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Tina De Lellis, owner of Johnny D's, 70

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / April 10, 2008

SOMERVILLE -- A woman’s black blazer was draped over the back rest of a stool at the bar and a pint glass of hot water with lemon rested in front of it, as if the person drinking it would return to the perch momentarily.

Longtime patrons of Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant and Music club knew that when they entered the Davis Square institution this is where they would find Tina De Lellis, surveying her domain from underneath her signature blonde, bangs-and-bun hairdo.

But De Lellis will not be returning to the business she ran successfully for 40 years, first with her late husband John, and then alongside her late son David, daughter Carla, and son-in-law Sean Sturgis -- a place De Lellis transformed from a rough-and-tumble townie bar to a seven-nights-a-week mecca for roots music aficionados and seekers of a fine jazz brunch. De Lellis, 70, died Tuesday night after suffering a heart attack.

The response from the music community, longtime patrons, and the close-knit neighborhood has been immediate and personal, reflecting the esteem in which she was held as a businesswoman, friend and survivor in an industry that doesn't usually reward following discerning taste over flashy trends.

On Wednesday night, Johnny D’s opened its doors to receive well-wishers, who stopped by with flower and notes and stories.

Sean Nelson of the r&b/funk band Superhoney, which was in the regular club rotation, said he saw De Lellis for the last time at a gig two weeks ago.

“She greeted me like a son and was always quick with a wisecrack or two,'' he said at the club. "As an owner, she was a refreshing change from the area's live music culture, maintaining a family-run operation and embracing blues-soul-roots acts that most clubs routinely ignore.”

Reading the note taped to the front door announcing De Lellis' death, Somerville resident Rudy Fontein expressed his dismay. “I’ve been coming here for over 10 years,” he said, calling Johnny D's the place for great music.

Thursday morning, standing beside her mother’s stool, Carla De Lellis said she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring. “It’s things like this,” she says gesturing at tulips left in front of Tina’s glass, “that mean the most.”

A close inspection revealed that Tina's stool is raggedy specimen, with stuffing leeching out around duct-taped cracks in the cushion, while its neighbors are in tip-top shape. That she chose this stool was no accident, Carla says, but emblematic of her mother’s approach to business.

“Better that she sit here than the customers be uncomfortable,” she said.

It was perhaps because De Lellis was familiar with discomfort that it was important to her that her family, staff, patrons, and musicians always felt satisfied and safe.

Before immigrating to the United Sates at 13, her family said, De Lellis witnessed the horror and privation of World War II in her native Naples, Italy. Her son-in-law Sturgis says De Lellis wasn't eager to speak of the difficulties of her childhood. But over time he and Carla heard tales of shootings by the occupying German soldiers and the humiliation of being turned away by the village grocer after her family ran out of credit.

While praising her nurturing side, staff, musicians, and relatives said those childhood experiences -- coupled with coming to a new country, opening a business and having to continue alone after her husband's death -- informed the sometimes cool exterior De Lellis exhibited to those who didn't know her well.

“The first time I ever played there I made the mistake of sitting on her barstool, and she definitely let me know that was not okay,” singer-songwriter Sarah Borges, a favorite new artist at the club with her band the Broken Singles, said with a laugh. But she admired the way De Lellis was "committed to running a tight ship.''

US Representative Michael Capuano, former Somerville mayor and a family friend, says he believes her toughness was necessary to run a business but that he found it easy to see through to the softie at the core.

“You can’t do that kind of business without liking people,” said Capuano, whose sons worked at the club bussing tables when they were in high school.

The family had been planning a 40th anniversary celebration for the club this winter, which Carla had hoped to secretly double as a tribute to her mom. She is unsure what shape the show will take now but it will go on, perhaps with videotaped remembrances.

For the moment, the club marquee reads only “We Will Miss You Tina.” But names of upcoming acts will soon reappear and the clatter of brunch dishes and the sound of music will ring out again. Carla has been running the business with her mother for more than 20 years and has no plans to stop now.

“I feel like my mother’s daughter, I’m cut from the same cloth,” she said.

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