If anyone asks me where to find the best jukebox in the D.C. area, I don’t even have to think about it: Showtime, a tiny dive bar in Bloomingdale. It’s owned by Paul Vivari, a DJ who makes crowds dance to raucous 1950s R&B and punchy ’60s soul at the Black Cat, Velvet Lounge and Dodge City under the moniker Soul Call Paul.
When Vivari began transforming a former barber shop into a neighborhood hangout last year, “The two things I knew I wanted to have were cheap drinks and good music,” he says. He’s got the former down, with beers for $4 to $5 and shots of cheap whiskey and a can of Natty Boh for $5. But it’s his 100-CD jukebox that steals the show. Lovingly curated from Vivari’s enormous collection, it’s full of punchy rock-and-roll, effervescent girl-group hits, smooth Motown soul and deep ’70s funk.
What’s more, it’s completely free. Browse the bound playlists — more like books than a printed list of tracks — and pick whatever strikes your fancy. (Vivari just asks that you use common sense and not play too many, so that others can choose songs, too.)
I was at Showtime on a recent Saturday night, and my friend and I began punching up songs: The Shangri-Las, Martha and the Vandellas, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner. The next thing we knew, people were getting up from their tables and cutting a rug in the middle of the room. I felt like I was hanging out at Arnold’s with Fonzie. When was the last time you saw a room full of people dancing to a jukebox?
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Vivari has a great ear for music, even if he admits that he has “a lot of stuff on there I wouldn’t necessarily DJ with — things that are less dancey, but still great songs.” So I asked him to talk me through the process of creating this Rosetta Stone of American popular music.
Putting it together
“I considered having a 45 jukebox, but they break all the time but nobody fixes them,” says Vivari, who’s known for spinning original vinyl singles in clubs. “Plus they only have room for like 200 songs, but with this I have around 3,000.”
He estimates that he spent about 20 weeks picking songs from his huge collection. “I did it and redid it dozens of times,” he says. “I knew I wanted particular songs, but I didn’t know how to organize it.”
Because there were a lot of great artists who didn’t have enough material for a CD of their own, he began organizing discs around specific cities, such as Detroit or New Orleans; labels, such as Stax or Chess; or the more generic “The Ladies of R&B,” which made it easier to find a place for a stray favorite song. He also combined some artists onto one CD: You’ll find 12 tracks from the Ronettes sharing space with a dozen from the Shangri-Las.
There was a late wrench when Vivari found out that while he’d curated 32-track CDs, the jukebox couldn’t play more than 24 on one disc, so a whole new round of editing began. “It was heartbreaking. Every time I pressed ‘delete,’ I was dying inside,” he says. “I had to cut Link Wray from 32 tracks to 24.”
Early on, Vivari knew that he wanted the music to have a local focus. One wall of the bar is devoted to a mural of local artists, from the famous (Duke Ellington) to the more obscure (Harmon “Mask Man” Bethea). Six Washington artists get their own CDs in the jukebox — well, if you count blues great Bo Diddley, who lived in a house on Rhode Island Avenue in the 1960s, where he recorded his “Bo Diddley is a Gungslinger” album.
There also are two compilations featuring local blues and soul singers, such as Bunker Hill, who recorded with Link Wray, and guitarist Bobby Parker, who still performs at Madams Organ and other clubs. A selection of tunes from the cult Shrine Records label, loved by Northern Soul fans for its rarity as well as danceability, is also included.
There’s even a collection devoted to swing giant Duke Ellington. “That was the most fun,” Vivari says. “I have some old stuff — ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ and ‘Stompy Jones’ — but a lot of it is from the albums he did in the ’60s, where he was experimenting and it sounded like nothing else he’d ever done. The ‘Far East Suite,’ the ‘New Orleans Suite’ — it’s so rhythmic, but it’s still Duke Ellington.”
What’s hot, what’s cool
Despite the richness of the 2,400 tracks, “I assumed it would be background music, because so much of it is obscure,” Vivari says. “That’s why I kept it free. I’m not sure people would explore it if they had to pay for it.”
But Vivari says he has been surprised by “the variety of what people play.”
Some people still come up to the bar and ask, “Who the heck are Chris Kenner or Alvin Johnson?” But Vivari says the bar is also attracting a knowledgeable crowd. “There’s a couple of older neighborhood guys who really know their stuff. One comes in and plays this Johnny Copeland song called ‘The Hip Hop.’ It’s a really cool uptempo song, just him and his guitar. Not a lot of people know Johnny Copeland, so that’s cool.”
On the other side of the coin, he says, “Stevie Wonder and James Brown get abused the most, especially after midnight on a Saturday. But Vivari isn’t going to take out artists just because he hears them too often. “The song that gets played the most is ‘Be My Baby,’ but I’m not taking out ‘Be My Baby.’ It’s the Ronettes!” he says, as if you told him he had to get rid of his puppy.
113 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Open Monday-Thursday from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday-Saturday from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m.; and Sunday from 3 pm. to 2 a.m.