Monthly Archives: August 2007

J18: Nat Simpkins recalls the Hottentotte

This is another installment of musicians recalling the long lost clubs of yesteryear. In 1978, Reggie Walley opened his second club, The Hottentotte, at 8 Austin St. It was named after an African tribe of the same name. Much like the Kitty Kat, the new club played host to the jam session. The house band consisted of pianist Al Mueller, bassist Bunny Price, trumpeter Teddy Blandin – who was with Buddy Miles when he recorded Them Changes, saxophonist Nat Simpkins – who worked with Bobby Hebb of “Sunny” fame, and Walley on drums.

Before the place closed in 1983, people like Sonny Benson, Harvey Williams, Jim and Dick Odgren, Steve and Bruce Thomas, Bill Ryan, Dave Kenderian, Charles Ketter, Bill Vigliotti and Jim Robo were regulars at the sessions. The Boston-based pianist Terry Collins was also routinely featured. In the late 1990s, when the Count Basie Orchestra appeared at Mechanics Hall, Collins, who sat in Basie’s chair, called Walley and Price and invited them to attend the show as his personal guests.

Saxophonist Simpkins has a number of albums to his recording credit, including Just Friends, his first as a leader, which was produced by Houston Person for the Muse Records label. In addition to leading his own quartet, he co-leads a group with the New Orleans singer Henri Smith, which also features saxophonist Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers. Simpkins was one of the first musician’s Walley called when he opened the Hottentotte.

You are from the North Shore; how did you hear about the Hottentotte?

I was playing with the Lady Louise Band at the Kitty Kat. Reggie and Bunny came up to us and said I really like the way you sound. They said I sounded like Grover [Washington]. They were telling me that they had this regular Sunday gig and someday they would be calling me. I didn’t hear from them for about a year and I kind of forgot about the whole thing. They finally called and said, ‘Okay man, you are on — this Sunday.’

That first day, I came down early, and do you remember Richie the bartender? He was acting kind of tough. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. I said I wanted a Black Russian. He said, ‘What? You can’t order a Black Russian in here, man. You have to get a White Russian.’ He made me a White Russian. I didn’t even complain. Then I played a set and came back to the bar. He said, ‘Man I like the way you play. You can have all the Black Russians you want.’

Who was in the band?

It would vary quite a bit, but there was the basic band. When I first started playing it was Teddy Blandin on trumpet. Al Mueller was playing keyboards on that old Wurlitzer electric. It was Bunny Price on bass and Reggie Walley on drums. Then, you know, there were always a lot of people sitting-in.

Do you recall what the place looked like?

It was really a funky, down home place. You could really let loose and be yourself there. I met a lot of friends there. People would invite me back to their homes and give me sweet potato pie. I ended up playing some parties. Sometimes I’d come early and give lessons to people.

It was in a rough neighborhood. We’d be out in the alleyways on break and the cops would always come by and check us out. I remember one time somebody either fell off the roof or jumped. They were just lying out in the street. People were running out to see it. I didn’t.

I seem to recall, that they built the stage too small and too high. It was later used by go-go dancers.

Yeah. We played by the toilet. In 1982 there was a feature in Time Out [written by Bob Bliss and published by the Telegram & Gazette] on the club. I still have the article. The day the writer came, there was no heat in the club. It was February. It was like 12 degrees. We were all wearing our overcoats and we all played the whole gig. I actually had some thin gloves and I figured out how to play with the gloves on. I had this long wool coat on and I kept it around the horn so it wouldn’t get real cold on me. The furnace man came and he couldn’t figure out how to get it going.

What was the vibe like?

It was a neighborhood bar. You got a mix of people. There were people that came down from the colleges. There were some hardcore jazz fans. There were Sunday-after-church people. Mary [Walley's wife] would get up and sing a few numbers. And she and Reggie would dance. We’d have different drummers sit-in and play. Willie Pye would play. He was into a different concept, but it was cool. We all made it work.

So all in all, the club was a good learning experience for you?

It was part of my development. It’s funny, because it is kind of far away. I even played in Worcester quite a bit before that. I played with American Standard. We played all the high schools and colleges and stuff. We played in Bermuda for six weeks and then they joined Joe Cocker.

It was a good opportunity to have a steady gig at that time in my life. We could always experiment. I would end up playing tunes that I may not have even thought about. Different people in the band had influences. Teddy liked certain tunes that he liked to do. Then we’d always get special requests. We’d always have to play “Green Onions.” We used to play “Well, You Needn’t,” “Four,” “Invitation,” stuff like that.

Then when Barney came back we played a lot of his tunes. Teddy went away and Barney was the trumpet player. Sometimes Dick Odgren played piano. Then there were the Thomas brothers, Steve and Bruce. Steve took over for me when I left the group. At one point it moved over to the Elks on Chandler. I was traveling down from Cape Ann, about 150 miles round trip. I did it every Sunday for about seven years.