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The Providence Music Scene, Then and Now

Rudy Cheeks on four decades of local music

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I’ve been asked to describe what the arts and music scene was like in Providence back in the ‘70s when this paper was just getting started. In short, it was an incredibly exciting place to be, and I was fortunate enough to be right in the middle of it all.

I had fallen in with some folks from RISD and we had started a band called The Fabulous Motels. In the band were not only the seeds of what would become The Young Adults, but also an incredible number of figures who would soon outgrow Providence and make it big time.

The Sizzling Seventies

One was Charles (Claverie) Rocket, who left for Saturday Night Live and a career in films and television. Back then though, he and his partner in crime, the iconic painter Dan Gosch (who painted the famous wall portraits at the old Leo’s Bar), would often morph into Captain Packard and Lobo, environmental superheroes, who would appear at Kentucky Fried Chicken openings (invited) or at a General Assembly session (uninvited). Another of my personal
favorites was Bonita Flanders, who went on to do lots of sets, art design and costuming in films and at Trinity Rep as well as directing my cable television show, Club Genius, in the early ‘80s. But this isn’t about me. This is about a lot of other things going on, especially on the East Side, during this fertile period in Providence history.

Hope High School in the mid-‘70s was blessed with a number of incredibly talented music students, some of who made it big. Scott Hamilton, now considered one of the finest tenor saxophonists in the world, is based in London. Jack Moore (bass and drums), Rory McLeod (bass), Preston Hubbard (bass), Chris Flory (guitar) and others made it as well. Many did stints with Rhode Island’s own five-time Grammy nominated Roomful of Blues. True musicologists might be interested in knowing that Hubbard also played with The Fabulous Thunderbirds on their hit records with Columbia, while Moore actually moved to Texas and worked with legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Another classmate at Hope was Eddie Gorodetsky, who went from working in radio to writing and producing for television on such shows as Saturday Night Live, SCTV and Night Music (one of those great, late night music shows that only lasted a few years). Eddie also was the producer for Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2009) and, more recently, has been involved with a number of television sitcoms (among them, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory). 

The Club Scene Explodes
The mid-‘70s also marked the beginning of a new age of nightclubs in the Providence area that featured live music. The original Met Cafe and Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel both started in 1974-1975 a few blocks from each other in downtown Providence. Right across Westminster Street from Lupo’s was the original Living Room. Each club had a distinctive musical template: the Met featured primarily blues and rhythm and blues performers, Lupo’s presented a wider variety of roots music acts (now referred to as Americana) while the Living Room opened their doors to the emerging punk, new wave scene.

The mid-‘70s also marked the beginning of the alternative newspaper boom downtown, which acted as a stimulus to the music club scene. The first to appear was The NewPaper, an arts and entertainment alternative weekly that, by the mid-‘80s, was bought out by the Phoenix group of papers based in Boston, eventually becoming the Providence Phoenix. There was also a short-lived (five years) alt-weekly called The Providence Eagle, and when the Phoenix bought the NewPaper, another offshoot publication was put out by some former NewPaper staffers called The Nice Paper. The East Side-West Side was there as well, but concentrated less on the music scene.

Now that the music clubs had an alternative press to advertise and promote the emerging music scene, bands were sprouting up all over. One RISD student who tried out for a guitar was David Byrne. David didn’t get into the band but, soon after, put together a group of his own with fellow RISD-ites, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. They ended up moving to New York City and, within a few years, his band, the legendary Talking Heads, had become a major force in the music world and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Locally, bands like Rizzz and the Wild Turkey Band (which evolved into the Hometown Rockers) were creating a large local fan base from their weekly performances at Lupo’s. And there were the Schemers, Rash of Stabbings, Neutral Nation and many other new wave/punk bands that regularly played the Living Room. 

The Current Scene

That was then and this is now. There are still a lot of good musicians and good bands in the Providence area but the scene is not as lively as it once was. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this and I certainly don’t know the answers but have a few thoughts on why things have changed.

Technology is certainly one major reason. In the ‘70s there was no cable television, no Internet, none of the technological changes that allow people to have a wide variety of entertainment experiences in their homes. If you wanted to be entertained, you went out and usually saw a live band. Now, many of the clubs have DJ’s playing prerecorded music. 

When I go out to hear some music, I notice that a majority of the audience is comprised of other musicians and artists accompanied by a loyal group of fans who, while not performers, are the heart and soul of the scene. But, then again, this was also what it was like in the early ‘70s, before all the things I mentioned earlier exploded in Providence.

So, who knows what the future will bring. Speaking to friends around the country, though, I have good reason to believe that Providence is still one of the best music cities in the country.

Rudy Cheeks, former lead singer and one of three song writers for the Young Adults, and was also a columnist for the Providence Phoenix for over 30 years. He continues to co-write his weekly column Phillipe and Jorge for Motif Magazine.