The Rolling Stones. Black-Eyed Peas. Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen. Bad Brains. King Crimson. Tom Waits. Toots and the Maytals. John Lee Hooker. Wu-Tang Clan. Billy Joel.
The list of the acts that have played Toad’s Place over the past 40 years is a snapshot of popular music, from America and beyond.
Brian Phelps, who started at the famous York Street nightclub in 1976 and worked his way up to become manager and owner, appears to have seen just about all of them.
He’s also seen legal fights with Yale and former business partners, shootings, reports of shootings,underage drinking, drug busts, and police raids.
Despite all that, Toad’s—and Phelps—are still there on York Street, even as other clubs have come and gone. With the new year, Toad’s is beginning a 40th anniversary celebration.
Talking to Phelps, you start to understand why he and Toad’s have survived.
Ask him about the nuts and bolts of running a club, booking acts, promoting shows, and he speaks in the short precise sentences of a man who knows his business. Ask him about his favorite shows, the people he’s met, and his voice quickens; he starts to chuckle in between his words.
Ask him to show you around the place, and the stories all start to pour out, down to the hot tub in the green room, how it got there, and who’s been in it.
So the story of Toad’s is, in many ways, the story of Phelps himself, and how he ended up there.
Through A Broken Door
In the summer of 1976 Phelps was working at a karate school above the old Cutler’s record shop — he still practices — when someone broke through the door and stole the school’s sign. Phelps had a feeling the sign hadn’t gone far. He walked around the corner and found it at Toad’s, then a year and a half old. It had opened as a restaurant and quickly became a music club.
Phelps had a talk with Michael Spoerndle, the club’s owner, and got the thief arrested.
“Of course I never got paid for the door,” Phelps said. But he and Spoerndle became friends, and in October he started working at Toad’s as a manager.
“I did a lot of different jobs there to learn everything,” he said, from booking to promotion to running a venue.
“He used to be my right-hand man,” Spoerndle told the Yale Herald
in 2000. “You know, he would stand at the door and break up fights.”
Spoerndle died in 2011 at the age of 59. Phelps started running the place as sole owner since 1995.
“We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” he said. “But we learned as we went.”
Taking Care Of Business—And Bands
“Can you make money on a show? Or if not, is it worth doing because you want to do it anyway?”
That thinking drives Phelps from show to show, as — like every great club owner — he balances the need to pay the bills, and hopefully make some profits, against the desire to run a club that plays the best music it can.
“Sometimes it’s a no-brainer,” Phelps said, of acts that he likes and knows will pack the place. “Other times they’re just looking for big bucks and you got to be careful.”
Running Toad’s is more expensive than it used to be. The club owns the building, but Phelps has seen property taxes double. Other costs of doing business, like insurance, have gone up, too. On the other hand, according to Phelps, between email blasts and social media, promotion is as easy as it’s ever been.
Phelps ran through the details of changes he’s made over the years, from improved ways of scanning IDs to getting rid of glassware, off the top of his head.
“There’s a lot of places that make mistakes,” he said.
But he hasn’t forgotten what the business is all for.
“You bring in the best artist you can,” he said. “and you do the best you can with them.”
Ramones Drank Yoo-Hoo
When Phelps talked about music, he lit up.
“When I first came in, I didn’t know much about it,” he said. But year after year, show after show, he found his taste deepening and broadening, until he was booking acts from blues to funk, rock to reggae, jazz to hip hop, R&B to new wave.
Getting stuck in a niche, he said, is “the road to disaster” in what is already a tough enough business.
More important, “you can really develop a likeness toward everything,” he said. “When we’re making money, that’s even better. But I still like the music. The roar coming off the crowd sometimes is deafening. You see the smiles on people’s faces. They just become one with the sound. It’s a beautiful thing.”
How many nights have there been like that?
“A lot,” he said. He remembered the famous shows — Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Stones. “Dylan played the longest show of his career here in 1990,” he said — four sets, until 2:30 in the morning. The club was supposed to close at 2:00. “There were a ton of cops there. They were watching the show.”
He recalled Joe Cocker vividly: “When he started singing, people just melted.” He remembered when he had B.B. King, the Kentucky HeadHunters, and Mark Isham, who had all just won Grammys, all perform in the same weekend.
P. Funk was “a little disoriented in the early days,” but he still books them year after year, and they still pack the place.
Fishbone “always puts on a great show,” Phelps said. Once when the group played, “a couple of the guys threw another of the guys so far up in the air, his head was up in the lights.”
Iggy Azalea played there in August 2013. “It was a beautiful night,” Phelps said. “Nobody knew she was going to get so big, so fast.”
When he returned years later, he was with Phelps before the show. He walked over to the spot where he’d taken his fall and rolled up his pant leg to show Phelps the scar.
Phelps got to know the musicians offstage, too. When Meat Loaf first played Toad’s in 1977 he fell off the stage and cut his leg open.
“Right here!” Meat Loaf said. “I did that right here!”
At U2’s first show at Toad’s in 1980, “Bono got in a fight with one of the guys from Barooga,” the band U2 was opening for. “There were maybe 100 people in the place. He was chasing the guy around.”
At the last show the Ramones ever played at Toad’s — “they started dying after that,” Phelps said — Phelps brought the group a cake. He couldn’t bring champagne to toast the group’s members because none of them drank anymore: “Their big drink was Yoo-Hoo.”
He toasted Patti Smith with champagne between sets in 2007 when she came by Toad’s just after being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He raised his glass to her.
“No one was ever more worthy,” Phelps said.
“Even Elvis?” Smith responded. The rest of the band laughed.
Phelps still toasts bands now, including with Deep Banana Blackout at the start of the holiday season. And Kung Fu’s latest show, on Dec. 19, sold the place out.
Just one band has used the hot tub in the green room downstairs, however.
Phelps brought the thing into the basement of the club — where the green room is — and then installed the walls around it. He figured the bands would enjoy it. But it turned out that no one wanted to use it. They were afraid of who might have been in it before them.
“So far the only band that’s used it is Gwar,” Phelps said, and started laughing. “They got in there and relaxed. ‘This is nice,’ they said. You should have seen it afterward. It looked like pea soup.”
As Phelps gets older, he said, he thinks he’ll cut back on his nighttime hours. But he has no plans to retire. Which suggests that Toad’s, 40 years old and still jumping, has plenty of years left.