Johnny D’s 47-Year History Comes to a Close This Weekend
Before the legendary Davis Square club goes out with a New Orleans-style bang, owner Carla DeLellis looks back on a lifetime of memories.
We’ve been saying goodbye to Johnny D’s for a long time now—ever since owner Carla DeLellis announced the club’s closure in 2015. For the last few months, they’ve hosted one farewell tribute after another. But now is the time when we will eat our last pancake special and drink our last parrot mug mimosa—for this weekend marks the final brunch for the venerable 47-year-old Davis Square spot.
Their last hurrah is an Open House Weekend, with free shows on Friday and a full slate of performances on Saturday—starting with that last jazz brunch with guitarist Tom Pendergast and wrapping up with funk outfit Neon Grandma, who “know how to make you forget how sad you are about the closing.” And then on Sunday, Johnny D’s goes out in raucous style: with a second line brass band parade through Davis Square. Leading the procession are Boston’s costumed improvisational brass band Revolutionary Snake Ensemble and Somerville’s 25-piece Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band—the same folks who founded of the internationally acclaimed HONK! street festival.
For DeLellis, the New Orleans style jazz funeral is a particularly fitting way to cap off a half-decade of Johnny D’s. Asked about her most fondly remembered live music moment at 17 Holland Street, DeLellis says: “My favorite memory, coincidentally, is the night Louisiana son Glen David Andrews—in a snowstorm, along with his band—played as a second line.”
In 1990, we hailed Johnny D’s as one of our favorite clubs, declaring it “a place that has it all: good food, cheap drinks, friendly surroundings, and a knack for booking the great, the near-great and the soon-to-be-great.” And indeed, Johnny D’s has hosted such luminaries as bluesman Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, as well as the likes of Rhett Miller (Old 97’s), Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde), and Scott McCaughey (R.E.M.). Over the years, its intimate stage found a special place in the hearts of many touring artists.
Among them is rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef, a man who “has lived his life on stages, in honky-tonks, and on the road”—and one of those stages he chose, time and again, was at Johnny D’s. LaBeef started playing the club in the ’70s, and never stopped. He even celebrated his 80th birthday there. “This man is as special to this place as they come,” DeLellis wrote. So of course he flew up to Boston to play Johnny D’s one last time this past January.
“It’s been very meaningful to me to be able to bring back some of the artists I booked 30 years ago and some of my favorite national acts—some reunion shows featuring artists that haven’t played together in 30 years but are coming together for last performances at the club,” says DeLellis.
When DeLellis’s parents first opened Johnny D’s back in 1969, Davis Square was part of a decidedly more working-class Somerville. Over the years, DeLellis has watched Davis transition into something new: “The changes began slowly when the MBTA first opened the end of 1984. Little by little, the older day businesses were replaced by newer night businesses,” she says. “The square had no nightlife back in the late ’80s to speak of. The streets were empty at 5 p.m. Clearly, that has changed—along with the prices for homes.”
Despite the area’s dramatic shift over the years, DeLellis maintains that her decision to shutter the club is not a financial one: “It’s time for a change,” she told the Globe. DeLellis—who also owns the building—reportedly plans to turn the space into a multi-story mixed-use building of commercial space and three stories of residential space.
“I will miss this extension of my living room, where music fans, bar regulars, staff past and present, and restaurant customers gathered, and we were all able to share in conversations and experiences,” she says. She adds, joking, “I will miss having my dinner cooked for me, too.”
For those of you who will miss Johnny D’s jazz brunch—and there are a lot of you—fret not: It’s found a new home. Two new homes, actually. DeLellis tells us that the Burren will be “keeping Johnny D’s Brunch alive by bringing guitarist Tom Pendergast for their brunch and replicating some of our specials.” And over at next-door restaurant Orleans, you’ll be able to enjoy your eggs benny to the low-key sounds of bassist Larry Kukers (who’s been a staple of their Sunday brunch since 1997) starting March 20—which just happens to be the first day of spring, a fine day for the rebirth of a Davis Square tradition.