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Return to the Dew Drop

March 2, 2010

When we were in Louisiana in January, we went with Little Freddie King (photo above, right, with Richard) to the shell of the Dew Drop Inn, once the most celebrated black nightclub in New Orleans. It was weathered and padlocked, and in many places sided with nothing but plywood. But it was filled with memories, for King and many of the other musicians we interviewed.

The Dew Drop Inn opened in 1935 as a barber shop, with a root-beer stand added three years later to accommodate the construction workers building a large public-housing project on LaSalle Street. By the early ’40s, owner Frank Painia had added a hotel and restuarant and was buying ads like this one in the Louisiana Weekly: “Specials offered are seafoods, fried chicken and all kinds of sandwiches. The mixed drinks cannot be beat and the prices on packaged goods are lowest anywhere. Frank’s slogan is ‘deliveries are many anywhere in the city. We never close.'”

Over time, the Dew Drop evolved into an R&B club, part of a circuit of black venues that included the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It featured big national acts—including Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald—as well as local ones.

Here’s what Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and Tad Jones write in their newly-reprinted book, Up from the Cradle of Jazz:

Another aspect of the “subculture within a subculture” was the hotel wing of the Dew Drop complex. Many of the popular black night spots in the city had hotels—like Foster’s, the Robin Hood, and Shadowland—as both musicians and patrons generally were not admitted to the downtown tourist hotels. Musicians found a sprawling assortment of regular tenants at Painia’s lodgings. James Booker, a brilliant young pianist, lived there for a time, as did Earl King, and other singers and dancers. Among these people a camaraderie grew of deep inner strengths. Musicians lived at the Dew Drop, ate there, and performed there….

The Dew Drop became a fixture in the local black community and an important way-station for the legions of artists who lived long stretches on the road, pushing their songs, earning money in a string of one-night stands or, if they were lucky, extended stays in the bigger cities…

The shows at the Dew Drop began with an exotic gay singer called Patsy Valdalia, who functioned as master of ceremonies at the club. He would begin: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime at the Dew Drop!” Variety acts, comics, a colorful single called Mr. Google Eyes, shake-dancers, novelty skits wove in and out of numbers played by the house band, which varied from week to week…

It was indicative of Frank Painia’s commercial sense that he would not allow jazz—which was leaning to bebop and more avant-garde expressions—until late hours after the main show was done. Rhythm-and-blues headlined most Dew Drop Shows.

“It was a musician’s haven,” R&B musician and composer Allen Toussaint told New Orleans writer Jeff Hannusch. “When bands got ready to go to Houma or Vacherie, they met at the Dew Drop. When they came back around 2 a.m., they’d go inside the club and jam. There were musicians around the Dew Drop 24 hours a day. There was a permanent place outside the Dew Drop where guys hung out, and inside the club and restaurant too.”

The New Orleans police tried to enforce the city’s strict segregation laws at the Dew Drop. Painia pretty much ignored those laws. Still, there were raids. In 1952, according to Berry and his co-authors, police arrested white movie star Zachary Scott for “being seated at tables with and consuming alcoholic beverages with Negro patrons.” Several of the people we interviewed told us that the Dew Drop did have some white patrons, including New Orleans blues and R&B pianist Dr. John, who patronized the place without fanfare.

So many of the musicians we interviewed lived at the Dew Drop, performed there, patronized the place, or all of the above. Their stories were raucous, sometimes bawdy, and always filled with life and, above all, music. But the live music ended in 1969 and Painia died three years later. Some of our interviewees wondered whether New Orleans would ever have a music club of such grandeur again, particularly an African-American-owned club. On our last day in New Orleans, we met someone who was involved in trying to re-open the Dew Drop. What a miracle that would be.

If you want to hear more about the Dew Drop, listen to this segment of Nick Spitzer’s American Routes, featuring interviews about Patsy Valdalia (also spelled Vidalia). And here’s that great article by Jeff Hannusch.

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