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Uptown Ruler 

From its basement party origins, Tipitina's grew into an international music landmark. Founders, staff and musicians recall the past 25 years at 501 Napoleon Ave.

When a group of music aficionados took over the 501 Club in January of 1977, they decided to honor Professor Longhair by naming it after his classic song "Tipitina." The premise of the club: give Fess and his peers in the New Orleans music community a venue where they could feel appreciated.

More than a quarter of a century later, Tipitina's is a name recognized by music lovers across the globe, with a legacy on par with other fabled venues like the Village Vanguard in New York and The Fillmore in San Francisco. Beginning this Wednesday, Tipitina's is honoring its past with a two-week long series of concerts commemorating its 25th anniversary. Club mainstays such as the funky Meters and the Radiators will be featured, along with contemporary performers such as Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

In symbolic terms, the all-star jam on Friday, Jan. 17, is the most important date of the 25th anniversary celebration: it's the Founders Ball in honor of Tipitina's 14 founding members. Some still live here in town, others have moved on to places like Florida and North Carolina -- but their contributions live on at 501 Napoleon Ave.

For Tipitina's 25th anniversary, Gambit Weekly asked some of the venue's founders, staff and musicians for their memories of one of the city's most storied nightclubs.

"We started having these parties in the basement of our apartment on Carrollton Avenue. We'd have these huge volleyball games in City Park, then have parties in the basement of our apartment at night with Fess and Snooks, or Booker, and pass the hat." -- Georgia Schneidau, founder

"The things that I remember the most are the Gator Balls and the parties that we had before that that led up to Tip's. They were mostly spontaneous; we'd say, 'Let's have a street festival and a basement party,' which was rather amazing, because we were just goofy entrepreneurs. A couple of times we would drive by bars and think, 'We should open a place there.' I thought if we did that, it wouldn't be fun anymore. I was wrong.

"We were always getting in trouble after the Gator Balls. The police came to the Gator Ball that we had at the VFW hall on River Road, and then there was the disco ball incident at the Behrman Gym on the corner of Washington and Prytania. It was a Gator Ball around '73 -- because we made signs saying, "'73, the Year to Be Free, Mo' in Store for '74." We made a disco ball from an old flat basketball with roofing tiles glued to it. Somebody climbed up a catwalk on the gym, threw a rope over it and tied it up there. The next day after the ball we went there to clean up, and the guy who was the janitor there, he was real crazy. We were saying, how are going to get the disco ball down, and he goes into his apartment and gets a gun and starts trying to shoot it down. He shot all these holes in the roof, and we got in trouble for it." -- Jeanne Dumestre, founder

"We opened Jan. 14, 1977, and we rushed to open on that date, because we had this self-created numerology and phantasmagoria where we invested the number 14 with cosmic significance, which is why we wanted 14 owners. It was a bunch of people with too much time on their hands, hanging out and developing a comic vernacular amongst themselves. We hardly had enough money to stay open the second month, but we had a big dance on the 28th where the Meters and Professor Longhair played, and that paid the rent for the second month." -- Steve Armbruster, founder

"That was our intention -- to provide a venue for Fess and his contemporaries as well as what we thought should be heard and felt live -- like reggae, little known then in the U.S.A. In the '70s, disco ruled. The Nightcap was for blacks and a few white fools like myself, Jed's and the Maple Leaf were it for live music outside of the Quarter and things weren't so happening in the Quarter either. Maple Leaf was smaller then and geared to folk singers and soloists. Jed's was a rock place but everyone hated the venue." -- Hank Drevich, founder

"We played there when it was still the 501 Club, and Tip's started off just being a neighborhood place before it started attracting people from out of town and different places in the city. We played there for a long time, and we weren't doing it for the money, that's for sure. We did so many benefits for air conditioning I lost count. We did four, five sets a night for a long time. Sometimes there was no one there other than us and the waitresses, other times it was packed. Everybody was mellow, and the place was always filled with a lot of great musicians from here in the city.

"In the early days, it just felt good. Most of the time I was in there playing, couple times with my brothers and the Meters, when the stage was real low to the floor, it was a right-in-your-face kind of thing. Man, it was enchanted. It was the first place and the last place the original Meters (with Cyril Neville) played. We played 'til daylight a lot of times early in our career. It was like Mardi Gras every day inside the building." -- Art Neville

"We'd make homemade lemonade and then put some kind of liquor in it. That was the thing about the whole idea: let's do it ourselves. If you wanted lemonade, you made it. If you wanted bread, you baked it. One Third World show really sticks out in my mind. There was chaos going into the show, but everyone was just electric. We all worked the bar, but we didn't know what we were doing, and the party behind the bar was as good as the party in front of the stage. And there were lots of costumes always on -- it was very costume-oriented." -- Georgia Schneidau

"Arthur Aronson designed the kwazola, a new form of currency that we devised that was a $14 bill. They were invitations to the Gator Balls and stuff we would have, and they'd have the information about the event. Part of the fun was doing it with all these goofy gimmicks. The banana thing started with Arthur Aronson. Arthur would always say, 'Eat a banana a day,' it was this health thing. He'd write it on signs and put it on the refrigerator. When we started doing shows, we said, we'll advertise free bananas. We had the Meters over and over again, people like Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, and here we thought free bananas was a come-on and draw." -- Jeanne Dumestre

"There were lots of bananas everywhere, literally. When we had shows, we would put free bananas on the stage for people to eat." -- Georgia Schneidau

"We'd do real well one Friday or Saturday, then have a bad Friday or Saturday night, and we kept getting bailed out by the Meters or Professor Longhair or the Nevilles or the Rhapsodizers. But we actually had saved a pretty good chunk of money by end of the first year. We were petitioning the City of New Orleans for a license to provide live music. We were not technically zoned to have live music. So we asked for a variance based on the fact that we had been doing it for a long time. We gave them evidence that there was music on the site before we opened it. They said, 'Yes, you've proven to us that you've had live music. Now you owe us one year's back amusement tax.' That wiped out the entire nest egg we'd saved for the first year.

"It was like having an old house. You'd get ahead, then a beer cooler would break. The people across the street at the Rose Tattoo made more money than us. When it got so crowded in Tip's, people would walk over there and get a beer." -- Steve Armbruster

"When I first started working there I was bartending, and I had to wear a mask because I was underage. Tip's opened in January and I graduated from high school and by that time I turned 18 and said to Georgia and Hank and everyone running the place that I'd like to work there. A month after I got out of school, they called and said that their sound guy had decided to quit, and was moving to Canada and leaving tomorrow. They asked, 'Can you come do sound for Professor Longhair this weekend?' I had one day training with this guy, who basically said, 'Here's the mics, here's how you turn the board on, have fun.' I got to mix everybody that came through: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Captain Beefheart. ... Robert Plant and Ahmet Ertegun showed up one night to see Fess, the Clash came by one night." -- Sonny Schneidau, House of Blues talent buyer, former Tipitina's soundman and talent buyer

"The front bar was a U-shaped horseshoe about 50 feet long, and very early on the folks at Tip's started asking us to bring in anything that could fit under the Lucite top: pictures of ourselves, ticket stubs of cool shows we'd been to, stuff like that. That's the real chronicle of the first few years at Tip's. It was dense with stuff, including a lot of the club's early poster art, Japanese hair tonic ads, all sorts of stuff. You could sit down anywhere at the bar and see something you never saw before." -- Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris

"There was Old Man River's and Jimmy's and Jed's, but when Tip's opened, they had the bar open during the day, then the food and juice bar, and it was more like a hippie kind of joint. You could get red beans for a buck and a half, and didn't have to go all the way down to Buster's in the Quarter. They'd do the piano shows where you'd see Tuts (Washington) or Booker playing piano in the middle of the room. I remember seeing Earl King and Dr. John and Fats Domino talking in one of the booths one day. I lived in one of the apartments upstairs for a number of years, and 501 Napoleon was my address.

"I remember one night Fess was playing, it might have been around Mardi Gras time, and the joint was just jammed. There were probably 500 people outside on the neutral ground, and everyone was smoking reefer and dancing. That was intrinsic to the vibe whenever Fess or Clifton (Chenier) or the Nevilles played -- everyone danced, inside, outside, all over the place." -- John Mooney

"I moved back to New Orleans in 1977 to join Fess' band. It was an unbelievable situation every night; you'd literally see bands forming on the stage, with people like Little Queenie and John Magnie and Brooklyn Bob. ... Every night was a jam session, and everyone had a chance to play. It was a scene that was so creative that it was almost out of hand. I wasn't around in the '50s, but I have to think that in the course of New Orleans music history, Tip's early days were one of the most creative and incestuous instances in New Orleans. I remember one night when the Rhapsodizers were playing, and Fess showed up and sat in. Then Bonnie Raitt's band showed up, and they sat in. Then Allen Toussaint showed up, and he sat in." -- Reggie Scanlan, bassist for the Radiators

"I'd go in and play early every Tuesday night from 7 to 9. It just became real popular, so we decided we'd try it on Monday nights. I'd start by myself, and people would arrive, and the jam sessions would always happen on the second or third set. Cyril was a good friend of mine at the time, and one time he and Aaron passed by. I'd never met Aaron, and he wasn't so sure about this jam session. So he said, 'Let's go upstairs.' He found the lyrics in my guitar case to 'In My Life' by the Beatles, and he started reading the words, and halfway through the first verse, he said that we should do this for the people. So we went downstairs and started with that. He played guitar the whole set, we ended up doing 45 minutes of doo-wop. It was just like the three of us sitting on a streetcorner together, doing stuff like 'Groovin'' by the Little Rascals, and 'Lean on Me.' Earl King would come every Monday night. He'd never sit in, but after, whenever we were finished playing, Earl would sit on the stage and play acoustic guitar. We heard a lot of his songs as they were being spun out." -- Spencer Bohren

"When it first opened, a lot of us had kids, and when Spencer Bohren played on Monday nights with the red beans special, you could bring the kids and they'd all be running around, and it was wonderful. It was a real magical time in the city because it was safe and cheap. You could stay up all night and then go driving around in the city trying to find the Indians practice." -- Jeanne Dumestre

"The society that happened in that room was totally avant-garde for the time. It was a community, and I think everybody knew it was world-class and very deep. Bobby Mitchell used to stand around in his turban. Mr. Google Eyes would get up and rant and rave. My theory is a lot of those guys had the Dew Drop mentality still fresh in their minds. They were used to shows with emcees and crossdressers and comedians, and when these guys would come in and play, they were always dressed with full respect for the audience. They weren't used to the hipster dress-down style or dancing, especially when the Radiators played." -- Spencer Bohren

"The stage wasn't that high, the ceiling was low, and you're in this jammed up room with no ventilation. In the summertime, you could see the humidity and funk hanging in the air from front of the stage. It pushed people over the edge, and there was this real primitive and tribal feeling."-- Reggie Scanlan

"After Rosy's closed, I knew Hank and Michael Smith, and a bunch of the guys, and Michael asked me to come down there to Tip's and help out. It was a close-knit circle of friends and quickly evolved. Some of the people that played there, like Ernie K-Doe, Earl King and Irma Thomas, it was great to see them have a place to come back out and play, and the people who came to hear them knew who they were.

Tuts Washington used to play there, and Fess really admired him. Fess would come in and watch Tuts play, and when Fess played, Tuts would watch him, and it was like a yin and yang thing. And Earl King was backed by the Radiators when they started out there. I remember when Stevie Ray Vaughan came, there were about 30 people in the room.

Dr. John's early days at Tip's with the gris-gris shows were magical, too. The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Roomful of Blues built their fanbases at Tip's. And the club was the first to bring people like the Itals, the Wailers and the early reggae bands, and had shows like Eek-a-Mouse and Yellowman on the same bill. Then when WWOZ started upstairs, we put a hole in the floor to lower down one microphone to do live broadcasts. It wasn't about being state-of-the-art. The music transcended everything. I call Tip's a musical church -- there are spirits in that place." -- Rickie Castrillo, former emcee and stage manager

"One day I met with Steve Armbruster and Hank Drevich, and they said, 'We've got these apartments above Tip's, and you're welcome to use one.' It was a funky place, always hot with no air conditioning, and you always had to keep the windows open. So anytime you turned a microphone on, you heard the buses going by out on the street. Our mission was to present and preserve the music and culture of New Orleans, and Tip's was about that as well.

"We used to set up a booth inside Tipitina's and broadcast the Duke A. Paduka's radio show on Friday nights. He and his wife B.B. would interview people like Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson, Bobby Mitchell and Dave Bartholomew." -- Jerry Brock, co-founder of WWOZ 90.7 FM

"The second district police used to always have it in for us in the old days, and there were various reasons that situation existed. They'd have towing parties and raids in the middle of the shows. One time we had Albert Collins, and in the middle of the show, 30 officers walked in and walked up to the bandstand, told the band to get off, got on the mic and said, 'The club is closed, everyone has to leave now.' I was doing the sound, and I found an officer and said, 'What's the problem?' He said, 'There's nobody here with a manager's license.' I ran around and tried to find somebody I knew that might have one of those licenses on. I asked this woman and she said she had one, so I ran up to the microphone as the police were clearing all the patrons out, and I grabbed the mic and said, 'The club is now open, everybody stay!' At that point I had the entire second district police force come toward me on stage and cart me off." -- Sonny Schneidau

"We improvised when we had problems. We liked to party, but we were great team players, too. When the toilets overflowed, we'd fix it up a little bit, then pour patchouli oil or something in the bathroom to cover up the smell." -- Georgia Schneidau

"1977 was my first year in New Orleans, and Tip's was one of the first places I went. The first thing I saw was the quality of musicians playing there, like Ramsey McClean and Patrice Fisher and Kidd Jordan. The second was the first time I saw Fess, just playing with Uganda Roberts. It was definitely a temple built to Fess, and when he got up on the stage, it was like watching the high priest on the altar. Then I was asked if I wanted to play with Fess, and that was the beginning of my association with him. There were many nights spent in packed, sweating with no air-conditioning. When we played with the Blues Scholars, it was a momentous night, with non-stop wall-to-wall dancing.

"Jazz was a much more important part of the club then, and Astral Project played some of our first gigs there. We played one Jazz Fest with the Dirty Dozen, and it went way past midnight. The Dozen was just kicking ass. Bobby McFerrin was one of the featured artists at Jazz Fest, then we had a late-night gig together. I think people had an inkling how special those kind of times were, but when you're in the moment, it's hard to see where it's going to go." -- Tony Dagradi

"I've been doing every week for 16 years. I started in June of '86. When we started the Sunday fais do do at Tip's, Mulate's didn't exist in town, there was nothing on Bourbon Street.

"What I think makes Sundays special is we have a core of local dancers that have been coming for many years, and they're all very friendly people. Anybody that walks through the door at Tip's is welcome with open arms, even if they don't know anybody, or don't know how to dance. We give all the dancers nicknames. There's Bucktown Mary, and another guy named Smitty. Every Sunday, Smitty bakes a huge cake in all different flavors. And anybody in the club is welcome to a piece of cake.

One time back in '83, Sonny booked my band to open for Los Lobos. They were on their first tour around the country. I didn't know who they were, and they didn't know who I was. All of the guys stood in front of the stage really digging our music, and I really liked their set. They were real friendly, and afterwards I remember hanging out with 'em, and we sat around and passed an accordion around the table. Everyone played a song or two. When we left the club, the sun was out, it was about 7 in the morning." -- Bruce Daigrepont

"The bands started charging a little more money, and back around the time of the World's Fair, the consensus was that business had dropped off, and the locals were going to the World's Fair and other clubs. Then we had a couple nights where we'd have someone like Dickey Betts or Memphis Slim, and we'd have to pay them a few thousand dollars. We wouldn't get a crowd at the door, and we just started losing money." -- Steve Armbruster

"I think management-wise we didn't do a very good job and got in trouble. I was president of the board (when we declared bankruptcy), and I remember being at the meetings saying, 'We can't let this die.' Someone's going to take it over because it's established and it's going to stay there." -- Jeanne Dumestre

"Tip's was a sanctuary. People that went there were not interested in disco or pop music. That was certainly proved when Tip's closed down those two years. It felt like the same kind of void as when Fess died. When Tip's reopened, there were a lot of happy musicians and happy people around." -- Reggie Scanlan

"I started in 1980, and I've always been the doorman. I took the job and brought it to another level -- I call it entertainment security. As an artist, the education that I got at Tipitina's, I couldn't get it from Xavier or any other university in the United States. You learn from being the doorman. You learn from the performers, and you learn about the audience.

"The thing about Tip's, it was never meant to be a club. Like the Dew Drop, it took neighborhood musicians like the Indians, and gave them a local base. Slowly but surely, it's coming back to that now.

"You see a lot of stuff as a doorman. One time they didn't have enough money to pay Rufus Thomas after his show, and Stephen Stills pulled up in his limousine. He asked what was going on and then asked how much it would cost to pay Rufus. The manager said $700. So Stephen took $700 out of his pocket and said, 'Tell Rufus to come on down.' Then he got up on stage and jammed with Rufus." -- Doorman, emcee and gospel singer Jo "Cool" Davis

"I did sound until early '82, then started booking at that point, and booked it through the summer of '84 when it closed down. Then Jim Green reopened it in January of '86, and I booked it until I left in the summer of 1993. It was prominently a local music venue in the old days, though there'd be an occasional great blues star that would come through, but aside from a few things like the Normals, it wasn't a rock venue.

"The thing that Tip's became with increased capacity and a real sound system and better sightlines, it became a showcase venue able to accommodate bands like Jane's Addiction. The way I tried to do the bookings after it reopened was to still keep all the New Orleans elements and always be a home for New Orleans musicians, but at the same time become more of a national stop for all the major touring talent." -- Sonny Schneidau

"I was literally just thrown into the gig and had no clue what I was doing. I was doing everything: booking, hanging towels, getting posters, picking up the bands. There was some serious mismanagement, from a business that was a landmark, and it was let go. A lot of people pointed fingers at House of Blues, but internally there were a lot of problems. I was trying to build back the reputation of the club. The music business is a small community, and if you screw up, people are going to know about it.

"One time we had Steel Pulse, and there was a little hole in the stairs going up backstage. A cat had all these kittens under the stairs, and me and all the guys from Steel Pulse were trying to pick up eight kittens that were running around the dressing room. Another time I walked in the morning after the show, and the band had thrown the deli tray all over the place. There was a tomato stuck to the wall, and the maintenance guy just painted right over the tomato." -- Jonathan Mayers, Superfly Productions, former Tipitina's talent buyer

"I think we were given a diamond that fell into the rough and a tremendous amount to build on in the past four and a half years. (Current owner) Roland Von Kurnatowski has given us this chance, and once he was confident we knew what we were doing and truly cared about the place, he's let us go to it. There's always been the soul of New Orleans music to build on. The more we've done that, the more response we've gotten. The 25th anniversary has been a reminder of how cherished this place is in so many people's memory, from fans to musicians. There's a lot of real music grown in New Orleans and the state, and that's our mainstay. Our mainstay isn't national acts, though we love 'em and we'll take them when we get them.

"Where Tip's has been and at the point it's at now, we have the chance to endure another 25 years. We're not dependent on tourists, though we love and welcome them, too. The club is such a part of the local fabric, if any place has a chance to survive and continue to thrive, Tipitina's does." -- Adam Shipley, Tipitina's music director

click to enlarge Tipitina's in 1990, with Eek-a-Mouse on stage - SYDNEY BYRD
  • Sydney Byrd
  • Tipitina's in 1990, with Eek-a-Mouse on stage
click to enlarge "It was definitely a temple built to Fess, and when he got up on the stage, it was like watching the high priest on the altar." -- Tony Dagradi - Poster designed by Bunny Matthews, courtesy Steve Armbruster
  • "It was definitely a temple built to Fess, and when he got up on the stage, it was like watching the high priest on the altar." -- Tony Dagradi
    Poster designed by Bunny Matthews, courtesy Steve Armbruster
click to enlarge The late R&B legend Johnny Adams at Tipitina's in 1990. "A lot of those guys had the Dew Drop mentality still fresh in their minds," says Spencer Bohren. "They were always dressed with full respect for the audience." - SYDNEY BYRD
  • Sydney Byrd
  • The late R&B legend Johnny Adams at Tipitina's in 1990. "A lot of those guys had the Dew Drop mentality still fresh in their minds," says Spencer Bohren. "They were always dressed with full respect for the audience."
click to enlarge Little Queenie and the Percolators, circa 1980. From left: Sed Sedlak, Emily Remler, Alan Pecora, Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris, John Meunier and John Magnie. - JIM SCHEURICH
  • Jim Scheurich
  • Little Queenie and the Percolators, circa 1980. From left: Sed Sedlak, Emily Remler, Alan Pecora, Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris, John Meunier and John Magnie.
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