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Meet Me In Cruz Bay – Tales of Vintage St. John by Dore Coller

Meet Me In Cruz Bay – Tales of Vintage St. John by Dore Coller

Good Morning, Good Morning!  A few weeks ago I stumbled upon this music video that has a lot of throwback pictures to Cruz Bay of yesterday with a catchy little tune about Love City as the soundtrack.  The song was stuck in my head for days afterwards….It still is as I type this.  Ha!

I was curious about the song and where it came from so I did a little Facebook stalking of the song writer, Dore Coller.  I have never met him before but he immediately responded to my message and agreed to answer some questions about the song.  I was so entertained by his deep dive into the Cruz Bay of yester-years that I wanted to share his colorful response and the the video with all of you!

Dore’s account of his time spent on St. John as a musician in the early 1980’s was a real treat for me to read.  A lot of the places he mentions in his story I have heard tell of but was not fortunate enough to experience myself!  He tells tales of the Backyard, Mugsie’s, an early Mongoose Junction, the beginnings of the Lime Inn and paints a colorful portrait of a Cruz Bay on the verge of development.  For those of you who have been vacationing on St. John for decades, or who lived on island during that time, I think that you will all thoroughly enjoy this story….

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Dore at St. John Carnival 1983 – Obviously with a painkiller in hand!

“In 1981, I came down to St. John looking for a couple of friends, Andy & Julie Turpin, who were living in Carolina Estate.  Andy played the banjo and he invited me to come down and bring all the music equipment I could get on a plane because there was nobody else who could play like me on the island at the time and I could work as much as I wanted.  I showed up…And within about two weeks I was playing six nights a week on St John and St Thomas. Banjo Andy and I had a duo, Parallel Aces, that gigged a bunch.

The main place to play for us honkies on the island was the Backyard in Cruz Bay- a sunken open air bar in the center of town.  That was the main gathering point, where EVERYONE hung out and checked in.  There was a deck up top where God knows what went on.  Upside down Margaritas and Kamikazes were served.  Every once in a while someone who had just sailed back from Tortola would turn up with a Tupperware pitcher of ‘Tortola Tea;’ a harvest of Sage Mtns’ finest packed in honey.  The pitcher would go around the bar with all participating.

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The Backyard later became Duffy’s>Castaways>Doghouse Pub….

There was also the Ship Lantern up on Gift Hill which was a nice restaurant with a killer view that would have music on weekend evenings too.  Mooies was a classic West Indian Bar where you’d go knock back a few Beck’s with the locals.  Down North Shore Road, Glen Speer had just finished the first phase of Mongoose Junction, and next to that was Bob’s Lobster Hut, where we would play with Michael Beason, a finger picking Florida Hippie who lived on the island until Irma wiped him out.

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Present day Mongoose Junction was only just beginning in 1981

Across the Backyard and upstairs was Gulliver’s…A classier bar that rarely had music but was nice to hang out at. Out in Coral Bay there was just Smitty’s and the Sputnik (it’s Out of This World!) across the street..Sputnik was a former attempt at having a roller rink in Coral Bay.  Miss Eudora Marsh would have us play there on the weekends…That was a trip and a half.

Andy and I would also play at Maho Bay at the dining pavilion for the Thursday Night dinner there.  We’d also head over to St Thomas and play at the Dove and other places in Charlotte Amalie.

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The Maho Campground Picnic Pavilion used to be a great place to dine and enjoy an evening.

One night at the Sputnik, Tom Funkhouser and Whistler Doug Van Nostrand stopped by and asked me if I would like to play in the Cow Bay Cruz Boys with them.  This was the pre-dominant band in Cruz Bay at the time, and I readily accepted their invitation.  We were the big fish in the small pond at the time- our night at the Backyard was the main party event of every week.

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Cow Bay Cruz Boys original logo as designed by Jim Carroll and Les Anderson

We’d play at most places till one or two in the morning and when we got done we’d usually sleep in the booths at the bar (unless one of us got lucky!).  The Cruz Boys played the Backyard every Friday night.  After a while Tom had some problems working with Jean, the owner of the Backyard.  Especially with booking our dates.

So Tom said “Screw it, I’ll just open my own bar where we can play when we please!”

Hence the birth of the Lime Inn.

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The Lime Inn- Once just a space for music amid the shops, is now a bustling restaurant and island staple eatery

Tom set up a bar on one side of the back pad of that shopping center and built a small stage in the middle. We continued to play Friday nights, but our crowds were getting big enough that it was horning in on the West Indian Calypso Bars’ business.  We had Rick’s Hilltop above us and Fred’s right across the street below us.  They usually had Calypso bands on Saturday nights but started booking bands the same night as we were playing, and a big battle of the bands ensued, seeing who could play the loudest.

So we moved over to Thursday nights, and the crowds got bigger.  So they moved their bands to Thursday nights…This went on and on.  But, a truce was eventually reached.   And The Cow Bay Cruz Boys were the first transplant band that was ever invited to play during Carnival St John, which was a true honor!  We played at the beginning of Carnival on Friday evening on the little park mound opposite the Dock Shop, across from the old Ferry Dock.

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Dore and the boys play STJ Carnival, 1981

It was something special to be asked to play in Carnival.

I even got to sit in with one of the Calypso bands, African Roots, on their Carnival truck for a stretch- I was ecstatic!

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1979 Carnival Parade

As time went on, other places opened up…Mugsies next to Mongoose had a big dance floor.  Apu, a local family member and great chef, cooked there one night a week.  When John Schaffer wasn’t doing jazz there I would play there with the Cruz Boys or one of my other groups or as a solo act.

Over in Coral Bay, Smitty sold out to Ted Johnson and he opened Redbeard’s which was a steady Saturday night gig for us.  That eventually became Skinny Legs, when Doug and Mo bought Ted out.

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Skinny Legs started as Smitty’s and eventually became Redbeards before evolving into everyone’s favorite island burger stop!

The Cow Bay Cruz Boys were founded by Tom Funkhouser and Doug (Whistler) Van Nostrand.  Tom played rhythm guitar and sang and Whistler sang, played bongos and….whistled!  When I came down I played electric and rocked things up quite a bit.  We had various bass players (Brett Palm did it for a long while) and drummers, but that was the core.

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Mooie’s still stands next to the Cruz Bay ferry dock but is only operational on a rare occasion

After I left, John Schaffer played with them for a long time.  Tom came down to teach at Antilles School in St Thomas in the late ‘70s and kept his day job most of the way through gigging and then owning a bar, a truly tenacious individual Whistler’s still there!

He helped a guy named Chainsaw Phil clear a whole hillside in Chocolate Hole so It could be developed, and in exchange Whistler got a chunk of the Rock, where he built a house and lives to this day.  Phil was the first person to show up with a chainsaw on the island, everyone else was still cutting through the bush with machete at that time!

Other gigs ensued, we’d play private parties at houses or on the beach.  Even played for the Navy when the boys were in port.  One time we were hauled over to Magens Bay to play for all the sailors on an aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz.  Five thousand sailors drank 350 cases of Schaeffer Beer in about 90 minutes!

There were other bars and gigs on St Thomas- Fat City, Bolongo Bay, but we’re talking about St John here, right?

Meet Me in Cruz Bay

I was renting a house at the top of Centerline that Gail Embry was leasing out…A two bedroom house with a 210 degree view to the north from Anegada to Roosevelt in Puerto Rico.  My girlfriend at the time was bouncing back between living with me and heading back to Bayside Queens and her city life.  I was writing mostly Reggae and Island based tunes at the time, but I wanted to write something a little more urban to reach out to her up there.  Enticing her to get her butt back down here to lime with me. How being in the city was fine but desolate now that she had been down in the islands with me.

So that’s how that song came about, a song about how good life is on St John and how she should get back down as fast as possible.

It worked!  For awhile.  Ultimately it ended up that you could take the girl out of the city but not the city out of the girl, at least not that one!

The Cruz Boys would go to the BVI but we weren’t gigging there that much. We got to play in Soper’s Hole or in Roadtown here or there, once in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. Foxy and Rueben had Jost Van Dyke pretty much sewn up. We were all good friends but it was their gig and we didn’t mess with that. Sometimes Rueben would jump in his skiff and head over to Coral Bay and play at the Sputnik.

There was also Caneel Bay.  Dottie Fisher would have a little soiree there and hire some local combos.  That was more of cocktail/jazz gigs and I didn’t do that as much.  But it was a glorious time.  Things were small and there wasn’t much else to do at night but go and see whatever I was in.  I was making a good living, supporting myself in paradise.

Terry Firebrand and Tommy Bertolucci asked me to come and work at the Dive Shop in the old Custom House at Cinnamon Bay, so then I had a day job too.  That beautiful old coral stacked building is gone now, but it was intact when I was there.  I’d work there all day, lock up and grab my guitar and amp and catch a ride on one of the open air taxis (Herman Sprauve, Nicky Penn, Lynn, Mano) to Cruz Bay, stop in at the Backyard to check in and report on who had come in to the campground and then head to my gig of the evening on either island.

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Cinnamon Bay

At one point I was making enough to take a vacation from my vacation! I headed down to Montserrat to check out Sir George Martin’s Air Studios and go to St Barth’s for a week.  The Police had just finished Ghost in the Machine and Squeeze was just coming in to do East Side Story.  I played at the Agouti in Plymouth when I was there; the bar that Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney had just played at the month before.  In St Barths I was brought up to Jimmy Buffet’s house but he was off island at the time.  I got to play for Joseph at Le Select, one of the two places that claim to be the source of the Cheeseburger in Paradise (Stanley’s Welcome Bar in Cane Garden Bay is the other).

But I digress, supposed to be talking about Love City here!  These were smaller, simpler times.  Not that I think it’s that much different now, except that Cruz Bay the last time I was there felt more like Charlotte Amailie.  It was such a small community when I was there.  Everyone knew everyone (and everyone’s business!) and watched out or over each other to an extent.

I stayed on the Rock for a couple of years, and came back to the States to ‘get my shit together’ so I could move down permanently, start a business, buy a boat to charter…You’ve got to bring something substantial to a small community so remote.  I’m still working on that.

The night before I left there was a big party at Mugsies for me and we all played our hearts out.  Nick, the owner of Gullivers, came up to me before the night was over and said we should come up to his bar.  That he’d keep it open after hours for the band to hang out and drinks were on the house.  We drank boiler makers till almost dawn, and when I woke up with the hangover of the century late the next morning I had of course missed my flight- a classic island farewell!

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Dore’s Carolina Estate VI license

When Tom and Bonnie moved back a few years later they moved to San Francisco (where I was) and we started the band back up.  It’s been going in one form or another here in the SF Bay Area ever since.  Foxy and Tess flew us down along with Banjo Andy for the 30th annual Foxy’s Wooden Boat Race in Jost back in 2003 or so, quite a few of the original usual suspects turned up for the event….”

Thank you Dore, SO MUCH for this tale of your musician life in vintage Cruz Bay!  I hope that you all enjoyed it as much as I did!  If you enjoy the below video as well, you can head over to Dore’s website to find out what he’s up to these days!

 

18 thoughts on “Meet Me In Cruz Bay – Tales of Vintage St. John by Dore Coller”

  1. Love this! Wish I could have experienced that. First time on the rock was 1992. We won a Crab Race at the old Pussers @ Wharfside while watching the Hornshagallers? My work fe and I said when the kids were grown and we could afford it, we would be back. For 16 years, we have visited year and still love the vibe! Great song Dore!

  2. So good…. I first came to St. John in 1980 (age 30) , stayed in Catherineberg with friends and came back as often as I could. Have not been back for a while, but hope to come once more before my time is up.

  3. That Dive Shop in the Customs Building at Cinnamon Bay was run by my spouse Stu Brown in the 80’s, as a National Park Concession. Later moved to Caneel and it became an “archeological museum”.

    • Hi Nancy…I remember Stu very well Good friend of Tommy Coulter……I drove the Bomba Challenger for Rodney Varlack 8 years 87-95. Stu always a gentleman RIP both those guys.

  4. Love this story. While we all might look at this as the good old days, keep in mind those of us experiencing St John today will look back at 2021 and see that as the good ole days. Enjoy today!

  5. I certainly am glad that several weeks ago I posted my friend Jeff Smith’s video with the “Meet Me in Cruz Bay” tune which he was particularly fond of..!! That helped Hillary “stumble” across it, and carry the proverbial “ball” from there, to which Dore’ really gave a nice in depth response and explanation about his time on St John…!! By the way it was Fran Attard who owned the Backyard……

  6. First came to St. John in February 1981, staying at Aase Pedersen’s home in Chocolate Hole. The airport terminal in St Thomas was a big Quonset hut then. The pier in Cruz Bay was much smaller. No Wharfside Village. No Westin hotel (which started as the Virgin Grand). Far fewer paved roads. And Sundays seemed quieter, with many businesses closed. Getting breakfast at Joe’s Diner. The Chase Bank in the center of town. Chase was run, I think, by David Rockefeller. It was the Rockefellers who owned much of St John and donated the land that formed much of the National Park we know today.

  7. I sailed with Stu and Paula Brown out of Cinnamon in ‘77. First visit ‘74.

    Cruz Bay? A narrow wooden pier, a post office and lots of mini-mokes. Beauty!

  8. Wonderful throw back in time. I lived and worked on STJ from 1982 till 2012 moved state side 2013. Was able to raise a family with Ralph Powell. Everybody knew him at the inspection lane in Cruz Bay. He was a true St.Johnian born in the old immigration building. Our daughter now 36 became Carnival Queen in 2004. Yes we think a lot of the good ole days.

  9. What a great story. I’ve only been coming to St. John since 2016 and love it, but I only wish I could have experienced those years back in the 80s when I was really young to enjoy a different way of life back then .

  10. The “Kite” was a great last stop on the way to Maho Bay Campgrounds, back when Maho Bay was still patrolled by the lady with the machete

    Sadly those days are gone.

  11. a more than interesting little tale from a guy that I remember playing The Dead on his trombone at high school football games. Dore, get working on your book while you can still remember most of your adventures. the best to you Dore

  12. The “Kite” was a great last stop on the way to Maho Bay Campgrounds, sadly both are gone forever. Maho Bay was a better place back then

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