February 27: Blues for Tinker’s
Nightclub owner John Tinker wanted to bring live music to Tremont Street in the South End, and he did that, twice. The first time was in the 1960s at Estelle’s, and the second was in the early 1980s at Tinker’s. Both were at 888 Tremont, a building that still stands today, if just barely.
The music was first-rate, both times, and a parade of the top names in local and national jazz and R&B crossed the stage. But it’s a story that ended tragically. John Tinker’s music ended with his murder on February 27, 1982.
The building at 888 Tremont had housed a dance hall, a speakeasy, and the restaurant called Estelle’s before Tinker and his business partner Frank Williams bought the place in 1964—building, liquor license, and all. It didn’t take them long to add live music.
It was jumping along “the Tremont Strip” in 1965, with jazz and R&B at Estelle’s, Bill Russell’s Slade’s (then as now at 958 Tremont), and Connolly’s, two blocks away at 1184.
Through the late 1960s, Estelle’s presented a heady mix of soul singers, horn bands, and organ trios—from Marvin Gaye and Betty LaVette, to Hugh Masekela and Mongo Santamaria, to Wild Bill Davis and Rhoda Scott. Estelle’s also continued as a full-scale restaurant, with table service in a dining room adjoining the larger music bar. I’m not sure when the live music policy ended, but by the late 1970s Estelle’s was operating, profitably, as a disco. In September 1980, Tinker took the plunge and opened the second floor as a jazz club, with the Hank Crawford Quartet presiding on opening night.
Over the next 18 months, Tinker’s was the most consistent name-band room in the city, competing with Lulu White’s, which was fading in 1981. Abby Lincoln, Cedar Walton, Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, the Heath Brothers, and Sonny Stitt were among the headliners. There were some missteps and artist cancellations, but Tinker seemed comfortable discussing the club’s future; after all, the disco downstairs was still making money, so the bills were covered.
And then came the tragedy. On the morning of February 27, Tinker was in his office totaling the receipts from the previous night. The night watchman was just punching out and the only other person around was the club’s maintenance man. At about noon the assistant manager arrived and found Tinker, 62, dead of a gunshot wound. The cash was apparently untouched.
Williams voiced the suspicions of many when he told a reporter: “Living in this area, there is always the fear of being held up. But this came as a surprise. John wouldn’t have relaxed on someone who walked in on him. It had to be someone he knew.” And within a day, the police were looking for the maintenance man.
They found him in upstate New York in July, where he had been arrested on another charge. At trial it came out that he was angry with Tinker, who he thought had shorted him on his paycheck. Found guilty of first degree murder in March 1983, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Tinker’s children reopened the club in April 1982, with jazz and Latin bands on alternating weeks. Freddie Hubbard and Les McCann were among those who played that spring. It didn’t last, though, and for the most part, that was the end of jazz here. The club had other names and featured other styles of music in later years, but there were no more Bill Doggetts or Ahmad Jamals. Just dimming memories of John Tinker and the Tremont Strip he energized.
Mae Arnette sang at both Estelle’s and Tinker’s, and this song of hers was going around in my head while I researched the Tinker’s story. It would have sounded right in either of those clubs. “All in Love Is Fair” was recorded in 1977 with Phil Wilson’s Quintet.