The Hot Tin Roof: Keeping a legend alive
August 18, 2005
By Karla Araujo
This funky, unassuming sign on the road to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport has been pointing the way to top-notch entertainment for 25 years.
John Belushi, the Blues Brother himself, was one of many legendary performers to appear at the Hot Tin Roof over the decades.
Carly Simon holds the microphone for her daughter Sally Taylor years ago. Today, Sally and her brother Ben, both popular performers, carry on the family tradition on stage and at the Roof.
The names of the artists are a veritable "Who’s Who” from every segment of the popular music industry: Bonnie Raitt, Cyndi Lauper, Robert Cray, Dizzy Gillespie, Taj Mahal, Peter Tosh, Cheryl Wheeler, Los Lobos, Hall & Oates, 10,000 Maniacs, Burning Spear, even The Mamas and the Papas. The faces in the audience were often equally iconic: Diana Ross, James Taylor, Jackie Onassis, Dan Ackroyd, John Travolta, John Belushi, Keith Richards, and, of course, Carly Simon.
Both lists go on and on, a tribute to the unassuming, industrial-looking building tucked away in the woods adjacent to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. It opened to much fanfare in 1979, a victory against conservative voices that opposed the concept of a nightclub on a family-oriented island. Being at the Hot Tin Roof on opening night (or at least saying you were) was akin to having been at Woodstock. Well, nearly. By all reports, it was a mob scene.
"Everyone went back then,” said Nina Bramhall. Now a year-round resident and well-known photographer, in 1979 she was a fresh-faced 20-year-old on summer break from college. "I was the Door Girl. The greeter. I also sold tickets. There was no place else like it on the Island. No place where you could hear live music and dance — not music like this. It was completely happening. All the time.”
Three Island residents had hatched the idea and turned it into reality: pop music star Carly Simon, then married to James Taylor; George Brush, and Herb Putnam. They were young. They loved the Vineyard. They loved music. They had a concept and a little money to invest. Back then, that was enough. After months of very visible battles with Island officials and prominent citizens, a license was granted for the seasonal operation of a dine-and-dance establishment four miles from the center of Edgartown, on a 40,000-square-foot tract of land abutting the airport. According to the Notice in the local newspaper, the Hot Tin Roof’s location was described by the Town of Edgartown as: "[the] access road leading to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport dump.” It was a somewhat inauspicious beginning.
Making a big splash
The whole world was watching the little island off the coast of Massachusetts, or so it seemed at the time. News of the Hot Tin Roof was heralded in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and People magazine, not to mention the local and regional media. According to quotes from the day, the Roof would feature food, both live and recorded music, dancing most nights of the week, with occasional comedy, theatre, movies or private functions. Both Mr. Brush and Mr. Putnam reassured concerned Island residents that the club would be neither a disco nor a venue for "electronic-acid rock.” The original structure was designed to accommodate about 285 people.
"Back in the early ‘80s, there were lines to get in ’till 12:30 at night,” said Dennis Wells, a bartender at the Roof since 1980. "It was always a party. People were out all night. There was romance. We always had fun. People would walk in and ask, ‘Who’s in the house tonight?’ That meant, "Which celebrities are here?” It could be Glenn Close. Or Keith Richards. But it was usually someone.”
According to Island bird expert, Times columnist, and real estate sales associate Vern Laux, opening night at the Hot Tin Roof never really happened. At least not when it was supposed to. Hired as a bouncer for his crowd control capabilities, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound former defensive tackle assumed his post at the door the night the Roof was set to open.
"Belushi, Ackroyd and Carly all showed up but the club wasn’t ready. It really wasn’t ready. We had to turn away hundreds of people. It opened the next night. But that first night I partied with John Belushi. It was unforgettable. It was a wild time. That whole era was. Everyone wanted to get into the Roof.”
Growing and changing
Over the years, the Hot Tin Roof has changed ownership and management, its popularity waxing and waning. There was even a period when it closed down. And once, to the disgust of many loyal "Roofers,” it became an antiques store. But in 1996, resurrected by original partners Carly Simon and Herb Putnam, along with a group of seven other investors including heavy-hitters Harvey Weinstein, Dirk Ziff, and Steve Rattner, the Roof re-opened and reassumed its pre-eminence as the Island’s largest venue for live music, newly refurbished, with an improved sound system.
Singer/songwriter Carly Simon spoke candidly about her ongoing involvement in the Hot Tin Roof. She and original partners Brush and Putnam conceived of the venue as a replacement for the former Mooncusser on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
"I grew up in the ‘60s listening to wonderful music there and we all missed its presence on the Island,” she said. "We looked at the Hot Tin Roof as a place to bring in great music from New York, Boston, or anywhere in the country.” After several successful seasons, Ms. Simon recollected, the club was prohibited from hosting its profitable D.J. nights. By the mid-1980s, the group decided to sell.
"We sold it to an Island buyer who proved unable to run it. By 1995, Herb and I decided to get re-involved,” she said. The current investors, however, have never really coalesced into a decision-making group, according to Ms. Simon. "We’ve never met as a whole and I guess I had hoped that their business aptitude and my artistic sense could come together.”
Ms. Simon seems to feel genuine concern about the quality of the audience’s experience, expressing her sentiment that the sound system doesn’t measure up to her professional standards. "You should be able to hear every lyric,” she explained, adding that she would love to see the sound quality further improved in the future.
As for the very near future, Ms. Simon plans to join her son Ben Taylor on stage at the Roof this Saturday night. "It has a great history, a great name and great potential,” she concluded. "I want to see it returned to a place where great bands can play and it can be in the black — or better — at the end of the summer.”
Current Hot Tin Roof Manager Cory Cabral, his passion for the place clearly visible on his 26-year-old face, spoke reverently of the establishment: "I worked the front door with my brother in the late ‘90s, I fell in love with the atmosphere. The mystique. The murals by Margot Datz. It’s calm, serene. Easy. Intimate. Here you can connect with the artists and the feeling they’re trying to convey. There’s no place else like it.”
Now in his third season as manager, Mr. Cabral has earned a reputation as a Roof devotee, one with a clear eye for talent and a firm grasp on the difficulties of running a night club in a still somewhat remote location on a demographically diverse island.
"The market has definitely changed,” he said. "When the Roof opened in the late ‘70s, it was a different time — the music was different, the social climate was different, the people were different.”
Capacity was expanded in 1996 to 550, making it a tougher house to fill. Drinking and driving laws have become more stringent, a deterrent to some for making the trip out to the middle of the Island. The club has struggled to provide some form of public transportation and continues to wrestle with the issue.
As Mr. Cabral sees it, a typical Vineyard season brings diverse age groups to the Island at varying times: "In July we get a younger demo,” he said. "In August, it’s older, more affluent. We try to book accordingly.”
A look at this season’s acts confirms the club’s multiple personalities: Toots and the Maytals, Jim Belushi and the Sacred Hearts, Donna the Buffalo, Blues Traveler, Tom Rush, Sizzla, and the Temptations to name just a few. Some nights are packed with fans; others are quieter.
Over the years, The Hot Tin Roof has demonstrated its commitment to the community beyond providing a venue for nationally known and up-and-coming talent. It is often the setting for non-profit fundraisers hosted by organizations such as the Vineyard Nursing Association, the American Cancer Society, the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena, the NAACP, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, and the Island YMCA. The Roof has also opened its doors for many alcohol-free youth activities, including the popular annual "Battle of the Bands,” a competition for young Island musicians, as well as teen nights and "all ages” concerts.
Bill Narkiewicz, blues disc jockey for WMVY, the Island’s radio station, believes that consistency is the Roof’s current trademark. "During the past three seasons, Cory has returned the Roof to its former level of top quality booking. Now it rivals any club on the planet – you can’t find live music of this caliber in many major cities. Through the Roof, the world comes to us.”
Memories and mystique
Ask almost any Vineyard resident between the ages of 25 and 65 about the Hot Tin Roof and you’ll get a notebook full of memories. The words "legendary” and "unique” come up most often. Patrons like Island builder Paul Adler, now 52, met his wife Lisa there in the early 1980s. New Bedford resident and music promoter Sean Moriarty, 38, met his wife Christina Connelly there 10 years ago when she was bartending.
Mr. Adler attended opening night in 1979 and, by his own admission, nearly every night thereafter for the next several seasons. "It was the best place in the world for a single guy,” he said, still with an unmistakable note of satisfaction in his voice. "It’s an integral part of Martha’s Vineyard. Edgartown and other towns on the Island should support it and be more sensitive to its cultural importance.”
Regular attendee Barbara Garfinkle, part-time resident of West Tisbury, recounted her first visit to the Roof: "I was invited to see Kenny Rankin perform. I had been to Woodstock. It was so incredible I wasn’t interested in ever going to a concert again. We went for dinner at the Roof. I loved the atmosphere and Kenny Rankin completely blew me away. Another time I brought friends from Canada to Kate Taylor’s birthday party there. All of a sudden, Carly, James, and Livingston Taylor show up on stage to sing. It’s always like that. You never know who will get on stage or who’s in the crowd. That’s what makes it so special.” Last year, she found herself, as she put it, "nearly standing on my chair” in enthusiasm for up-and-comer Jamie Cullum, U.K.-based jazz singer and pianist.
Employees and former staff have their own mental scrapbooks of memories. Steve "Mack” McQuiggan, a sound engineer and carpenter who has worked at the Hot Tin Roof off and on since its opening, has a unique souvenir from one of his favorite nights on the job. He explained: "Ricky Nelson and his band were scheduled to play. I wasn’t too excited about them, figuring they were old news. Turns out they were incredible. His three-piece back-up band consisted of Nashville’s finest studio musicians. As Ricky got warmer on the stage, he peeled off his jacket and handed it to me. Then his tie came off. I was cleaning up the stage after they left and found his tie. I still have it. He died in a plane crash the following winter.”
Dean "Dino” Listro, former doorman and bartender from 1979 to 1983, fondly recounted his memory of John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd trying out new material on Hot Tin Roof audiences. "They introduced an act they called The Stereo Kings. It became The Blues Brothers. We were the start of an album and a major movie.”
Toby Codding, a disc jockey at the club from 1979 to 1986, credits the Roof for today’s many entertainment options on the Island. "Before the Roof,” he said, "entertainment on the Vineyard was sporadic, at best. We were the first venue to schedule music on a regular basis.”
Box office manager Matt Rosenthal, 20, admits that music is his life. He talked his way into a job at the Roof because of his passion. He plays drums, flute, and piano and revels in the opportunity to surround himself with top-quality music and artists. "I love the Roof because of its vibe,” he said. "There’s nowhere else you can listen to the kind of bands we get in such an intimate venue.”
Part of the Roof’s identity has always been its aura of mystery. Who really owns the club? Are they committed to its future? Past and present employees and patrons seem to agree on one key issue: regardless of ownership, the Hot Tin Roof has played a vital role in providing top-quality live entertainment to the Island for over 25 years.
Mr. Cabral, Ms. Welsh, and a long list of other Islanders salute long-time resident and club owner Herb Putnam for his years of unwavering commitment to the Roof. According to Mr. Cabral, Mr. Putnam is currently suffering from health problems.
"If not for Herb, the Roof would have been gone years ago,” Mr. Cabral said. "There has always been one constant and that is Herb. He is the foundation of the club and we want to say thank you, we’re in your corner.”
The Hot Tin Roof is celebrating its 26th season this summer. There have been a few bumps along the way, but as WMVY disc jockey Bill Narkiewicz pointed out, "No matter what the entertainment, the Roof has a transcendent quality. It’s a place you can go and feel as if you’re somewhere else. Whatever goes on here captures you. Things that can’t happen anywhere else can happen here.”
Karla Araujo is a tennis instructor and freelance writer.