The club just was not big enough to hold all of those who wished to say farewell. To the end, Carla supported the little guy, telling the Boston Globe, ““I want to tell people to support small venues because small venues doesn’t mean small talent.”(8)   

Though gone for several years now (the building itself was torn down in November 2017), the memory of Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club is still alive.  That condo building mentioned at the top will be named “Johnny D’s Uptown Gardens” and when finished will have a bit of its history visible on the front.  Their still-active website and Facebook page (with more than 12,500 followers) speak to Johnny D’s popularity and the cherished memories of some great times and great music in Davis Square.  

(by Lincoln Purdy)

Footnotes:

  1. Mason, Amelia, “‘A Home Away From Home’ — An Oral History Of Johnny D’s”, March 4, 2016 https://www.wbur.org/artery/2016/03/04/johnny-ds

  2. Mason, Amelia, “‘A Home Away From Home’ — An Oral History Of Johnny D’s”, March 4, 2016 https://www.wbur.org/artery/2016/03/04/johnny-ds

  3. Rodman, Sarah, “Somerville fixture Johnny D’s to close in early 2016”, Boston Globe, July 19, 2015.  

  4. Rodman, Sarah, “Tina De Lellis at 70; original owner of Johnny D’s”, Boston Globe, April 10, 2008.   

  5. Rodman, Sarah, “Somerville fixture Johnny D’s to close in early 2016”, Boston Globe, July 19, 2015.  

  6. WBUR Newsroom, “Johnny D’s, Longtime Davis Square Music Club, To Close”, July 20, 2015, https://www.wbur.org/artery/2015/07/20/johnnyds-closing-somerville-music

  7. WBUR Newsroom, “Johnny D’s, Longtime Davis Square Music Club, To Close”, July 20, 2015, https://www.wbur.org/artery/2015/07/20/johnnyds-closing-somerville-music

  8. Herndon, Astead W., “Johnny D’s bids farewell with parade in Davis Square”, Boston Globe, March 13, 2016.

 

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