Pundits and podcasters have been effusive in their praise of athlete and activist Bill Russell, who died on July 31 at age 88. He earned it. Russell was an inspiration and man of integrity who triumphed in spite of the racist crap that he endured in Boston in the sixties. You can find a hundred or more sites online that tell his story. But in all the tributes and appreciations I’ve read, I haven’t seen a mention of Slade’s. While he was winning all those championships with the Celtics, Bill Russell owned the fabled Slade’s Barbecue Restaurant, at 958 Tremont Street in Roxbury. I’m bringing it up here because for a time in 1966, Bill Russell ran Slade’s as a jazz club. It’s just a footnote in Russell’s remarkable story, but this blog is just the place for it.

Photo of Bill Russell blocking a shot

Bill Russell: Shot blocker, jazz lover

Slade’s first opened for business in 1928. The story has it that Renner Slade grew up in a family that ran a backwoods barbecue joint down south someplace, and he brought what he knew to Boston and opened his restaurant. Through the 1940s and 1950s, people regarded the chicken as the city’s best.

Bill Russell purchased Slade’s in early 1964. Tremont Street was familiar territory for him. After he finished his work at the Boston Garden, Russell liked to stop by Slade’s for a late meal, and then relax a bit at the Pioneer Club. Russell’s love of jazz was well known. One of his first moves as owner was to fill the jukebox with jazz records.

Slade’s was already a community gathering spot, but with Russell’s celebrity, the famous came too. Muhammad Ali dined at Slade’s when he was training for his rematch with Sonny Liston. No less a personage than Dr Martin Luther King ate at Slade’s in April 1965. It must have been like old times for King. Surely he sampled the fare at Slade’s during his Boston years in the early 1950s. Russell admired King, and had taken part in the March on Washington in 1963.

Enter the Organ Trios

Photo of Sonny Stitt at Bill Russell's Slade's

Walter Radcliffe, Harold Layne, and Sonny Stitt at Slade’s, August 1966.

Live music had a brief but bright life at Bill Russell’s Slade’s. It started in August 1966, with Sonny Stitt presiding, with Don Patterson on the Hammond B-3 and Boston’s own Harold Layne on drums, although that’s another Bostonian, Walter Radcliffe, in the photo here. (A sharp-eyed reader correctly identified the organist; I originally said it was Patterson.)

Afriend found the photo in the bottom of a box. He didn’t remember how he got it. There’s nothing written on the back to identify who took it. Bernie Moss? Vin Haynes? If anyone knows, please leave a comment!)

The photographer was of course taking a photo of the band, and the mural was just the backdrop. Today, though, we can regret that the head of the airborne Number 6, as in the photo at the top of this post, is out of the frame. I don’t mean to be dismissive of Sonny Stitt, but I’ve seen his photo before. This mural on the wall at Bill Russell’s Slade’s, well, you don’t see pictures of it very often. In fact, I’d never seen a picture of it, and didn’t even know it existed. Again, anyone who knows the story of that mural, please leave a comment.

More good music came to Slade’s that summer and fall. Johnny “Hammond” Smith followed Stitt, with Jimmy Daniels on guitar, John Harris on drums, and Byrdie Green singing. “A superior package,” noted the Globe. Other visitors included Buck Green, Gloria Coleman, and Charles Earland. All organists leading trios. It was the summer of ‘66, and soul jazz ruled the Tremont Strip. A few doors down, at Estelle’s, were Rhoda Scott, Sonny Phillips, and Jiggs Chase, on the Hammond in saxophonist Joe Thomas’s group. Head outbound a few blocks to Connolly’s, and the front-line stars of the B-3 were working—Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, and Jimmy McGriff. Soul jazz. That’s what it was all about on the Tremont Strip that year.

The music at Slade’s continued into late November, with a weeks-long residence by the trio of saxophonist Houston Person (Jinx Jingles on the B-3). Then the club ran into trouble. On December 15, I.R.S. agents raided the restaurant while customers watched, and seized the money in the cash register for back taxes. Apparently Russell’s management company had failed to file. The I.R.S. was careful to explain this had nothing to do with Bill Russell, that they were pursuing a corporate entity that owed them a substantial amount of money. Russell, who was rumored to have the restaurant up for sale, had no comment.

The business declared bankruptcy and closed that spring, the equipment and furnishings later sold at auction. That was the end of Bill Russell’s Slade’s. Frank Williams, the owner of Estelle’s, bought it in 1968 and reopened the restaurant. It has continued, through changes in ownership and an on-and-off music policy, to this day. It currently operates as Slade’s Bar & Grill. I looked at their website. There’s no sign of that mural.