After 47 years, it’s closing time for Johnny D’s
SOMERVILLE — Rickie Lee Jones is onstage, singing a song about saying goodbye.
The sentiment is lost on exactly no one in the sold-out crowd at Johnny D’s on Tuesday night, who no doubt are pondering bidding farewell to the very club where they’re enjoying the eternally hip, idiosyncratic singer-songwriter, who’s billed as the last “national act” to play its stage.
Those descriptors could apply equally to the place itself: a 47-year-old venue and restaurant that transformed from dive bar to world-class purveyor of the widest array of sounds in town, from roots rock and blues to world music and disco, hard-core country to bubbly pop, hip-swiveling funk to zydeco roundelays, reverent gospel and raunchy R&B, a huge spectrum of tribute bands, comedy and trivia nights, jazz brunch, and more.
Johnny D’s has served as a launching pad for new artists just busting out, a soft landing spot for big names settling back into smaller venues, and — for many artists working in styles outside the mainstream — the only game in town. More quietly, the club was also a boon to Somerville’s neediest residents, literally catering to the homeless on a weekly basis, and hosting frequent fund-raisers for the Somerville Homeless Coalition.
On Sunday, owner Carla DeLellis will lock the doors to the club and, with help from two brass bands, lead a second-line parade through Davis Square to commemorate the end of Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club.
As Rickie Lee sings about love to a rapt audience, downstairs in her office, DeLellis ruminates on being the last member of her immediate family to run Johnny D’s, opened in 1969 by and named for her dad, John, a Somerville cop who operated it with her mother, Tina. Carla and her brother David were raised in the club, and eventually dedicated themselves to helping Tina run it after their father’s death. David died in 1998, Tina in 2008. Carla is both sweetly nostalgic and genuinely relieved when discussing what comes next for the space that music lovers around the world — and brunch lovers around the neighborhood — have come to cherish.
“I couldn’t imagine a life that was not this, ever,” she says, looking around at office walls crowded with posters of the thousands of artists who played at the 300-capacity club. She has no regrets about joining the family business or moving on to try something new. She’ll convert the ground floor into commercial or retail space — she’s still mulling options, and hasn’t ruled out a restaurant as a potential tenant — and is planning to build seven residential units above, one of which she’ll occupy.
“I equate it to going to college: It’s a blast, it’s hard work, you love it, but when you know it’s time to graduate, you don’t look back. It was great; time for my next thing. And it’s 32 years, so it’s not like it’s nothing.”
No, and it’s been quite a bit more than that to many people.
To Evan Balmuth of Newton, a jazz-brunch patron for just one year, and to Craig Milanesi of Medford, a loyal concertgoer of over 30 years, Johnny D’s has been special.
“I just really love the atmosphere, the music is amazing and the food is incredible,” says Balmuth, a Tufts student, during a recent brunch. He’s only been coming for a year, since he’s just 22. “Since I heard they were closing, I have been trying to come every week.”
“The big attraction in Somerville used to be Steve’s Ice Cream and Johnny D’s in Davis Square,” says Milanesi. “Everything else was sub shops and auto parts stores.” The video production manager says he will miss the coziness.
“I loved coming to shows, whether it was Commander Cody or NRBQ, and the band would be drinking at the bar,” Milanesi says. “What you don’t get any place else is the intimacy. Maybe the term nightclub is a little expansive for what this is; it’s more of a honky-tonk. But I’ve also always appreciated their efforts to bring world music into this venue.”
For New Zealand native Grant Kelly, a club doorman, waiter, and bar back for the last five years, Johnny D’s was the first place he played music onstage when he moved to the US in the late ’80s.
“I went from being an absolute beginner at the blues jam to running the thing,” he says of the long-running Sunday night staple, which will be relocating to the Causeway near the TD Garden. “It’s a huge hole in the musical community.”
There is also a real-world loss for the Somerville Homeless Coalition, says Mark Alston-Follansbee, its executive director.
“Last October was our 20th anniversary with Johnny D’s as our lead sponsor ,” Alston-Follansbee says of the Coalition’s annual fund-raising road race, which raised more than $70,000. The club also hosted Christmas benefits with the Chandler Travis Philharmonic and a weekly meal for the shelter’s residents.
“Johnny D’s has always bridged that gap between old Somerville and new Somerville, and they did a great job for years,” he says. “You know how the mayor says Somerville should be a place where everyone can live, work, play, and raise a family? Carla really works to try to support that vision and make it happen. So she’s concerned about homeless people and businesses. She wants everybody to be able to succeed and prosper.”
That was true of the music booked into the club over the years by overseers like Dana Westover and Flo Murdock, among others, who endeavored to showcase artists they felt were great, regardless of how many people they might draw.
By phone from her home in Ohio, Murdock recalled her years in the late ’80s and ’90s, the thrill of booking Laverne Baker, and artists like Bobby Bland, the Texas Tornados, El Vez, Ronnie Spector, and Maceo Parker.
“We got the mayor of Quincy to declare it Dick Dale day,” she recalls, laughing, of one of the times the Quincy-bred surf guitar hero played the club. “A friend of mine in Chicago told me that he actually went back to Johnny D’s to see Sleepy LaBeef the last time he was there. So you know, if people are coming in from Chicago just to be there one last time, what that says.”
“I get stopped every two feet, and I love it,” says DeLellis of patrons paying their regards one last time. Balmuth asked for her autograph on a commemorative picture the club is handing out. The ladies room is festooned with sweet goodbyes, not graffiti.
“I really appreciate people going out of their way to tell me how much joy this one place brought them. How many people get to work in a business where people come in and they leave so happy and they think about how happy whatever you did made them? That’s so awesome.”
Following the weekend festivities — free sets from Johnny D’s favorites like James Montgomery and the Chandler Travis Philharmonic Friday and Saturday, the last jazz brunch on Saturday, and the parade on Sunday — DeLellis plans to travel, and then will hold a flea market/memorabilia sale in early April. “From glassware to equipment to posters to pictures to, reluctantly, probably some tables,” she says.
She’ll be eyeing construction on the commercial space in April, and building for the residential space later this year.
But she won’t be leaving the music behind entirely, having already started chatting with other Somerville venues, including Thunder Road, the Burren, and Cuisine En Locale, about some of the Johnny D’s acts that might be good fits for their rooms. She hopes to present a handful of shows herself, likely outdoor festivals in Davis Square. “My plan is, no matter what, to present music — just not 24/7.”
Instead, she’s looking forward to learning Italian, the piano, “really wrapping myself around some events that focus on youth and women’s issues,” and spending time with her four kids.
“My 14-year-old thinks I’m going to be a pain in the ass now, watching everything she does,” she says with a laugh. “Which is true.”