At the very first: more intimidating than actually scary, upon reflection. The Riverside area of Cambridge at Western Avenue and the River Charles was not always so friendly to skinny white boys back in the early seventies.
There was an oasis in that social tension, but you had to look for it. Walking in to the Western Front for the first time I remember just a spoonful of trepidation. It was nothin’ but a loving spoonful, as I came to know the minute we met the staff and the owner Marvin Gilmore. That was 45 years ago and it is still my honor to call Marvin my friend.
This storied performance venue with the famous dancing figures painted on the exterior walls had been open for only a few years at the time we got the gig. Always an inviting and multi-cultural venue the acts had been mostly jazz and reggae up to the time Duke and the Drivers came along with our young rock n’ roll fans. Over the years the “Front” is credited with launching the live careers of well-known acts like Cassandra Wilson, First Edition, Webster Lewis and the Kelvinators to name a few. Boston’s Legacy acts like James Montgomery and Peter Bell when he was solo, often played the room. The musical tastes at the Western Front continued to morph over the years reggaeton, Latin jazz, and gospel and always rock and roll. In its last decade the Front remained current and featured electronica Deep House and hip-hop on the roster. In the latter days the Front became training ground for Boston emcees including Akrobatik, Mr. Lif, and RipShop.
The physical set up was challenging with a stairway right up through the center of the club and a stage that could not be seen in its entirety from any single point in the room. But there was a bar on each floor and it was always lively. More than the other storied Boston club owners like George Papadopoulos and Freddy Taylor – The Western Front was about its owner, Marvin Gilmore.
“I always wanted a live music venue so I wanted to open at The Western Front location,” Marvin recently told us. Back in the early 70’s the racist profiles made it almost impossible for a black man to get a commercial loan from the “White Banks.” Marvin’s solution was to co-found the Unity Bank and Trust Company in Roxbury. He got the loan!
Unity was the first African-American owned and operated commercial bank in Boston and its existence is another testament to Marvin Gilmore and his amazing civil rights activism and leadership. Marvin redeveloped the southwest corridor in Boston, revamping the dilapidated Newmarket Industrial District as CEO of the Community Development Corporation of Boston. He received the legendary French Legion of Honor for his service during the Normandy Invasion in 1944 and he served with distinction in the 458th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion where he stormed the beaches at Normandy, Utah, and Omaha Beach on D-Day. He has honorary doctorates from several universities including from Boston’s Endicott College and the City of Boston has assigned him the Commonwealth Award for leadership. The grandson of slaves, Marvin is a true renaissance man – with a happening bar!
Despite it all Marvin’s first love was always the music and the club itself. As an aspiring musician Marvin would often join his acts on stage at the Front – I remember looking over one red-hot evening with a full house and there was Marvin grinning from ear to ear right next to me on stage with a pair of maracas. He never missed a beat.
For Duke and the Drivers the “Front” became a home. From there, and largely because of the time we had spent on our show under Marvin’s loving gaze, we launched a broad and successful performance and recording career that lasted for 20 years.
More importantly, for even longer than that act was around, Marvin Gilmore has remained a steadfast friend to us and many other bands and musicians in Boston and around the world. Some of the Duke boys have a lunch or a meet and greet with him to this day on a semi-regular basis.
The Duke never made a single gig with the Drivers in those 20 years and his identity has been shrouded in mystery these decades past. It’s time to tell the truth at last. Marvin Gilmore IS the Duke!
The Western Front closed its doors after 46 years of continuous operation in 2013. Unlike the club, Marvin is still rockin’ and at the time of this writing is a spry 93 years old.
(by Tom Swift, singer/keyboardist, Duke & the Drivers)