What was happening at the Hi-Hat in the first half of 1955? It was riding high, Boston’s House of Jazz, presenting, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach and Clifford Brown. After the summer shutdown, though, it was almost as if it were a different club.

Ad for Roy Hamilton at Hi-Hat

Roy Hamilton at the Hi-Hat, Nov 14-20, 1955

October started with Mel Torme, followed by the doo-wop group The Stylers, and then pop singer Sunny Gale. Next came guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, an R&B outfit who performed in kilts, on an unusual bill with singer Jeri Southern. Then came the venerable R&B band of Steve Gibson and the Red Tops with singer Damita Jo.

Metronome didn’t like it, lamenting that the Hi-Hat was now featuring the likes of Tiny Grimes, a onetime jazz guitarist playing in a band “with funny hats and blue jokes.”  The Harvard Crimson, which then followed jazz closely, also complained that the club had abandoned good jazz in favor of singers and R&B bands with semi-jazz overtones.

The mixed-bag schedule might have confused the press, but when Roy Hamilton opened at the Hi-Hat on November 14, the public showed it wasn’t confused at all—everybody wanted in. Roy Hamilton’s one-week engagement at the Hi-Hat set the club’s box office record, or so wrote Daily Record columnist George C. Clarke a few months  later.

Roy Hamilton, who died in 1969, is little remembered today, but in 1955 he soared on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts. His blockbuster then was “Unchained Melody,” which followed on hits like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Ebb Tide.” Roy Hamilton was huge, a crossover artist who took pages from the books of Billy Eckstine and Billy Daniels.

The trombone band of drummer Manuel Denize, aka Manny Wise, backed Hamilton. Wise came to Boston from the U.K. in the late 1940s, and acquired his colorful stage name during the mambo craze, when a band booker decided that “Manny Wise didn’t sound very Latin.” By 1955 Wise had organized a septet featuring three trombones, a saxophone, and piano-bass-drums. The Hi-Hat hired Wise’s band because the show needed a big sound to support Hamilton’s dramatics. Wise delivered it—George Wein said it was the loudest septet he ever heard.

Manny wasn’t the only drummer in the family. His cousin Arnie Wise played drums with Steve Kuhn, locally at the Club 47, and later with Dave Pike, Bill Evans and others.

After Hamilton, the Hi-Hat brought in Al Belletto’s Sextet, with its Louis Prima sound, then Machito’s mambo band, then more doo-wop with the Five Keys. They signed Woody Herman for the week leading into the Christmas holiday, but had a bit of trouble before Herman arrived. In the wee small hours of December 19, the empty club caught fire. The two-alarm blaze caused extensive damage, and newspaper stories did not identify a cause. Woody Herman, set to open that night, had no place to play.

The fire marked the end of the Hi-Hat as a location on the national jazz map. The club remained closed for much of 1956, and later struggled with an on-again, off-again music policy for almost two years. It reopened, fully remodeled and under new management, in late December 1958. In March 1959, another fire closed the place forever.

The Hi-Hat’s situation in late 1955 remains a puzzle. Why the abrupt shift to a schedule that seemed to feature everything but jazz? Jazz in Boston slumped in early 1956, and perhaps club owner Julie Rhodes saw that coming. And some of his jazz artists, as well as some of his jazz audience, were migrating to Storyville. Dizzy Gillespie, one of the Hi-Hat’s biggest draws, played Storyville for the first time in January 1956. Nonetheless, Roy Hamilton provided Rhodes with his biggest payday at the Hi-Hat, and not Dizzy, Miles or Monk.

Here is Hamilton singing “Unchained Melody,” which reached no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and no. 6 on its Pop chart in December 1955. People flocked to the Hi-Hat to hear him sing it.