Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS - Bill Johnston, the founder of the legendary Tchoupitoulas Street music club known simply as The Warehouse, which hosted Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, the Who and dozens more rock icons during its heyday, has died. He was 69.
His wife Teresa said Johnston had been battling throat cancer since January 2012. Friends, including promoter Louie Duet, helped organize a benefit concert for him earlier this year at The Joy Theater.
The club Johnston co-founded, housed in an abandoned 30,000-square-foot cotton warehouse at the corner of Felicity and Tchoupitoulas, wasn’t much on looks or comfort, but as a performance venue saw some of the biggest names in music play there during its 12-year existence.
In addition to the Grateful Dead, Dylan and the Allman Brothers, Warehouse headliners over the years included Joe Cocker, the Clash, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, and the Doors, where Jim Morrison performed the last time before his death.
“Anybody who was anybody played there,” remembered Sidney Smith, who joked that he became the unofficial official photographer at the club as a teenager, after attending concerts and meeting Johnston.
“Bill was just a gem of a person, friendly and easy to talk to, very approachable. To let a 16-year-old kid in to take pictures and have the kind of access I had certainly shows you that,” Smith said in an interview Wednesday.
"The Warehouse really became the Fillmore East and Fillmore West of the south as a result of Bill and the acts he brought here," Smith said, comparing the club to the legendary New York and San Francisco venues.
In a 2009 Gambit article highlighting an upcoming film being produced about The Warehouse (also called simply “A Warehouse” on some early tickets and posters), Johnston explained the origins of the club. A New Orleans native, Johnston had worked the bar scene in Chicago in the late 1960s, and remembered a club called Barnaby’s which featured rotating house bands and free fried chicken and wine.
That was also the weekend the members of the Grateful Dead were famously arrested by New Orleans Police on marijuana charges (“Busted down on Bourbon Street, set up like a bowling pin. Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin, they just won’t let you be.” That’s how the Dead song “Truckin’ immortalized the incident).
The Allman Brothers became the unofficial house band at The Warehouse, performing at least twice a month in the venue’s early years, Johnston recalled.
After The Warehouse closed, Johnston became a manager for Vince Vance and the Valiants, Gino Vannelli and The Neville Brothers. He also worked as entertainment director for Harrah’s New Orleans casino.