May 30, 1971: Fire Closes Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike
Firefighters broke through the roof to fight the blaze, which was confined mainly to the bar and dressing rooms, but the entire building suffered extensive smoke and water damage.
Just about all of the great jazz clubs described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles or in posts on this blog were inside the Boston city limits—the Savoy, the Stable, Storyville, the Jazz Workshop. But one, a favorite of both performers and listeners, was way up in the suburbs. That was Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike, on the northbound side of Route 1 in West Peabody. On the morning of May 30, 1971, fire struck the club.
“You could say I am down, but not out,” proprietor Lennie Sogoloff told the Globe’s Bill Buchanan later that day. “This club has been my life since the early 50s and to see all the damage was a great shock to me. I just don’t know what direction we’ll take now. It’s something I’ll have to think about.”
On May 19-20, Baird Hersey and his little big band, The Year of the Ear, recorded tracks that would be released on the 1978 LP, Lookin’ for That Groove (Arista Novus AN 3004). It was the group’s second recording, and first on a major label.
Apart from being called “eclectic,” Year of the Ear defied categorization, and the descriptions of it were fanciful. The Real Paper published my favorite, in 1976, when Mike Baron called Hersey’s “radically different” band “an avant-garde space funk jazz group” that could “hit more strange and wonderful sounds in one tune than most bands hit in a year.”
Guitarist and composer Baird Hersey arrived in Boston in 1974 with a broad range of musical interests and influences, a grab-bag that included Bill Dixon, Duke Ellington, György Ligeti, Carl Ruggles, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown. He studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University and composition at Bennington College, and led a rock band called Swamp Gas in the early 1970s. He formed The Year of the Ear in 1975.
May 12 was the start of busy week for Norman Furman, the general manager at Boston’s WHEE radio, 1090 on the AM dial. The owners wanted a new sound, and Furman went to work on that immediately upon his April arrival. On May 12, he had some results.
First, a new deejay was starting that day. Sabby Lewis, the man who personified Boston jazz in the 1940s, would host a one-hour show, six days a week, in the early evening. (Find more on Lewis here, here and here.) “He will be,” announced the Boston Chronicle, “the first colored band leader disc jockey ever in Boston.” Neither the Chronicle nor anyone else said Lewis was the first African-American deejay. He wasn’t. That was Eddy Petty at WVOM. But hiring Lewis demonstrated that Furman, who introduced all-black programming to WLIB in New York City, intended to bring more of that programming to WHEE.
During the week of May 12, the station changed its call letters to WBMS, for “World’s Best Music Station,” its original call when the station first went on the air in 1947. The Boston newspapers carried the announcement on May 19.