Phil Ochs, LBJ, And A Westport Steakhouse

Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the Twin Towers were struck. Those of a certain age recall exactly how they learned President Kennedy was killed.

A thousand or so Westporters will never forget hearing the news that Lyndon Johnson refused to run for a 2nd term. Phil Ochs told them. The witty, sardonic protest singer was performing in the Staples High School auditorium. Gleefully, he passed the news along. The audience roared its approval.

Phil Ochs

Last month marked the 36th anniversary of Phil Ochs’ suicide. Just 35, he’d grappled with demons so strong they overpowered his prodigious talents, and intense desire to expose hypocrisy and inanity wherever he found it.

That Phil Ochs concert was a marvelous moment. A songwriter who believed LBJ’s Vietnam policy was destroying an America he — Phil — loved informed a crowd of like-minded people that they had won. No one who was there has forgotten that moment.

Long forgotten is another Phil Ochs appearance here more than 3 years earlier.

Emily Roderick Oprea remembers it, though. Her younger sister Judy Roderick — a blues singer — recorded for Vanguard. Time Magazine called her “earthy and hard rocking.”

Judy Roderick

Judy sang at folk festivals, night clubs and coffee houses, from Newport and New York to San Francisco.

But she lived with her parents in Weston. Sometimes she played local gigs.

One was at the Bonanza Sirloin Pit. Founded by Dan Blocker — Hoss on the TV show “Bonanza,” who I actually saw make a (very large) personal appearance here — the Westport steakhouse was, according to Wikipedia, the original in a chain that grew to 600 restaurants by 1989.

Judy played there a few times. So, on February 26 and 27, 1965, did singer/songwriter Ed McCurdy (“Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”).

And Phil Ochs.

The poster -- including Phil Ochs -- promises "Folk Music at Bonanza, every weekend from 9 p.m. until..."

There was no follow-up story in the Westport News. It’s not listed on a website that chronicles all of Phil’s concerts, from January 1, 1962 through October 23, 1975.

According to the website, the next day — February 28, 1965 — Phil was in Baltimore. There was a benefit for Kentucky coal miners; he wouldn’t miss something like that.

But that Friday and Saturday, he was at a steakhouse in Westport. The Westport News called him a “singing journalist,” and said he’d “comment on the political and social climate of the sixties.”

He did that for as long as he lived. In death, he’s faded from memory — though a recent documentary, “There but for Fortune,” brings his wonderful music back to life.

And on at least 2 occasions he did it in this small suburban town that, back then, was a haven for the topical music Phil Ochs personified.

19 responses to “Phil Ochs, LBJ, And A Westport Steakhouse

  1. Fred Cantor

    Great find–and that poster/flier is probably very rare. I had no recollection whatsoever that Bonanza functioned every weekend as a coffeehouse-type establishment with folk music featuring some prominent performers.

  2. Nor did I Fred, or if I was aware back then I’ve forgotten about it I wish I hadn’t missed that session at Bonanza. Judy R was well-known at Staples (I was a junior in ’65 and her bro, JIm, a longtime NYC photographer, was in my class) and I was a big Ochs fan. Thanks, Dan, for recovering this piece of Westport muscical history.

  3. Wow! That’s remarkable! And Jean Richie, who certainly gained a following … And at BONANZA of all places?! I used to go there and play video games and order Sirloin Tips by the #; the only music you heard was canned … And I didn’t even know it really was related to the show (Hoss, etc.) Hysterical! … Excellent post, Dan, especially for those of us very, very young 06880 readers who still can’t get their heads around the fact that the Doors (and other) really played at Staples!

  4. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Great story, Dan. The Bonanza was “the” place to go for a dinner out for those families who could only afford an occasional dinner out! And, for us, it was just down the street! As kids we got so excited just to go there and have a dinner. Who knew that Folk music was played there on weekends?? I believe that the Bonanza Steak House was run by “Aunt Lu” Cuseo when it first opened. Thanks for jogging my memory, Dan. The poster is amazing!

  5. I had the honor of writing and playing with ex Byrd Kevin Kelly in California in the 70’s. Kevin played at Carnegie Hall with Phil on that historic evening.

  6. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfight_at_Carnegie_Hall
    Also knew Michael Ochs Phil’s brother in CA..He has one of the largest still photograph collection of rocknroll groups and artists on the planet…widely credited in books..

  7. Was Bonanza where Ed Mitchell’s is now? I had no clue.. Dan, you sure got around when we were kids.. were we even outta diapers in 1965?

  8. Gwen Dwyer Lechnar

    As a teenager I worked at Bonanza, which was then pretty low-brow (had to wear a cowgirl outfit) and located where Sakura is now. Had Dan Blocker washed his hands of it by then? Had no idea of its illustrious history.(Come on, Mary, we were 12 or 13–admit it!)

    • OK so was Bonanza where Sakura is or where Peppermill was? I remember a place called Family Affair in the mid 80’s that my mom would take us to during the week. I think it was cafteria style and was very mediocre. They would have a pianist or magician I believe. Same place , different name or not?

      • actually late 70’s. Early 80’s

      • Nancy Powers Conklin

        Actually, it was where the Peppermill was. I don’t know what was where Sakura was, but Bonanza was where the Peppermill was and was owned and operated by Lu Cuseo.

        • There were two steakhouses — Bonanza and Ponderosa. One was where the Peppermill was; the other was where Sakura is (opposite the old Big Top, currently McDonald’s).

        • No, , no, Bonanza was definitely where Sakura’s is, before it became Family Affair — at least in the late 70’s, early ’80s. My friend and I used to go and play Galaga there. We would walk from Exit 42, if you can imagine …

  9. Gwen Dwyer Lechnar

    You know, even tho I worked there, I trust Dan’s recollection more than my own! Ponderosa it was, then, Dan. I do remember the cow-girl get-up.And, Jay, it was indeed cafeteria style and very mediocre.

  10. A Westporter in Paris

    So funny to find this post just now; last night, after watching a documentary about Pete Seeger with my husband (Pete Seeger: A Singing Life–on YouTube), I was telling him about the night I heard Phil Ochs announce that LBJ would not be running for re-election. I must have been 6 or 7 years old ( I was at Burr Farms with your little sister, Dan), but I remember it vividly.
    Do you happen to have the exact date of that concert?
    I also remember hearing Pete Seeger when he came to town with the Clearwater.
    A Westporter in Paris

    • Well, the concert was the night LBJ announced he was not running for re-election: March 31, 1968. (Some people actually thought it was an early April Fool’s joke.)

  11. Just happened to think of the wonderful fundraiser for Appalachia I attended in 1965 (Feb. 28) in Baltimore in which Phil Ochs was one of the stars, and found this. Thanks.