Bill Johnston, founder of legendary 'Warehouse' music venue, dies

Bill Johnston, founder of legendary 'Warehouse' music venue, dies

Credit: Sidney Smith

Bill Johnston, founder of legendary 'Warehouse' music venue, dies

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wwltv.com

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 7 at 5:25 PM

Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Email: dmassa@wwltv.com | Twitter: @DMassaWWL
 

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.

“One band called itself The Big Thing, later renamed Chicago Transit Authority, and now known as Chicago. Johnston followed the band to New York City's Fillmore East when it opened for Buddy Miles,” explained writer Alex Woodward.
“I was blown away. I hadn't seen anything like that in my life,” Johnston told Gambit. "We didn't have anything like this in New Orleans."
Johnston convinced two business partners, along with two roommates, to move to New Orleans and set up shop in the rundown Tchoupitoulas warehouse. The roommates called it quits, but the remaining partners called in lawyer John Simmons and got to work. Ties in Chicago led them to a few booking agencies that landed acts for opening night, including Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead.

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.
“Once we got hooked up with the agencies, we just took over from there," Johnston told Gambit. "Once they knew you, you were getting bombarded. There's a new place in town, there's a demand to play, and the place was big enough for a lot of these bands."

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.
He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
In addition to his wife, Johnston is survived by two stepsons and three grandchildren.
A funeral will be held Monday at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home.  Visitation will begin at 1 p.m., followed by a funeral Mass at 4 p.m. in the Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home chapel, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd.

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