Remembering the Warehouse: Bill Johnston


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I met with Bill Johnston at Le Bon Temps Roule one Saturday with the crew of A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas. We gathered in the back room, standing on the bricks that once built the Warehouse, the music venue that dominated rock 'n' roll in '70s New Orleans. It was another "creative meeting" for Johnston and the crew, as filmmaker Autumn Boh called it. A few beers, lots of memories, but this time, no cameras. Just as the Warehouse opened (and closed) relying on a little help here and there, so is the documentary. "We had no money," Johnston said. "The analogy with the Warehouse and with what (the crew) is trying to do with this documentary is almost the same thing. They're doing it the same way. No money, borrowing money, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul."

Filmmaker Jessy Williamson explained that a big part of the production is Johnston's reunion with the Warehouse crowd.

"All of a sudden people were just coming out of the wood work," Johnston says. "Robin Tate and his brother Ed Crepps. We had a little publication, a monthly magazine, but who knows when it came out, it just came out when it came out. I was talking to Ed Crepps one day, and it was aggravating, a lot of groups that came in, didn’t get played on the radio, so I said 'We have to start a publication,' and called it In Your Ear!. One day Ed said to me, 'Bill, here’s my younger brother here, can you give him a job?' I said 'Sure.' We had a lighting tower, with one spotlight, so that’s what he did. At the age of 15. Now he’s a comedy promoter. I called him a couple times. One day we got him on the phone and said 'You have to meet these guys.' He donated some money. William Bryant, he was nicknamed Barnaby, he’s an artist. When he came down here, he knew what these guys were doing, and it was a kick because opening night, the police were in the place, the fire marshals were in the place, they wouldn’t allow us to open the door, until Barnaby finished putting the padding hardware on the doors. He donated some money. He said 'From one starving artist to another starving artist.'

Then a strange thing happened. Almost immediately following the above quote, Williamson nudged the crew and smiled when Joe Cocker's version of  “With a Little Help from My Friends” started on the jukebox.

Here's the rest of the interview with Johnston from this week's cover story:

How'd you get together with these guys?

Actually I know Aeron (McKeough) and Autumn. I'm the entertainment manager at Harrah's. The first day I started down there we were sitting next to each other in this class they were giving new employees, and I had no idea where we were working. We didn't know anything, and now a few years later we're doing this movie.

I got an email from Don Marshall the executive director of the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, saying 'There's these guys doing a doc on the Warehouse, and I gave them your name and number and you may be hearing from them.' I went OK, but he didn’t say who it was. A few weeks later I get a call from Aeron and he tells me what they're doing, and a little while after that I get a call from Jessy (Williamson), and I said ‘I'd love to talk to you guys.’ I just wanted to see what it was all about before I get an official interview. I just wanted to find out about it. So I love the enthusiasm, I love the story they told me. Must've told 100 times. I said ‘How'd you guys get involved with this? How did it even start? How old are you?’ And Jessy told me him and Aeron were first cousins and Autumn is their best friend. They said, 'Back in the ’90s, we started listening to music from the ’60s and ’70s, and whenever we'd hear something we liked we would ask our parents, the parents would always say they saw them at the Warehouse.' That was fun for me to hear. Then Jessy told me a little while after that we was stitting on his porch drinking beer with his friends, and his friends convinced him, ‘Hey, you've been obsessed with this thing for so long, you guys should do a documentary.’ Did I tell the story right? (The crew nods and laughs.) I loved the enthusiasm and I said 'I'd love to do an interview with you.' We set it up and they came down to, I thought it would be appropriate to do it onstage.

In 2003-2004, I was putting together a big investment group to open up another venue, another entertainment/hospitality venue on Tchoupitoulas Street. While I know back in the '70s the Warehouse was a fun place to work, to be to see great groups, I had no idea what it really meant to so many people as I found out when I was trying to put together this businesses. I had people tell me stories like you couldn't believe. I figured when I open this place, I'm going to dedicate one wall and call it the Warehouse Wall of Fame. I'd put it behind lock and key and borrow memorabilia from everybody and lock it away. Katrina came and blew that away. I did find out and I still hear stories about people's experience as I meet them. If affected people in different ways. And I've told a lot of people, I told Jessy and the guys, that to me, the Warehouse wasn't about... I was influenced by the music group Chicago, that's what started it for me, but also at the time jumping into what was going on in the country, Bill Graham and all that he did in Filmore East and Filmore West, he was kind of the icon at the time. It wasn't about us. It was the era we were in, the late ’60s. Of course we didn't open 'til ’70. It could've happened anywhere, we just happened to be, we were in New Orleans and we had the venue, that's what was going on. Just a special time in our lives... everyone is having a 40th anniversary now.
And now there's a 40th anniversary show coming up.

I had a show I produced at the Warehouse called “Joints Jumpin’,” a celebration of New Orleans rhythm and blues. We put together a band of great New Orleans musicians and singers as a tribute to performers from the late ’30s to the early ’70s. We did it twice in 2008 and twice in 2009, and it's selling out, and I thought ‘Wow, that has done so well, now here comes the 40 anniversary in January, so why don't we do the same thing?’ I got my musical director, Larry Sieberth, he's put together a rock ’n’ roll band, and we chose 25, 30 different artists that performed and one song from each of them, and Larry and the group... It'll be primarily New Orleans musicians. Should be a lot of fun.

So tell me how you got the Warehouse opened up.

I was living in Chicago. We were working on the north side of Chicago at the bars where a lot of producers came. The last place we worked was a place called Bartleby's, and on Sunday night, this little promotion started with free fried chicken and free wine. It was only free for one or two weeks. We had two bands rotating, and one of was called The Big Thing. Forty years later that band is still called Chicago. In 1969, did their first album, pretty big album. I went to their concert at Filmore East. They opened for Buddy Miles. I was literally blown away. I hadn’t seen anything like that in my life. I went back to Chicago. Two roommates who also worked in the bar area were going to come down and visit.

The very first weekend there was a friend in Chicago who hooked us up with the agencies. He was telling us who we could get, he said Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac, we said perfect. Once we got hooked up with the agencies, we just took over from there. Once they knew you, you were getting bombarded. There’s a new place in town. There’s a demand to play. The place was big enough for a lot of these bands. If you go back and look at all those bands… I know The Who is playing the Super Bowl this year, and it’s funny ‘cause the Who was one of those bands we lost a ton of money on. We’d tell people who’s playing and they’d go ‘Who?’ ‘Yeah, the Who.’ You know, one of those ‘Who’s on First’ things.

The thing I’ll never ever forget is the struggles, the financial struggles and the friends we had. Some would give $5 here or $20 there.

I was involved for the first five years. I met this artist named Gino Vanelli who played a free concert at the Warehouse with WNOE-FM. They wanted to do a free concert. They said the parents don’t like the music, so let’s do a free concert to show ‘em. We said ‘OK, why not? Promote it.’ We had no idea who was going to come. Bobby Reno was the program director. He’s at WTIX now. He said he’d get one of the record companies to bring someone in. A few weeks later we got a hold of the A & M records rep. When he showed up, the place held legally 3,500 people. There must’ve only been about 800 people that night. When he came out on stage, there was no guitars on stage. This is supposed to be a rock ’n’ roll place. Where’s the guitars? But he did well, and I figured it was time to move out. I stayed in New Orlean then moved out to LA. Then Don (Fox), Brian (Glynn) and John (Simmons) stayed on for a bit. Then Don started doing more shows all over the country. I left and managed (Vanelli) and Neville Brothers, ’79 to ’83.

What did the place look like?

The Warehouse itself was like these buildings, 4-5, and each one was closed, so we opened up these things and it was like 30,000 square feet. We built a stage and a door where the trucks could come in and unload to the stage, we built a bleacher section where the concessions area was, and eventually on the far right we elevated an area with a bar, where you had to be 18 to enter. When we first opened you could be any age to get in. Everything on the floor was carpet remnants. We’d get on the radio and say 'We need new carpet. If you want free tickets, bring your old carpets down.'

From talking to people it seemed more like a community space than a venue. More than music.

We used to cook red beans and rice. We had no idea, with these (tour) riders that wanted the world, but we’d just cook red beans and rice, and every time they’d say 'oh, it’s so good!'... It was that era, it wasn’t just us. We had a softball team, and we sponsored a little league baseball team. We had these kids with their warehouse jerseys. They played at Clay Square on Annunciation. We had a men’s and women’s softball team. We would also do fundraisers. We had a Bizarre Bazaar. We were just doing what we can.


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