Rooted in family

Johnny D’s celebrates 40 years of down-home music and memories

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF Carla DeLellis took over Johnny D’s from her parents, the late Johnny and Tina DeLellis. A week of music will honor their memory and the club’s anniversary.
Carla DeLellis took over Johnny D’s from her parents, the late Johnny and Tina DeLellis. A week of music will honor their memory and the club’s anniversary. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Adam Conner-Simons
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2009

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Walking into Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club is like entering some lost relic of the past, with its creaky barstools, old-time diner food, and endearingly mish-mashed decor of scratched album covers and vintage beer posters. If the Davis Square watering hole looks like it hasn’t changed much since the ’60s, that may be because it hasn’t. For Johnny D’s, which celebrates its 40th anniversary with a weeklong concert series ending tomorrow night, much of its charm rests with the restaurant’s steadfast dedication to its roots - and its roots music.

Structurally, of course, the spot has hardly been stagnant since Johnny and Tina DeLellis bought it in 1969. An expansion in 1974 helped accommodate country acts five nights a week, while the addition of a full kitchen in 1988 helped to further increase its reputation. “They might have swapped in a few pictures and big-screen TVs,’’ says Garrett Savluk of the Boston Horns, “but really, it’s pretty much the same Johnny D’s it’s always been, and I think that’s part of their success.’’

Besides offering Southern-tinged comfort food and a popular weekend jazz brunch, Johnny D’s is best-known for a diverse music calendar that features styles ranging from bluegrass and funk to Afrobeat and zydeco. “A lot of clubs try to capture the musical trends of the times,’’ says Bill Coover of Memphis Rockabilly, which has gigged regularly at the venue since 1980. “[John ny D’s] has stuck to its guns.’’

That said, soundman Dana Westover - who has booked bands at Johnny D’s for the last 25 years - has developed an uncanny knack for spotlighting acts that later break into the mainstream, including Jeff Buckley, Wilco, the Dixie Chicks, and Susan Tedeschi (who used to head up the Sunday blues jams in the ’90s). “My philosophy is to make sure everything that goes onstage is high quality,’’ Westover says. “You want people to trust you and return even if they don’t know the name on the marquee.’’

For the anniversary week, owner Carla DeLellis (daughter of the late Johnny and Tina) arranged a typically eclectic lineup featuring the Funky White Honkies and alt-jazz outfit Garaj Mahal, with shows every night through Saturday, Oct. 10 - a date that, not coincidentally, represents what would have been the 83d birthday of Johnny DeLellis. Numerous musicians and sponsors from over the years have donated merchandise to be raffled off, and Carla will also introduce extended kitchen hours and lunch-time DJ sets. “It’s a chance to step back and recognize how this place has impacted the lives of so many people,’’ she says. “It’s a celebration of everybody that has been a part of the Johnny D’s community.’’

The 40th anniversary festivities almost didn’t happen. Discussions about having an event were tabled last year, after Tina’s sudden death in April following a heart attack. It was not until this summer that Carla reconsidered after reflecting on the many friendships - and romances - that have blossomed thanks to Johnny D’s. In 2003 regulars Deborah Silverstein and Jim Neely held their wedding there, with a procession on the dance floor and musicians performing throughout the day. “There are a number of places in Boston where you can go in, order some food, and move out,’’ Neely says. “There’s some glue to Johnny D’s - an energy to the interactions - that immerses you and keeps you coming back.’’

In an age of conglomerates controlling Boston’s music scene, Johnny D’s remains a family-oriented operation. Siblings, uncles, and cousins have all lent a hand; Carla met her husband, Sean Sturgis, after he joined the waitstaff. “Even our 7-year-old daughter has been giving us tips for the kids’ menu,’’ Sturgis says with a laugh.

Carla attributes the continued success of Johnny D’s to her family’s strong work ethic and roll-up-the-sleeves mentality. Her constant fine-tuning of everything from the concert schedules to the table layout is part of a plan to stay relevant while keeping the restaurant’s core values intact. “You’re always going to face challenges,’’ Carla says. “So it’s really about asking ourselves, ‘What do we want the next decade of Johnny D’s to look like?’ ’’ Chances are, it’ll still involve a lively atmosphere, heaping helpings of homemade oatmeal, and some funky tunes.

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