It's been more than twenty-five years since Rich Lupo '70
surrendered to his adolescent fantasy of opening a bar where people
could dance to his record collection - the 45s he dragged to high
school parties and played while his friends made out. It's been
nearly as long since his childhood heroes, musical greats like Bo
Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Big Joe Turner, first performed in his
club and he began luring national acts to Providence at a time when
businesses and residents were abandoning the city.
At fifty-three, Lupo rarely comes to the club after dark these days.
He says that he's too old to be spending his nights in a smoky bar,
that the music passed him by long ago. He'd rather be watching the
Red Sox on television, he insists, or drinking wine with his friends
who call themselves the "curmudgeon club." Or playing in the local
Scrabble league he organized. Lately he's been consumed by a battle
with his landlord, who happens to be one of the city's dominant
developers and wants to turn the building that houses Lupo's
Heartbreak Hotel into upscale lofts. Lupo feels increasingly
threatened by those who see the club as a relic of an old Providence
whose time has passed. And he's picked up rumors that city officials
are planning to make his life miserable by rigidly enforcing sound
ordinances and fire codes. "I feel," he says, "like my club is the
state of Israel, constantly attacked from all sides."
Has the time come, Lupo wonders, to abandon downtown Providence and
start over in a rundown neighborhood on the southern edge of the
city? Or maybe it's time to retire. Get married and start a family.
Maybe it's time to grow up.
ON A FREEZING SATURDAY night
in mid-December, the first snow of the season falls in fits and
starts onto Providence streets. Inside Lupo's, as the club is best
known, the 1980s hair band Tesla is heating up the crowd with a
cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." The concert, sponsored by a
local radio station, sold out in three days, and there's barely room
to move. Two bearded, overweight men nearly trade blows over a
square of floor behind the sound booth - a spot from which the stage
is barely visible. Threats fly. Beer spills. Most of the crowd,
however, is focused on the band and is singing along to nearly every
lyric. People stomp, scream, and pump their fists in the air - all
for a band whose biggest hit was another cover, the 1960s
antiestablishment anthem "Signs."
Invisible in this sea of stone-washed denim, flannel, and leather,
Lupo slouches against a pillar near the back of the club holding a
cup of Bud Light. He likes what he sees. "I never heard of them
before," Lupo, who doesn't own a record minted after 1975, says of
the band. "I hate the music, but I like the crowd. It works. I mean,
look at the people, they're just so happy."
Lupo is also pleased because the radio station paid for the band
and, he explains, a working-class crowd outdrinks yuppies and
college kids any night. "When I see mullets, I'm happy," he jokes
about the hairstyle favored by many of the men around him. "Mullets
Nearly bald, with a waning half-moon of gray hair, Lupo has a puffy
face with small, bright blue eyes, a wide, freckled forehead, and a
stubbed-end nose. Although he stands six-foot-one, he seems shorter,
and he looks slimmer than his 210 pounds. He favors sweatshirts and
jeans over the slick suits and black leather of the stereotypical
club owner. (Until five years ago, Lupo dressed almost exclusively
in corduroys - he says it's impossible to find them anymore. He
switched to jeans only after his final four pairs of cords, which
he'd found at Goodwill, grew so threadbare you could see through
them.) Tonight he looks almost formal in a faded green polo shirt,
black jeans, and white New Balance sneakers. Lupo's insouciance
toward flash also extends to his choice of car and home: he drives a
1989 Mazda 323 (with a twenty-year-old Scrabble board in the
backseat, its box held together with duct tape) and lives in a
slightly shabby single-family home overlooking Roger Williams Park.
Restless, Lupo climbs a set of stairs to an L-shaped balcony and
scans the length of the club, a long rectangular space that was once
the Peerless department store; outside, portraits of rock 'n' roll
legends have replaced mannequins in the display windows. Gazing down
on the crowded club floor through a haze of cigarette smoke, Lupo
sounds almost wistful for "the early days." "This is what the club
was like in the '70s," he says.
WHEN THE ORIGINAL Heartbreak
Hotel opened in July 1975 Lupo figured the jukebox would supply most
of the music. But he quickly realized that live music attracted a
steady crowd, and within two months local bands were playing the bar
six nights a week. Soon regular customers began offering Lupo access
to bigger bands - at first Boston blues acts and later such national
blues figures as harp player Big Walter Horton. Blues became a
mainstay, leading to an association with blues-and-roots label
Alligator Records. Jack Reich, who was then the manager of the
popular Rhode Island band Rizzz, became Lupo's full-time booking
agent, bringing in younger, more current acts such as the Ramones,
the Talking Heads, the Police, the Pretenders, the Go-Gos, and
The bar solidified its reputation in 1978, after a customer helped
Lupo book renowned bluesman Bo Diddley. Lupo couldn't believe it.
(Years earlier, as an overweight eighteen-year-old freshman, he had
confided to a friend: "I'm going to open a bar, and Bo Diddley's
going to play there.") Over the years, Diddley was followed by the
likes of Muddy Waters, James Brown, Professor Longhair, Screamin'
Jay Hawkins, Albert King, and Carl Perkins - acts revered by Lupo
but overlooked as pass} by other club owners. All the while, Lupo
maintained a commitment to local musicians, booking them on
weeknights or as opening acts for better-known bands. "It's hard to
think of someone who wasn't there," says Tony Lioce '68, the Providence
Journal's music critic in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"Really. The Stones weren't there. The Who weren't there. But pretty
much everyone else was."
The music at Lupo's was so consistently good that crowds - including
many Brown students - would show up on a Friday night without any
idea who would actually be playing. They just knew the music would
be good and the beer and the cover charge would be cheap. "It was
one of those great rock 'n' roll barrooms you read about, like
Tipitina's [the legendary New Orleans club]," Lioce says. "But it
was in Providence, which was the most improbable place."
During the 1970s most people didn't venture into downtown Providence
at night unless they had to. Asphalt covered the rivers. Train
tracks scarred the city. Downtown was known mainly for its
collection of porn shops, strip clubs, and dive bars. "It was a
little worse than Dresden," Lupo says, only half-joking.
Lupo's gave music fans a reason to brave the urban frontier. "He's
one of the reasons for the downtown renaissance," says local
newspaper columnist Rudy Cheeks, whose former band, the Young
Adults, played Lupo's regularly. "He started drawing people down
there when a lot of things were dead."
Well-known bands helped Lupo underwrite appearances by the acts he
wanted to see. In September 1985 he booked New Orleans songwriter,
producer, and pianist Allen Toussaint for a rare live performance.
Toussaint was unknown to most music fans even though bands like the
Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Fleetwood Mac were recording his
songs. Lupo didn't care who showed up to hear him.
"This is what separates the men club owners from the boy club
owners," he told former Providence
Journal rock critic
Mike Boehm during the show in the half-empty club.
"Whatever else he'd done," Boehm recalls, "the Rhode Island debut of
Allen Toussaint had happened in his club, and that was more
important than turning a profit."
LUPO GREW UP in
and around Boston, the youngest of three children born to a
housewife and a singing bartender. From an early age he filled his
head with the show tunes and operatic numbers his father practiced
on the piano. But it was the early R&B hits issuing from the radio
that captured Lupo's imagination. By the age of ten or eleven he was
trolling Boston record stores for 45s.
A self-described nerd, Lupo turned to music as a social outlet. But
there was a problem: no one really wanted to listen to his records.
In high school his friends were listening to the Beach Boys and
early 1960s rock 'n' roll, while Lupo grooved to "The Train Kept A
Rollin' " by Johnny Burnette & the Rock 'n' Roll Trio. At Brown one
of Lupo's favorite nighttime activities was sitting around the
record player. "I can remember, you know, thinking about what to do
on Friday night and saying [to friends], ԙYou want to play records?'
" Lupo recalls. "And people just looked at me: ԗWell, maybe not
Lupo, who'd arrived on campus as a 280-pound freshman, walked onto
the football team and was picked to play defensive tackle. He
enjoyed the game but believed his physique was stifling his love
life. "I got tired of looking at my stomach when I was lying down,"
he says, and by the beginning of his sophomore year he had lost
ninety pounds, limiting himself to 1,400 calories a day. "Everyone
thought I was a drug freak because I was thin, and it was the late
'60s and everyone was doing drugs," he says. "I kept trying to
explain that I was just counting my calories." Lupo maintains nearly
the same fanatical discipline about eating to this day, slicing and
weighing a loaf of bread before freezing it to calculate the
"I was kind of a lost soul," he recalls of his years at Brown. "I
felt everything. I felt the jock thing. I felt the hippie thing. You
know, I really saw both sides of everything."
Lupo graduated in 1970 with a degree in psychology and plans to work
with troubled youth. He says that idea lasted about a week. He spent
the next few years drifting around Providence, painting houses when
he needed money and trying to disabuse himself of the notion of
opening his ideal bar. He worried that his dream would be a waste of
his education, that his widowed mother would be embarrassed to have
a glorified bartender for a son. In retrospect, his friends say it's
hard to believe that he ever considered doing anything else.
"Until he opened the bar, he didn't really seem to fit anywhere,"
says his freshman-year roommate, Jim Wolpaw '70.
THE ORIGINAL LUPO'S, at the southern end of Westminster
Street, Providence's main downtown corridor, was dirty, crowded, and
loud, the kind of place where you avoided using the bathroom at all
costs. In the early days, Lupo served as bartender, janitor, and
cook. For a time he even lived there, bunking up in the balcony at
night.The club's air stank of sweat and stale beer. The band room
was little more than a low-ceilinged closet in the basement, often
with three inches of standing water on the floor and beer bottles
stacked all around. When the Ramones played the club in 1976, Joey
Ramone called it the most disgusting band room he'd ever seen. Lupo
Lioce remembers Lupo calling him one Christmas morning to ask
whether he would write an article about The Band if Lupo managed to
book them. Lupo, who is Jewish, didn't understand why Lioce was
annoyed at the timing of his call. "The guy was a complete lunatic,"
Lioce says. "He lived for that place. That bar was his whole life."
"[Lupo] set the tone for the place," Boehm says. "It was very earthy
and yet very astute and attuned to music. A place that was maybe
more unpretentious than it needed to be, but a place that when you
walked in you knew it was about the music."
Above all, Lupo's was inviting to musicians. Joe Jackson came in for
a drink and ended up onstage, as did Ray Davies and Mick Avory of
the Kinks. Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played there before jumping to
bigger venues, dropped by after a show at the Providence Civic
Center and wound up performing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which
included his older brother, Jimmie.
Lupo's dreams kept coming true. In the early 1980s he managed to
book bluesman Paul Butterfield, the first musician he had ever seen
perform live. (He'd been a high school sophomore at the time.) But
at Lupo's, Butterfield suffered a bad case of stage fright, and when
Lupo went to check on him, the musician demanded that he pray with
him. The two men dropped to their knees on the grimy basement floor
and linked hands for fifteen minutes.
Prayer, however, couldn't save the club in July 1988 after the
landlord converted the building into apartments. NRBQ headlined an
emotional final show. It was past 2 a.m. when Lupo ordered the crowd
to get out. But first they wanted a memento of Providence music
history. They tore plaster from the ceiling and woodwork off the
walls. "Signs, stools, tables, beer pitchers - they all go," the Providence
"In the parking lot two guys battle over a Lupo's chair like hyenas
fighting over the kill."
Five years passed before Lupo was able to reopen the club a few
blocks north on Westminster Street. The new Heartbreak Hotel
represented something of a philosophical change for Lupo. "The old
club was a bar that had concerts, while this is a concert club,"
Lupo explains. The new Lupo's is bigger and cleaner than its
predecessor, but it retains the same unpretentious roadhouse feel.
Like the old club, the stage faces the short side of the bar, making
it easier for the audience to get closer to the bands. In an homage
to Scrabble (which Lupo began playing competitively after the first
club closed), the floor is inlaid with an array of blue, pink, and
red tiles - the world's largest permanent Scrabble board, Lupo
boasts. Next door he runs a small sister club, the Met Cafe, which
features local acts and up-and-coming artists. Everclear, Oasis, and
Dave Matthews all played the Met before breaking out.
The musical mix at Lupo's remains eclectic, but alternative and pop
now dominate the lineup, which also includes some occasional blues,
world beat, reggae, funk, and jazz. Lupo's reputation for attracting
a wide range of high-quality acts has enabled the club to maintain
its independence while other midsize clubs have folded in the
increasingly cutthroat and corporate music and club scenes.
"He's followed tastes and basically brought bands into the club that
are going to sell," says Roomful of Blues manager Bob Bell. "And I
think a lot of people in this business go out of business because
they book people they want to listen to."