This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of a legendary little night club in the sleepy town of Willimantic, Connecticut. The Shaboo Inn saw some of the biggest acts in the history of music perform on its stage. For major artists, it became the stop between New York and Boston, and for many acts, it drew the most enthusiastic crowds that many of them had ever witnessed. In big cities, there’s always a lot going on so you become a little jaded, but for the better part of 11 years, the Shaboo was the hottest spot for live music in New England.
It was the post-Woodstock era, and the Vietnam war was in its second decade, nearing its end. The generation that bore the brunt of that war was weary but still young and experiencing an unprecedented musical and social revolution. The famous artists spawned by the social changes occurring during that time have remained timeless and cherished by those same kids who are now in or approaching their senior years. The Shaboo Inn was the stage for so many of these musical greats and that stage was only 1 foot high and 1 foot away from a packed house of 750 – 1,000 delighted fans each night. All in all, the club produced about 3,000 nights of live music in a little over a decade.
The Shaboo Inn was an old textile mill built in 1847, that had been turned into a run down hotel, until 5 kids in their twenties from two families bought it and turned it into the most outstanding musical venue the state of Connecticut has ever seen. Other bigger clubs opened around the state with advanced audio and lighting systems but that’s not what made the experience of seeing an artist perform at the Shaboo so great. It’s not easy putting your finger on it, but the audience was so close and so packed in, that the artist felt the love of the crowd like they had never felt it before. The Shaboo was not just a great place for the spectator, but artist after artist, came back again and again, to experience the adoration of the people of Connecticut and beyond.
Blues acts like Muddy Waters and James Cotton found the Shaboo to be their home away from home and pretty much let every act from the Missisippi Delta to the South Side of Chicago know that this was a special room for blues acts. They all came – Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, BB King, Freddie King, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor, Big Momma Thorton and more all graced the small 15 foot by 30 foot stage.
But, the extraordinary thing about those 11 years that the club was open was that even though it was an established spot for superb blues artists, many other artists that weren’t doing arena tours, came through the doors. From rock, soul and rhythm & blues acts like Aerosmith, Journey, Hall & Oates, Joe Cocker, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Dr John, Sam & Dave, Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper, Lydia Pense & Cold Blood, David Crosby, Aztec Two-Step, Bobby Blue Bland, Buddy Miles, Tower of Power, Taj Mahal and Todd Rundgren, to jazz acts like Miles Davis, Weather Report, Les McCann, The Brubecks, Spyro Gyra, Gato Barbieri to breaking artists such as The Police, ACDC, Talking Heads, The Cars, Tom Waits, Robert Palmer, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello,The Ramones, Dire Straits and many more.
What was possibly the most awesome memory was watching great artists come of age. I was 13 years old the first time I saw a 24-year-old Bonnie Raitt play to a packed house on a Tuesday night for a $ 2.00 admission. Years later, a little known band called Little Feat opened up for Bonnie Raitt, before they became one of the biggest acts in the country.
British legends performed like Jack Bruce of Cream fame, John Mayall, Manfred Mann, The Byrds with Roger Mcguinn and Steve Marriot with Humble Pie. It being the post-Woodstock era, acts that played the festival like Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Leslie West, Canned Heat and Johnny Winter made you feel like it was 1969 all over again.
Then there were nights when everyone’s parents took over the club as the big band sounds of Count Basie, Harry James, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich would be accompanied by their 17 and 24-piece orchestras to bring back another great era of music.
You’ll never find a venue like this again, I don’t know if there will ever be another time in music like that again, but for tens of thousands of people who were lucky enough to be around New England forty years ago, it was a magical and sometimes mystical place in an amazing era in music.
This article will be the first in a series to celebrate the 40th birthday of this remarkable place.