Big Chiefs Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux weren't there, so there wasn't enough firewater -- literally -- at the H&R Bar in the early morning hours last Monday, July 30, as a four-alarm fire severely damaged the longtime practice space and second home of the Wild Magnolias.
The building at 2425 Dryades St. is ground zero for both the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian gang (and their headquarters on Mardi Gras day) and the Wild Magnolias band. For Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, Dollis' longtime singing partner in the Wild Magnolias, the H&R Bar has been a constant presence in his life.
"Oh, man, we've been going there since we were kids," said 59-year-old Boudreaux the day after the fire. "My grandfather used to go in there. And I used to go and get a bucket of beer for my father. It was 15 cents a bucket. I remember being about 15 years old, and sometimes we'd go in there late at night, and sit in the back and have potato chips and a cold drink."
It's too early to tell whether the H&R Bar will be renovated. While the building doesn't appear to have sustained substantial structural damage, the interior was heavily scorched. "It burned from the inside, and the top is out," says Boudreaux. Efforts to reach Johnnie Coleman Ray, the building's owner, were unsuccessful by press time, but city records show that all of the bar's licenses were paid and current at the time of the blaze. In what can be considered an encouraging sign, Coleman has owned and maintained the property since he bought the building in 1978, for $25,000.
The H&R Bar's musical history is also noteworthy as an early venue for some of New Orleans' greatest rhythm and blues performers. In a recent issue of Blues Access magazine, Bo Dollis told interviewer John Sinclair that the H&R Bar was his home base "since I started. There used to be a stage in here where Eddie Bo would play," said Dollis. "Earl King used to play in here. There was a swing right up there. A chick in a gold outfit would get up there and swing! The ceiling was higher then. It was a hot spot."
In addition to Monk Boudreaux's spiritual attachment to the bar, his anguish over the fire is rooted in seeing his physical sweat and toil go up in flames. "We got in there once and fixed the place up," he says. "It just had a bare cement floor, and we tiled it, and painted everything and made it look good."
The fruits of his handiwork, and the inclusive vibe of the H&R bar, are enshrined in the photographs and music on Lightning and Thunder, the live album on the Rounder record label that captured the Golden Eagles over two summer nights at the venue in 1987. Unlike the Wild Magnolias' famous electric funk recordings, Lightning and Thunder is a traditional recording spotlighting Indian chants and percussion, and more representative of the atmosphere at the H&R Bar's Indian practices. Engineer Mark Bingham recorded the two performances, and remembers, "The great thing about that record is that there was an extra bunch of percussionists in the audience that were just there that night, and most of them aren't screwing up. There was a guy playing a Miller bottle with a pencil back in the kitchen."
For now, all Boudreaux and Dollis can do is wait and see what building owner Ray decides to do in the aftermath of the fire. Boudreaux holds out hope that the H&R Bar rises from the ashes and remains a vital address for Mardi Gras Indian traditions. "It was a special place, because a lot of Indians came up around that neighborhood," he says. "Even way back, it was a mixed bar, black and white, and you didn't have too many places in the city like that."
An official announcement might be made by the time you're reading this, but word is that Terence Blanchard has the inside track to succeed Ellis Marsalis as the director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans. (His education credentials include a recent stint teaching at the University of Southern California's Thelonious Monk Institute.) The appointment would cap another remarkable year for Blanchard. He was nominated for a Grammy for his version of "I Thought About You" on his Wandering Moon CD, scored the Kasi Lemmons film, The Caveman's Valentine, and the current Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie vehicle, Original Sin. Most notably, Blanchard was named Down Beat magazine's Artist of the Year for his work in 2000.
- The Golden Eagles recorded their CD Lightning and Thunder at the H&R Bar in the summer of 1987.