The New Orleans music world lost a giant last week, when Bill Johnston passed away from cancer at age 69, on August 7. Johnston remained active as a music manager and producer, most recently as talent buyer at the re-opened Joy Theater. Yet his name is most often linked with the legendary ’70s rock venue at 1820 Tchoupitoulas Street, the Warehouse.
Even if you weren’t lucky enough to be in town (or old enough to get into concerts) back then, the Warehouse looms large in musical legend, about the closest thing to a Fillmore that you could find between coasts. It was Johnston who came up with the idea to open such a venue in New Orleans, after making a road trip to the Fillmore East with his friends who were in a horn band called the Big Thing (later Chicago). The first Warehouse show on January 30, 1970 featured the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac and the Flock. In December of that year, the Doors played their final concert. And on January 31, the Allman Brothers Band played the first of many New Years’ Eve shows.
The Dead had a rendezvous with history on opening night, thanks to the after-show arrest for drug possession that was immortalized in “Truckin’” (the bust did indeed happen on Bourbon Street, in the hotel that is now the Royal Sonesta). New Orleans acts would appear in some unlikely combinations: Would you believe the Wild Magnolias opening for Emerson, Lake & Palmer? A different era of music came in as well: The B-52’s and the Clash both played in the final months and the last band to headline the Warehouse on September 10, 1982 was Talking Heads.
That was hardly the end of Johnston’s career. He managed the Neville Brothers for a time, and his other clients included Vince Vance & the Valiants and Gino Vannelli. As the entertainment director at Harrah’s, he created the revue Joint’s Jumpin’, which saluted classic New Orleans R&B (a version of the show also played at Jazz Fest). For a time he even managed the New Orleans Athletic Club, characteristically finding a place for music there. In 2010 Johnston did an anniversary show for the Warehouse at Harrah’s, with the band Smoke Patrol recreating some of the legendary music.
Johnston was inducted to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2012, and a benefit concert was held at the Joy after his battle with throat cancer was revealed. An as-yet unreleased film about the Warehouse is now being readied for release, bringing Johnston’s mighty legacy to the world.