Lennie Sogoloff, 90; ran legendary jazz club Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike
For a club that would become part of jazz history in Greater Boston, Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike wasn’t much to look at when it opened in Peabody in the early 1950s on the stretch of Route 1 known as the Newburyport Turnpike.
“I used to describe it as ‘early ramshackle,’ ” Lennie Sogoloff, the proprietor and emcee, told the Globe in 1992.
In the hands of Mr. Sogoloff, who died of pneumonia Saturday in Marblehead at 90, the tiny roadhouse became a mansion of music, attracting the likes of Count Basie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Dizzy Gillespie.
“Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike is almost a monument,” said Fred Taylor, who ran Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street during the years when Mr. Sogoloff’s club forced ardent fans on some nights to choose between downtown Boston and Peabody. “He’ll long be remembered for that.”
The unlikeliest of shrines for jazz or anything else, Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike prospered through Mr. Sogoloff’s precise ear for established and up-and-coming talent. His one-liners behind the bar and emceeing on the stage were part of the draw, too, along with the joint’s roast beef sandwiches and chili.
“Some clubs have something special, an ambience,” Mr. Sogoloff said in 1992. “Ours had an ambience.”
At the outset, Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike had far more ambience than space. Before expanding to accommodate 200, “the place held only 56 customers — provided they sucked in their stomachs,” Globe music critic Ernie Santosuosso wrote in 1972 as Mr. Sogoloff prepared to close his business.
The first time drummer Buddy Rich walked in, he looked around and said: “This can’t be the main room.” Eyeing the club’s low ceiling, bandleader Stan Kenton quipped: “This is the first time I’ve ever played under a bed.” When singer Nina Simone complained about the lack of a private restroom, Mr. Sogoloff told her: “Just let me know when you have to go and I’ll clear everybody from the ladies’ room myself.”
Through the force of Mr. Sogoloff’s personality, and his business savvy, the club was a choice destination from its first years when the only music came from a jukebox he meticulously curated, to the end when he hosted newer jazz acts such as Gary Burton and Weather Report, blues artists Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and pop music mainstays including Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, and the band America.
When Mr. Sogoloff booked America, he hired as the opening act a then-unknown Jay Leno, who called the experience “a life-changing moment.”
“Lennie gave me my big break when I was on the bill with strippers at the Two O’Clock Club and the Teddy Bear Lounge in the Combat Zone,” Leno told the Globe in 1983.
After learning Mr. Sogoloff had died, Leno said in a statement that “working at Lennie’s was my favorite time in my career.”
“For me, Lennie was show business . . . the only show business I knew in the Boston area,” Leno said. He did it for the love of the game. So many people in his shoes would automatically try to sign you to a long-term contract. Lennie just wanted to see people succeed. I would have worked for free.”
The youngest of six children, Leonard M. Sogoloff grew up in Peabody. After graduating from high school, he served in the Army during World War II.
When the war ended, he was a salesman for Columbia Records and a waiter when he and a friend rented what Mr. Sogoloff called a “story-and-a-half location” on Route 1 in the early 1950s.
“We opened it as a roadhouse,” he recalled in an interview posted on YouTube. “I filled the jukebox with jazz records.” The club, he said, became “as a unique location where one could hear jazz without paying any music charge. You could hear the best available jazz on a jukebox.”
Mr. Sogoloff “was the Google for jazz back then,” said his daughter Karen Gilman of Boston. “You went to Lennie’s and heard what was new and what was happening.”
One day in 1956 he was tending bar when Barbara Raby walked in. “When I looked at her, she had such a gorgeous face,” Mr. Sogoloff told the Globe in 2009. “It was love at first sight.”
“They were married within months after that, if not weeks,” Karen said.
By then Mr. Sogoloff had bought out his partner, and he brought in live acts a few years later. Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike soon built a national reputation as he progressed from hiring local jazz musicians to booking top acts.
On the last weekend of May 1971, a few hours after pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines closed Saturday’s set, fire swept through the club. Within days Mr. Sogoloff reopened for a short stay at a Holiday Inn not far from the burned club. By the end of summer, he relocated to the Village Green Barn in Danvers, but a year later, a costly lease and mounting bills prompted him to close for good.
Although he kept a hand in music by producing shows occasionally, Mr. Sogoloff spent the next 20 years managing Empire Clothing in Salem. Long as fervent a sports fan as he was a jazz aficionado, Mr. Sogoloff also became a memorable mentor and Little League coach in Marblehead, where he lived with his family.
Even away from his club’s stage, Mr. Sogoloff “had a great sense of humor and his timing was impeccable with his lines,” said his son, Adam of Marblehead.
Perhaps to make up for all those long nights away when he ran his club, Mr. Sogoloff became much closer to his children in later years. “I feel like he offered all of us his unconditional love,” said his other daughter, Leanne Desjardins of Newport Center, Vt.
In addition to his three children, Mr. Sogoloff leaves a brother, Hyman of Peabody, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Stanetsky-Hymanson Memorial Chapel in Salem. Burial will be private and family and friends will gather again at 3 p.m. in the Frederick E. Berry Library and Learning Commons at Salem State University to celebrate Mr. Sogoloff’s life and musical legacy.
His wife, who died in 1993, went back to college while raising their children and became a special needs preschool teacher. She also was an activist in issues such as affordable housing.
In 2006, Mr. Sogoloff donated music memorabilia from his club to the archives at Salem State, which awarded him an honorary degree in recognition of his cultural contributions.
Three years later, he created a scholarship at the university in his wife’s name to support nontraditional female students, and Leno donated $100,000 from an appearance at the school for the fund.
In recent years, Mr. Sogoloff lived at Devereux House, a Marblehead nursing home, where he brought in musical acts to entertain residents. Still quick with an emcee’s quip, he leaned on his walker in 2011 and noted: “No one gets a standing ovation here — I mean, we can hardly get them to stand up half the time — but they listen well.”
Even at 87, he was still dreaming of the careers he helped shape and the musicians he once booked, the sounds of jazz floating through his dreams.
“Before I go to bed,” he told the Globe, “I feel I should pay a music charge.”