Johnny D’s bids farewell with parade in Davis Square
SOMERVILLE – The final day of business for Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club in Davis Square began like many of the 17,237 days that preceded it. Funk-filled bass lines and splashy drum riffs pulsated throughout the two-room venue, while patrons toasted with $6 drinks served by bartenders who knew their names.
But as Sunday afternoon became evening, the free-flowing, jubilant atmosphere gave way to a sobering – but not sober – realization. After more than 47 years, there would be no more Sunday brunches, roots music concerts, or welcoming smiles from Carla DeLellis, the bar’s lively owner.
Johnny D’s was done.
“It will be a huge hole in the community and in our lives,” said Holly Harris, a 20-year patron from Salem and disc jockey at WUMB who drove back from a New Orleans vacation for the bar’s final day.
By late afternoon Sunday, the historic venue was tightly squeezed with hundreds of well-wishers all ready to party, and the Boston-based Revolutionary Snake Ensemble did not disappoint. Saxophonist Ken Field led the improvisational funk group through a set that was meant to honor the venue and DeLellis, who danced on top of a seat by the front door and greeted arriving customers.
After the concert, DeLellis joined Field and his band as they paraded across Holland Street and into Seven Hills Park chanting “I’m thinking about funking it up!”
Helene Levin twirled a sky-blue parasol in the air as she followed Field’s band through the park. Levin, who is from Marblehead, said she cried when she heard Johnny D’s was closing its doors.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Levin said. “This is a special place. A real community.”
John and Tina DeLellis, Carla’s parents, opened Johnny D’s in 1969 as a country music bar before it became a club and restaurant.
Barbara Lyon, a longtime patron from Somerville, said she began frequenting the restaurant in the 1980s, as Tina DeLellis was beginning to experiment with new, non-country musical acts.
“[Tina] ran the place so well,” Lyon said Sunday, as she peered inside the packed 309-person venue, which was at capacity. Lyon was one of hundreds who could not fit into Johnny D’s farewell concert and stood outside the club until the New Orleans-style processional began.
“But this was never Carla’s dream, it was her parents’,” Lyon said.
Carla DeLellis had said she was closing the music club because “it was time for a change.” DeLellis, who owns the building, plans to turn the 3,900-square-foot place into a multi-story mixed-use facility, with commercial space at street level, and seven residential units above that. She announced her plans in July.
However, on Sunday afternoon, DeLellis was less concerned with the future and more worried about sending the beloved music club off in style — almost a half-century after it opened.
“I want to tell people to support small venues because small venues doesn’t mean small talent,” DeLellis said, before offering a parting message.
Lyon, DeLellis’s friend, said she was happy that the longtime owner will soon have more free time.
“I’m happy for her. She gave us a lot. Her family gave us a lot,” Lyon said. “We’re just grateful.”
Over the years, the venue has hosted local and national acts, including The Dixie Chicks, Shelia Raye Charles, Neil Young, Sleepy LaBeef, Le- Ann Womack, Booker T. Jones, and countless other jazz, swing, funk, and Cajun zydeco bands.
More importantly, it was a place where memories were made.
MaryAnn Deleppo of Hudson remembers feeling her unborn son kicking her 20 years ago during a Guitar Shorty concert, she said. At the Sunday “jam sessions,” Mary Santini of Norwood and Marsha Cohen of Somerville said they perfected their favorite dance moves and met lifelong friends. Bertrand Laurence, a Cambridge musician, said he once held a Sunday afternoon show at Johnny D’s for homeless singers and songwriters.
“Johnny D’s was a community lover. This is where people could learn from each other and connect,” Laurence said.
It was also where Ben Wetherbee began his love affair with music.
“I brought him here at 2 weeks old,” said Wetherbee’s mother, Ruth Rappaport of Watertown. Wetherbee, now a 21-year-old senior at Skidmore College who plays the fiddle, was perched atop a metal railing Sunday afternoon, trying to hear the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble’s set from outside.
Rappaport played at the club with her band, The Poodles. Weatherbee’s father, Peter “Joe Pete” Wetherbee, performed with his zydeco band, Boogaloo Swamis.
“I always thought Carla liked me the best, though I’m sure everyone will say that,” Wetherbee said laughing.
Moments later, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble ended their indoor music set, and began the final, funky processional through Davis Square.
One last show at Johnny D’s. This time, no encore.