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The Cellar Door

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In the life of every musician, there are places that you never leave. While your body hasn’t visited them in years, if they are still standing, they will always be alive in your heart. For me, Washington DC’s Cellar Door holds that place. It had everything a young hippie musician could ask for. Great audiences, good sound, beautiful waitresses, close friends, and after-hours parties where our comings and goings will be left to your imagination. 

The Cellar Door was in a world all its own. It resided in Georgetown directly across from the Key Bridge. Anyone who knows Georgetown knows that it is probably the most upscale part of Washington. It was only a couple of blocks from the home JFK lived in before moving to the White House. On any given night our audience might contain the sons and daughters of Senators and Congressmen as well as major news anchors and other politicos. There was no telling who might be there or whose daughter you might be flirting with.

The Cellar Door’s funky entrance

After hours at the Cellar Door was a place when I could get into as much trouble as I dared. When the last customer had left and the tables had been cleared, the party would start. As I recall, margaritas were a specialty, at least when we played. I remember one night, when it looked like we might be going to Europe, our road manager who was not yet 21, said something about how much fun that tour would be. Michael and I told him he wasn’t old enough and we were going to have to age him a year…that night. I have no idea how many margaritas we poured down him but if he wasn’t 21 by the time he hit the floor he should have been. That was after hours at the Cellar Door.

For being such a famous venue and right in the heart of Georgetown, 34th and M street as I remember, it was a very small room. It had a wrap-around balcony which was actually on street level and the stage and the other tables were where the basement should be. Thus the name of the club. I doubt that it held much more than 100 people meaning that weekends required artists to do three shows. 

Linda Ronstadt

Our first shows there began with the release of our “Weeds” album. At that point, we had become one of the “alternative” bands of the day and had started to gain a good-sized audience. Still, it was a very famous club so our role began as an opening act. We opened for a lot of the people we had known in LA who were now on their way. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and my favorite Linda Ronstadt. In those days we opened for Linda a lot, at other clubs and concerts as well as the Cellar Door. After our last engagement opening for Linda, Jack the owner said we had enough fans at his club that from then on we would be the headliner and he would find us an opening act.

When the time rolled around for us to return for our first headline engagement, Jack sheepishly asked us if we would do a double bill this time and headline the next. It would be a double bill with James Taylor and we would both get headline billing and pay. Michael and I had been fans since his first album and loved the idea. And our second album “Tarkio” had just been released and ‘One Toke Over The Line” was headed up the charts along with Jame’s “Fire And Rain” from his “Sweet Baby James” album. We were ecstatic.

James Taylor

The week couldn’t have gone better. We sold out in less than three weeks and Jack asked us if we would add extra shows. Three instead of two during the week and four on the weekend. He said we could shorten them but he had a lot of people still wanting tickets. He said he would increase our compensation accordingly and, being guys that like to play any way we said “sure.” So it was a week to remember. Michael and I doing our acoustic duo performance and James doing his. Just James and his guitar sitting on a stool. I believe that is the only time I ever watch every show of the act we were billed with.

The week was over and Jack had one more request before we left DC for New York’s Bitter End. He wanted the three of us to join him at his place on Chesapeake Bay for a crab boil. It was the first time I had ever had crabs from Chesapeake Bay and it was exactly what Jack was hoping for. A perfect conclusion to a perfect week at the Cellar Door.

We continued to play the Cellar Door for a few more years. Eventually after Jan and I had become a couple she was still finishing up at Mizzou, and I would talk her into playing hooky and come with me on our Bitter End, Cellar Door tour. She would always say she couldn’t because of school, and I would always tell her there would be a ticket waiting for her at Lambert airport should she change her mind, which she always did. Two weeks of too much fun and several after-hour parties at the coolest club in the country. Thanks so much, Jack. I eventually married the girl.

Jan and me with our roadie, Little John, in the Cellar Door dressing room

5 Responses

  1. John W. Luther
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing your stories, Tom!

  2. Craig Runyon
    | Reply

    I had some great times at The Cellar Door. As a teenager we would drive in my friends Ford Mustang parkup somewhere in Georgetown and carouse around the boutiques, record shops and buy a nice bottle of French wine and walk along the canal. I saw the great Philadelphia band Pools at the Cellar Door. But my fondest memory was seeing the English group Renaissance in 1970? At the Cellar Door. They were touring the USA to premiere their fine highly original first album.I saw Keith Relf perform this album at the Cellar Door, George Town, Washington DC on their US tour. The band played well in this intimate club. The material on this album Is timeless. Keith’s sister Jane sang the song “Island” as sweetly as an angel, beautifully dressed in a patchwork style suede dress. Keith and his lovely sister’s voice blended together so beautifully. The Renaissance band were a superb combo live. Keith Relf gave a lengthy interview prior to the concert to my local radio DJ friend Sam Idas the interview was never broadcast! Sam still has the interview on reel to reel tape discussing the album in great detail. The backcover photograph on the original album cover was taken at the costume gallery balcony at the Victoria and Albert museum. I used to work there and I remember the gallery attendants telling me that they remember the photograph being taken for the album cover. This pioneering musical project were the forefathers of what became progressive music. Keith Relf was the founder member of this group with the fantastic drummer Jim McCarty both from the world famous Yardbirds! As they progressed from a blues band with their various infamous band members too many to mention, towards the end songs like “Shapes” took them into another musical stratosphere. Renaissance were once again leading the way for future British musicans, into the world of what journalists eventually called progressive rock. Fusing rock,blues,jazz and classical music. Keith Relf was a true musical inovator.

  3. Craig Runyon
    | Reply

    In my previous post I mentioned a group my spell checker changed the name the band was called Pooka!
    Trying to refresh my memory of the Renaissance concert at the Cellar Door George Town, Washington DC. This was 51 years ago! When Keith Relf was interviewed prior to the concert. He spoke about the history of American music. Like the Beatles the Keith’s former group the Yardbirds were part of the British invasion. So even at Keith’s young age he was aware that the Yardbirds place in history. Covering blues songs was breathing life into a deminishing genre played by a small amount of people. Little Richard talked about the blues players that would walk around Macon Georgia in his neighbourhood singing and playing their guitars. Keith Relf was aware as the group travel further south from Washington DC that the group were intering into the heartland of indigenous music of the blues, rock and Jazz. Keith Relf felt that New Orleans was the pinnacle of it all! It was in New Orleans that Little Richard recorded his first single Tutti fruiti. The triage of Jazz, Blues and Rock was fused together there. So Keith found himself in the juxtaposition of a musician taking the torch further. Mixing into the pot European culture, classical music with Jazz,blues and rock. At the time as a teenager growing up in Baltimore I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. As a youth you tend to only want to be aware of the now. But over the years the words Keith Relf spoke about the evolution of music in the western world still resonate in my ears. It’s the truly facinating aspect of humanity how music and culture evolve.

  4. Craig Runyon
    | Reply

    The pivotal role Keith Relf played in the history of music can’t be underestimated. Keith Relf never lived to receive accolades his compatriots did. Change always comes from minorities and Keith’s concert at the little venue at the Cellar Door in Washington DC is a part of the history of music. The mind boggles at all the great artists that played there at a venue with such great atmosphere. Here is a YouTube clip of an award Keith Relf should have attended with his former members of his group the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page,Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Like John Mayall Keith Relf played with all the greats musicans of his era.

  5. Larry Knight
    | Reply

    Wonderful picture of you all. Thanks for sharing!

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