Somerville fixture Johnny D’s to close in early 2016
SOMERVILLE — The music is ending at Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant and Music Club, a beloved fixture in the heart of Davis Square for 46 years.
Owner Carla DeLellis said Sunday she plans to close the venue, which has been home to a diverse array of live music from national and local acts, probably in late January or early February next year.
“It’s time for a change,” DeLellis said simply, noting that it is primarily a personal decision, not a financial one.
DeLellis, who owns the building, plans to turn the 309-capacity, 3,900-square-foot place into a multistory mixed-use building, with commercial space at street level and three stories of residential space above it. No firm plans have been made as to what will occupy the commercial space, and DeLellis did not rule out the possibility that it could include a smaller club.
News of Johnny D’s pending closure comes while another venerable local nightclub, T.T. the Bear’s Place, prepares to close on Saturday, after more than 40 years in Cambridge.
Johnny D’s was opened by DeLellis’s parents, John and Tina in 1969, first as a bar, then as a country music club, and finally — just as the rest of Davis Square experienced a revitalization — in its current iteration as a club and restaurant. Starting as children, DeLellis and her brother David worked alongside John and Tina until their parents’ deaths. David DeLellis died in 1998.
The list of acts who have played the club is studded with those who went on to much bigger halls and great fame, as well as niche artists for whom Johnny D’s was always just the right size, including Alison Krauss, Ben Harper, the Dixie Chicks, Jeff Buckley, Gillian Welch, Bettye LaVette, Sleepy LaBeef, and Guster. Recent bookings have included Shelby Lynne, Lee Ann Womack, and Booker T. Jones.
The spectrum of sounds — from zydeco to bluegrass, country, pop, rock, funk, and world music — was what made Johnny D’s stand apart. It was a home for roots music of all varieties and often the only place where certain genres could be heard in the area.
“I wanted to have a little bit of everything,” said Dana Westover, a Johnny D’s booking agent and audio engineer for 26 years, whom DeLellis credits with helping to expand the club’s musical profile. “We tried to get the best music we could fit in a 300-capacity space, and it was good because you could go pretty much the whole gamut. We didn’t do a lot of the real hard, loud stuff. We left that to the clubs in Cambridge. It was always more of a listening room.”
Ken Irwin, a cofounder of formerly Cambridge-based Rounder Records, hailed the club’s range.
“They covered it all and with quality and integrity,” Irwin said. “And they were always great to the artists and had respect for them. It was just a place that people liked to play.”
Kevin Lillis was attending a weekly blues jam at the club on Sunday when DeLellis broke the news to him. He estimated that he had been coming to the club for 20 years and, as a bass player, had occasionally played on its stage. “I will be sad,” said Lillis, of Stoneham. “It’s really been quite a fixture. There have been so many good shows.”
Sitting in her office downstairs as the club’s award-winning Sunday jazz brunch bustled overhead, DeLellis, 53, choked up as she discussed the decision to close the venue that has, in many ways, been her home for more than 40 years and that she has helped operate for 30, since graduating from Boston College.
“The hardest part of this decision is taking away people’s home-away-from-home,” DeLellis said, thinking of longtime patrons. She despaired of where certain acts will find a home. “Who is going to pick up those shows?” she wondered.
While DeLellis said the business has always fluctuated, and there has been increased competition over the years, Johnny D’s is in the black.
“It’s not that the money is bad, it’s that my other options are better, and it’s very hard work,” said DeLellis, who not only wants security and stability for her four children — two college-aged and two middle-schoolers — but to spend more time with them, which her typical 18-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week schedule at Johnny D’s simply has not allowed.
Marie Akoury, general manager at Johnny D’s for the last eight years, has seen DeLellis’s dedication. “She works day and night. I get e-mails from her at 2:30 in the morning, and then at 7 in the morning she’s up again,” said Akoury. “She’s a young 50s; she needs to enjoy her life.”
DeLellis has been thinking lately of her family’s legacy. “My mom passed — it was seven years in April — and I wrote an ode to mom and put it on Facebook,” said DeLellis, who says she hopes she has done her parents and brother proud as the last family member to run Johnny D’s. (She plans to include “Uptown” in the name of the apartments as a tip of the hat to the club.)
It’s not that it hasn’t been wonderful, said DeLellis, looking around at posters of acts that have played at the club — “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything” — but she has tired of the grind.
Before the club closes for construction in early 2016, she plans a run of commemorative shows to highlight its storied history.
“I want this to be a celebration of local music as well as national,” she said. She hopes to stage several benefits and free shows, and to include many artists who have played there.
DeLellis informed the staff of nearly 50 of her decision on Sunday afternoon and had drafted a thank you note to patrons and musicians that she planned to post on the club’s Facebook page. The note, which she shared, read, in part, “If you are reading this, it has often been your home too, a place for you to enjoy yourself, to let the music take you to places of revelry, or inspiration. . . . A place to share laughs or sorrows over a good meal. A place to make you feel a refuge from the storm of life.”
Said Akoury, “A lot of places tell you it’s family, but this place is really a family.”