Do you like good music? That sweet soul music? That’s what Arthur Conley asked in 1967 and to this day the answer from Americans by and large is a resounding “Hell Yeah!”
Boston once had a soul music nightclub right downtown on 110 Boylston St. It was called The Sugar Shack and it served up live soul music seven nights a week. The Shack was part of the nation’s informal nightclub subset known as the “Chitlin Circuit.” That circuit included the Uptown Theater in Philly, the Royal Theater in Baltimore and the Regal in Chicago among many others. The circuit grew because African American performers lacked performing outlets in the Jim Crow Era when they were not allowed to perform at white establishments. “Chitlins” themselves are a soul food dish made from pig intestines. The dish dates to American slavery when the master ate “high on the hog” — keeping the ham and bacon — while giving his slaves the less desirable parts, among them the chitterlings, referred to as “chitlins.”
While the circuits’ heyday ran from the 30s to the 60s, Boston’s entry did not come about until the late 60s. It was called The Sugar Shack. Located at 110 Boylston St, the club served up soul music to Boston’s black community (and some whites) for nearly a decade.
“It was the best venue in the history of the city of Boston for black music, no doubt,” recalls Eddie B, Charlestown’s unofficial soul music ambassador. “The only groups that didn’t play there were The Supremes and The Temptations. The acoustics were great. I remember when the Chi Lites played. The first time nobody knew who the hell they were. Then six months later “Oh Girl” came out and you had to stand in a long line to see ‘em. Well, I didn’t have to, but… Unless I was sick or fishin’ I was there every single night.”
The Sugar Shack was owned by North Ender Rudy Guarino and staffed by local Italians. Guarino’s brother “Sticker” ran the door and ordered the booze. Gerry Maffeo was head bartender, often handing free bottles to performing artists. The Dells were apparently most grateful for that perk. Any music not performed live came from the best stocked jukebox in the history of the world, at least as Eddie B saw it. He picked up the used ones once they fell out of rotation, records that today command top collector prices.
“We had the Funkadelic early on,” barkeep Maffeo, a member of the North End Golf Association remembered in a recent interview. “Free your mind. Free everything. They were so broke they camped out on Boston Common! Then there was Wayne Cochran. He was a white guy but he put on a helluva show. That guy practically swung from the freakin’ chandeliers.”
Standout shows were The Dells, James Brown, The Impressions (Curtis Mayfield’s 60s group), Tavares (then known as Chubby & The Turnpikes), and Ray Charles as Eddie B recalls. Other notables included Sam & Dave and the aforementioned Arthur Conley.
On Sundays the Shack offered a matinee for kids 12-17. They would get to see the show for a buck. And a buck a soft drink. They’d see the same acts their parents and neighbors saw. Usually the groups’ engagement was for the whole week.
“There’ll never be another club like it. Never ever,” Eddie B emphasized. “Everybody that played there loved the club. Everybody”
The Sugar Shack closed its doors in 1977 as disco fever gripped the city. Its last act was LC Smith & The Trends.
Jim Botticelli administers the popular Facebook and Instagram pages Dirty Old Boston. He is the author of Dirty Old Boston: Four Decades of a City In Transition available from local independent bookstores.