PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Celebrity Club is long gone, but if you ask, you can still hear the echo of its impact.
As one story goes, some kids were playing near Randall Square around 1951, before the minority neighborhood was cut in two by I-95.
A tall, handsome man walked over.
“Nat King Cole,” music historian Tom Shaker said. “He sang ‘Mona Lisa’ to the kids.”
Cole is on a long list of legends who took the stage at what was New England’s first integrated nightclub.
Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Fats Domino and many others played there as well.
Shaker and Community College of Rhode Island videographer Norm Grant teamed up to create a documentary about the history of Rhode Island Jazz.
“Everyone we talked with mentioned The Celebrity Club,” Grant said.
So the nightclub that brought Randall Street to life for a decade became the focus of their award-winning film, “Do it Man: The Story of the Celebrity Club.”
The late Paul Filippi, who loved jazz, opened the club in 1949, welcoming musicians and customers, no matter their racial makeup. (Filippi would later become the force behind Ballard’s on Block Island, and is the father of House Minority Leader Blake Filippi.)
Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame sideman Bob Petteruti, now 89, was often part of the opening act for the iconic headliners.
“Wow!” he said, thinking back on the club. “When they started playing, watch out.”
One night, Ellington’s bass player didn’t show on time. So Sir Duke turned to the opening band, and young Bob.
“Would you sit in for him?” Petteruti remembers Ellington asking.
“No,” Petteruti replied. ‘”I can’t do that. I’m not good enough to play with you.”
Duke insisted that he was, and Petteruti’s buddies said, “Do it man.”
Petteruti relented, played well, and his friends’ plea inspired the documentary title, some 70 years later.
The legends could play at the club, but almost every hotel said they couldn’t sleep in their rooms.
“They’d say, sorry we’re booked,” Grant said. “But they’d stay with people who lived in the neighborhood. They’d offer them meals.”
And the musicians would offer musical guidance to the area’s young talent, according to Shaker, boosting Rhode Island’s vibrant music scene.
But some government officials and police didn’t like “the mixing of the races,” leading to frequent nuisance raids, and the temporary arrest of the audience.
“Literally that same night, when they’d release them, everybody would go back to The Celebrity Club,” Shaker said with a laugh.
Grant hopes this story from the segregated ’50s has a modern message.
“Even though it’s an older story, it’s still a story that relates to things we see happening today,” he said.
“I’m a big believer in the power of music,” Shaker said. “And I think the power of music can cure all ills.”
The only modern-day reminder of this piece of musical history is a plaque that sits, somewhat obscurely, on a traffic island up the street from the actual location, across from the Orms Street Marriott, where the world moves too quickly for anyone to read the details.
Some say none of the nearby businesses would allow the marker on their property.
Shaker and Grant hope to have a few loose ends tied up soon, to allow for a national release of the film by the end of the year.
Their work already won the 2018 Popular Cultural Association Peter C. Rollins Award for best documentary, and will appear in the Rhode Island Black Film Festival in April.