The I.L.A. — or International Labor Association — was a two-story, flat-roof building that went up in the late 1960s and was razed after Hurricane Katrina and the flood of 2005. Labor union offices and a pharmacy occupied the first floor. The second floor was a spacious room with a drop ceiling that hosted proms, wedding receptions, reunions, meetings, and social events — and it served as a prime music venue for New Orleans’ black community. Its capacity was around 1,000 people. The audience sat on metal folding chairs at long tables on a linoleum floor, much like in a school cafeteria. There was a small raised bandstand and a snack bar on the side that sold beer and “set ups” at R&B shows.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Rufus Johnson — an independent music promoter and owner of Rufus Record Rack on Washington and LaSalle streets — regularly booked the I.L.A. for R&B, blues, and soul programs. He promoted shows by blanketing black neighborhoods with colorful placards stapled to telephone polls. Johnson very much made the I.L.A. the New Orleans stop on the chitlin’ circuit during its era. Always ready to capitalize on the most recent hit record, Johnson booked the likes of Solomon Burke, O.V. Wright (Johnson loved Solomon and O.V., featuring them often), Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton, Little Johnny Taylor, Joe Tex, William Bell, Clarence Carter, Tyrone Davis, and Johnny Adams, among others. (Johnson, a bail bondsman and later a candidate for local office, was indicted on fraud charges by a federal grand jury in 2014).
The I.L.A. also hosted many gospel programs usually promoted by Reverend/Bishop Herman Brown. His Easter Sunday program — which always featured Slim and the Supreme Angels — was especially popular for more than a decade. Name gospel programs in New Orleans (outside of Jazz Fest) ended after Brown died, but the Easter Sunday programs survived via local choirs and quartets. On the secular side, local bluesman and “human jukebox” Snooks Eaglin played Sunday nights.
Sadly, by the new millennium, the building and the neighborhood were in decline. R&B revues became a rarity as promoters struggled to compete with casinos that could charge nominal, or sometimes no, admission. Writer Jeff Hannusch reported that on a rainy night in the fall of 2004, at an R&B revue featuring Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jeff Floyd, and Latimore, the roof leaked, mold grew on the walls, and the ice machine was broken — but the music wasn’t affected one damn bit.