It’s the Summer of ’81 and Keith Richards, attired in a black bomber jacket, black t-shirt, black jeans and blue suede boots, strides into the rural Massachusetts recording studio basement—Long View Farm—with a copy of the Neville Brothers Fiyo on the Bayou in his hand. He slides the cassette into the stereo and proclaims it “the best album of the year” to Rolling Stone journalist Kurt Loder, who is sitting nearby.
“An exhilarating feast of rolling, New Orleans-style R&B,” Loder wrote. “Keith poured himself a tumbler of Jack Daniels. I grabbed a bottle of red wine and we settled at a table to soak in Aaron Neville’s breathtaking rendition of the ancient doo-wop classic, ‘The Ten Commandments of Love.’”
Just a few months later, Richards’ beloved Neville Brothers would open for the Rolling Stones at the Louisiana Superdome—the Stones’ first U.S. tour in three years.
Sitting in his office in California, legendary concert promoter Bill Graham searches for the answer as he puts together The Rolling Stones American Tour 1981.
“New Orleans was a tough one because I had to make a decision as to whether we should play there or go to Baton Rouge to the university stadium,” Graham said in his 1990 auto-biography My Life Inside Rock and Roll. “The history of rock and roll shows in New Orleans was not all that great. I decided to go for it and do the Superdome.” It’s a gamble that would pay historic dividends.
Over in Tennessee, Pat Adams and his friend hear that the Stones will be playing at the Superdome in New Orleans and purchase a pair of tickets at a Nashville record store for the princely sum of $18.50 each. They start up the car for the all-night drive to the Crescent City. “We made it to New Orleans the next morning. We checked into the hotel, rested up a bit and headed to the concert. We got there early and were among the first people to get into the Superdome,” Adams writes on his website www.tennesseeconcerts.com. “We enjoyed walking up the ramps and checking out this massive venue, eventually ending up on the floor level when the concert began.”
The larger-than-life stage was the handiwork of Japanese designer Kazuhide Yamazaki. “We had the bright, bright primary colors and we had these enormous images of a guitar, a car and a record (and an American flag),” Mick Jagger recalled in a 2003 interview.
Back then, there was no reserved seating. It was all general admission seating—first come, first served. If you secured a spot near the front of the stage, you could not leave to go to concession stands because you would never get your place back. The Neville Brothers opened the show followed by George Thorogood & The Destroyers. “Both acts were great. They flashed up a sign that the concert had set a record for the largest indoor concert ever held with 87,500 people,” remembers Pat Adams.
Then, it was time for the main event. Jagger gyrated onstage clad in a red Hawaiian shirt and yellow football pants. They opened with the 1960’s hit “Under My Thumb” as the crowd rocked back and forth and the force of it separated friends in the front rows as the pandemonium unfolded. An anonymous fan said, “Standing on the Superdome floor front and center five rows back, the sound was incredible. With all of the crowding and pushing, I had long been separated from my brother and sister. During ‘Under My Thumb,’ my sister was on the front row being forced against the plywood barricade. She remembers looking at Keith Richards who was standing 15 feet from her. The Stones security guards thought she was going to pass out, so they pulled her over the barricade and threw her under the stage. They then threw her back into the audience.”
The Stones would proceed to play for two and a half hours. “First time I heard them play ‘Let It Bleed’ live,” remembers a fan. “They played many songs from their 1981 album Tattoo You and the 1978 album Some Girls. Before ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ Jagger yelled, ‘We’re going to need your help on this next song. New Orleans, can you sing?’ At the end, all of the lights came on and they blew the lid off the Dome.
Bill Graham’s gamble on New Orleans had paid off.
“We went into the record books for doing the biggest balloon drop in the history of an indoor closed stadium,” remembered the late Graham. “Since we had a few days off, I decided New Orleans was the ideal spot to throw a middle-of-the-tour crew party. We got Paul Prudhomme, the great Cajun chef, to cater a party for us on this beautiful paddlewheel steamer (SS President). I invited all the local musicians—the Meters and Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair and a lot of local Cajun musicians. Nine hundred people on the boat and we danced all night and it was a great party.”