Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Raise the Bastille Radiothon, 37 years later

A photo taken of Professor Longhair circa the Raise the Bastille Radiothon in 1973.
(©Michael P. Smith Photography)

Back in 1973 a friend of mine from Loyola University, Mike McHugh, and I were trying to figure out how to get notice for our tiny ten-watt FM college radio station, WTUL. Mike and I played jazz and my specialty "oldies" show had been underway for about a year. This was the first summer that the station was continuously on the air on the FM band, having previously been a carrier-current AM station, heard only in the dormitories and in some areas on campus like the university center. Somehow and someway we decided that a concert would be a great opportunity for us. But what could we do? We needed something that would get the attention of the news media, but also something that might be of value to the community. When could we do this? Looking at the calendar, we chose the weekend of July 14 to stage the event. Wait a second, we said. July 14 is Bastille Day. The bastille was a jail stormed by a Parisian mob at the start of what became the French Revolution. Why not call the Orleans Parish Prison and see if we could raise money for the prisoners by doing a benefit show for them and broadcasting it live over the radio? We would have to see the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff, Lewis Heyd. He agreed to a meeting with the two of us and Warden Adam Falkenstein. It was our first time in the facility and we struck by the number of guns and mean-looking guards at the prison. After eyeing us up and down, the sheriff and the warden told us they weren't so sure that this was such a good idea. The last time a performance was held at the prison, they informed us, there was a riot there. Shows of that type were now strictly verboten. Somehow and someway, though, to our great surprise and against all credulity, the two officials gave us permission to proceed. We met with the inmate who ran the nearly exhausted inmate welfare fund there and it was agreed that all donated funds pledged at the event would go to that fund. Mike and I were beside ourselves, but now we needed to gather all of the performers we could find and ask them to perform at a benefit at Parish Prison and do so for free. Where to start? Where do you find a gathering of performers where you can pitch the idea to them all at once? All of a sudden we were struck with an idea. There was an upcoming show of old New Orleans performers that was being promoted at the St. Bernard Civic Auditorium. The show featured a number of "one hit wonders" whose hits had become their middle names on posters. People like Jesse "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" Hill, Oliver "Who Shot the La La ?" Morgan, Robert "Barefootin'" Parker and others with multiple hits like Lee Dorsey ("Ya Ya" and "Working in the Coal Mine") and Chris Kenner ("Land of 1000 Dances" and "I Like It Like That") were on the bill. Somehow we got backstage at the concert and talked to each and every one of the performers and, incredibly, they all agreed to perform live on the radio for free. We even got the famous Meters (Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste and George Porter, Jr.) and New Orleans' self-styled voodoo rocker Dr. John to perform. The piece-de-resistance, though was the coup we pulled off when we called on Roy Byrd, the grandfather of New Orleans rock and roll known invariably as Professor Longhair or just "Fess" to come out of semi-retirement and perform at the prison. It was the first stereophonic live broadcast in New Orleans history, but it soon became a mono event when one of the balanced lines the radio station had paid for was cut. Nevertheless, that was the biggest downside of the event. The music was pure joy and the inmates all were well-behaved and enjoyed themselves. I will say that the first group escorted to the interior cement-paved yard where the broadcast show was being broadcast were those prisoners who were gender questionable. For young impressionable college students it was our first exposure to the bizarre lifestyle many incarcerated members of the penal system practice. They, too, were model prisoners and I would guess that the ability to get out of their cells and hear live music was probably too good a thing for them to ruin, especially since the previous concert had ended on such a bad note. The show was one of the best I'd ever seen with the Meters, Dr. John and Professor Longhair rocking out at one time. Sadly, we did not get Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint or Irma Thomas to play for the event, but the first two rarely perform (even today) and Irma was living and working in California at the time. Following the live acts, several DJs, including a lovely college coed, played records live from the site and asked for pledges. The phone lines rang and donations were tallied to the tune of nearly $1,000. That may not seem like much, but think also about how much talent was donated to the prisoners and, ultimately, the positive press generated by the event for the promotion of a brand new tiny FM station. These were great times and I only regret that the tape that was made of the several live performances was stolen in the months following the event. Somehow and someway the Raise the Bastille Radiothon became a part of history and I marvel at how two home-grown kids could pull off such a feat.

1 comment:

whalechaser said...

Sounds like a great experience. You managed to dig up a couple of my favorite one hit wonders and now I cannot get those songs out of my head. You may have to pay for that. OK.
Now go sit in the corner and DO NOT think about an elephant.