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Hallowed Ground

Revisiting the glory days of JB Scott’s, a legendary launch pad for some of the day’s biggest up-and-coming acts

by Ann Morrow on May 3, 2012 · 6 comments

Among music aficionados, there are few thrills more memorable than seeing bands who deserve to be big, that you somehow know are going to be big, and being there just before they become big. A similar thrill is to see a really big act playing impromptu in a smaller venue. At JB Scott’s music club in Albany, it was practically a thrill a night, as the former S&H Green Stamps building presented a roster of talent that encompassed almost every band and artist that mattered, in every genre imaginable (and some that were not imaginable, not yet anyway).

Famous for bringing in the most irreverent and revered bands of the era, such as the Ramones, U2 and the Pretenders, what was most astonishing about the club was its breadth of artistry and velocity of booking, offering four or five, sometimes six—even seven—stellar acts a week.

“We were into everything from day one,” says Vinnie Birbiglia, the club’s co-owner and booking agent. “Every genre, if the price was right. We would stay open seven days a week when we had the acts.”

And they took risks: The Plasmatics were already infamous for their uncensored theatrics when shock-rock pioneer Wendy O. Williams mauled the JBs stage with her diesel-fueled vocals and a chainsaw. But pop tops were welcome, too: Spyro Gyro and Squeeze, and John Cougar just as “I Need a Lover” was climbing the charts into AOR domination. Cougar performed a joyous set to 50 people, with about half of them joining him onstage.

A totally unknown Jerry Seinfeld did stand-up as an opening act. The Specials and the English Beat showed up precisely when ska was the newest, freshest sound going, while living-legend soul duo Sam & Dave came to town for one of their last performances. The Jam played there when they were the biggest pop band in England since the Beatles, as did iconoclasts from Captain Beefheart to Leon Redbone, and the New York Dolls when Johnny Thunders was still alive, and Count Basie while he could still tour. And Levon Helm and every other Band member. Not bad for a venue that seated 600 and was located on lower Central Avenue. The average ticket price was $4.

“We’d lose money on three or four bands, and make it up with the fifth,” says Birbiglia. “We treated them all like family. And then when they reached the next level, they were our band.”

Which is why the aforementioned U2, Pretenders, etc., played return engagements even as they were approaching arena-size popularity. The club’s name went global when Bono wore his JB Scott’s t-shirt in U2’s “Gloria” video.

Among the regularly appearing local bands were Blotto and the Units/Fear of Strangers, whose popularity could outdraw national acts. Both bands are on the bill for the JB Scott’s Reunion show to be held at Michael’s Banquet Hall in Latham on Saturday (May 5), along with other bands (or their parts) who played the club , including the Penny Knight Band, Charlie Smith Blues Band, and the Last Conspirators. The celebration is the result of popular demand, says Birbiglia, who flew in from Las Vegas for the event. “We’re hoping people will regress back to the good old days,” he says. “It’s going to bring back a lot of memories.”

It started out with a single idea: to bring good music to the right size room. When Birbiglia met Doug Jacobs through the Record Town on Karner Road, they hit it off and decided to open a club together. Bill Adams, owner of Uncle Albert’s in Delmar, was brought in to run the bar. But the name, J for Jacobs, B for Birbiglia, just didn’t have a ring to it with “Bill,” so the last name came from another friend named Scott. The old Green Stamps redemption counter became the box office.

Though the building was able to withstand the battering of wall-to-wall and out-of-control crowds, it was comfortable, with food service, an impressively long bar, and table seating. Within the first month or so of its opening in April 1979, JB’s hosted the Dixie Dregs Johnny Winter, Pat Metheny, Judas Priest, Buffy St. Marie, Graham Parker and the Rumor, and the Ramones, among others whose names still resonate. “We did such a variety of entertainment that it put us in good with the agencies, because we could do a lot of their acts,” says Birbiglia.

For a newbie new-waver, it was heaven to see the bands whose first albums I listened to obsessively—U2 and the Pretenders, and Lene Lovitch, the Motels, the Jim Carroll Band, the Cramps—and to be blown away by the intensity of their live shows.

The game changer, however, was Black Flag. Their set at the club was considered the first local explosion of slam dancing; the ferocious, anarchic energy of the band and full-throttle aggression of frontman Henry Rollins ushered in a new era.

“We were scared shitless because everyone was banging into each other and we had a concrete floor,” says Birbiglia, adding, “Henry was a nice guy, lucid.” Of Iggy Pop, whose appearance left the club covered in spilled drinks and broken beer bottles, the promoter says: “I picked him up at the Quality Inn, where we put up all the bands, and he got in the van and said, “     ‘Hi, I’m Jim.’ I didn’t know who he was.”

Birbiglia’s own notoriety had to do with his friendship with Chrissie Hynde. “We went out,” he says, referring to the much-conjectured-about night that they had drinks together. When the Pretenders arrived a day early for their next appearance, Hynde showed up unannounced and was “super mad” that he already had plans. “Actually, she was very nice,” he says. A photo of the Pretenders onstage at JB Scott’s was included in their World Tour guide book.

Among Birbiglia’s lasting impressions was Fred Schneider of the B-52s pogoing so hard his head hit a ceiling tile, Wendy O. Williams wearing electrical tape and little else, and the full-on stage presence of the Manhattan Transfer. “They were the top vocal group in the world, and they were so nice,” he recalls. “I still talk to those guys, and they are still at the top of their form.”

A few years ago, he ran into Bono at an awards show. “He didn’t know me from Adam, but when I told him, ‘I gave you your first shirt you ever got in this country,’ he remembered that.” Birbiglia is still friendly with U2 manager Paul McGuinness.

“Most of the artists we had were very down-to-earth,” he says. “If you could talk to them as a human being, you could build a relationship with them for the future. Bands would work with us at the club for a lot less than they would elsewhere.”

JB Scott’s quickly developed a reputation for being the place to play in Albany. “One of the times we had Buddy Rich, Count Basie came to see him,” says Birbiglia. “The next day, his manager called and said, ‘Basie wants to play your club.’ I said, ‘We can’t afford him!’ so he played for five bucks at the door. He played there three times. He was the sweetest old man.”

Birbiglia’s favorite aspect of being the promoter, he says, was “turning people on to artists they hadn’t heard before.” He gives a lot of credit for the club’s success to its synchronicity with local radio station WQBK. “It was the best thing going, everything was free-form. It took having a radio station like QBK working hand-in-hand with you,” he continues. “And WEQX, too. We would give away a lot of tickets to the stations, because we didn’t have the budget to blast it.

“You can’t get that anymore unless you are buying a lot of advertising,” he adds. “And the formats make it very difficult to break in new acts.” But back then, it wasn’t uncommon for admission lines three-blocks-long to form hours before a show.

And then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the club was no more. In July 1982, it was burned down by burglars.

“We didn’t own the building,” says Birbiglia. “We were going to buy it, but . . . there was hardly any damage, it was all concrete. The owner made a lot of money from the insurance.”

After a long search for a location downtown, Birbiglia and Jacobs opened a new club, JB’s Theater, near Westgate Plaza. But just as everything at the original club had turned to magic, the theater seemed doomed from the start—beginning with the drinking age being raised from 18 to 19 to 21. It’s cavernous size was off-putting, and agencies charged by its seating capacity instead of what their acts could draw. But the death knell came from the concert industry, which had become less of a network of independent bookers, agents and publicists, and more of a corporate machine. “They wanted outrageous amounts for their bands,” says Birbiglia. The creative zeitgeist could not be recaptured.

In 1989, Birbiglia went to work for TransWorld Entertainment.

“What I got from JB Scott’s is that I lived through it,” he says in retrospect. “People came to the club and had a good time. We had a good time. And the relationships I built with managers helped me when I went to work for TransWorld.” Birbiglia retired and moved to Las Vegas three years ago.

“What’s amazing,” he adds, “is that it’s been 30 years, and we have almost 2,000 fans on our Facebook page.” The ultimate affirmation of JB Scott’s legacy, however, may be this: “People still ask when we’re going to reopen.”

For more information on the JB Scott’s reunion party, visit JB Scott’s Reunion on Facebook, or call Michael’s Banquet House at 785-8524.

Bono Lit My Cigarette

And other favorite memories from a fabled nightclub


So many memories . . . seeing so many great shows up close (Ian Hunter, Iggy Pop, the Jam, U2 back when they were good, etc.). My band the Morons opening up for the Stranglers, the Motels, Gary Myrick and the Cramps (having to bribe Real Danger with beer and guest-list passes to let the Cramps use their amps in place of the ones they had blown up during soundcheck) . . . being barred from the club . . . being on the Go-Go’s guest list while barred from the club . . . being reinstated to the club . . . being barred again from the club . . . painting the dressing room to cover the cartoon that got us barred in order to be reinstated again . . . and so many other stories I really shouldn’t tell . . .

–Tim Livingston, the Last Conspirators/the Morons


When Iggy Pop played Scott’s, the atmosphere was unbelievably edgy. Not only did Pop deliver an incredibly visceral show, the band was fantastic, anchored by the sons of Soupy Sales (Hunt on drums, Tony on bass) in a rhythm section led by, yes, David Bowie. I don’t remember the song selections, but I do remember a bare-chested Pop, perhaps the most sculpted rock musician ever, leaving the room in a shambles, its floor littered with broken glass. Never has violence been so tightly contained. I don’t recall a more physical rock show at Scott’s, which certainly had its share of great ones. I suspect this date was part of a tour behind Lust for Life, one of Pop’s great solo records.

–Carlo Wolff, Seawolff Communications, longtime Metroland music writer


The first Blottoween in 1979 was special. I went as Cher, and I looked so good Cheese actually started hitting on me. I think Broadway was Colonel Sanders and Bowtie was Annette Funicello. The audience costumes were absolutely insane, including one guy who went as a coffee table—he had this big box that he sat in on the floor with his head sticking out, with platters of chips and dip all around his head. He spent the night thanking people for coming and offering them snacks.

–Paul Rapp, aka Lee Harvey Blotto


I was so enamored of the Pretenders’ first show at JB Scott’s (1980?) that I insisted that the band be featured on the cover of the following issue of Metroland with this headline: “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” (or something similarly hyperbolic). I don’t think we even used a question mark.

–Peter Iselin, Solo Management, founder of Metroland


Watching U2 at JB Scott’s, I have to say I did know they were going to be huge, though Boy was just starting to take off. And this is why: Glued to the front of the stage, enraptured by Bono, who was as charismatic and intense as any lead singer ever, I pulled a cigarette out of the top pocket of my leather jacket (that I could do this is an indication of how not-jam-packed the show was). With telepathic timing, Bono leaned down and lit it, giving me a look that could’ve undressed a nun. He then brushed the igniter with his palm, as a spotlight hit it, into a flickering strobe. It was quite the no-budget effect.

If I ever thought for a split-second that the soul-piercing look he gave me had anything to do with me, I would’ve swooned. But I knew that it didn’t. I could tell that he’d given someone that look at every show he’d done, and sure enough, there it was in the video of “I Will Follow,” U2’s first official video. Yet I’m glad to this day that on that night, I was the someone. It was a true brush with greatness.

–Ann Morrow, Metroland


My favorite moment was as club DJ playing music before and after bands. Though that included FOS, Garland Jeffeys, Mandingo Griot Society, it was mainly reggae/ska bands—the English Beat and Selector. The first was the Specials, the reason I lobbied for the job, and before they went on, singer-toaster Neville Staple came to the booth to tell me how much he liked what I was playing, then their soundman said “Great fucking music,” and after the concert Neville asked me to write down what I was playing. Nothing like that was ever repeated; I saw some fantastic bands at JB’s, but that was heaven.

–Steve Nover, local music maven


The A.D.’s were lucky enough to open for the Ramones, Joan Jett, Stranglers, Tourists (pre-Eurythmics) and the Go-Go’s.

A few good tales: interviewing Johnny Thunders before his Gangwar show. He told me “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” came from a Honeymooners episode. I hung out after the show and watched him and Wayne Kramer almost come to blows over his performance.

Bumping into Iggy Pop at an after-show party in Dennis Herbert’s hallway on Madison Avenue. I’m 6’3″ and Iggy really looked 5’1″. And like a blubbering teen groupie, all I could come up with was, ” I’m a big fan and I love your stuff.” He said thanks and hustled by me with a girl he picked up at the show. If only I’d arrived about 10 minutes sooner.

Opening for the Go-Go’s for $100. The show was sold out. After, I picked the cash up from Vinnie and commented on how much money he must’ve made at the door (At least 900 people at $5 or $6 a head). Vinnie looked sullen and told me, “They asked for $1,500 to play and I told them that if they think they make that much they can play for the door.” They did, and walked off with $5,000 to $6,000. Vinnie had to pay me from the bar receipts. Hah!

–Jim Furlong, the A.D.’s, owner of Last Vestige


I attended the second Count Basie show at J.B. Scott’s with my father. I wanted the Count’s autograph, but the only thing I had he could sign was a paper plate—they sold pizza—so that’s what I got. I still have it, along with my $8 ticket stub.

–Donna Tritico, Sly Fox and the Hustlers


The club jammed with fantastic fans in prom outfits or pajamas or outrageous Halloween costumes for the various “dress up” events we did. . . . Massive billows of cigarette smoke filling every cubic inch the club and permeating every article of clothing and all the equipment

–Paul Jossman, aka Bowtie Blotto


U2 played their second or third live show in America at J.B. Scott’s. Tickets were three dollars. It did not sell out. March 1981. I was the afternoon DJ at Q104. Bono and Larry Mullen came by the station. I introduced the lead singer of U2 as “Boe Noe.” No one had really ever heard his name pronounced before. I remember they ran out of songs to play, so for their encore they played their single, “I Will Follow.” Again.

At one of the most exciting periods in rock & roll history, everyone played J.B. Scott’s.

–Lin Brehmer, WXRT, Chicago


Some of my most distinct memories are: the Danko/Butterfield band [with Blondie Chaplin] playing a knockout, unbelievable , in your face set—then going offstage and directly to their van out back to get the hell out of Albany back to Woodstock, without ever a thought of doing an encore; witnessing Captain Beefheart calling out my friend Carlo Wolff for a review he’d written in Kite magazine about the new Beefheart album, and taking him to the front of the club to sit him down and lecture him on all the things he thought were wrong about the review; after his show, hearing Jim Carroll list all the drugs he was on at the moment when asked, out of curiosity, by Carlo; getting a call from Rolling Stonemagazine to shoot an unknown band that might be the next big thing, although I did comment to them that I thought U2 was an awful name for a band; running around in a near-blizzard photographing Chrissie Hynde and Vinnie’s dog at 1 AM on Central Avenue; shooting John Cougar with a sparse crowd, most of whom were dancing on the stage with him during his set; the broken glass all over the floor after an Iggy Pop show; waiting until 1 or 2 AM to do a portrait of Johnny Thunders backstage, and when he was finally ready, following him across the club from backstage to the men’s room to find him already standing and posing, in two urinals, ready to be photographed.

I still vividly remember the morning immediately after a fire shut down JB Scott’s. I first heard the news on the radio (when radio mattered and brought you the important stuff the fastest), probably WQBK. I drove over to find owners and employees gathered and shocked by the burned-out interior of what the night before was a vibrant scene. I remember that the immediate rumors that flew were of arson by the owners to get out of business with some final payoff. Any notion of that theory was immediately dashed for me when I saw Doug and Vinnie and I saw the post-traumatic shock in their spirits and on their faces. I knew then that there was no way they took the club down themselves. The torching was later solved as some young hoodlums who broke in and robbed the place and then set fire to it to cover their tracks. It was the night the music died at the original JB Scott’s.

Martin Benjamin, photographer, professor at Union College