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.”
Sogoloff got started in 1951 with what was then called the Turnpike Club. He was working as a salesman for London/Mercury Records, and his passion was jazz, so he filled the jukebox with his favorites. For about eight years that jukebox was all the music there was, but it might have been the hippest jukebox on the North Shore, and the club built a clientele around it.
In 1959, Sogoloff brought in his first live jazz: Dixieland cornetist Dick Creedon, followed by saxophonist Ike Roberts, vocalist Mae Arnette, and his most popular attraction, the duo of organist Joe Bucci and drummer Joe Riddick. Bucci played the club 19 times during the 1960s, sometimes for four-week engagements.
In early 1963, Sogoloff began adding jazz artists of national reputation who were on the road working as singles, alternating the bigger names with his local regulars. Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, and J.J. Johnson were among that first wave. Sogoloff’s house trio in 1963–64 was Ray Santisi, Larry Richardson, and Alan Dawson, one of the Gretsch Drum Night regulars.
And then it was off to the races for Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike. Sogoloff enjoyed all styles of jazz, so if a band was commercially viable, he booked it, and the schedule ran the gamut from Wild Bill Davison to Archie Shepp. There were annual visits by Cannonball Adderley, Jaki Byard (who recorded at the club in 1965), Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, and Joe Williams. Rahsaan Roland Kirk played the club nine times. Sogoloff’s biggest draws, though, were Buddy Rich, who played the club 14 times (four times in 1969 alone), and Illinois Jacquet, also with 14 appearances, eight times sharing the stage with organist Milt Buckner and drummer Alan Dawson.
Sogoloff had a warm relationship with Rich, who called him “Lennie Turnpike” and consistently sold out the 200-seat club. Latecomers sometimes tailgated in the parking lot. Rich called when he heard about the fire and told Sogoloff he’d be there when the club reopened, and he was—with Jacquet and Buckner right behind him.
A changing scene in the late 1960s led to a more diversified schedule, with Lennie adding comedy and blues. In 1970, Sogoloff dipped into the world of pop and rock, and distinctly un-jazzy names like Homer and Jethro and Ricky Nelson appeared on the sign out front. There was always room on the schedule for Erroll Garner or Roland Kirk, but the lesser jazz lights, and many of the local jazz players, were edged out by the Kingston Trio and Kris Kristofferson.
“The jazz audiences are dying,” Lennie told the Record-American in January 1971. “So to earn a living here, I’ve got to hire artists who attract people. I’ve got to go in many directions. New jazz audiences aren’t developing. The kids’ thing is rock music and that’s where the action is. Jazz still has an audience, but it’s just not getting any bigger.”
“Don’t misunderstand me,” he told the reporter. “We’ll still have jazz—but less of it.” And early 1971 saw visits by big-name favorites like Davis, Rich, Kirk, and Stan Kenton.
Then came the fire in May, and three months later, the reopening at the Village Green on Route 1 in Danvers on August 31, Buddy Rich presiding. “He stopped traffic on the turnpike,” Sogoloff recalled. “We were packed every night.”
Sogoloff soldiered on at his new location for about a year, but the economics were unfavorable. In September 1972 Sogoloff announced he was closing. Tom Rush played on the final night, September 17.
Ernie Santosuosso was there, and he wrote about it in the Globe the next day. “Usually, in summing up a story of a death or closing of something, even of a frozen custard stand, the phrase “end of an era” is inevitably included. That type of signoff is much too corny for Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike. Let’s just say that last night Lennie ended a long gig.”
Sogoloff worked outside of the music business after Lennie’s closed, and although he continued to book concerts and organize fundraisers in Boston and environs for another 20 years, he never opened another club.
Sogoloff donated his archives to Salem State University, and almost 200 of his photos are posted on Flickr.
Buddy Rich did not record at Lennie’s, but here is the band live in 1969, with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The arrangement is by Phil Wilson.