Just across the river from the Crescent City and yet seemingly a world away, the West Bank of New Orleans stands strong as a holdout bastion of swamp-pop music and the classic R&B sound of the 1950s and ’60s. Physically linked to Cajun country via waterways such as Bayou Segnette and roads such as U.S. 90, the West Bank also has retained more of a cultural connection to Acadiana than New Orleans has. That cultural continuity is evident in the thriving dance scene that drives the oldies bands playing in clubs, casinos, and civic halls from Gretna to Westwego and from Harvey to Lafitte.
One such club is the historic Old Firemen’s Hall
on Fourth Street in Westwego, where two major musical events of interest to Ponderosa Stomp fans are set for this Sunday and the next. A benefit for local musician Richard Banquer is planned Sunday, Sept. 5, from 1 to 6 p.m. Scheduled to appear are Frankie Ford, Jean Knight, Deacon John, Charmaine Neville, Ryan Foret and Foret Tradition, the Creole Soul band featuring Brad Sapia, P.E. Gilligan, singer-songwriter Duane Schurb, Anthony Collura, Aaron Foret, Glen Weber, Lil’ Dino, Danny Alexander, and – coming all the way from central Texas – the legendary shouter Roy Head of “Treat Her Right” renown (See Head at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp). Banquer’s mother, Cleo, once managed the career of Clarence “Frogman” Henry, whose son “Tadpole” Henry will be performing. Expect to see some surprise guests as well.
Banquer also is set to be inducted into the West Bank Musicians Hall of Fame, which is sponsoring a benefit dance for itself at the Firemen’s Hall on Sept. 12 from 1 to 5 p.m. Scheduled to play are Wayne Foret, Jake Chimento, Roland “Skeeter” Thomassie, Ronnie Boudreaux, Duane Schurb, Aaron and Ryan Foret, Jason Parfait, the Way Down South band, and the Chicken on the Bone band. Visit the hall’s Web site for a full list of the newest inductees, which includes James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, who will be interviewed at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference. The hall’s induction banquet is tentatively scheduled for May 31, 2011, and the dance for June 5.
The Hall of Fame is working to open a museum in Westwego, with plans to renovate the Martin House, a National Register property in Westwego’s historic riverfront district, Salaville. The hall’s most famous members are legends in the music business, both locally and globally, including Bobby Mitchell, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Joe “I’m a Fool to Care” Barry, Ronnie Barron, “Lazy River” composer Sidney Arodin, “Big” John Thomassie, John Bonvillain, Joe Carl, Joe Clay, Vin Bruce, Leroy Martin, and numerous others. [See Clay, Martin, and Bruce at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. Known as the “Cajun Jim Reeves,” Bruce performed at Hank Williams’ 1952 New Orleans wedding festivities.]
Built like a brick shithouse and boasting a massive dancefloor, the Old Firemen’s Hall is one of the most distinctive and historic entertainment venues on Fourth Street, which serves as the West Bank’s “River Road.” Before the corporate casinos came and siphoned off the energy, Fourth Street was once lined with nightclubs, bars, dance halls, and gambling joints catering to the carnal desires of workers who plied their trades on the then-vibrant waterfront and in Barataria’s teeming bayou fishing paradise. The Joy Lounge, the Scorpio, the Junkyard, and the Moulin Rouge were among the standout clubs before changing demographics and economies also took their toll. Though its exact history is shrouded in mystery, the Old Firemen’s Hall
was built around 1919 and has been used for boxing matches, political rallies, bingo games, meetings and other functions, but most importantly it has served as a dance hall for generations of West Bankers.
Westwego historian Dan Alario remembers seeing country-music pioneer Ernest Tubb at the hall, and jazz musicians such as Kid Thomas Valentine have played there. In recent years, after being damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the hall was purchased and renovated by former Westwego Mayor Robert Billiot. Besides regularly showcasing swamp-pop bands, the hall has been a meeting place for the Good Times Jamaica Dance Club and the Back to the ’50s Jamaica Dance Club, which preserve the unique choreography created in the early 1950s at the Jamaica Lounge at Josephine and Magazine streets in the Irish Channel.
The swamp-pop torch is still burning brightly on the West Bank. Come party — “boogalee” style — with some true stars of Louisiana and Texas music, backed by the cream of the West Bank musical crop, in the boisterous blockhouse that is the Old Firemen’s Hall. This is the stuff that time warps are made of.
Duane Schurb, Let’s talk About Memories