Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel

All Rich Lupo really wanted was a cool place where he and his friends could hang out, drink beers and listen to blues, R&B and soul records. That was the full extent of his vision. Really.

But what he got was Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, which for almost 40 years was one of New England’s smokin’est, rockin’est, jumpin’est, thumpin’est, goovin’est, ass-kickin’est venues, among the best of its breed anywhere in the country and probably on the planet. Really.

Lupo’s secret sauce was Lupo himself, a self-described nerd during his high-school days in the 60s who wasn’t a stereotypical “jock” or “hippie” and spent all his free time listening to musical pioneers like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis – each of whom appeared at Lupo’s in the 70s – usually by himself since most other kids only wanted to hear pop sensations like The Beach Boys. Raised around Boston by a stay-at-home mom and a singing bartender dad who played show tunes and opera scores on the home piano, by age 11 Lupo was frequenting records stores to buy as many 45s as his allowance would allow. Now several years past age 70 and a walking encyclopedia of the blues, R&B and soul, he swears he doesn’t own any albums recorded after 1975.

Before becoming a career club owner, Lupo graduated from Brown University in 1970 with a psychology degree, then spent several years semi-employed while dreaming about opening a bar but fearing it would be a waste of his Ivy League education and an embarrassment for his recently widowed mother. Looking back, though, his Brown classmates say they can’t imagine Lupo having done anything other than establishing Lupo’s, since it suits his unpretentiousness and lifelong passion for music to a tee. “Until he opened the bar, Rich didn’t really seem to fit anywhere,” wrote Jim Wolpaw, Lupo’s freshman-year roommate at Brown, on the alumni site.

On September 5, 1975, Lupo’s opened at 377 Westminster Street. With a capacity of 300, the site was directly across from another newly opened live-music club, The Living Room, and was the first of Lupo’s three locations in downtown Providence. Initially thinking a jukebox would suffice, Lupo didn’t plan to host live music but quickly realized that live shows meant steady crowds, so by September he was featuring local blues acts like The Backslap Blues Band, The Banana Bunkhouse Boys and The Hamilton Bates Blues Flames, then Providence-based rock bands like The Young Adults, The Schemers, John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band and roots-soul band Rizzz. The first national act to hit Lupo’s was Mississippi blues-harp master Big Walter Horton in December 1975.

In mid-1976, Lupo hired Jack Reich, Rizzz’s manager, as the full-time booking agent, a pivotal strategic move since Reich booked nationally known acts almost immediately. In late 1977, he brought in Talking Heads, who had formed at the Rhode Island School of Design, and The Ramones, and in 1978 Lupo’s hosted NRBQ, James Montgomery, Richie Havens, Jonathan Edwards and one of Lupo’s musical heroes, Bo Diddley, who did nine consecutive shows during “Bo Diddley Week.” In 1979, Muddy Waters became the second of his heroes to appear, followed in later years by Carl Perkins, James Brown, Albert King, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, B.B. King and Roy Orbison.

From 1980 to 1988, when its roster expanded dramatically, Lupo’s became one of Providence’s two premier rock clubs, with its neighbor The Living Room being the other. A slew of bands with New England roots appeared including Lou Miami & The Kozmetix, Dinosaur Jr., Phish, Joe Perry, The Fools and Roomful of Blues, who released Live at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in 1987. Other acts included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Paul Butterfield, Cyndi Lauper, Iggy Pop, REM, Los Lobos, John Mayall, The Replacements, Jimmy Cliff, Warren Zevon and Jane’s Addiction.

In 1988, the club’s 13-year run hit a nearly five-year-long speed bump when Lupo’s landlord decided to convert the building into condos. On July 25, NRBQ headlined the final gig at the Westminster Street location and recorded it for their album God Bless Us All, and fans tore plaster and woodwork off the walls as mementos, some carrying out pieces of furniture. “In the parking lot two guys battle over a Lupo’s chair like hyenas fighting over the kill,” wrote The Providence Journal.

In 1993, after Lupo had spent some of the previous five years playing competitive Scrabble, Lupo’s reopened at 229 Westminster Street, a few blocks away from the original space in the old Peerless Department Store building. While it maintained a similar roadhouse feel, the new space seated 1,500 – five times more than the first location – and as a personal touch Lupo added an hilariously geeky distinguishing feature: a gigantic Scrabble board inlaid on the floor in pink, blue and red tile.

For the next decade, Lupo’s continued to be a music lover’s Shangri-La. Peter Wolf played one of the first shows in the new space and a dizzying selection of other New England-area acts followed including The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Lemonheads, Guster, Godsmack, Dropkick Murphys, Staind, Susan Tedeschi, Aimee Mann, Throwing Muses, Killswitch Engage, Dresden Dolls and Joan Baez. Other acts included Ziggy Marley, The Cranberries, Foo Fighters, Robert Cray, Radiohead, Buddy Guy, Oasis, Buzzcocks, Violent Femmes, Maceo Parker and Elvis Costello.

In 2003, Lupo’s was forced to move again due to Providence’s ever-expanding gentrification and in December that year Lupo opened the venue’s third incarnation inside the Strand Theatre on Washington Street, colloquially called “Lupo’s at The Strand” or “Lupo’s III.” With a seating capacity of 1,700 and acoustics far superior to the first two locations, for better or worse it had the vibe of an upscale concert hall, the very opposite of the smoky, sweaty, stuffy joint Lupo’s usually was before. 

Between 2003 and 2017, many New England-based acts returned – Peter Wolf, Joe Perry, Dresden Dolls, The Lemonheads, Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage and Guster among them – and industrial-metal maverick Rob Zombie, a Haverhill, Massachusetts native, made his Lupo’s debut. The fabulously eclectic selection of others included The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Rickie Lee Jones, Megadeath, Patti Smith, Ted Nugent, Snoop Dog, Indigo Girls, Marylin Manson, Kansas and Keb’ Mo’.

In 2016, Lupo sold a majority of his stake in Lupo’s to The Rosendale Group, which operates the Strand, Studio Lounge and The Rosendale in Providence. In 2017, Lupo’s was officially absorbed into the Strand Ballroom & Theatre and after major renovations – resulting in an enormous stage, a posh balcony section, mobile LED screens, multiple dressing rooms and state-of-the-art sound and lighting – there wasn’t the slightest trace of the routinely raucous, refreshingly rough-edged place Lupo’s had been throughout the previous decades.

Asked how Lupo’s grew from such humble beginnings into such a giant success and vital part of New England’s musical history, Roomful of Blues’ manager Bob Bell credited Lupo’s willingness to book performers who were outside his personal preferences. “A lot of people go out of business by booking only the bands they want to hear,” he said. “But Rich basically followed other people’s tastes, bringing bands into the club that he knew were going to sell.”

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published on August 16, 2022

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