Music returns to historic Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans

The club was a premier venue for Black musicians throughout the '50s and '60s.

March 1, 2024, 9:40 AM

NEW ORLEANS -- Silent for more than half a century, music is finally returning to the historic Dew Drop Inn.

The legendary New Orleans music club and hotel -- where Ray Charles, Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner and James Brown all performed in their early days -- is reopening Friday after years of renovation by a local developer who rescued it from decades of blight.

PHOTO: Husband-and-wife R&B duo Ike & Tina Turner perform onstage with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar in 1964 in Dallas, Texas, 1964.
Husband-and-wife R&B duo Ike & Tina Turner perform onstage with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar in 1964 in Dallas, Texas, 1964.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The club served as the premier venue for Black musicians throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the era of Jim Crow segregation, the inn was prominently listed in the "Negro Motorist Green Book," a historic travel guide that published which establishments throughout the United States were considered safe for Black travelers.

The Dew Drop Inn is "a milestone place" in American cultural history, said New Orleans-based music historian Ben Sandmel.

"It was the grapevine that nurtured so many great New Orleans R&B musicians. People may not realize it, but the creative process that went into the sound that people love around the world -- a lot of that was incubated at the Dew Drop," Sandmel told ABC News.

Rescuing from blight

However, what New Orleanians -- who grew up in the city since the early 1970s -- knew of the Dew Drop was blight.

Located in Central City, just a short walk to the Superdome, the nightclub had been in decay for decades. Curtis Doucette, Jr., a developer native to New Orleans, said he had driven past the location for much of his life, but only recently did he learn of its rich history. "The more I learned, the more I got interested in it," Doucette told ABC News.

Doucette purchased the Drew Drop in 2021 from the grandson of the original owner and only then, did the enormity of the project reveal itself.

PHOTO: The Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans is reopening, March 1, 2024.
The Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans is reopening, March 1, 2024.
Rush Jagoe

The flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 gutted the original music space, leaving just a shell, and the hotel, which had been "limping along" for years, was similarly incapacitated. Doucette planned to bring "the building as close as it looked like in 1953 as possible," he said.

The nearly $11 million project not only resurrected the music club and restaurant, but each room of the adjoining 17-room hotel is named after prominent musicians and singers who once dominated the stage on the ground floor.

One such room is dedicated to New Orleans guitarist-singer Deacon John Moore who is performing at this weekend's grand opening nearly 60 years after first playing there with his band, Deacon John and the Ivories. Many nights, he remembered, ended with all-night jam sessions that lasted until sunrise.

When Little Richard showed up one night, he was so impressed he later recorded a namesake song to honor the club; the recording included Moore on guitar. Moore said the hotel played a role in the music's evolution because it allowed visiting musicians to remain in town for days or weeks to record, jam and collaborate with others in town.

PHOTO: Little Richard performing with his Royal Company on stage at the Apollo Theater in New York, circa 1965.
Little Richard performing with his Royal Company on stage at the Apollo Theater in New York, circa 1965.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Owner Frank Painia "created a way station" for Black musicians, Moore said, through housing and meals at his restaurant.

"He could also give them a job playing at the club to tide them over so they could have enough capital to put them back on their feet again and get back playing other venues on the circuit," he said.

Before opening the club in 1939, Painia operated a barbershop. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to purchase the building next door and expand his enterprise. In the era of segregation and discriminatory bank lending practices, those accomplishments are examples of "Black economic resilience," Doucette said. "We never want to forget those things."

The reopening will feature some of Painia's original but newly restored barber chairs.

LGBTQ+ pioneer

Painia also was ahead of his time by welcoming drag performers throughout its history including Patsy Vidalia, the club's long-serving emcee.

Moore recalls the Dew Drop as both elegant -- people on and offstage were decked in suits and gowns, and musical dignitaries like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton often visited -- and decadent with its rotating cast of exotic dancers, drag performers, ventriloquists, tap dancers and others.

"It was a place for entertainers from all walks of life," he said.

The club also played an important role in Civil Rights history when Painia sued the city of New Orleans in 1964 for its harsh segregation laws which prohibited different races from mixing under one roof. The club was often shut down by police when authorities discovered he was allowing white people in to hear the music; his court action resulted in an injunction that ended the raids for good.

"Any Black person today who can freely drink at any public water fountain should pay special tribute to the people before us and a lot of those people were at the Dew Drop Inn fighting the good fight," Doucette said. "Frank was constantly being harassed just because white people wanted to hear the music."

The Civil Rights Act that same year expanded the options for where Black musicians were able to play; music tastes were also changing, both of which led to the club closing in 1970. Painia died two years later.

PHOTO: Etta James performs onstage, 1955, in Los Angeles.
Etta James performs onstage, 1955, in Los Angeles.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Doucette said the $11 million required to bring the complex back to life included various city, state and federal fees, as well as state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits. He is responsible for most of the funding along with private investors which included members of the Painia family who still own a small stake in the project.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell will appear alongside Doucette Friday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by a performance by Moore. Irma Thomas, the New Orleans soul singer who also performed at the original club, will headline a performance at night.

Performances will continue all day into the night and throughout the weekend.

Moore said appearing once again at the Dew Drop "is like a dream come true."

"It brought tears to my eyes," he said. "I never thought I would live to see this day happen."

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