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obituary

John Belmonte was a mainstay in record stores for fans and musicians alike

Mr. Belmonte specialized in rare singles. A Boston shop he managed was visited by Little Richard and Rod Stewart.

A legendary behind-the-scenes figure in the local music business, John Belmonte was known as Big John. A physically imposing man who was 250 pounds at his peak, he left an indelible mark selling records in stores for nearly a half-century.

He managed the influential Big John’s Oldies But Goodies Land in the Combat Zone during the 1960s, when stars such as Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Rod Stewart, and Ron Wood stopped in to purchase the rare early rock and R&B singles that were Mr. Belmonte’s specialty.

“Big John was a beloved mentor to so many people in the Boston community,” said Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band. “His shop was a gathering place because he had the records that no one else had. People would be amazed at his knowledge.”

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Mr. Belmonte, who later worked for many years in Cambridge at Cheapo Records in Central Square, died of complications from diabetes Aug. 31. He was 77 and lived in Malden.

“When Rod Stewart and Ron Wood were playing with Jeff Beck, I brought them down to Big John’s and they went crazy buying stuff because those records were very hard to find back in England,” Wolf said. “And one day Little Richard was behind the counter. He loved going in there.”

Wolf and others credited Mr. Belmonte with coining the term “oldies but goodies.”

Mr. Belmonte’s wife, Bonnie, said he patented the phrase, though “we never made any money off it.”

As a mentor, Mr. Belmonte was particularly close to the J. Geils Band, even suggesting songs for the band to cover, such as “Ain’t Nothin’ But a House Party” by the Showstoppers and “I Do” by the Marvelows.

“Those records came out of Big John’s store,” said Wolf, who later played many of them on his radio shows on WBCN and WZLX.

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Joe Smith, who went on to become president of Elektra and Capitol records, played many of Mr. Belmonte’s choices on his pioneering rock and R&B radio show on the local station WVDA.

“Big John helped me a lot and I really liked him,” Smith said.

Another admirer was Jon Landau, who is now Bruce Springsteen’s manager. Landau’s 1972 book, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” included a photo of Big John’s Oldies But Goodies Land.

“He was a truly important figure,” Wolf said of Mr. Belmonte, “and he never wanted or asked for any credit.”

Mr. Belmonte grew up in Cambridge. His parents separated when he was 2, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother, who owned a rooming house above the original Legal Sea Foods restaurant in Inman Square.

After working at a bakery, Mr. Belmonte started at the Cambridge Music Box in Central Square in the 1950s before managing Big John’s Oldies But Goodies Land, which was owned by Skippy White, another legend in the Boston-area record store and radio business.

The store was next to the Intermission Lounge in the Combat Zone, which in those days featured live music venues. The store sold up to 1,000 singles a day by many rock and R&B artists such as Fats Domino, and by Sun Records rockers such as Sonny Burgess and Warren Smith.

The biggest seller was Little Richard, and at one point the store featured a Little Richard window.

“Little Richard loved to come in and raise hell,” recalled Walter DeVenne, who was hired as Mr. Belmonte’s assistant and became a popular disc jockey and record-hop headliner under the name Little Walter’s Time Machine.

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“John was an encyclopedia and taught me everything I know,” he said.

The store eventually moved to Cambridge and was renamed Skippy White’s Oldies But Goodies Land.

Mr. Belmonte then started working for Cheapo Records in the 1970s, after he was hired by owner Allen Day.

“He was just a genuinely nice person, and he had the perfect ear for rock ’n’ roll from the ’50s,” Day said.

Jack Woker, who worked with Mr. Belmonte at Cheapo Records before starting his own Stereo Jack’s store on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares, said he “was highly respected in the collecting community. John was the kind of guy who would ask, ‘Have you heard this?’ And then he’d play it. He became a mentor to so many young people.”

Mr. Belmonte married Bonnie Kelley in 1971. “He was very loving,” his wife said. “He couldn’t have loved me more.”

Their son, Christopher of Wellesley, recalled that his father “took me out on weekends. We’d like to go fishing and go to wrestling matches. And we’d go to see oldies shows at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom in New Hampshire. I was amazed at how many people he knew at the shows. And he made sure I met them. He was a great dad.”

While being treated for diabetes, Mr. Belmonte suffered four heart attacks.

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“The first one was in 1994, then in 2004 he had one that almost killed him,” his wife said. “But he wouldn’t complain. He managed his health like it was a record store. He would keep a log of every med he was taking. He was very organized.”

A service has been held for Mr. Belmonte. In addition to his wife and son, he leaves a granddaughter.

Even as a youth, Mr. Belmonte was smitten by records.

“I used to buy used jukebox records for a nickel apiece,” he told the Globe in 1987. “I had 300 records before I even had a record player. Then I bought a three-speed Dumont player for $39.95, marked down from $49.95. I paid a dollar a week for it. I thought it was the greatest record player in the world. I played all 300 records straight through. My mother said to me, ‘Aren’t you ever going to leave the house? You’ve been inside for three days.’ ”


Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.