Dew Drop Inn aims to present the past, present and future of New Orleans music

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Uptown Messenger

Irma Thomas, who got her start at the Dew Drop Inn, returns to the stage for Friday’s opening.

The Dew Drop Inn Hotel & Lounge, after a 54-year pause, is hosting live music once again. The legendary Central City nightclub reopened Friday (March 1) with performances that paid homage to its storied history.

The Dew Drop on the LaSalle Street was the city’s leading Black music venue during rock ‘n’ roll’s formative years. It brought top national entertainers  — Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, to name a few — into town, and it had a house band that could outshine the stars. Those local musical pioneers created a distinctly New Orleans sound during all-night jam sessions at the Dew Drop.

Two of the legacy house band members — Irma Thomas and Deacon John Moore — were back on the Dew Drop stage Friday, regaling an enthusiastic packed house with spirited renditions of R&B classics.

On Saturday (March 2), the Dew Drop revival was celebrated with performances from hip-hop stalwarts Partners-N-Crime, Grammy Award nominees the New Breed Brass Band and vocalist Tony Boyd-Cannon. The evening was hosted by bounce pioneer Mia X.

Dew Drop owner and developer Curtis Doucette Jr. said the venue will honor the past, present and future of New Orleans music. The opening weekend was a sampling of its programming going forward.

“I think of this whole project in the context of its history,” Doucette told Uptown Messenger. “But that doesn’t mean I will try to repeat yesterday.

“I think of it this way: If the Dew Drop Inn stayed alive, spiritually uninterrupted, what would it be today? We intend to have a stage where folks can experiment.”

Uptown Messenger

Developer Curtis Doucette Jr. addresses the crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting. Broadcaster and educator Warren Bell Jr., right, was emcee. His father, saxophonist Warren Bell Sr., regularly played at the Dew Drop.

Sunday brunches will be part of the lineup, he said. They could be accompanied by a jazz band or by a gospel choir, an R&B band or, following another Dew Drop tradition, a drag show. The opening weekend included a Sunday jazz brunch with the Herlin Riley Quartet featuring Chucky C. and Delfeayo Marsalis.

Next Friday (March 8), Grammy awarded vocalist Erica Falls & Vintage Soul will hold a record release at the Dew Drop for “Emotions.”  

“I think it’s a safe bet to say if you have New Orleans musicians, you’re going to do something that’s groundbreaking,” Doucette said. “We’ve been creating musical evolution in this city since the beginning of American music.”

‘Sacred ground’

Before the opening night, a crowd gathered Friday afternoon for a ribbon cutting followed by a champagne toast and performance by Deacon John. Among the usual array of public officials — Mayor LaToya Cantrell, City Councilmember Lesli Harris, state Rep. Mandie Landry — were family members of the Dew Drop founder and some of the Dew Drop musicians.

That included Little Richard’s cousin Stanley Stewart, who traveled from Macon, Georgia, for the event. In 1955, Little Richard, in town for a recording session, famously jumped onto the Dew Drop stage and belted out a long, raunchy version of “Tutti Frutti.” Quickly cleaned up by local songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie (“good booty” was changed to “oh rootie”), the song was recorded and became Little Richard’s breakthrough hit.

Uptown Messenger

The Dew Drop Inn Hotel & Lounge, 2836 LaSalle St.

Before the dignitaries’ speeches, the Dew Drop received a blessing from Nana Sula, a priestess practicing in West African religious traditions. “We are standing on very holy ground, very old ground, on sacred ground. Many souls have traveled here,” she began.

She then paid tribute to Dew Drop founder Frank Painia. A barber, entrepreneur and civil rights activist, Painia opened a barber shop on the first floor of a house on LaSalle Street in 1939. His business enterprises steadily expanded from there.

By the mid-1940s, Painia had purchased two LaSalle Street buildings and connected them. His complex included a 24-hour restaurant, a cabaret that billed itself “the South’s swankiest spot” and a hotel listed in the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide for Black travelers in the segregated South.

Painia also ran a booking agency for local musicians, who formed a tight-knit community at the Dew Drop. It was a place where they could hang out, get a haircut, get tips from their elders, arrange an out-of-town gig, enjoy a bowl of red beans and rice, or catch a nap in the hotel upstairs between shows.

Uptown Messenger

Deacon John Moore, a regular in the Dew Drop’s early days, performs on Friday.

The entertainment venue closed in 1970 after Painia’s health declined and the audience dwindled as musicians and patrons explored options newly open to them under the Civil Rights Act. Painia’s family continued to operate the hotel until the building was damaged in Hurricane Katrina.

Repeated attempts to revive the Dew Drop over recent decades failed. Then, a half century after the cabaret closed, Doucette met Painia’s grandson Kenneth Jackson, who owned the building with other family members, in front of the rundown building with 1960s-era siding at 2836 LaSalle St.

Jackson recognized the developer’s last name. Doucette’s uncles ran the Nite Cap, an Uptown club that nurtured New Orleans funk in the 1970s much like the Dew Drop Inn nurtured New Orleans R&B in the 1950s. Jackson liked Doucette’s Creole roots and his family connection with the local Black music community. He was ready to take down the “for sale” signs.

A specialist in turning blighted buildings into affordable housing, Doucette was not sure he wanted to take on such a complicated commercial project. But when he walked into the ramshackle building, he fell in love.

“I fell in love with the history of the building and the building itself. It’s people like Ray Charles, who actually lived here. It’s people like Irma Thomas. It’s people like Allen Toussaint and folks like that who made this building really special,” he said. “But there’s also a history that’s less obvious to us.”

Fighting Jim Crow

The Dew Drop’s place in music history is well-established, but the club also has a place in civil rights history.

Tulane Digital Library. Uptown Messenger archive

The Dew Drop Inn in 1952 and in 2018.

Painia, though a stickler for decorum at his establishment, broke the law nearly every night the Dew Drop Inn was open. The club’s popular emcee, Patsy Vidalia, was a cross-dressing singer and dancer whose drag performances regularly defied a long-standing ordinance prohibiting men from wearing women’s clothes in New Orleans (except, of course, on Mardi Gras).

The law that got Painia in trouble with the authorities, however, was the Jim Crow statute that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities. He was reported to be harassed by police and, in several instances, arrested for allowing White music lovers into the cabaret. Eventually he hired attorneys A.P. Tureaud and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, Doucette said, to fight the Jim Crow law before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 struck it down.

Doucette also marveled at the tenacity and resilience it took to be a successful African-American entrepreneur in the mid-20th century South. At that time, the Central City neighborhood was redlined, subject to a banking practice that systematically kept African-American residents from obtaining mortgages.

Doucette knows the difficulty of obtaining financial backing for a new enterprise. The $11 million Dew Drop revival involved a complex package including tax credits and loans. Although he achieved a feat that stopped other would-be developers in their tracks, Doucette said he was impressed with Painia’s ability to obtain a $7,500 mortgage on one of the Dew Drop buildings and an $8,500 mortgage on the other despite the red line around Central City.

“This is one of the things I admire most about Frank,” he said. “I love the musical history and the cultural stuff, but — as a businessman — he was able to put these things together under that context. I am inspired by that.”

Painia family photo via

Little Richard and Frank Painia

‘Meet all your fine friends’

The revived Dew Drop includes everything Painia’s mid-century conglomerate contained except a barber shop. One of the original barber chairs, however, can be found in a small museum with photos, artifacts and commentary depicting the Dew Drop’s history.

Its boutique hotel has 17 rooms, about half the number in the original Dew Drop. Each guest room is named to honor the site’s history. Some are named for musicians such as Tommy Ridgley, Dave Bartholomew, Huey “Piano” Smith and Earl King. Two VIP suites with rooms overlooking the music venue commemorate the Nite Cap and the Dew Drop’s Groove Room.

Unlike the original, the new Dew Drop Inn includes a pool. It’s open to anyone who buys a $20 day pass as well as to hotel guests. The pool area has a patio bar, the Haven.

Its restaurant won’t operate 24 hours. It will serve breakfast and lunch on weekdays and brunch on weekends. The menu for Sunday’s brunch included Grits & Grillades, Bananas Foster French Toast and Chicken Biscuits with Dew Drop Sauce

The first restaurant was operated Paul Painia, Frank’s brother. This new one is helmed by chef Marilyn Doucette, Curtis Doucette’s aunt and the founder of Meals from the Heart Cafe in the French Quarter.

From Wednesday night to Saturday night, the organizers promise, live music will resonate again from the Dew Drop stage.

Little Richard’s tribute song “Dew Drop Inn” came out in 1970, about the time the music venue closed — making it difficult for music fans to “meet all your fine friends” at the Dew Drop Inn, as the refrain suggests. Now they can.


Dew Drop Inn Hotel & Lounge
2836 LaSalle St.
Instagram: @dewdropinnnola

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