In this second installment of Hallowed Sound, journalists from the USA TODAY Network examine the state of race in country music, scour the South in search of untold stories and shine a light on a new, eclectic generation of Black artists.
NEW ORLEANS – Curtis Doucette Jr. unlocked the front door of a long-vacant building in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood. Covered in plywood and a crumbling brick veneer, it looked like so many other buildings in this area far from the French Quarter and the genteel mansions of St. Charles Avenue. Only a fading sign outside lets you know this was once the Dew Drop Inn.
Inside, Doucette walked past a reception desk and into hotel rooms that appeared not to have been touched since Hurricane Katrina filled them with three feet of water in 2005. The hotel was once listed in the Green Book, the guide for Black travelers in segregated America. Doucette plans to turn these rooms into a boutique hotel that will open in summer 2022.
“I’ve been doing real estate development for a long time,” said Doucette, who built his career creating affordable housing around New Orleans. “And I’m steadily falling in love with this building in a way that I never have.”
Doucette walked around the corner and swept his arm across an open space. Near the entrance, he said, will be the bar. And here, in the back corner, will be the stage. After decades of silence, music will return to one of the most important stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of clubs and theaters that booked Black musicians in the 1930s through the 1960s.
New Orleans Councilman Jay Banks, who represents the Dew Drop Inn’s neighborhood, is too young to have visited the Dew Drop in its heyday. But he walked by it once a week to attend church down the block. He heard his parents talk about it.
“Everybody in the world knows about the Apollo,” he said. “But the Dew Drop was, in essence, New Orleans’ Apollo.”
The Dew Drop Inn booked Bobby “Blue” Bland, Big Joe Turner, Solomon Burke, Earl King, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam Cooke and James Brown.
The Dew Drop was where New Orleans pianist and producer Allen Toussaint got his first major gig in 1956 playing with the house band. Toussaint would go on to write “Fortune Teller,” “Lipstick Traces,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights" and work with The Meters, Dr. John, Paul McCartney and The Band.
The Dew Drop Inn was where Ray Charles lived for months in 1947 and 1948, soaking up the New Orleans rhythm that would become a permanent part of his sound.
The Dew Drop Inn was where Roy Brown sang his composition “Good Rocking Tonight,” which some call the first rock ’n’ roll record, into a telephone and landed a deal with DeLuxe Records.
After a lackluster morning in the recording studio, it’s the place where Little Richard went to take a break. He saw the piano and an audience, hopped on stage and belted out a rollicking ode to sexual rendezvous called “Tutti Frutti.” Richard’s producer, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, immediately knew that with some cleaned up lyrics the song could be a hit.
“You could argue the Dew Drop is where the birth of rock ’n’ roll took place,” said Preston Lauterbach, author of “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll” (W. W. Norton). “The New Orleans culture mixed with the touring artists who were coming through. That’s what really made it a special place.”
Before it had beds and rocking beats, the Dew Drop Inn had barber chairs. Frank Painia, born in the small town of Plaquemine, moved to New Orleans around 1935. He started cutting hair on LaSalle Street. When his shop was torn down for the Magnolia Street Housing project, a federally funded project for African Americans, he moved across the street and eventually bought a building for his barbershop.
Little by little, his businesses grew. His brother, Paul, opened a 24-hour restaurant. Painia added a hotel that boomed during World War II. He started hosting bands in the lobby of the hotel. And as the war came to an end, he expanded next door and added the Groove Room, soon to be known as “New Orleans’ swankiest nightclub.”
“It was the basic idea of what it meant to be a black entrepreneur at that time. If you had good business sense, then there were many businesses that you could run,” said Candacy Taylor, author of “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” (Abrams).
A look inside the Green Book, which guided Black travelers through a segregated and hostile America
Jazz mixed cultures and sounds along the Mississippi, and an American art form was born
Other Chitlin’ Circuit venues booked music. The Dew Drop Inn put on a show.
A night would start with “shake dancers,” women who took the stage wearing not much at all. Next would be a ventriloquist or a snake charmer. Iron Jaw might come out and lift up someone in a chair using his teeth. Then the music began, hosted by Patsy Vidalia, a drag queen Painia discovered at Club Desire in the Lower 9th Ward. Vidalia, known offstage as Irving Ale, would dance, sing, joke and model runway-worthy fashion. Vidalia’s Halloween gay ball at the Dew Drop was legendary.
When the official show ended, musicians would gather onstage for jams that lasted until the sun came up.
“It was the place to be in terms of entertainment. It was the place to be if you were a person who liked the nightlife,” said New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas, who frequently performed at Dew Drop Inn.
White musicians, after playing in the French Quarter, would join those jams. And Painia always welcomed white customers.
“It was normal,” Thomas said. “Of course, we knew it was wrong according to law (in the Jim Crow South). We didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
Painia was arrested again and again for the crime of allowing Black and white people to drink together when Jim Crow Laws explicitly forbid it.
Finally fed up, he sued the city in 1964 on behalf of “all Negro bar owners.” His lawyers were civil rights leader A.P. Tureaud and Dutch Morial, who in 1978 became the city’s first Black mayor. The lawsuit was dismissed when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places.
The end of segregation also helped end the Dew Drop Inn as a music venue. Black customers could go to restaurants and movie theaters that used to be off limits. They could now go to music clubs owned by white people, who didn’t have the force of a law, rooted in racism, to turn them away.
“It was a common saying after integration that ‘the white man’s ice is colder,’” Doucette said.
Painia's health also declined in the late 1960s. He died in 1972 and the shows stopped.
Not even a decade after the Dew Drop Inn went silent, however, New Orleans was already nostalgic for the club. In 1978, the Contemporary Arts Center hosted “Dew Drop Inn II,” a series of jam sessions from midnight to 6 a.m. More “Dew Drop” revival shows would follow. In 1980, Charles Neville, saxophonist for the Neville Brothers, teamed up with New Orleans playwright Dalt Wonk to write “Shangri-la,” a musical loosely based on the Dew Drop Inn.
Painia’s family, at first, was ready to get rid of the hotel and club. In 1976, they listed it in the classified section of the Times-Picayune newspaper:
FAMOUS “DEW DROP INN”…was N.O.’s “Tree of Hope” for old time Jazz & Vaudeville aspirants of fame. Awaits new owner to capitalize on its name. Restore its bar, night club, hotel, barber shop & restaurant — or start new enterprise… Let’s discuss possibilities.
By the end of the year, the ads were more direct: “Must sell to settle estate.”
The family, however, kept the Dew Drop Inn. They continued to rent rooms in the hotel and, off and on, lease the bar, until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
More than once since the hurricane, the family tried to restore the hotel and club, or find a buyer who could. It was a struggle, though, to raise the money to bring back the Dew Drop. The same forces that made the neighborhood decline also made it hard to revive.
“Across the street is the first housing development for African Americans, which assured that this was going to be a red line neighborhood,” Doucette said. “You see the impact of that still today. It’s harder to get things financed in neighborhoods that are in a low income census tract.”
Doucette, though, believes he has the experience to revive the Dew Drop. He has secured funding for the $7.8 million project from local, state and federal sources. The National Parks Service determined the Dew Drop Inn is eligible for the National Register, which will give Doucette extensive tax credits for the restoration.
“When we found out about Curtis' involvement with the structure and his desire to re-develop it and all of his plans, we were just over the moon,” said Danielle Del Sol, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. “He’s just a fantastic developer, and he really has a vision for the property.”
Gabrielle Begue, a historic preservation consultant with MacRostie Historic Advisors working with Doucette, said traditionally the National Park Service valued buildings for their physical structure more than their less tangible, cultural value to a community.
“That has disproportionately affected historic properties associated with Black history, because those owners didn’t have the same access to financing and material, which often resulted in less than pristine historic buildings.”
Only a few sites on the National Register of Historic Places are related to African American experiences. In 2017, The National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the African American Culture Heritage Action Fund to recognize more sites that are meaningful to Black Americans.
For Kenneth Jackson, the restoration of the Dew Drop Inn is personal, even though it will be done by someone else. Jackson is the grandson of Frank Painia. He is the family member who has done the most to keep the building solid and sealed as it sat vacant since 2005.
When Jackson was a young child, his grandmother watched him after school. Every day they went to the Dew Drop Inn.
“My preschool was the Dew Drop,” he said.
When he was older, he worked there, until his grandfather died when Jackson was 17.
“Mr. Jackson is really a good steward of this place,” Doucette said. “He told me this building is like a family member to him.”
For Jackson and his family, it mattered that Doucette’s uncle ran the Nite Cap, the center of New Orleans’ 1970 funk scene. It mattered that Doucette had another relative who likely played at the Dew Drop Inn and certainly stayed there. And it mattered that the new owner be Black.
“It’s a tragic irony that we fought for integration and integration killed places like that,” Doucette said. “Let’s try to get a do-over and see how we do with this society. I think we’ll pass the test this time.”
News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at email@example.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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This article originally appeared on The American South: New Orleans' Dew Drop Inn: Inside the historic musical revival