Pawtucket celebrates ‘Beach Boys Way’

Pawtucket celebrates ‘Beach Boys Way’

Beach Boys fans gathered to celebrate the naming of Beach Boys Way last Saturday, the 40th anniversary of the largest concert ever in Rhode Island.

PAWTUCKET – Over the Labor Day weekend, Rhode Island received a ray of California sun as music lovers remembered the 40th anniversary of the largest concert the state has ever seen. A stretch of Pawtucket’s Narragansett Park Drive now holds a new title to mark that event in a permanent way: Beach Boys Way.

The 40 or so people who gathered last Saturday for the dedication, a tiny fraction of the 40,000-strong that danced to “America’s Band” on Sept. 2, 1977, reminisced as they marked this chapter of music history – and it all started with a sign.

Al Gomes was 17 in 1977 when he and friends saw the Beach Boys perform at Narragansett Park Race Track.

“There we were in the front row,” Gomes remembered. “We had no idea there were 40,000 people behind us.”

Later, through his artist development company Big Noise, Gomes worked for the band, helping them snag their first-ever Grammy Award in 2013. Last year, he and partner Connie Watrous visited POP Shop, an antique store in Providence. They had no idea one massive discovery would mark music history.

Gomes asked workers at POP if they had any Beach Boys stuff. There was one piece: a box office poster with line-work waves separating block lettered “Beach Boys” from the date, “Friday Sept. 2nd, 6:00 p.m.”

Gomes discovered the sign was an authentic marker for that famous 1977 show. A little more digging led to a breakthrough: That concert featuring the band’s original lineup, brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, holds the record for largest concert crowd in Rhode Island history.

Stunned, Gomes and Watrous then lobbied the city of Pawtucket to rename the section of Narragansett Park Drive as Beach Boys Way, where center stage once stood.

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and City Council members joined in for last Saturday’s event.

“We’re honored that we not only have the start of the American Industrial Revolution with Slater Mill, but we also have the Beach Boys,” Grebien told the crowd.

At the dedication, held on both the anniversary of the show and the band’s 56th year in music, longtime fans recalled their experiences, too.

Rick Bellaire, Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame vice-chairman, remembered the show well, recalling that intra-band tensions exploded before they even left T.F. Green Airport. With a smile, he added, “But it was a major event as far as Rhode Island music goes. I am a huge fan to this day.”

Clara Read first experienced the Beach Boys in 1964. She didn’t get to see the Pawtucket show, but as a member of the Rhode Island Contingency of Beach Boys Fans, a friend group that hosts listening parties, she said the ceremony helped describe the power of the band and its songs.

“Those chords Brian Wilson created … the man’s a genius,” she said. “The moment I first heard it, it changed something in my brain. I don’t know what it was, I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Watrous noted that Labor Day weekend marked many milestones at the former racetrack. In 1934, nearly 54,000 people entered the history books as the largest crowd at any Rhode Island sporting event. The famed racehorse Seabiscuit broke his maiden record there, too, a year later.

Music history now has its own place with a plaque at the racetrack-turned-industrial park, the fifth monument to “America’s Band.” The plaque states that attendance at the 1977 concert effectively doubled Pawtucket’s population for the day.

In a statement, original Beach Boy Mike Love described the occasion.

“I have to admit, we spent the money a long time ago,” Gomes read as the crowd laughed. “It’s very special to be honored this way.”

Carl Wilson, son of the late Dennis Wilson, also shared words through a statement read by Gomes.

“Making people happy through his music was what (my father) truly loved,” he wrote. “You are the best fans in the world.”

He added that his father would have been proud of the honor.

Those gathered then raised a glass of sparkling cider to the Beach Boys’ sunny surf. Many thanked Gomes and Watrous for their research, and for reminding all who visit the area of music’s powerful force.

Visitors are asked to mark their arrival at Beach Boys Way by “liking” the Beach Boys Way Facebook page and uploading a photo under the sign at 455 Narragansett Parkway.

Said Watrous, “Let’s see if we can get to 40,000.”

Clara Read, longtime Beach Boys fan, snaps a photo of the street sign and plaque at the newly designated Beach Boys Way. (Breeze photo by Diandra Markgraf)