In 1977, a gang of young local music lovers founded Tipitina’s. One of New Orleans’ legacy music venues, Tipitina’s will mark its 40th year on November 24 with “A Neville Family Groove – Celebrating 40 years of Music at Tipitina’s with the First Family of Funk.”
Tipitina’s’ Neville connections date to the venue’s early days. Neville brothers Art, Cyril and Aaron lived on nearby Valence Street. Both the club and the Neville Brothers band began in early 1977.
The 40th anniversary event at Tipitina’s will be historical, Cyril Neville said. “I’m glad they reached out to us to do this,” he said. “That was one of the first places the Neville Brothers played. We were one of the bands that helped put it on the map.”
Various Nevilles and the founders of Tipitina’s collaborated before Tipitina’s opened on January 14, 1977. The venue’s founders previously presented parties in houses, union and VFW halls and other on-the-fly places.
The roots of Tipitina’s can be traced to Hank Drevich, a Miami native who moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University. In his junior year, Drevich discovered the local music scene. “I realized that musicians I’d listened to on a little AM radio when I was a kid in Miami were New Orleans stars like Fats Domino and Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe,” he said.
A concert on the Tulane campus, presented by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, set more wheels in motion. “A bunch of us went,” Drevich remembered. “It was Professor Longhair. He blew me away.”
Inspired, Drevich asked Allison Miner, Professor Longhair’s manager, “Can we have a party with him?” Drevich and his nomadic band of party-starters, later dubbed the Fabulous Fo’teen, booked Professor Longhair and more local talent at a string of parties. “Any kind of excuse for a party,” he said of the group’s Alligator Balls.
“We were a bunch of kids recently out of college,” added attorney Steve Armbruster, another Fabulous Fo’teen member. “We had free time on our hands and we wanted to have fun.” A lack of music venues in New Orleans compelled the Fabulous Fo’teen to stage their own shows, Armbruster said. “There may have been two or three places with music in New Orleans in the early to late ’70s.”
Ivan Neville remembers playing his first professional engagement at a Fabulous Fo’teen house party. He couldn’t believe it when his father, Aaron, paid him $100 for the gig.
Cyril Neville remembers the Alligator Ball scene as an extended family of musicians and music lovers. “Those people really were doing that to have places for Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, my Uncle Jolly (George Landry) and people like that to play and make a decent wage,” Neville said.
For several consecutive events, the Fabulous Fo’teen rented the back room of a bar on the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. Recurring shows at the 501 Club set a serendipitous precedent. Normally, Drevich remembered, “we never could go back to the same place twice.”
When the 501 Club’s owner told the Fabulous Fo’teen he wasn’t going to renew his lease, Drevich got another idea: “Gee. We can have a club.”
Drevich consulted with his Fabulous Fo’teen colleagues, some of whom belonged to prominent New Orleans families. “They helped us with influence in getting licenses and things like that,” he said.
The Fabulous Fo’teen, which was actually 17 or 18 people, pooled $14,000, enough money to sign a lease, pay for licenses, do rudimentary renovations and make the first month’s rent. Drevich named the venue after his favorite Professor Longhair song, “Tipitina.”
On opening night, paint on some of the walls was still wet. The first big show, featuring Professor Longhair and the Meters, happened later that month.
Drevich and the Fabulous Fo’teen were especially interested in creating a venue where Professor Longhair could perform at least two nights every weekend. The venue also presented the Rhapsodizers, which evolved into the Radiators, the newly formed Neville Brothers band and more.
“We felt like it belongs to us,” Cyril Neville said of Tipitina’s in the early years. “We invested our blood, sweat and tears into it. Every time we played there it was like church. So, coming back 40 years later to play in that same club means a hell of a lot.”
Tipitina’s endured through troubled times and multiple owners. In 1984, it briefly closed. Real estate developer Roland Von Kurnatowski bought and upgraded the club in 1996. The venue has since broadened its influence through the Tipitina’s Foundation educational and cultural programs.
In 2016, OffBeat recognized Von Kurnatowski and his wife, Mary, with the Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award in Music Business. Honoring the original spirit of Tipitina’s, Von Kurnatowski credited its founders.
“The club was their baby and their hangout,” he said. “It wasn’t all about making money. They were more interested in bonding with the musicians. The musicians weren’t used to that and they loved that. That’s what gave Tip’s its character.” O
A Neville Family Groove – Celebrating 40 years of Music at Tipitina’s with the First Family of Funk featuring Ivan, Charles, Cyril and Ian Neville, Big Chief Juan Pardo, Jason Neville, Omari Neville and the Fuel and DJ Soul Sister. November 24 at Tipitina’s.