The Troy Street Observer

May 19, 1985: Tribute to John McIlvaine

Photo of Mae Arnette
Mae Arnette, late 1950s: she organized the benefit for her uncle

The life of concert promoter and nightclub operator John McIlvaine was celebrated by an overflow crowd at the Taurus Club.

John McIlvaine had been on the Boston scene for a long time, from at least 1943, when as president of the Younger Citizens’ Co-ordinating Committee, he staged concerts by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton to raise money for war relief. After the war, he continued promoting concerts, but also started managing musicians and entertainers. Then in the fifties he started managing nightclubs, including Sugar Hill, in Bay Village. It was there that he introduced Boston to his niece, Mae Arnette, in 1952.

The headliner in the Sugar Hill show became ill and McIlvaine needed a replacement in a hurry. He called Arnette, who had recently won an Amateur Hour contest at the Apollo Theatre and was singing at Murrain’s nightclub in Harlem. She took the Sugar Hill job, fell in love with Boston, and moved here.

McIlvaine and Arnette would meet again at the Professional and Business Men’s Club at 543 Mass Ave, a place that started in the late 1940s as a private club for black business people. In 1955 it obtained a liquor license and a new manager in McIlvaine, and he opened the doors to the public and brought in music. The club didn’t advertise and was an “in” spot, and mostly a room for local musicians. In the late 1950s it was Mae Arnette’s home base, and she sang as many as six nights a week with whatever trio was in the house.

On December 31, 1960, McIlvaine opened a new club on Washington Street,  called Basin Street South. It was a splashy opening, but three weeks later the club was destroyed by fire, one so fierce a firefighter was killed battling it. When the club reopened nine months later, McIlvaine, the black entrepreneur, was out as manager, and a series of guys with Italian surnames were in. It was one of those things that happened sometimes in the nightclub business…

For a time in the 1960s McIlvaine ran the Station in Roxbury Crossing, but by then he was also a real estate broker, and by the end of the decade he was out of the nightclub business.

All of which brings us to May 19, 1985, and McIlvaine was dying of cancer. Arnette organized a benefit at the Taurus Club to raise money for his medical care, and the musicians lined up to help. Among them were Sabby Lewis, Alan Dawson, Gray Sargent, Al Vega, Novella Taylor, and Jan Strickland. But McIlvaine died that morning, and the benefit became a tribute.

“It was a celebration; there was an enormous turnout, old friends, entertainers, musicians that had worked for him or frequented his clubs,” Arnette told the Globe. “He wanted everyone to have a good time. And they did.” It was a fitting sendoff for a man who for years championed the music.



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