Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records of Los Angeles, had scored huge New Orleans-recorded hits with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price (1952), “The Things That I Used To Do” by Guitar Slim (1954), and “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard (1955). In 1957, on a roll with a great run of Little Richard follow-up hits, Rupe felt the time was right to open a New Orleans branch office at 1463 N. Claiborne, above Houston’s for Music, a music store and school owned by society bandleader William Houston, president of the black American Federation of Musicians Local 496.
Rupe hired a bright, young modern-jazz musician, Harold Battiste, to manage the new office, finding, signing, recording, and promoting local talent. “Yes, I was one of the few outlets” in New Orleans, Battiste said in 1975. “I was easy to get to. There was still Dave [Bartholomew, at the Imperial branch office], but Dave was so busy with Fats [Domino]. He was sort of unreachable by the common little scared person with a little piece of paper in his hand, what they call a song. So there was room for them. I had to find a little cat to make the old Specialty sign; it was a funky little building.” Battiste went on: “My real assignment was to root out more Lloyds, Fats Dominos, and all that jazz. … Before I did a session for Specialty, it had been through the process of being approved [by Rupe and right-hand man Sonny Bono]. I also had to do the promotion rounds with the disc jockeys, the radio stations.”
The most successful record that Battiste cut in New Orleans, at Cosimo Matassa’s studio, was the classic rocker “Lights Out” by teenager Jerry Byrne in 1958, written by Mac Rebennack (later known as Dr. John) and Seth David. Other Specialty artists locally recorded by Battiste included Art Neville, the Monitors, and Larry Williams. Because of Rupe’s tight control, Battiste said in his autobiography Unfinished Blues that he missed out on signing Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner, and Allen Toussaint.
By 1959 Art Rupe was becoming disillusioned with the record business and shut down his New Orleans office. “The idea in my mind for the New Orleans office germinated after the successful Lloyd Price sessions in 1952,” Rupe said. “However, it became a reality later with Little Richard’s success. But our New Orleans office just didn’t make that much of an impact, or prove to be that competitive to Imperial Records.” Still, the Specialty branch office played its part in New Orleans R&B history, primarily as a stepping stone for the careers of Harold Battiste, Art Neville, and Mac Rebennack.
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”