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Remembering the legendary Shaboo Inn: David Foster looks back

The legendary music club that played host to many famous names, closed 40 years ago this week.

WINDHAM, Conn — He sits in a small office with more pictures and awards than can fit on the walls, talking with enthusiasm of moments and places and people.

They are badges of a successful career he has loved.

David Foster is a legend, but most people may have never heard of him.

In 1971, Foster, his brother Mark, along with their friends Bruce, Gary, and Kerry Johns, opened the Shaboo Inn in Willimantic. The club, housed in a former mill building, soon became one of the hottest clubs in New England.

The list of talent that played the club is like a who's who of famous musicians. Aerosmith, The Police, Hall and Oates, The Ramones, Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, and many more.

Foster claims about two dozen acts that played at the Shaboo went on to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He said The Bottom Line in New York City and The Troubador in Los Angeles can only claim about half that combined.

At the time he opened the doors to the Shaboo, Foster was 18 years old. A picture on the wall of his office shows him and his partner, looking every bit the cool businessmen of the 1970s, at the club.

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Initially, the crowd was college students from nearby University of Connecticut and Eastern Connecticut State College, as it was called at the time.

Early on, Aerosmith was booked to play four nights for $700 after seeing them play in Boston.

“I went up to Steven Tyler at the side of the stage and introduce myself to him and told him we were opening a club and asked him if you'd be interested in playing,” Foster said. “He goes, ‘Oh, we'd love to play.’ You know, I said, we have like $700 for four nights, but we'll put you up. And he goes, ‘You’ll put us up too?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘Will you give us a bottle of bar gin and every night I said, ‘You got it.' He goes, ‘We'll be there.’”

They first sang “Dream On” on the stage at The Shaboo.

"We taught those kids how to be an audience," he said of the customers.

Many of the acts were well known Rhythm and Blues artists.  Foster built a reputation of being a man of his word, always paying the artists and the management companies.

As time went on, the caliber of the artists who were playing at the club rose. The management companies came to trust him and when it was time to book upcoming rock ‘n’ roll acts, they thought of The Shaboo. Foster said it was a time when many acts would tour the country, playing clubs and building a reputation.

Some of it was luck. In order to get Iggy Pop to play, Foster had to make a deal. Pop's manager also managed his brother's band, and this would be the second stop on their first tour of America. The manager was Ian Copeland.

The brother, Stewart Copeland, was the drummer for The Police. Their single, "Roxanne," hadn't been released yet and they were unknown. They got $1 for every person in the club, which amounted to $12.

A reputation was being built, song by song, act by act.

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Connecticut Magazine had a story headlined “Blues in the Boondocks,” in October 1974. The Boston Phoenix headline -- “New England’s biggest club is not in Boston” – from August 3, 1976 is framed in Foster’s office.

Foster said the variety of acts also contributed to the success.

“One night we'd have Vassar Clements playing a fiddle. The next day, Rick Derringer would be there with black leather jackets and the rock ‘n’ roll; Hoochie coo the next night, Kenny Rankin,” he said. “He'd be there for the school teachers is singing beautiful melodies, you know, so we just kept taking different dollars and use this venue.”

In the early 1980s, the music industry became more corporate and local influence on bookings and radio playlists decreased. Foster said changes in tax laws also had an impact.

 “A lot of parents used to back their children with record deals and this and that, and if it failed, they could take a write off,” he said. “That hurt a lot. MTV was coming in. And it was very powerful. People were just watching videos at home and they just said hey, you know I can I can watch MTV at home.”

The music came to an end at the Shaboo on May 13, 1982. The club closed and the crew moved all the equipment out. Three months later, just before the closing with new owners, an arson fire destroyed the building, but left the famous water tower standing. Today, the property is part of the Eastbrook Mall.

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In the years since, Foster has kept the name and the memories alive. He built Shaboo Productions, renting musical instruments and other equipment. Foster went on to perform in other places, most notably as part of David Foster & The Mohegan Sun All-Stars, the casino's house band.

Foster said he wants to do good in Eastern Connecticut. The foundation named after his father and stepmother, the Lester E. and Phyllis M. Foster Foundation, is a way to do that.

The 70-year-old is in the process of donating $275,000 to the No Freeze Project in Willimantic to purchase their own building. He is donating a similar amount to the town’s Covenant Soup Kitchen so they could pay off their mortgages.

He brings the band back together under the title “The Shaboo All Stars,” playing fundraisers for causes near to him. Foster donated the Shaboo Stage in Willimantic’s Jillson Square where they hold annual reunions. 

On June 11, Foster will present checks to the No Freeze Project and the Covenant Soup Kitchen at a concert on the Shaboo Stage. Gates open at 11 a.m. followed by two bands and the presentation ceremony around 1 p.m. After that, the Shaboo All Stars will take the stage to perform.

Asked about his legacy, Foster said, “We never knew we would grow to this level in Willimantic. I'm really proud of it. And it's a source of history. Now. We're not just a thread city. We're a Music City.”

Doug Stewart is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. He can be reached at dstewart@fox61.com.

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