BY JAY MAZZA
In 1979, Ned Hobgood bought the historic building located at 4801 Magazine Street in uptown New Orleans and renamed the business, Le Bon Temp Roule (French for “let the good times roll”). Its previous incarnation was known as Elsie’s Jackpot Lounge. The bar quickly became an integral part of the music scene of New Orleans.
Well-known musicians as varied as Kermit Ruffins, the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Anders Osborne paid their dues in the early part of their careers and legends like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Walter “Wolfman” Washington have graced the intimate performance space. But like every building in New Orleans, the story of the bar goes much further back.
Historical records and architectural details indicate the building was built around 1890. It was a dry goods store and, like most corner businesses during this period of massive emigration to the United States, most likely also served as a neighborhood meeting place and part-time tavern. The part of uptown New Orleans where Le Bon Temp Roule is located was a part of the adjacent Jefferson Parish up until 1870 when the fast-growing city of New Orleans expanded upriver and annexed the district.
Much of the original building remains including the bargeboard walls and flooring. Prior to the advent of the steam engine, many manufactured commodities and agricultural products made their way down the Mississippi to New Orleans on barges which were floated on the currents of the great river. With no way to get the barges back upstream, they were left in heaps and enterprising builders used the wood to erect many of the structures near the riverfront.
The property changed hands several times before an Italian immigrant named Epifanio Roppolo purchased it in 1908. He worked at a sawmill in rural St. James Parish, which was about a day’s horseback ride from the city. The move would change the face of New Orleans music forever.
Epifanio rented the property for around three years, a period of time during which he still may have worked in the country, and moved his wife and four children to the city around 1911. They lived upstairs.
His son, Leon Roppolo, was born upriver in Lutcher, Louisiana on March 16, 1902. Leon became one of the most important composers in early jazz. He was also one of the first stars of the new style of hot jazz, which became a sensation when Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to join his mentor Joe “King” Oliver in Chicago.
Leon Roppolo’s first instrument was the violin and the music he learned as a boy was of European origin. Jazz had not even been invented yet. When the family relocated to New Orleans, the youngster was exposed to the marching brass bands that were prominent in the city at the time and was enamored with their sound. He switched to clarinet and the rest is history.
As a teenager, Leon played around town in parades and at parties before going on the road with a band that eventually morphed into the renowned New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Leon famously influenced a young Benny Goodman during his time in Chicago and the band may have competed with the bands of Armstrong and Oliver before Roppolo moved to New York.
Though Leon Roppolo died young at 41, he composed three jazz standards that have stood the test of time including “Milenberg Joys,” “Farewell Blues” and “Tin Roof Blues.” He is regarded as one of the greats of early jazz.
Half a century later, a young trumpeter, who also came up through the New Orleans brass band tradition, jumpstarted a traditional jazz revival that continues to this day. For a four-year period, beginning in 1994 around the time when the back patio of Le Bon Temp Roule was enclosed, Kermit Ruffins helped put the bar on the map as “the” place to hear great music in a downhome setting.
His shows drew standing-room-only crowds who would dance riotously to some of the same tunes Roppolo played back in the day including “Tin Roof Blues” and “Milenberg Joys.” A vivacious bandleader, Ruffins would encourage the young women in the crowd to get up on the bar and “shake whatcha mama gave ya.” They did by the dozens.
Ruffins’ tenure, which attracted a diverse crowd from across the city and around the world, cemented Le Bon Temp Roule’s reputation as the quintessential neighborhood bar welcoming all comers. Over the years, the infamous, including Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (who lived up the street in the 1950s), and the famous have sat at the bar and grooved to the music.
Celebrities of all stripes regularly visit Le Bon Temp because word has spread that the tavern is a place to hang out without the hassles of stardom intruding on the good times. From old school Hollywood icons and world-renowned musicians to stars of a more recent vintage, you just never know who might be sitting on the next stool or cutting up on the dance floor.
Le Bon Temp Roule has been central to the Carnival traditions in uptown New Orleans since the middle of the 20th Century. The krewe of Thoth has paraded past Le Bon Temp since its formation in 1947 and more recently several other krewes, including the all-female super krewe Muses, also pass on their routes. Mardi Gras Indian tribes perform on Sunday morning before Thoth and the underground krewe of M.O.M.s has called the bar home for decades. The Cherry Bombs and the Dancing Elvi use the space to practice for their Mardi Gras parade appearances every year.
A year before the flood after Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed New Orleans, the bar changed hands again. Pepper Kennan, a heavy metal musician with the bands Corrosion of Conformity and Down, took over with the intent of maintaining the business’s reputation as a corner bar with a distinctly local flavor.
Le Bon Temp Roule reopened a mere six weeks after the flooding that inundated eighty percent of the city. The business had been looted, the original awning was lost and extensive repairs, mostly conducted with generators supplying the electricity, were required. The bar came back to life and became a beacon in the mostly still darkened city. It was a meeting place for returning evacuees who shared food with each other and the thousands of recovery workers.
Today, a new copper and wrought iron awning and a new roof welcome everyone to Le Bon Temp Roule. Every Friday, acclaimed piano player Joe Krown entertains while the regulars and those in the know slurp down free oysters. The Soul Rebels, now world famous due to their collaborations with the likes of Metallica, Nas and Miss Lauryn Hill, continue to tear the roof off the sucker every Thursday night.
When the House of Blues first opened in New Orleans, naysayers feared the national chain was going to put the neighborhood music joints out of business. Le Bon Temp was even dubbed “the house of dues” for its role as an incubator of local talent. To this day, on any given night, the next Leon Roppolo or Kermit Ruffins may be entertaining a carefree crowd.
Down the bar from the brass plaque marking Lee Harvey Oswald’s stool, a plaque of more recent vintage marks the spot of one “Uncle” Lawrence Palmer. He was another regular. But when he passed away suddenly, he willed his treasured Zulu jacket from the famed black Mardi Gras organization to the bar where he had a drink or three after work his entire adult life. It hangs in a shadow box over the hallway to the back patio and stands as a testament to the enduring strength of friendship and the iconic New Orleans neighborhood bar.
Jay Mazza has been covering the music scene in New Orleans since 1979 for a variety of publications. He has written three books about New Orleans music. “Up Front and Center: New Orleans Music at the End of the 20th Century” discusses Le Bon Temp Roule in more detail. He also blogs at http://www.thevinyldistrict.com. For more information check out www.jaymazza.com