An Homage To Johnny D’s
How can I possibly express my gratitude toward and love for Johnny D’s and do justice to it?
The venerable Davis Square institution shuttered its doors on Sunday, March 13th, after 17,238 days (47 years 2 months 13 days, as proclaimed on the final marquee) of feeding people and presenting live music.
Last summer, Carla DeLellis announced that the club would close this winter because she will redevelop the property for commercial and residential use. She wants to leave a legacy for her four children, and while I understand and appreciate her motive, I was quite sad when I read the news.
Started by Carla’s parents (her father was Johnny D) in 1969, the club started out as a honky-tonk. Gradually they began presenting all kinds of roots music, from rockabilly to zydeco, from Cajun to Americana, from blues to rock, and then some. I started attending shows there in 1992; I moved to the Boston area in late 1989, but did not discover it until I separated from my now ex-husband who did not enjoy live music.
I started out seeing every zydeco and Cajun show I could – artists such as Boozoo Chavis, CJ Chenier, and Beausoleil appeared multiple times on their stage and I probably saw every show of those bands after 1992.
In recent years, Johnny D’s introduced me to Gangstagrass which has become one of my favorite bands. I saw “hip-hop bluegrass” on the schedule and was fascinated by the concept of it. I had never heard any of their music but went to the show anyway. Carla never steered me wrong. Ever.
Johnny D’s was the first music venue where I went to shows alone and felt completely comfortable. It was safe, it was fun, and I forgot that I was alone as soon as I was seated. Their practice was to seat solo diners together, which was both practical for them and interesting for the patrons. A little over a year ago, I was seated with a woman who has become a very good friend. Thanks Johnny D’s!
When I started using the internet in the mid-90s, Johnny D’s website was the first music website I bookmarked! I will never delete the bookmark unless the website disappears.
Over the past six months, the music schedule was filled with tribute shows, reunion shows, and some of the stars who had appeared on that stage many years ago before they became huge stars.
The last national act to appear there was Rickie Lee Jones on March 8th. What a show that was! Appearing solo, she regaled the fully-seated audience to two hours of stories and music. The show sold out in under twenty-four hours, so I was lucky to be part of it.
Heavy Metal Horns performed a 25th anniversary reunion show in the last weeks. They were a local band I saw many times in the 90s; I think they broke up about fifteen years ago, but reunited to do a show (which I unfortunately missed because I had the flu). The Courage Brothers did a reunion show, as did Robin Lane and the Chartbusters.
Many artists were given their starts by Carla, as well as her parents Tina and Johnny. To a one, they are grateful and many publicly acknowledged that gratitude.
Johnny D’s was not only a music venue; it was also a restaurant. They held a famous weekend jazz brunch. When the last brunch was held on Saturday, March 12th, they had to close early due to ‘overwhelming demand and low inventory’. Normal hours were 8:30 am to 2:30 pm, with the music starting at 9:45. Some friends and I arrived around 9:45 for that last brunch and waited for less than a half hour to get seated. They ran out of their famous parrot cups, which they had been selling if you ordered an adult beverage that was served in one.
They went out with a bang last weekend! On both Friday and Saturday, local bands appeared and the shows were free to patrons. I was not able to attend any of those, but I imagine the energy level was so high it almost blew the roof off the walls!
They had planned to have a mimosa and bloody mary brunch on Sunday, but did not have enough inventory for that. The bar opened at 4 that afternoon. All drinks were $6 and the proceeds went to a local charity (Carla was quite charitable, allowing people to hold benefits there and feeding the homeless every week). A friend sat at the bar and watched as they ran out of every bit of liquor, beer and wine.
At 5:30 (more or less), Carla emerged from the club and shuttered the doors for one last time. There were two bands performing at the New Orleans-style jazz funeral and second line. They led a parade through Davis Square and ended up at the center of the square where Carla, megaphone in hand, gave an emotional speech to the crowd of maybe two thousand people.
I did not get a chance to talk to Carla on Sunday. She plans to present shows at other Boston area venues as ‘Johnny D’s Presents…’ and I hope to attend all of those! I may not be seeing her as often as I did over the past few years, but she and the entire Johnny D’s family will never leave my heart.
I also have a personal thank you to Johnny D’s. In late 2014, they put out a request for good photos of some specific shows for a calendar they were going to produce. I submitted some, and they chose two of mine for the calendar which was only distributed to industry people. I feel honored and humbled to have been part of that.
I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I had tears in my eyes on and off all weekend. But now I know I will never set foot in those hallowed halls again. I wish Carla and all the staff the best in whatever they do in the future. I hope to see all of you around town.
I thought Johnny D’s would be around forever. I wanted Johnny D’s to be around forever. It lives in my heart and the hearts of many thousands who hold it near and dear.
Many thanks to Nate Dow for allowing me to use his photos.