Jimmy Anselmo, this year’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in Music Business, has spent his lifetime in the music business. After serving on the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Saratoga, and getting discharged from the Navy in 1965, his first job back in New Orleans was the bartender working the 3 a.m. graveyard shift at Papa Joe’s on Bourbon Street.
While serving drinks to hustlers, strippers, prostitutes, pimps and other ne’er-do-wells of the wee hours, he became friends with numerous musicians that eventually played at his eponymously named music club on Willow Street. Mac Rebennack, before he became the internationally known gris-gris man, Dr. John, was a regular who stopped by after his gig at another bar on the strip.
He became friends with Freddy Fender and his band. “He got $13 for the gig, the same amount I got for being behind the bar,” Anselmo says with a chuckle.
Though his salary was low, the tips were great and within a year Anselmo had built up a nest egg. With the help of family, he opened Co-Ed’s Uptown in 1966 in the building where Madigan’s is located. In 1972 he created Quasimodo’s, which was also on Maple Street. Though both of these establishments featured live music occasionally, neither was a music club.
“I saw the potential,” Anselmo says of first eyeing Al Pellegrini’s, a rundown pool hall on Willow Street, which served a rough crowd including clients of a methadone clinic down the street. In late 1976 he spent $13,000 to buy Pellegrini out and obtain the lease. A new chapter in New Orleans music history began.
After the cumbersome process of applying for a Small Business Administration loan and six months of much needed renovation work, Jimmy’s Music Club opened on April 9, 1978. The first two shows starred Little Queenie and the Percolators and the Neville Brothers.
Anselmo wistfully recounts the first couple of weeks: “I had no capital. I needed to borrow money for the [cash register] bank from my mom. But we did well [the first weekend]. The second week I had [jazz saxophone legend] Sonny Stitt. A jazz professor at Loyola encouraged me to book him, and I lost all the money that I made from the first weekend.”
But he persevered. His only competition at the time was Tipitina’s. The Maple Leaf and Jed’s were open on Oak Street, but they were much smaller rooms. Ol’ Man River’s booked touring acts, but it was an event destination across the river. There were still obstacles. “It was a learning process. I wanted a music club, but I didn’t have any experience booking bands,” Anselmo says. “I didn’t have money to offer big guarantees, or any guarantee at all.”
He decided from the beginning that since “Tip’s was only [booking] R&B, I was going to do everything for my survival.” Looking back at the early days, Jimmy’s lineup was positively eclectic. He presented many of the New Orleans greats such as Earl King, Professor Longhair, the Nevilles, James Booker and up-and-coming acts like the Radiators.
He also took advantage of the burgeoning punk and new wave scene. Two now legendary bands from that era, The Cold and The Sheiks, helped put him in the black and he never looked back. “By 1983 or so I was making some money and started being able to pay guarantees,” Anselmo says. “When Tipitina’s closed for 18 months in 1986, another door opened. We moved the stage from the Willow Street side, and enlarged the room.” Outsider promoters started booking national acts into the space.
The Gregg Allman Band played a still celebrated New Year’s Eve. Muddy Waters played a two-night stand. He fed Muddy’s renowned sidemen so well that when they returned a year later and played at Tipitina’s, Anselmo went backstage to say hi, and “The whole band was bowing down, saying ‘You’re the man’ and thanking me for the great New Orleans food,” Anselmo recalls.
Significantly, MTV was beginning to change the music business. Anselmo used his growing professional savvy and personal charisma to tap into the new market. Flock of Seagulls and other video-friendly bands played at Jimmy’s. The Red Rockers, which featured future Cowboy Mouth vocalist/guitarist John Thomas Griffith, launched onto the national stage from Jimmy’s. Edgier bands like X and Jane’s Addiction followed suit.
Anselmo has a keen memory of the entire history of his iconic club, and he is clearly excited about getting the recognition that this award represents. “I feel pretty good [he chuckles], real good. I gotta pinch myself,” he says, adding with another laugh, “One of the great things is that I’m [still] alive.”
New operators have now brought Jimmy’s back to its proper place in the music pantheon of New Orleans. “They want Jimmy’s the way it was. I own the building, but I am just a consultant, an adviser, like they do in Las Vegas. I’ll sign autographs and tell tales. [Fans] can rub my head like they do at Tipitina’s.”Jay Mazza is the author of Up Front and Center: New Orleans Music at the End of the 20th Century and the forthcoming Not Just Another Thursday Night: Kermit Ruffins and Vaughan’s Lounge.