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February 22, 2013

Appreciation: Art Boerke, who helped mold the Columbia music scene

Art Boerke, who booked shows at Rockafellas’, will be remembered at a memorial Sunday at Jake's Bar & Grill

AN APPRECIATION: About 25 years ago (give or take a few years), a downtown music scene was created, Scott Padgett told me on Tuesday afternoon. That’s when the music industry began noticing Columbia, before Hootie & the Blowfish rocketed to stardom.

Rockafellas’, the club Padgett co-owned with Steve Gibson, arguably, was the epicenter of the scene’s musical birth Padgett was talking about. And one of the people responsible for Rockafellas’ success, particularly after Padgett and Gibson divested their ownership interest, was Art Boerke, a booking agent known for his taste.

The importance of a booking agent with knowledge can’t be understated, and Boerke’s was vast.

“He would book stuff that nobody had ever thought to bring to Columbia while not bringing in the same old cookie cutter stuff,” Padgett said. “Art didn’t do that. He stayed true to it.”

Boerke, whose health deteriorated in the last year, died Tuesday morning in Charlotte. He was 50. The announcement of Boerke’s death caused a flurry of posts on Facebook and Twitter, all overwhelmingly positive from what I read. There will be a memorial at 2 p.m. Sunday at Jake’s Bar & Grill, the Devine Street space that was once home to Rockafellas’.

Before there was the Vista, most of the city’s downtown music entertainment was in Five Points. Rockafellas’, alongside Elbow Room, Greenstreets and Von Henmon’s, thrived and are forever etched in the folklore of the local music scene.

“We were getting every band that any record company wanted to break,” Padgett said. “We were a stop between Charlotte and Atlanta. Art was one of the ones who took that and ran with it.”

Boerke, a former DJ at WUSC-FM 90.5 and other local stations, got his start at Rockafellas’ because, like others who worked there, he was always hanging around.

“It seemed like if you did production or sound in Columbia, you started out at Rockafellas’,” Padgett said.

Once the club began scheduling music seven nights a week, local promoters were given an opportunity to book shows. Carl Singmaster, who went on to found Manifest Discs & Tapes, Eddie Blakely and Boerke frequently put shows into the club.

“All these guys saw the opportunity to bring in these bands on a semi-regular basis. Art would bring in people I wasn’t in touch with,” Padgett said. “It’s not like you could miss him. He was always a presence.”

Boerke, by any measurement, was a large man. Padgett recalled Boerke, who logged hours as a bouncer, pulling people out of mosh pits by the napes of their necks. Jay Matheson, owner of Jam Room Recording Studio, said Boerke, with a grip on his ankle, once held him in the air as if he were weightless.

When Boerke, Singmaster, Matheson and others got together for a Motorhead concert in Charlotte in March 2011, it was hard for Matheson to see Boerke laboring because of knee problems. Boerke couldn’t stand up for the whole show. He had trouble sitting in a cab.

When reached Tuesday, Matheson was at Jake’s discussing plans for a “Back to Rockafellas’” weekend to benefit this year’s Jam Room Music Festival.

“He loved music,” Matheson said of Boerke. “He liked being part of the scene. He loved being a part of it all.”

Boerke was born on Sept. 3, 1962 in New York. He was raised in East Northport. Both of his parents were teachers, so it is fitting that Boerke would teach college undergraduates. According to his Facebook page, Boerke earned three bachelor’s degrees – history, international studies and journalism – from USC. He earned a master’s in history from USC in 2006. He was a professor at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

More than one friend interviewed described Boerke, a Napoleonic scholar, as a walking encyclopedia.

“He was a very smart man,” Damon Plumides said. “He would talk about stuff you had no idea what he was talking about.”

Plumides and Boerke were the co-authors of the book “ The Adventures of Caterwaul the Cat: Feline Pie,” a young adult novel. Plumides said they were working on a second book, but the work slowed after Boerke suffered a stroke last February. Earlier this month, after seeking treatment at an urgent care facility, Plumides, who escorted Boerke, said Boerke fell and hit his head in the parking lot after being released. He had brain surgery to relieve pressure, but Boerke never regained consciousness.

“Art would do anything in the world for you,” Plumides said. “He was a good friend. He was a good listener.”

Some of Boerke’s students posted on his Facebook page. It’s easy to deduce that Boerke was the cool professor.

In Columbia, Boerke was always around music. He once worked on the load-in crew at the Carolina Coliseum and, after his stint at WUSC, he was a DJ on local radio stations including WMFX-FM Fox 102.3.

“You always liked it when Art was on the radio,” Matheson said.

Boerke became the face of Rockafellas’, and he has, in many ways, remained so since the club closed in 1998. Angie Seshun, who has organized two Rockafellas’ reunion concerts, hung out at the club as a teenager. She went to the Saturday afternoon all ages shows, something Boerke started. He made Rockafellas’ an incubator for music fans, a more significant and lasting impression on the music scene than any number of bands.

“He definitely broadened my interests,” Seshun said. “The kids I hung out with were hungry for music, and we were fortunate Art would do the all-ages shows. There weren’t a lot of places for kids to go.”

Through her Tuesday afternoon Facebook post, Beth Laderberg succinctly summed up the sentiment of many who hung out in Rockafellas’ at one time or another while Boerke was booking shows there.

“Don’t think I’d be who I was today if it weren’t for Rockafellas,” she wrote.

I agree. Thank you, Art.

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