Back to The Harlem of New Orleans: South Rampart Street Tour

Red Onion

762 S. Rampart St.
New Orleans LA 70113
Location Status: Different structure at this site
Curated by
e/Prime Media & Randy Fertel

The Red Onion was a saloon known as a tough hang-out for early jazz musicians including Jelly Roll Morton, trumpeter Lee Collins, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, and clarinetist Lorenzo Tio Jr. Clarence Williams wrote a song called “Red Onion Blues” in honor of the infamous establishment, and his 1924 recordings featured a band he named the Red Onion Jazz Babies. That group included Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, who both played here.

The first floor served as a bar, and the second floor was used as a commercial dance hall. Trumpeter Lee Collins recalled that there weren’t any chairs in the place so people sat on beer and wine kegs.

For years the Patterson Hotel was across the street at the corner of Julia. Louis Armstrong stayed there for three months in 1931, his first time back in his hometown since leaving nine years earlier and becoming a star.

The building that housed the Red Onion, constructed in the early 1900s, was one of the last remaining structures from that era when, in 2016, it was demolished to make way for high-end condominiums.

About South Rampart Street

South Rampart Street was the main commercial corridor in “back o’ town,” originally a swampy area at the back end of the city where New Orleans’ racial order relegated black residents in the late 1800s. The strip filled with businesses—many run by Jewish, Italian, and Chinese merchants—catering to a black clientele. Among these were dance halls, juke joints, tailors who outfitted bands with uniforms, and pawn shops that bought and sold instruments.

Churches here tended to be Protestant, with emotive spirituals and hymns in their services that reverberated through the neighborhood. To the ministers’ chagrin this area included Black Storyville, the red light district for those barred from the whites-only bordellos and gambling houses just across Canal Street. This traffic fueled some social ills. It also helped attract audiences for working musicians. (Business continued after 1917, when the white vice district—Storyville—shut down).

In 1938, the WPA City Guide called South Rampart “The Harlem of New Orleans.” It was full of music, from barrelhouse piano players like Tuts Washington to big bands like Papa Celestin’s. The street itself was a venue, with benevolent societies and social clubs parading with brass bands, and, on Carnival, the Zulu parade, Baby Dolls, and chanting bands of Mardi Gras Indians.

The strip was referenced in popular songs, from the traditional jazz tune “South Rampart Street Parade” to Louis Jordan’s jump blues hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in 1949, about a house on Rampart “rockin’” till the break of dawn.

While the “New Orleans sound” of R&B played across the country in the 1950s, South Rampart Street went the way of other black inner city neighborhoods in the age of urban renewal. Whole blocks were demolished and redeveloped, paving the way for a new city hall and today’s Central Business District.

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