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A Quick Tour Through Boston R&B History (with distinguished guide Peter Wolf)

Margo Sylvia and the Tune Weavers

 In researching my article for this week about R&B in Boston, I discovered enough history to fill the arts and entertainment section ten times over. Though my focus was on contemporary pop-angled artists like Masspike Miles and Lisa Bello, curiosity propelled me to spelunk the memories of clubs that were shuttered years before I was born.

My guides to the sounds that once buzzed through South End nightclubs were none other than resident Phoenix pop culture historian David Bieber, and the legendary Peter Wolf, who, in addition to fronting the J. Geils Band and several other blues-fueled outfits, also exposed the region to authentic R&B as a founding personality on WBCN. (As a bonus, I even reached out to former Boston Globe music writer Steve Morse.)

I wouldn’t dare attempt to even summarize the rhythm and blues culture that thrived here for decades; when I asked Wolf for the names of noteworthy Boston R&B artists, he asked if I was prepared to “make a list the size of a phone book.” That said - here are some interesting tidbits that fell outside the scope of my feature, but that may be of great interest to some and that may even jog nostalgia for older readers.

-Looking way back, it’s important to mention the G-Clefs, who represented Roxbury for half-a-century beginning in 1952. Their first hit, "Ka-Ding-Dong," hit the Billboard Hot 100 in 1956, and featured another local talent, Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon, playing guitar four years before he went on to be the first rock-n-roll artist to score a number one record in the UK.

-In 1957, Woburn-based quartet Margo Sylvia and the Tune Weavers (picture above) dropped "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby." Yes - that "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby." Though the song was later re-released on imprints including Checker in Chicago and ARC in New York, the original was pressed for Casa Grande Records right here on the North Shore.

-It's a bit depressing to hear about the plethora of booming venues that once dotted the South End-Roxbury border. Names that everyone I spoke with instinctually recall include Louie's Lounge, Basin Street, and, of course, Wally's, which remains today directly across Mass Ave from where the jazz room first opened in 1947. 

-For nearly 60 years until 1970, the largest African-American musicians' union - the American Federation of Musicians Local 535 - homebased above Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe on Columbus Ave and later on around the corner. Members included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and dozens of other music gods who are celebrated on the walls at Charlie's.  

-Through the late 60s and 70s the Sugar Shack was downtown's hot spot for touring R&B and "killer funk" bands, according to Wolf. The then-aspiring front man, who was famous for spending long hours absorbing new sounds, caught the likes of Harold Melvin and Bobby Womack at the renowned Boylston Street venue. Check some old P-Funk recordings from the Sugar Shack here.

-The Jonzun Crew - comprising Gordon "Mega Bucks" Worthy, Maurice Starr, and Starr's brothers, Michael and Soni Jonzun - were more of a seminal electro outfit than an R&B group, but their contributions to Boston's urban music scene were nonetheless enormous. The Crew's 1982 classic, "Pack Jam," still influences artists today, as do several of their other highly experimental early Tommy Boy-released bangers.

I'm afraid that's all I have for now folks. For more, Bieber recommends listening to "Your R&B Jukebox," "Musical Dope," and "For Your Pleasure" - all of which can be heard Sunday nights on WMBR.


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