Boston and Cambridge were centers of the Sixties counterculture, and from 1967-70 the other Boston Tea Party was the epicenter of the center.
It was a run-down 19th-century house of worship in Boston’s South End that had been showing underground films in the 1960s. In 1967, a Kansas City lawyer and a hippie MIT graduate scraped together a few thousand dollars to stage rock concerts on weekends.
For $3 or $3.50, you could see acts like the Grateful Dead, The Byrds, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, The Allman Brothers Band, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Taj Mahal, Ten Years After and Sly and the Family Stone. The Who commanded a premium of $4.50 for their Tommy concert. Unknowns Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, later of the Rolling Stones, played as part of Jeff Beck.
Jonathan Richman played there with his proto-punk band, the Modern Lovers. He remembers how fun the crowd was:
Wall-to-wall hippies, bikers, Harvard students, Northeastern students, fashion models, professors, drug dealers, art teachers, groupies, MIT students, photographers, local thugs, local disc jockeys, skinny-bohemian-artist girls, visiting dignitaries from the New York art scene, and the royalty of the Boston music set — the local singers and guitar-players in their mod suits strolling around with their beautiful girlfriends.
Kansas City Lawyer
People called the other Boston Tea Party ‘a psychedelic ballroom,’ ‘a cathedral of the hippie era,’ ‘the hippest club in Boston’ and ‘everybody’s cup of tea.’
It opened on Jan. 20, 1967, with a capacity of 400. Local record stores and designated shoe stores sold tickets. A Boston group, The Lost, played the first concert. Other local bands included The Hallucinations, The Beacon Street Union, The Bagatelle, Ill Wind and The Cloud. A sign behind the stage said ‘Praise Ye The Lord,’ and psychedelic light shows accompanied the concerts.
Ray Riepen was The Boston Tea Party’s unlikely owner. A chain-smoking lawyer from Kansas City, he had moved to Cambridge to earn a master’s degree at Harvard School of Law. Riepen kept his hair short, wore three-piece suits and drove a Mercedes.
He got involved with The Boston Tea Party when the manager of the underground film series wanted to stage rock ‘n roll dance parties on weekends. Riepen and the hippie MIT graduate, David Hahn, put together $3,000 and organized the concerts. Riepen later bought out Hahn.
Soon after The Boston Tea Party opened, Riepen approached the management of a struggling classical music FM station and persuaded them to let him run it as an underground rock station. He assembled a group of hippie DJs who promoted The Boston Tea Party concerts.
He hired as one of his DJs a singer named Peter Wolf, who also fronted The Hallucination and later The J. Geils Band.
Alternative newspapers such as Boston After Dark and the Avatar also promoted the concerts.
The concert hall’s manager, Steve Nelson, used to walk into the offices of Boston After Dark, take over a workspace, open a briefcase full of graphic layout tools and make up ads on the spot. His successor, Bob Driscoll, later created a Boston Tea Party look, spare with plenty of white space. Those posters are now highly collectible. (To see Boston Tea Party posters in chronological order, click here.)
By the spring of 1967, The Boston Tea Party booked bands from out of town. Jon Landau, then a music critic and later Bruce Springsteen’s manager, called the Tea Party ‘consistently well-run.’ He said out-of-town groups liked it because of the professional treatment they received.
On May 26, 1967, the Velvet Underground played The Boston Tea Party, the first of many times. The band was one of the most influential in rock history. Andy Warhol managed them as the house band for his Factory, but for several years they used The Boston Tea Party as their home base. In late 1968, Lou Reed said onstage, “This is our favorite place to play in the whole country.”
That first concert launched the Velvets career as a touring band. The German singer Nico showed up late for it, toward the end of the show, and Reed wouldn’t let her on stage.
A photograph of the Velvet Underground on the back cover of the White Light/White Heat album shows them under The Boston Tea Party marquee and the letters ‘ARTY.’ (To hear the Jan. 10, 1969 Velvet Underground show, click here.)
Drugs and Rock ‘N Roll
Led Zeppelin played The Boston Tea Party on their first US tour in January 1969. “They only had an hour’s worth of material, but the crowd wouldn’t let them stop, so they just kept jamming,” said Nelson. Critics considered that gig key to the transformation of the band’s performance style to long sets with extended solos.
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler saw a Led Zeppelin show at The Boston Tea Party in 1969. He called it one of two concerts in which he ‘just sat with my mouth open.’ (To hear a Led Zeppelin concert at The Boston Tea Party, click here.)
In July ‘69 the club relocated to 15 Landsdowne Street, a space that held 1900 people. The Grateful Dead played there on New Year’s Eve 1969, but not before trying to get everyone high on LSD. They spiked the drinks in the soda machine and injected it into a sealed bottle of Mateus. The Dead managed to victimize manager Don Law and the security guards.
Soda Pop Raid
Boston politicians and law enforcement officers did not love the racially mixed crowd of longhaired rock ‘n roll fans. One night while The Cloud was playing, the house lights went on and dozens of Boston police officers swarmed into the hall looking for drugs. They were led by Boston Licensing Commissioner Albert P. ‘Dapper’ O’Neil, who brought with him a Boston Herald-Traveler reporter hoping for a story.
The police didn’t find any drugs, but arrested the management for an expired license to sell soft drinks. Ray Repien appeared in court and put on a country lawyer routine for the judge. Manager Steve Nelson remembers him saying, “No your honor, we don’t approve of drugs, shucks, all we’re doing at the Tea Party is giving the kids something to do.”
The Herald-Traveler’s headline was not what Dapper O’Neil hoped for: “Soda Pop Raid Fizzles.”
Stage manager Stanley Kastner had to hold the piano so it wouldn’t collapse while Little Richard danced on it. While the audience gave him a 45-minute ovation, Kastner said Little Richard went backstage to get paid in cash. He took a gun out of a metal briefcase, counted the bills and left while the audience was still applauding.
B.B. King played to his first white audience in Boston there. So did Muddy Waters.
It’s a well-known story that James Brown calmed Boston after Martin Luther King’s assassination by letting WGBH-TV carry his Boston Garden performance live. Less well-known is the blues concert Muddy Waters gave at The Boston Tea Party the night King was killed. “Muddy sang the bluest blues I’ve ever heard, more of a wake really than a concert,“ remembered Nelson.
The Boston Tea Party closed for good in December 1970, a victim of the rock ‘n roll popularity it helped to create. Bands were commanding more money for larger venues.
The 40th anniversary of the other Boston Tea Party was celebrated on Jan. 24, 2007, with a gathering of 100 Boston music people. The Bostonian Society unveiled a small marker next to the 7-Eleven that occupies the ground floor. The rest of the building is now condominiums.
Nelson recalled how The Boston Tea Party acolytes managed to persuade the staid historical society to agree to the marker.
The building, built in 1872, once functioned as a Unitarian church. For some never-explained reason one of the windows was shaped like a Star of David. The meeting house was built on land donated by a rich Bostonian, John Gardner, whose son married Isabelle Stewart. It was dedicated to the memory of Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister, abolitionist and early supporter of women’s rights.
…the kind of people who hung out at the Tea Party in the Sixties were for civil rights and women’s rights and against the Vietnam War, so Theodore Parker’s spirit was very much alive at the Tea Party. What karma!
With thanks to the Music Museum of New England and Berkshire Fine Arts. This story about the other Boston Tea Party was updated in 2023.
Images: Boston Tea Party building courtesy Google Maps, image capture 2019. Mick Fleetwood By W.W.Thaler – H. Weber, Hildesheim – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13409500.