Dew Drop Founder’s Grandson Keeps Hope Alive

Kenneth Jackson wasn’t quite old enough when it mattered, and I could tell how much he wish he had been. (You can play the show with his interview including music from the Dew Drop era while finishing this short article.)

During the mid-20th Century, the Dew Drop Inn rocked New Orleans, making musical history and forging a special place in the hearts of all the musicians and fans that were lucky enough (and had IDs) to have been there.

You can find the Dew Drop on LaSalle Street but its not yet open to the public.
You can find the Dew Drop on LaSalle Street but its not yet open to the public.

“I never was really old enough to enjoy the shows and everything. You know I would kind of sneak in whenever I was down here late and had to bring somebody something but they would run me from out of there,” said Jackson as we toured the fabled nightclub, hotel, and restaurant.

If love could rebuild the Dew Drop Inn, Jackson would have enough to build it twice over. His affection for the shuttered double-storefront on LaSalle Street is almost as obvious as his love for the man who started it all, his grandfather, Frank Painia.

As detailed in my previous post, Painia built a key piece of music industry infrastructure during the New Orleans R&B golden age. But when Painia died in 1972, the music at the Dew Drop Inn stopped as well.  The family retained and operated the business, primarily as a hotel, until Hurricane Katrina.

The flood mess has been cleaned out. Artifacts have been saved. Some framing and some new wiring has been done.  Also, the building has a temporary facade that highlights the history contained with in. But its not yet ready to be open to the public.

Kenneth Jackson, grandson of the Frank Painia who started the Dew Drop Inn in 1939, keeps the flame alive for bringing the establishment back to its former glory.
Kenneth Jackson, grandson of the Frank Painia who started the Dew Drop Inn in 1939, keeps the flame alive for bringing the establishment back to its former glory.

Jackson envisions a day when folks can come back to the Dew Drop and get a meal, catch a show, even spend the night or host a party.  He thinks the time is right. Nearby streets like Freret and O.C. Haley are undergoing a renaissance of new business and renovation.

Across the street from the Dew Drop, the infamous “Magnolia,”  a crime-ridden housing project that also was home to hip hop artists Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Jay Electronica and Magnolia Shorty, is gone. In its place is a lower density, stylish new development called Harmony Oaks that provides a mix of market rate rentals and public housing.

One of the groups to spearhead the community’s revitalization, Harmony Neighborhood Development, is working with Jackson and his family to secure the funding necessary to get renovations started. But all the pieces have yet to come together.

Frank Painia had a practice of painting bull's eye targets behind the stage at the Dew Drop Inn.
Frank Painia had a practice of painting bull’s eye targets behind the stage at the Dew Drop Inn.

Tulane University’s School of Architecture has weighed in with plans and archival assistance. And there’s a wealth of love and affection for restoring the business by New Orleans musicians, young and old.

There may be a day soon when Kenneth Jackson will be able to enjoy a club performance at the Dew Drop Inn. After all, while its possible to be too young to party at the Dew Drop Inn, you’re never too old.

This is the second installment of the Dew Drop Inn.  Read about its history here.

(Article Update July 2018:  Hope for renovation have faded. The Paina Family has put the property up for sale.  )

 

Dew Drop Inn played key role in New Orleans R&B era

Perhaps its a stretch to compare the Dew Drop Inn to Congo Square. But I see similarities between the two. (You can listen to the show while reading this post)

Just as Congo Square served as a gathering place for African American commerce and cultural exchange up through the mid-19th Century, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans provided a safe and comfortable place for New Orleans musicians of the mid-20th Century to gather, support each other and play music.

Through the 40's til Hurricane Katrina, the Dew Drop Inn was an
Located in New Orleans Central City neighborhood, the Dew Drop became a second home for musicians.

One served as the genesis for Jazz and the other was an incubator for New Orleans R&B and early rock and roll. The Dew Drop Inn was not just a nightclub and bar, it was a vital regional center for African Americans, particularly musicians, at a time when the South and New Orleans enforced apartheid.

I’m not sure if those thoughts initially entered Frank Painia’s head when he decided to expand his barbershop on LaSalle Street to include a restaurant and bar. Most likely, he just saw a business opportunity across the street from where one of the largest housing projects in New Orleans was being built (the Magnolia Projects). By expanding his business, he provided employment for his brothers and eventually other relatives. He christened it the Dew Drop Inn in 1939.

With America mobilizing for the war effort, Painia added a hotel next door so African Americans on the move would have a place to stay when visiting or passing through New Orleans. The combination of barbershop, restaurant, lounge and hotel made the Dew Drop Inn a convenient stop for travelers.

But it was Painia’s venture into booking performers that would put the Dew Drop solidly into music history. He started by producing shows at a nearby boxing arena and high school auditorium. Since he had the Dew Drop, he could house and feed the touring musicians, who in turn would jam in the lounge after the official performance. It wasn’t long though before he started booking local acts to perform at the Dew Drop.

Then in 1945, just in time to entertain returning soldiers and their dates, Painia built the “Groove Room.” Located behind the Dew Drop, this two-story music and dance hall with a balcony and elevated band stage established an upscale ambiance with top-flight performers of the day, including Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Amos Milburn. Later Ray Charles, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Bobby “Blue” Bland would grace the stage. Many homegrown performers including Earl King, Huey “Piano” Smith, and Allen Toussaint launched their careers from the Dew Drop.

The Dew Drop was home for many musicians, whether passing through or getting their act together. It was a 24-hour operation where musicians could eat, meet, clean up with a haircut, shoeshine and shower, and plan their next step. They would play for white audiences downtown then head back to the Dew Drop and jam with the house band or whoever was performing until daylight.

A dance contest for female impersonators at the Dew Drop Inn with Bobby Marchan  on stage. Ralston Crawford Collection,William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University
A dance contest for female impersonators at the Dew Drop Inn with Bobby Marchan on stage. Ralston Crawford Collection,William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University

The nightclub show included an emcee, comedians, magicians, dancers and, of course, the bands. It was not uncommon for the emcee or some of the dancers to be female impersonators (to use the term of that day). Bobby Marchan, who would sing with Huey Smith and the Clowns, got his start in New Orleans as part of a drag show called the Powder Box Revue.

Most New Orleans musicians of that period have stories about the Dew Drop. Grandpa Elliot Small of Playing for Change remembers watching his uncle play the harmonica there. Deacon John tells of how he broke into the recording business when he was approached by Allen Toussaint while playing guitar at the Dew Drop. “My head just popped open at the opportunity . .  .the very next day we were in Cosimo’s studio recording with the great Ernie K-Doe. “

But my favorite story is how Richard Penniman got his mojo at the Dew Drop Inn. Things weren’t popping in J&M studio that September day in 1955. Producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, a native of Seattle, called for a break and took his young protege for a drink. It was a slow day at the Dew Drop until Richard discovered the upright piano in the corner and banged out a tune so bawdy that Blackwell had to hire a writer to clean up the lyrics. Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti was a crossover hit that propelled him to national fame.

While the Dew Drop Inn was established, owned and frequented by African Americans, white patrons were allowed in. But this meant that Painia was arrested at times when police raided his business and charged him with  “racial mixing.” Eventually, he successfully sued the city, establishing the right for businesses to serve any customer they wanted.

The Dew Drop today is shuttered today but there's hope it can once again entertain people.
The Dew Drop today is shuttered today but there’s hope it can once again entertain people.

By the end of the 60’s, changing musical trends, desegregation and Painia’s declining health brought an end to Dew Drop Inn’s musical performances. The business carried on mostly as a hotel until Hurricane Katrina caused so much damage, it could not reopen.

The building still stands in its Central City neighborhood but is shuttered. Yet, Painia’s grandson, Kenneth Jackson carries a long-held torch that the Dew Drop will once again serve as a social and music hub for the community.

I’ll have that story in next week’s post (available now). Here’s the podcast of the show featuring  musicians who played at the Dew Drop Inn and we’ll hear in Mr. Jackson’s own words about the Dew Drop’s glory days.