The Unicorn Coffee House

825 Boylston Street, Boston, MA

In the 1960s American folk music experienced a great revival. The movement was centered in Greenwich Village, New York and in the Boston area.  There were many  coffeehouses in eastern Massachusetts presenting live music.  In Harvard Square there was Club 47.  In Boston’s Back Bay, there was the Unicorn.

It was owned by George Papadopolous, who also operated the rock club Psychedelic Supermarket. Located on Boylston Street across from what is now Hynes Auditorium, the Unicorn was what could be called intimate, that is, it was small and dark.  But the roster of performers who appeared there well into the 1970s lit the place up.  The folk performers it showcased included Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Richard & Mimi Farina, bluegrass greats The Kentucky Colonels, Dave van Ronk, David Blue and Tim Hardin.

Tom Rush recorded his first album live there in 1962 (with Fritz Richmond on washtub), giving him special cache among Boston folkies as “the guy with the record.”  Only 600 copies were pressed, and today one will fetch up to $500 on eBay.  On open mic nights, unknowns could sing and strum before a live audience, and dream of becoming the next Bob Dylan.

The Unicorn was much more than just a folk club, however.  Among the blues greats who played the room were Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, John Mayall and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  It also featured many up-and-coming rock acts, such as Van Morrison, Jefferson Airplane, The Chambers Brothers, Gram Parson’s International Submarine Band, The Velvet Underground and, before they became TV stars, The Monkees.  And it hosted local groups such as the J.Geils Band (before Peter Wolf joined the group), Colwell-Winfield Blues Band,  The Modern Lovers, Ultimate Spinach and Orpheus, who were discovered there and signed to a record deal.  For a while WBZ’s great DJ Dick Summer did a weekly MC gig at the club.

With no liquor license, coffee and music were the only intoxicants.  Like many smaller venues, the Unicorn succumbed to the changing economics of the music business. In 1971 it moved to a larger location on upper Boylston Street (past Mass. Ave.), but the spirit of the Unicorn had fled, and it closed soon after.  Yet it left its mark as one of the legendary clubs in Boston.
(by Steve Nelson)

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