An hour or so before show-time, you could usually hear The Pilgrims backstage slapping together a last-minute arrangement.
Their contract with The Surf in Nantasket, Hyannis and Salisbury, required that they play a sampling of the day’s Top-40 hits at every gig. So they’d work on the likes of “Help Me Girl” or “Walk Away Renee” then hold their noses and use them to open their first set.
With that out of the way, they could move into the music that brought the band together and brought the crowds every night: Memphis Soul. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. “Shotgun”, “Knock on Wood” and a-a-a-a-ahhh-“Last Night”.
The group formed in Dorchester in late 1963 with Bobby Julian, Gigi Carpentieri and Mike Lombardo (guitars), Mike “Junior” Dudley (keyboards) and Jack Marcellino (drums).
Lennie Baker soon brought his lead voice and growling tenor sax to give the group its signature as they played venues like the notorious Town & Country in Mattapan, MA, where legend has it that “the walls were always sweating”, and the Rexicana Ballroom in Marshfield, MA, where the crowds literally had the floors bouncing.
Paul Revere & The Raiders were wearing tri-corner hats at the time. Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs sported turbans and harem pants. Somebody suggested that the band have Puritan-style tunics made and The Pilgrims were born.
When the Rockin’ Ramrods left on the Rolling Stones Bus Tour in 1964, Surf owner/promoter Bill Spence plugged in The Pilgrims as his house band.
Bobby Matulina (guitar) and Fred Crowley (bass) joined in 1965. For the next three years the band played the Surfs, Lincoln Park, Mountain Park, the Catholic high school circuit, Boston Garden and stadiums across the Northeast. Rick Baker sat in on drums for Marcellino during high school football season.
Quite often a fan named Jim Riley added extra bottom on the conga drums. Riley changed his stage name to Juma Santos and went on to become percussionist on Miles Davis’ legendary “Bitches Brew” and dozens of other classic jazz albums of the next two decades.
Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg, Larry Justice and other Boston dee-jays would emcee as The Pilgrims opened the night for The Beach Boys, The Animals, B. J. Thomas, Junior Walker, Orpheus and a number of other national acts such as Wilson Pickett, The McCoys, Steppenwolf, The Turtles, The Young Rascals and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Rock n’ roll wasn’t exactly lucrative in the 1960s. One Easter weekend The Pilgrims finished a show at the War Memorial in Rochester, NY, only to find the fuel needle edging toward “Empty”. They were 400 miles from home and none of them had enough gas money.
More than 40 years later, they insist that “one day” they will repay Aaron Neville the $20 he “loaned” them.
In 1968, Jack Marcellino headed off to Columbia University and became known as “Jocko”. Lennie Baker soon joined him in the doo-wop tribute band Sha Na Na, and the two toured and recorded together for the next 30 years.
Bobby went psychedelic with the Chalk Garden while Lennie and The Pilgrims re-grouped with Bill “Marin Lee” Marinelli on vocals along with Rick Nelson (drums), Albie MacDonald (sax), Gary Shebeck (guitar), Al Zansler (trumpet) & Don Lutzi (keyboard).
Band members say their backs are still sore from hauling Lutzi’s 425-pound Hammond B3 organ and two 200-pound Leslie speaker cabinets up the 30+ stairs to the ballroom at the Surf Nantasket.
Marin Lee was eventually replaced by vocalist Stevie High from The Front Page Review, yet another Surf band.
The Pilgrims’ soul and grit laid a backdrop to many a Bostonian’s trip to the Combat Zone and other area night clubs for years to come.
(by Richard Mattulina)