A Blues Summit In A VW Bus

Steve Nelson was the manager of the Boston Tea Party in 1967-68.

Rock & Roll evolved from a mixing of musical cultures, a concoction cooked up from different ingredients to create tasty new licks. We all know the story of Sam Phillips at Sun Records looking for a white boy who could sing black music, and finding Elvis.

If you were around Boston in the late Sixties, you could get a good whiff of that strange brew at The Boston Tea Party. It was a local joint in a century-old church building in the South End. For three bucks you could spend the night listening and dancing to area acts like The Hallucinations, a blues and R&B cover band that was Peter Wolf’s first group before he fronted The J. Geils Band. The hip place to go, the club’s popularity grew as it began booking out-of-town artists from New York (The Velvet Underground), the West Coast (Country Joe & The Fish) and England (The Yardbirds).

Through a strange twist of fate, I became the manager of the Tea Party a few months after it opened in 1967. In addition to rock acts, I booked blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. In late May 1968 I brought in John Lee Hooker for three nights, with The Hallucinations opening. They also backed up John Lee, who traveled solo, and was Peter’s musical idol. In the audience one night was a recent émigré from Belfast then living in Cambridge, Van Morrison. In fact, he played the Tea Party the next weekend, performing material for the album he would record that fall, Astral Weeks.

After the show I gave Peter, Van and John Lee a ride to Cambridge, where Peter and I also lived. While I manned the wheel, the three of them sat together on the back bench seat of the Tea Party’s VW bus and carried on an animated conversation. Here you had a white kid from the Bronx who was a lover and interpreter of blues and R&B, an Irishman who grew up listening to that same music on records his father brought back from the States, and out of Mississippi and Detroit, one of the true creators of electric blues and boogie.

At the time Peter also DJ’d on WBCN-FM, which began its free-form programming format that March. He was known for his “Woofa Goofa” fast-talking hipster patter. Van had a brogue so thick and slurred that even Irish Bostonians could barely make out what he was saying. John Lee spoke softly in a deep Southern drawl, with a stutter.

With those three guys in the back seat, of course I listened in to the conversation. But they each had such a distinct patois, I could barely make out a word they were saying. Yet they understood each other perfectly. It was like a U.N. of the blues, without translators. And for those musical ambassadors, no translation was needed. Each in his own way spoke the same language, in the back of the bus and on the stage of the Tea Party.

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