Talk soul music in Boston and it won’t be long before the Sugar Shack comes up. The Boylston Street club was where James Brown, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder performed, George Clinton discovered acid, and Al Green made the ladies fall out of their chairs. Donna Summer and Bobby Brown went there as kids.
When the Sugar Shack wasn’t featuring soul superstars from Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia, it provided a home for Boston’s own R&B outfits to strut their stuff. Groups like the Ambitions, the Lords, the Indigos and the Energetics all graced its storied stage.
“Boston was loaded with talent,” remembers singer Leon Beal Jr.
“That was the best soul club ever in Boston, and a lot of the groups were local acts,” says DJ and Sugar Shack regular Eddie “B” Barnett.
Today Beal’s mastery of deep soul singing takes him to Europe and Brazil, but early in his career he appeared at the Sugar Shack as part of the Ronald Ingram Concert Choir. The Boston ensemble was a crossover gospel act that appeared at nightclubs and festivals.
The Sugar Shack’s decade-long run ended in 1976, but its memory will be rekindled on March 31 when a group of local R&B all-stars called the Collaborators hold an unofficial reunion they’re calling “Back to the Shack.” Besides Beal, the Collaborators include the Ambitions’ Gilbert White, Lawrence Peters, and Vincent Bailey, David Fuller of the Ellis Hall Group, Clyde Cross of Style, and Andrew Storms of 4 Your Pleasure. They’re promising a repertoire that includes songs by such Sugar Shack regulars as Blue Magic, the Dramatics, and Bloodstone.
The Ambitions were formed in 1965 at the Roxbury Boys Club. A vocal group at first, drummer Bailey and guitarist Peters were recruited by lead singer Larry “Woo” Wedgeworth, whose brother Roscoe was also in the group. “Intervale Street had five drummers when I grew up on it,” recalls Bailey while the Collaborators painstakingly rehearse their choreography at a dance studio in the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts. “When I was 13 Larry Woo went up and down knocking on doors. He asked my parents if I could join his group.”
The Ambitions made their debut at the Elma Lewis Playhouse in Franklin Park. Their first Sugar Shack booking had them opening for the O’Jays. “That was a big moment for us, after seeing all the top acts,” says singer White. “We had come to a place where we were good enough to go into the Sugar Shack and play right aside these folks who had made it big.”
“That was our breeding ground to be entertainers — watching these acts, seeing the arrangements, and see what worked and what didn’t work,” says Bailey.
One of the Ambitions’ full Sugar Shack sets was recorded onto cassette by a young tech wiz named Sidney Burton, who would go on to engineer recordings for New Kids on the Block. A YouTube posting of that audio is a priceless artifact of Boston R&B. The backing band, the Ambitions Part One, open the show before a smooth MC brings on the singers who deliver a tight, funky show.
“That was Larry Woo. He would rehearse us from noon until midnight,” says Bailey. “We were happy to put the work in.”
While the clientele was largely Black — a rarity for a downtown club — the Sugar Shack was owned by North Ender Rudy “Hippo” Guarino. His brother Hugo, nicknamed “Sticka,” worked the door. North End fixture Jerry Maffeo tended bar. Speaking on a Sugar Shack podcast hosted by comedian Tom Hayes, Rudy Guarino (who died in 2020) said Maffeo was also charged with “keeping the Mob quiet and behaving” and that gangsters like “Whitey” Bulger and “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi were frequent patrons.
Black underworld figures were also a presence at the club. “You had the players, people who were in the fast life with their fly vehicles and big hats, and that made it exciting,” says Peters.
Security was minimal. “You didn’t want to mess up nobody’s good time, or you’d pay the price,” says Beal.
Bailey remembers a Sugar Shack booker warning the nascent Ambitions that “you can be destroyed by women, money, and drugs, in no particular order, and he was right.” Seeing self-contained groups like Kool and the Gang pack the Shack, the Ambitions’ backing band left to form their own long-running band, Hawkeye. Larry Woo recruited a new band from the Orchard Park projects. But even recording at Philadelphia’s hit-producing Sigma Studios couldn’t get the Ambitions on the charts.
A long-in-the-works Sugar Shack documentary is on indefinite hold for now, but the club’s legacy still continues to loom large. Isaque Rezende, 40, grew up hearing his uncles’ tales of the club. Recently Rezende went to the Shack’s basement location and discovered that it is now an Emerson College cafeteria. “I just envisioned all these stars like Jackie Wilson performing there,” he says. “The city should place a marker there. It was such an important place in music history, and it existed right in our city.”
Noah Schaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BACK TO THE SHACK
With the Collaborators. At Florian Hall, 55 Hallet St., Dorchester. March 31, 8 p.m. to midnight. Tickets $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Call 617-413-4703 or 617-519-9747.