In April 1947 Roy Brown, a 21-year-old former boxer, walked to Foster’s Hotel with the lyrics to the song “Good Rocking Tonight” written on a paper bag. He’d just moved back to his native New Orleans from Galveston, where the tune had gone over well. Brown hoped it could net him a few dollars–he was cardboard-in-the-soles-of-his-shoes broke, and hoped to sell it to a singer he admired, Wynonie Harris, who was headlining a show at the hotel’s Rainbow Room.
Harris, known as “Mr. Blues,” blew the kid off, but, as the story goes, his band invited Brown to sing at intermission. Impressed, they sent him a block down LaSalle Street to the Dew Drop Inn, where he sang his song for another well-known blues man, Cecil Gant. Gant then took Brown to a pay phone and, after waking Jules Braun of DeLuxe Records at home in New Jersey, had Brown sing into the receiver. Braun liked what he heard and “Good Rocking Tonight” became a seminal rhythm and blues hit in 1948, launching Brown to stardom and elevating New Orleans’ status as a destination for record labels and artists.
It was good timing for George Foster, who’d just built a 40-room hotel and a 400-seat lounge to go along with his bar and restaurant, Foster’s Chicken Den. Author Preston Lauterbach described the place as “a camelback, two stories at the sidewalk, growing to three levels past the entry, of gray stone and pink siding, with glass cube windows to spoil the view in from the street.” Lauterbach also noted that Foster’s business plan—providing touring musicians like Harris with a local backing band while feeding and lodging them under one roof—was a tried-and-true way to keep prices down on the Chitlin Circuit.
In the early 50s Foster regularly booked a flamboyant local bluesman, Guitar Slim, who performed with an extra-long cord to his amplifier so he could hop off the bandstand and play in the audience. Slim’s pianist was a precocious 16-year-old, Huey Smith, whose mother barged into the Rainbow Room one night to bring him home–she didn’t want her son hanging around the barroom where Foster had recently shot and killed a customer (Foster said the man was behaving erratically and attacked him; he was found not guilty of murder). Smith refused to leave his gig, so, he recalled to biographer John Wirt, his mother locked him out of her house. He moved in with his father and went on to become one of the city’s great R&B songsmiths, with hits including “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Sea Cruise” (the latter was overdubbed with the vocals of a white heartthrob, Frankie Ford.)
In the summer of 1953 Foster gave a room at the hotel to a blind 22-year-old from Florida who couldn’t afford to pay. Ray Charles had just cut “Mess Around” for Atlantic Records, but it sold modestly and he was playing one-nighters around the South, earning just enough to feed his heroin addiction. “The people [in New Orleans] took me in,” Charles told author Peter Guralnick—he’d spend much of the rest of the year based at Foster’s. Every day he walked unassisted to the Dew Drop for red beans and rice, using the sound from his hard-heeled shoes on the pavement to sense his surroundings, “just like a bat.”
In October the Dew Drop’s owner, Frank Painia, recruited Charles to arrange some songs for a recording session at J&M Studio with Guitar Slim. Slim’s frenetic style didn’t transfer easily into the studio: among other issues, he kept roaming away from the microphone. Charles took control of the session, and can be heard shouting “Yeah!” at the end of “The Things That I Used To Do,” knowing they finally nailed the song after a grueling day of failed takes. The record was a smash, and became a blues standard. Guralnick and others have speculated that Slim’s “preacherlike” vocals, and the gospel music Charles listened to on the radio at Foster’s every Sunday, helped Charles find his own voice as an artist around this time.
The club in Foster’s Hotel continued to host a mix of local and touring talent for the next several years. Ed Blackwell, a future AFO Records artist whom the New York Times would refer to as “one of the most important drummers in jazz,” played a regular weekend gig here in 1957. When it wrapped he’d head to a 6 a.m. jam session in the French Quarter, where modern jazz enthusiasts gathered after finishing their R&B gigs. That year, when a dragnet at Foster’s resulted in the arrest of famous bluesman Lowell Fulson, Foster told police he was out of the game: he’d leased the club and stuck to managing his hotel.
For more on the roots of rock ‘n’ roll in New Orleans click here.
A panel discussion on Guitar Slim--who brought his electric stage show to Foster's Hotel--from the 2011 Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference.