In 1955, legendary producer Allen Toussaint was just another young pianist looking for a break on the New Orleans scene. He was part of a generation of musicians who helped lay the foundation for modern-day rhythm and blues. Like all the aspiring local cats in his day, he hung out at the Dew Drop Inn.
"The Dew Drop for me and for us was a rite of passage from the teenage world to the adult world. It was big-time," Toussaint told me before his unexpected death last year at 77, while on tour in Madrid, Spain. It was a sunny, fall day, and Touissant was sitting at his Steinway grand piano in an elegantly pressed blue suit, reminiscing. Over his career he popularized new kinds of funk music, building the careers of influential artists such as the Meters and Dr. John, as well as penning hits such as the Rolling Stones' "Fortune Teller" and Labelle's "Lady Marmalade."
The Dew Drop Inn was his launching pad. When he was 17 years old, he enrolled, along with many others, in what he describes as an unofficial university degree in music at the club, crossing paths with greats such as B.B. King, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington. Toussaint remembers unreal scenes from the nightclub's heyday, like Etta James strutting in wearing a sparkling white dress with platinum blonde hair and a white rhesus monkey on a diamond chain. "She came in with an entourage of guys behind her. All the tempos dropped when she walked slowly across the floor to her seat. There wasn't any space, but they made space right away," Toussaint told me, smiling.
"If you were of any status, you played the Dew Drop," said Irma Thomas, whose five-decade career as a rhythm-and-blues singer has earned her the title "Soul Queen of New Orleans. "This was the place during segregated times."
The historic music club still sits in its original location in New Orleans's Central City neighborhood. The sign advertises "Dew-Drop Inn, Hotel, Lounge and Restaurant" on a red arrow with light bulbs that still appear ready to turn on at any moment. But it's been largely neglected since it closed in 1972. Metal bars hang over the rusting window frames and wooden planks protrude from the building like a half-completed construction project. The main part of the club, a large, gutted room that smells of old books, has been steadily deteriorating for decades.
But Kenneth Jackson, who inherited the Dew Drop from his grandfather and the original owner Frank Painia, wants to restore the venue to its former glory. Jackson's working with Harmony Neighborhood Development, Tulane City Center, and the Milne Inspiration Center to raise $1.5 million for the repairs. Last month they secured a modest $6,000 grant from the city of New Orleans, which they aim to use to host a fundraiser in March. They're largely depending upon donations made through their website to get the Dew Drop up and swinging again. If all goes as planned, it will reopen in April 2018.
"If these walls could talk, they could tell stories that no other place in town could tell," said Jackson as he scanned the dark, musty room where the stage used to be.
When the Dew Drop opened in 1938, it was a supper club with entertainment headed by the fabulous, cross-dressing MC Patsy Vidalia. The shows, portrayed as vaudeville with a hint of circus, featured female impersonators, ventriloquists, magicians, snake charmers, as well as a world-famous tap dancer named Peg Leg Bates, the "one-legged dancing man" who performed twice for the British royal family. Above the bar was a hotel where all the best black musicians, including regular Ray Charles, stayed when they were passing through town.
It was the go-to scene for black movie stars and dignitaries when most businesses in the city exclusively served white patrons. "If you were a musician playing in the Dream Room [on Bourbon Street], you couldn't go out and get a drink," said Deacon John Moore, a former member of the Dew Drop house band. "You were confined to the green room and if you went out you were going to jail. But if you were playing at the Dew Drop, well, hey, you could play with your friends, get a room upstairs, do whatever you wanted to do."
At the time, Central City was a hub of thriving black-owned businesses. According to the Data Center, in the 1940s the neighborhood's main commercial corridor on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, then known as Dryades Street, was home to more than 200 commercial enterprises. Keystone Insurance, one of the most important black-owned healthcare businesses in the South, was located off the street. Until the 1950s, the nearby Flint-Goodridge Hospital, where New Orleans's first three African-American mayors were born, was the only place in the city black doctors could practice.
"Growing up in an environment where you saw black people own their businesses and keep the neighborhood flourishing with grocery stores, restaurants, and all the other things was very, very rewarding," said Central City native and New Orleans visual artist Willie Birch. As a kid, Birch saw local and national stars such as Tina Turner, Earl King, and Big Mama Thornton picking up costumes from his neighbor Miss Lucy Mae or just hanging around the Dew Drop. To him, it was just how it was.
In the 1960s, Dryades Street was still one of the few places where African-Americans could shop freely in New Orleans. Central City natives describe the stretch as bustling on Sundays as churchgoers socialized with one another in their finest clothing. The community also became active in the civil rights movement—Dr. Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Central City in 1957 and the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality also got its start in the neighborhood.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black residents who were formerly relegated to specific parts of the city started shopping in other areas, white families left for the suburbs, and the neighborhood, like many other urban centers across the country, fell into decline. Less than a decade later, the Dew Drop, once a symbol of Central City's prosperity, shut down.
"The place was still important to people who knew it," said Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, who began his career as a saxophonist in the Dew Drop's house band. "But another generation of people came along who hadn't really been a part of that scene and that particular racial dynamic, where you were limited to certain sections of the city."
"On Bourbon Street you were confined to the green room and if you went out you were going to jail. But if you were playing at the Dew Drop, you could play with your friends, get a room upstairs, do whatever you wanted to do."
—Deacon John Moore
Two decades later, the Magnolia Housing Projects, across the street from the Dew Drop, had become notorious for crime and drugs, most famously featured in songs by neighborhood rappers. Lil Wayne and Juvenile both got their starts in and around Magnolia in a group called the Hot Boys. They rapped about broken communities, murder, and violence in songs such as "Take It Off Your Shoulder" and "Dirty World."
"It's an inner-city community that's had inner-city problems for the last 30, 40 years. Now, we are in a kind of renaissance," said Carol Bebelle, co-founder of Central City community development organization Ashe Cultural Arts Center.
The Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Harmony Development, and other nonprofits began working with the neighborhood in the 1990s to fuel revitalization. Since Hurricane Katrina, Harmony has helped put 460 new mixed-income homes where the projects once were. About four years ago, they approached Jackson about using the Dew Drop's legacy to inspire arts and culture investment in the neighborhood.
"It is the heartbeat," said Harmony's executive director Una Anderson of the role the Dew Drop plays in her broader plan to build up Central City. "I mean, if we can get the Dew Drop back up and running and vibrant, it's going to drive the development of this entire corridor."
If Jackson has his way, the new Dew Drop would serve as an one-stop cultural complex replete with a barbershop, a 24-hour kitchen serving New Orleans cuisine, live music at least three nights a week, and nine boutique hotel rooms. The goal is to make the nightclub as similar to the original as possible.
Jackson plans, too, in the spirit of his grandfather who was a civil rights pioneer and neighborhood leader, to provide a space for community building. The Milne Inspiration Center, a nonprofit for youth empowerment, has been working on setting up a social entrepreneurship incubator with a recording studio and a small radio station above the club.
It's an ambitious plan. There's already been months of delays trying to raise money to hire a formal fundraising manager. For now, they're depending on word of mouth to get the momentum going. Jackson and the team at Harmony Neighborhood Development have no doubt though: They will succeed.
"I think right now this area would really benefit from have something like this back in operation, with the nostalgia and just the history behind it," Jackson said. "It really was one hell of a place."
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For updates on the project or to donate visit the Dew Drop Inn's website.