Random Thoughts

Lennie's-On-The-Turnpike

 ... a place to remember and Woody Herman honked

by Steve Johnson

When I got out of the Air Force in 1959 all my main buddies were either still college students or recently graduated. They took me around to all the places where they hung out, most of which were out on "the pike". That's Route 1, the Newburyport Turnpike, in case you didn't know.

We were all in our early 20's then and had moved on from our old high school hang-outs such as The Adventure Car Hop and Dunkin' Donuts to more adult places. We ate huge salads and great steaks at Frank Giuffrida's new Hilltop Steak House, ate Chinese food at The Kowloon and seafood at The Ship. We had drinks and a lot of beer at The Blue Star, The Flamingo and The Wigwam. But when we wanted to listen to some cool music we would make it to a place up in West Peabody called Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike, known to us as just plain Lennie's. I have to tell you about Lennie's.

Lennie Sogoloff was a jazz fan and an entrepreneur. Back in the late 1950's he moved a small building (it was said to be an old train station from Ipswich or Haverhill or someplace like that) to a piece of "the pike" on the East side of Route 1 in West Peabody, not too far from that Mr. Peanut sign I remember so well, just North of where 128 crosses Route 1 in South Lynnfield. His regular bartender in those days was a guy named Joe Baptista, which was an easy name to remember because of the goings on in Cuba back then.

Lennie and Joe ran a cool joint. Live music was the big feature there just about every night and one of Lennie's early discoveries was an organ player named Joe Bucci who could really wail on his old, souped up Hammond B-3. Joe Bucci was a local guy who grew up playing the accordion but, when he heard Count Basie, he gave up on the "Lady of Spain" stuff and moved to jazz on the Hammond organ. The Joe Bucci Duo with Joe Riddick on drums could really swing.

Another local feature at Lennie's was Herb Pomeroy's big band. Pomeroy's band often played in Boston's Back Bay at "Storyville" and at "The Stables" and would also often rock the joint at Lennie's. Herb Pomeroy was an outstanding trumpet player from Gloucester and I think he and Lennie were old friends from the North Shore area. Anyone who hung out at Lennie's in those days will remember Joe Bucci's rendition of "Ebb Tide" with the sounds of the waves breaking out of that B-3 and Herb Pomeroy's rocking big band in that small room. It didn't get much better than that!

During the early 1960's I worked as a computer field engineer at M.I.T.'s Instrumentation Lab in Cambridge. We were involved in developing the guidance system for NASA's Apollo moon shot project and we manned that site 24 hours a day. I worked a lot of 3 PM to 11 PM shifts and, on occasion, would get off a little early and drive north over the Mystic River bridge, up Route C1 by the old Revere airport onto Route 1, the pike, and be at Lennie's in time for the last set. Because I was a regular customer and it was the last set, Joe Baptista would let me in to sit at the bar with no cover charge. One night I met Count Basie sitting at that bar.

Basie's big band was playing the room that week and I arrived just prior to the next to last set's ending. The set ended and Mr. Basie settled into the seat next to me for a short break. We shook hands, made some small talk, and I offered to buy him a drink. "Yeah, man." he said, and Baptista brought him a bourbon, neat. The final set was great, as they always are, and, needless to say, with my drinking buddy leading the band, I was in jazz heaven. I lived in Wilmington in those days, and it was an easy shot home over Route 62 to wake up Gabrielle and tell her I had a drink with Count Basie at Lennie's.

Norm Nathan, WHDH's nightly jazz disc jockey used Basie's "Li'l Darlin'" as his theme for his "Sounds In the Night" show. I'm pretty sure Norm lived in Littleton in those days and I met him a few times at Lennie's, also.

In addition to Joe Bucci, Herb Pomeroy and Count Basie, there were a number of famous and fabulous people who played at Lennie's. Illinois Jacquet and Milt Buckner with Alan Dawson on drums were there more than once. The Dukes of Dixieland with Frankie and Freddie Assunto played there often, and one of the all time best big band piano players I have ever heard, Earl "Fatha" Hines was there with his band. You need to understand that this was a small jazz room and when you put a big band in there, it really rocked!

One of the more unusual musicians to play Lennie's was Roland Kirk, who could play two or three different reed instruments at the same time. His music was controversial, even in jazz circles where music is not often controversial. He also played unusual instruments, one being the "nose-flute" and I remember my mother commenting, at the time, "That seems rather unsanitary, doesn't it?" Which brings us to the story of Woody Herman's pant leg.

New Year's Eve was always a special time at Lennie's-On-the-Turnpike. One year, in the late 1960's, Lennie engaged the Woody Herman band for the New Year's Eve show. If I remember right, the price was $25 per couple and the drinks were included! Try to find a deal like that today. Weeks ahead, I made reservations for Gabrielle, myself and another couple and on that New Year's Eve, the four of us arrived very early in order to get a table right up front. By show time, the place was packed. Can you imagine sitting in a room with a 17-piece band, directly in front of that band, with about 50 people behind you? We were there.

Over the years, Woody Herman has had lots of bands; the First Herd, the Third Herd, the Las Vegas Herd (which I thought was the best) and others. Woody was famous for bringing along new, young and talented musicians. Long after most of the big bands and their leaders had faded away, Woody Herman and his band were still in there cranking out some solid swing. They called him the "Old Man," but on the stage that night at Lennie's, he looked like all the rest of his crew, up in front and wailing away on his clarinet.

The term, "honk," is hard to define. It's an odd and unwanted sound made with a reed instrument when the musician's lips don't work just right on the reed in the mouthpiece. Geese honk, and it sounds kind of like that. You almost never hear it on studio recordings (because it's edited out) and only occasionally on live, jam session type recordings. Saxophone and clarinet players hate that sound.

Somewhere along about the middle of the third set, my wife Gabrielle made Woody Herman honk. Why she did it, I don't know, but I do know how she did it. As I said, we were seated at a table directly in front of the slightly raised stage on which the band played. When Woody stepped out in front to solo, he was right next to our table and his legs were an arm's length away. Perhaps it was the excitement of the moment, or the beat of the music, or maybe the free drinks that caused Gabrielle to reach out and yank quite hard on Woody's left pant leg. Woody honked!

I must say, he recovered quite well. He never looked down and he never missed a beat, he just honked and then moved quickly away from our table. I doubt if anyone in the crowd even noticed. Perhaps, I thought, he was used to this sort of thing; after all, he was a touring jazz musician. For the rest of the night, he lead the band from the side of the stage well away from our table and the show went on.

Sometime in the mid to late 1960's, Lennie enlarged the room and I didn't like it as well as the original. I have always thought that jazz belonged in a small room, not in a hall and never, ever in a stadium. Then he left that building and moved the name Lennie's-On-The-Turnpike to a lounge in one of the Holiday Inns in the area. For me, it was never the same after that.

Over the years, I've often thought of all the good times we had at Lennie's. Every once in a while I hear Lennie's mentioned and I listen closely. I remember hearing Bette Midler talk of Lennie's a long time ago on the Johnny Carson show and Jay Leno, who grew up close by in North Andover, has mentioned Lennie's in conversations with musicians on his show. One time, in the 1960's, I was on a business trip in Detroit and happened into a famous jazz spot on Livernois called Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Carmen McRae was singing there and she knew about Lennie's.

And now, you know about Lennie's.

This story is dedicated to the memory of my mother. Many years ago, she realized I would never be able to play an instrument worth a damn so she encouraged me to become a music lover and instead of being a musician, be one of the people for whom musicians play.

Gladys Louise (Beshong) Johnson
May 22, 1910 - March 8, 1992

Who grew up at
375 Upham Street
Melrose, Masachusetts
And attended
Melrose High School
and
Cushing Academy, Ashburnham, MA

Mom was an accomplished pianist, organist and piano teacher who loved all kinds of music. Her favorites were Tchaikovski, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, especially the Duke's "Black, Brown and Beige" album featuring Mahalia Jackson.

We took her to Lennie's once back in the 1960's but she didn't enjoy it very much. I don't remember who was playing there at the time (it wasn't Roland Kirk) and she commented that "This modern music just can't match up to the classics."

Once in the early 1990's, here in Arizona, my wife, my Dad and I took her out to one of her favorite Italian restaurants. Next door to the restaurant was a music store and Mom just walked in, sat down at a grand piano and played a magnificent version of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude In C-Sharp Minor". We, and the staff at that store, were amazed. At the time, she was suffering from dementia and was only days away from being admitted to a care center for Alzheimer's patients. That was the last time I ever heard her play the piano.

Steve Johnson is now a Stringer living in Glendale, Arizona


You can search below for any word or words in all issues of the Melrose Mirror.
Loading
| Return to section | The Front Page | Write to us |

Write to us