There’s that old cliché about how it would be if walls could talk. If they could, the walls at 642 Washington Street would keep us awake well past bedtime. That was the home of the World Famous Silver Dollar Bar. It opened in 1936, its final successor closed in 1983, and the intervening years were a wild, wild ride.

Photo of Silver Dollar Bar

The World Famous Silver Dollar Bar, prob. early 1950s

Jazz and R&B were prominent at the Silver Dollar for 25 years, but later so were rock and whatever recorded music the strippers fancied. It’s a story of one club and the city’s changing nightlife scene over a decades-long span.

The Silver Dollar Bar was a big place. It advertised having the world’s longest bar—an absurd claim. But it was long; photos give the impression the barroom extended all the way to the waterfront. That opened into the Blue Terrace Room, with the bandstand and dance floor. The kitchen served modestly priced dinners. Owner Harry Sher proudly called the Silver Dollar “the poor man’s Stork Club.”

Shows at the Silver Dollar Bar in the pre-war years had a distinct vaudeville flavor, with as many as ten acts on the bill. A September 1938 show is typical. It featured a female impersonator, an accordion soloist, a tap dancer, a violinist, a pianist, two singers, and a mysterious “versatile performer.” The headliner, an acrobat and “one of the world’s strongest women,” bench-pressed 300 pounds as part of her act. Sher employed two house pianists—one black, one white, both women. The black one, Frankie Osborne, played good boogie-woogie.

Singers often topped the bill at the Silver Dollar. Local jazz drummer-turned-singer Eddie Deas was one. Blues singer Bessie Proffitt was another. (Proffitt was active on the Hartford scene for decades.) Nancy Garner, niece of Vice President “Cactus Jack” Garner, was a third. Sher probably thought the quotable Cactus Jack would help her attract a crowd.

The Silver Dollar’s most noteworthy headliner was Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit, the most photographed woman of her time. Her husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, murdered her seducer, architect Stanford White. That resulted in America’s first “trial of the century.” Nesbit, in her mid-fifties and broke, was singing in joints like the Silver Dollar in 1939 to get by.

The Silver Dollar Bar Goes to War

With the war came a flood of servicemen, which changed the nature of Washington Street—the volume went up and never came back down. Places like the Silver Dollar got rougher. Vaudeville gave way to non-stop music. Among the jazzmen starring at the club were clarinetist Nick Jerret (Nat Pierce played piano), drummer Jack Wyatt, and violinist/saxophonist Ray Perry with pianist Dean Earl. The uncrowned king of the Silver Dollar Bar, though, was singer and guitarist Don Humbert. He wrote his own theme song, “Meet Me at the Silver Dollar Bar,” which you won’t find on YouTube. The late pianist Lou Allegro told me about him:

“Don Humbert, he was really up and coming. This was early 1940s. Back then, it wasn’t common to have a singer/guitarist. This was before Nick Lucas, before Tony Mottola…hell, it was before Gene Autry. He was a good singer. Got as far as the Palace Theater in New York, and started to unravel. Nerves. A drinker. He ended up back in Boston and never got another chance like that.” Humbert was still playing in Boston’s lesser clubs in the mid-sixties.

Trumpeter Leon Merian was on Humbert’s band in 1943. In his memoir (The Man Behind the Horn, apparently out of print), he wrote about seeing a man shot on the dance floor, six feet from the bandstand, in the middle of his solo on “Sugar Blues.” Merian hid in the kitchen to escape the ensuing pandemonium. That certainly took trouble to the extreme, but it indicates the Silver Dollar was a place with a volatile crowd, prone to heavy drinking and frequent fights. The navy’s Shore Patrol, to save themselves some time, arrived early and parked right out front.

If the post-war Silver Dollar Bar calmed down, it wasn’t by much. The jazz, with reed men like Al Drootin and Sid Barbato, continued. East Boston saxophonist Paul Vignoli, back from the war and looking for work, found some at the Silver Dollar: “What a place. Loud! You’re up on the bandstand there, and all you could see were the white hats, all the sailors from the navy yard. I only worked there for a couple weeks. They said I didn’t play loud enough! And believe me, I could play loud!”

Vignoli, a paratrooper during the war, well knew the meaning of the term “combat zone,” which was already being used to describe the area in 1951. So did Mary Driscoll, chair of the Boston Licensing Board, who wanted the Silver Dollar shuttered. As far as she was concerned, it was nothing but trouble. In May 1954, the Board denied a liquor license to a place across the street from the “rum-saturated” Silver Dollar. She told the Daily Record: “What are the people going to think if a great big liquor place opens right across the street from a place which has always caused us lots of trouble? If I thought the Silver Dollar Bar would never open again, I’d welcome this place.” But the Silver Dollar kept opening every morning.

Driscoll must have been elated when a new owner bought the Silver Dollar in 1955. Any relief was short-lived though, because the club returned to active duty as the Palace Bar, and it was as wild as ever.

Rhythm & Blues at the Palace Bar

Call it R&B or black rock and roll, but by any name that’s what the Combat Zone bands were playing in the later 1950s. Some of Boston’s finest practitioners of the style went to work at the Palace Bar, including Sabby Lewis, Fat Man Robinson, and Jimmy Tyler.

Photo of Jimmy Tyler

Jimmy Tyler promo photo, prob. mid 1950s

One clubgoer recalled the scene on a Saturday afternoon in the 1950s: “I was at the lower end of Washington Street when I heard a sax honking and to my astonishment saw this black dude out in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the Palace Bar, calling the troops inside.” It was Jimmy Tyler, leading the house quartet in the back room, now sporting an oval bar with a bandstand in the center. “That was the bar that every sax player had to walk at the end of the evening. Lots of sailors then. The fleet always seemed to be in, and the crowd on weekends was a surging mix of armed forces guys, pegged-pants East Boston “hoods,” preppies, and any old cats looking for action. They always knew they would get it at the Palace. It wasn’t a good night without a few fist fights, and knife wounds were commonplace. The M.P.s practically lived there on weekends.”

Some very good bands toiled in that back room, working the line where jazz meets R&B, including those of drummer Chris Columbo, saxophonist Sil Austin, and saxophonist Sonny Stanton, who liked Boston so much he stayed for ten years. Trumpeter Cootie Williams had a band. So did Hammond B-3 organist Don Patterson, one of the first practitioners of soul jazz to play Boston. It was a turning point, though, because in the early 1960s, there was less and less jazz at the Palace Bar, and finally there was none. Sometime around 1965, the club changed its name to the Downtown Lounge, which thrived for a time as a rock club.

The Last Sad Decade

A non-musical transformation was taking place around that time, too. I don’t know the precise timing of it, but the rock clubs in the Combat Zone found there was more money to be made in “adult entertainment.” There had been strippers on Washington Street as long as there had been sailors, but it was stripping more akin to burlesque. The Massachusetts obscenity laws banning nudity were enforced, and clubs like the Silver Dollar obeyed them, at least most of the time. But things started getting raunchy after the demolition of Scollay Square. The go-go dancers of the 1960s became the nude dancers of the 1970s.

The club’s name changed once again in 1970, to the Two O’Clock Lounge, the stereotype of a Combat Zone club: owned by a reputed mobster, and peopled by hustlers, hookers, and strippers. The Two O’Clock had a high profile. Years of protracted legal battles led to the loss of its liquor license in May 1978. It reopened as Disco 7, a short-lived juice bar with a dance floor. Then a final name change, to Boston Bunnies, with a renewed liquor license and dancers back on stage. That continued until 1983, when one of those mysterious late-night fires shut the place down for good. The long night life of 642 Washington Street was finished.

Early in the 2000s, a shiny new residential building rose on the site. The jazz bands, the R&B bands, the strippers, the night people…all gone, just memories to be remembered in pale accounts like this. To all a good night.

To the music. Here’s Jimmy Tyler with “ToddyRoo,” which he recorded for Federal in 1957. Rudy Toombs wrote it. He also wrote “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer,” a fine tune for the Palace Bar if there ever was one.