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Do You Remember? Bucking the tide at the Henry Afrika Cafe

Business by: Joanne Kountourakis, July 12, 2022

A crowd gathers out front of the Henry Afrika Cafe on Main Street in Northport. Photo via the bar's Facebook tribute page.

The article below was inspired by casual conversation with a longtime Northport/East Northport resident at the June 28 Northport Chamber of Commerce mixer event. A little bit of research provided me with a beginner’s level understanding of the Henry Afrika Cafe . But I didn’t live it, you did. Share your memories of the popular gathering spot on our Facebook page.

“Those were the days” is a common refrain when reminiscing about the Henry Afrika Cafe, a dive bar well known on Long Island for having live music, and in particular bands that performed original music, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Open from approximately 1976 to 1983 (daily from noon until 4am!), the self-touted and true-to-form “gathering place” brought a steady flow of local – and loyal – customers to 231 Main Street, in the location currently occupied by Golden China.

In a 1979 New York Times feature on Cliff Abeles, owner of the Lion’s Cage in Huntington, Henry Afrika received a noteworthy mention:

By featuring groups with original material (as opposed to “cover” or “copy” bands), the Lion's Cage stands apart from the majority of Long Island venues. Only a handful of others – most notably the Right Track Inn (Freeport), the Henry Afrika Cafe (Northport), the Music Box (Bellmore), the Silver Dollar Saloon (Bay Shore), and My Father's Place (Roslyn) – regularly risk public indifference for the sake of exposing original talent. As any club owner (or psychologist, for that matter) is likely to point out, the public almost inevitably gravitates toward the familiar… But bucking the tide and taking risks is not without its pleasant surprises.

The bar, which offered a “different concept in relaxation,” hosted such musicians as Ray Lambiase, a local artist who began writing and performing his own songs as a teenager on Long Island. According to his website, Lambiase traveled the college coffeehouse circuit in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, before forming his first band and recording “Slow Dance Romeo/Who'll Run to You Now” in the early 1980s. A photo of the record, “right out of the jukebox at Henry Afrika's,” is featured on the dive bar’s Facebook tribute page.

An undated photo of the Henry Afrika Cafe, via the Northport Historical Society.

A different concept in relaxation. An August 1976 ad in the then Northport Journal.

Mr. Lambiase recently released his fifth full length CD, The Road Ahead, featuring eleven new songs that celebrate a range of Americana musical genres, and stories that will introduce listeners to a number of memorable characters. You can catch a recent performance here.

A legendary jazz guitarist known for his live performances, Larry Coryell (https://larrycoryell.net) also played at Henry Afrika’s, making a one-night appearance at the cafe on December 9, 1976.

A January 21, 1979 New York Times article highlighted a performance by Honest Tom Pomposello’s Blues Band at Henry Afrika’s featuring, in Mr. Pomposello’s words, “blues and boogie woogie with a heavy emphasis on slide guitar, lots of original tunes and arrangements.”

The keynote is catharsis: letting off steam, cutting loose, having a good time, the article reads. Undeniably, the band's relentless emphasis on spontaneity ('It's important for us to do these songs differently each week”) and driving rhythms facilitate the kind of release patrons appreciate.

Other bands that played at the bar, as mentioned on the Henry Afrika Facebook page by loyal locals, many who still reside in the area, include The Little Wilson Band, New Day, NRG, Go and the Getters, and Tumbleweed.

There’s a pic of that: Bar owner Bill Valone was photographed at least once wearing a Speedo (and just a Speedo) while parading down Main Street in a pick-up truck for Cow Harbor Day.

Feeling nostalgic? You can grab this vintage 1980 Henry Afrika tee shirt – with original stains – on eBay for just $39.95 (plus shipping). With “plenty of use and wear,” the shirt is “probably a small” and made of soft material “you want to snuggle-up and sleep in.”

An eBay listing boasting a vintage tee with plenty of use and wear.

We love hearing story ideas and sharing memories with community members. Reach out anytime to chat, or submit an idea for our next “Do You Remember” article by emailing editor@northportjournal.com.