At the time there was only one place in Boston where you could hear the top R&B, Soul, and funk acts of the day…and for a ten year run that place was the Sugar Shack. Opening in 1965 the club got its namesake from the song of the same name and was located at One Boylston Place – down a narrow “B” street extension. The outside of the venue was actually partially obscured by the Colonial Theater marquis- you had to know about the Shack to go to the Shack… and a lot of people did.
Owner Rudy Guarino fell in love with soul music as a youngster and decided a venue was needed to showcase the many talented artists of the genre. Guarino brought groups to the club that would not have performed in the city if it weren’t for the Sugar Shack. The O’Jays, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Charles, and The Four Tops all performed at the Shack along with Parliament, Funkadelic, and Al Green. Wilson Pickett was the Shack’s very first soul act. Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Curtis Mayfield, and Sly and the Family Stone all entertained the loyal patrons of the Sugar Shack. Artists that went on to national prominence such as Frankie Valli and Tavares played the Shack early in their careers along with a then unknown guitarist named Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter, who showcased his early guitar prowess at the club around 1966-1967. The nightly sets were exhausting as the groups played 5-6 sets a night from eight until closing time with the touring acts on their way to stardom performing two sets an evening. That being said, playing the Shack was like a performance driven basic training, giving the groups the endurance needed to become touring musicians and the repetition required to polish their acts.
Rudy Guarino fashioned the Sugar Shack as a big family that included all the acts that played within its walls. The club brought people together and transcended racial boundaries-everyone was welcome at the Shack and were all there for the same reason. Music has the power to bring us together socially and heal- and that’s exactly what went down at the Shack. Many of the bands that performed at the venue looked at Rudy as a father figure who guided their careers and helped them in their rise to stardom. Guarino truly believed in the music and the artists that created it, and we are all indebted to him for bringing the Sugar Shack to life. To this day Rudy is still actively involved and committed to keeping the memory of the Shack alive-appearing on podcasts as well as promoting and remembering the club on his Facebook page-where he has posted an amazing collection of vintage photographs of the club and dozens of performers.
The story doesn’t end there however. A documentary centered on the club is due for release in 2020 starring Frankie Valli and George Clinton with vintage footage from inside the venue and a collection of interviews with many of the artists that were a part of that huge family. The “Sugar Shack” documentary will give all of us who loved the music a chance to step back in time, re-evoke the mood, and re-live some of those magic moments at the Shack.
Sadly Mr. Guarino, who was born and raised in the North End, passed away on April 18, 2020 at the age of 91 in Las Vegas, Nevada-where he had relocated with his family. His legacy however, lives on through the lives he touched and the memories made at the club. A book is also forthcoming that tells the story of the Sugar Shack and the extraordinary life of Rudy Guarino.
(by Mark Turner)