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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Silas Hubbard Jr., organized, inspired local blues jams

DAVID BINDER/FILE

Mr. Hubbard hosted the seminal blues jams at the 1369 club.

One after another, musicians added their names to the list at Inman Square’s 1369 Jazz Club, waiting for a turn to trade wailing solos at the blues jam that Silas Hubbard Jr. led each Sunday afternoon beginning in the mid-1980s.

“It should be fun, not an ego trip,’’ he told the Globe in 1993, when the jam had migrated to the Black Rose in Harvard Square. “You’ve got to let people express themselves.’’

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A blues singer proficient on harmonica and bass, Mr. Hubbard hosted what many considered Boston’s first honest-to-goodness blues jam at the 1369 club in Cambridge. After it closed, he moved the jam to another venue, then another, as other area club owners and musicians caught on and copied his approach.

“It’s like a bud that you plant, and it comes up in the spring,’’ he said with a smile about the blues jam circuit that grew from what he started. “It seems like a lot of buds have sprung up.’’

Mr. Hubbard, who was still playing area clubs until a month ago, died of pneumonia April 7 in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 63 and lived in Boston.

During his career, Mr. Hubbard and his band opened for such luminaries as Ray Charles and the Four Tops. Blues jams he began with help from his late brother, Earring George Mayweather, a blues harmonica player, helped launch the careers of area artists Annie Raines, Chance Gardner, and Eric “Two Scoops’’ Moore.

“It’s like a blues church to me,’’ Moore, a pianist, said of the 1369 club in a 1986 interview with the Globe. “And Silas Hubbard is the priest.’’

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When the club closed in 1988, Mr. Hubbard just “moved around the corner and continued playing the blues,’’ said bass player Gary Barcus.

“Silas was indefatigable,’’ he added. “He always looked on the optimistic side and figured that there was always someplace else to go, someplace else to play, a new hook-up.’’

Born in Montgomery, Ala., Mr. Hubbard was 19 when he followed two older sisters to Boston. Because of racial tension in the South, “he felt he had a chance to have a better life here,’’ said his wife, Hind.

While honing his vocal and harmonica skills, he worked as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician. By the 1970s, he was playing bass and could work full time as a musician, often with his band, the Hot Ribs. Then came the blues jams at the 1369 club.

Mr. Hubbard “grew up singing gospel music and has the charisma to coax more than a few shy souls on stage,’’ longtime Globe music critic Steve Morse wrote in 1986, describing the scene and the host’s eye-catching outfit: white suit, bow tie, huge sunglasses.

At the Sunday afternoon gatherings, Morse wrote, “musicians and fans forget their cares and whoop it up before the next work week dawns.’’

A sharp dresser, Mr. Hubbard “always maintained a professional show,’’ said fellow musician Chris Stovall Brown. “Truth be told, it’s rather challenging to run a jam.’’

When deciding who should take the stage and when, Brown said, “you have to be a bit of a psychologist.’’

In the 1993 interview with the Globe, Mr. Hubbard described his approach to figuring out the best mix of musicians.

“I like to know people personally, instead of just getting them on a list,’’ he said. “I always get people who I know are professionals with the beginners, so they can monitor them and keep them in line.’’

One such beginner he helped turn into a pro was Debra Vinci, now a blues and soul singer for local band Hipsocket, who credited Mr. Hubbard with coaxing her to sing in public for the first time.

Years ago, she encountered him when he was between sets at a jam in the former Beach Club at Faneuil Hall. Striking up a conversation, they discussed Billie Holiday, and Vinci confided that she liked to sing herself.

“I was always shy,’’ she said, “never the type to belt it out.’’

When Mr. Hubbard returned to the stage, “I heard him say, ‘We have a young lady here who’s going to come up and sing,’ and he was looking right at me. I shook my head no, but he walked all the way to the other end of the bar, took my hand, and pulled me on stage.’’

She and Mr. Hubbard sang Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me’’ call-and-response style, then launched into the Allen Toussaint tune, “Working in the Coal Mine.’’

“Luckily I knew the words a little bit,’’ Vinci said. “But I never would have gotten up there if it weren’t for Silas. He really wanted people to just go for it. He brought out the best in everyone.’’

At times Mr. Hubbard took his skills into Boston area classrooms. In 1995, he took part in a program called “Sharing the Rhythm’’ at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, performing for students and talking with them about his life.

“It was like the songs were part of him, telling his story, telling his struggle, his pain, his gain, his loss, his victory, and, most important, it was a telling of his heart and soul,’’ Sherrill Blygen, then a senior at the school, wrote in a classroom journal about seeing Mr. Hubbard perform and listening to him talk.

Along with being a fixture in Boston nightclubs, Mr. Hubbard often played at festivals across the country, among them the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Hubbard leaves six sisters, Millie Coaston and Mamie Cotton, both of Boston; Laura Taylor, Phyllis Debridge, and Dorothy Golson, all of Montgomery, Ala.; and Marie Bowser of Seattle.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday in United Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain. Burial will be in Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston.

In an interview with the Globe, Mr. Hubbard described his own approach to playing when he took the stage at a jam one Sunday evening in 1994 at Faneuil Hall’s Marketplace Cafe.

“We start out with mellow, jazzy-blues stuff,’’ he said. “Then later we turn the faucet on and get into the nitty-gritty. This place is open later than most rooms around here on Sunday, and everybody comes in here for last call.’’

Among those who liked to hang on until the end of the jam were the musicians he helped cultivate.

“He liked to help people achieve their dreams musically,’’ his wife said. “It was just his nature.’’

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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