'Downhome Music': Iberville Museum exhibit profiles local bands, musicians of yesteryear

Staff Report

What began as cleanup project took on a whole new meaning for Allen Kirkland.

Kirkland, a Plaquemine native and longtime Addis resident, found what many would consider a treasure when he rummaged through items his father Charles – a longtime local musician – left behind after he died. It turned into a five-year project.

Addis resident Allen Kirkland is seen with a collection of vinyl records that will be a part of an exhibit that opens May 20 at the Iberville Museum.

The vinyl records and other music-related keepsakes Kirkland collected through the years will be part of the exhibit “Downhome Music: Iberville and the Surrounding Parishes,” which opens to the public during a ceremony from 5 to 8 p.m. May 20 at the Iberville Museum, 57735 Main Street in Plaquemine. 

The opening will coincide with the second “Boogie on the Bayou” event headlined by Foret Tradition at the Mark A. “Tony Gulotta” Waterfront Park.

“Vinyl records fascinate me, and they fascinate me because of the people who recorded on them,” Kirkland said. “All of that was what my mom wanted out the house, and I realized with all that I had found, I had something good for a museum.”

All records in the exhibit will be housed in a glass case with pictures of the groups, along with music equipment.

Nearly all those recordings came from an era that predated 8-tracks, cassette tapes, compact discs and iTunes.

Recording equipment from the 1950s will also be part the exhibit “Downhome Music: Iberville and the Surrounding Parishes.”

It also represented a different era, when an aspiring musician did not need to venture far from home to achieve success.

For many of them, the first taste of success was found a short drive down the road.

Some had makeshift studios at their homes, while others ventured to studios in Baton Rouge.

“I’ve been around music all my life, with my dad. After he passed, I went through his things and found the vinyl records from the Hammy Records label,” Kirkland said.

Some of the records came from the studios of KVEL-AM, a radio station licensed to Plaquemine that broadcast from a small facility near the old White Castle ferry landing.

Lou Millett ran the station from 1955-59. He and business partner Harry “Soup” Kember – a White Castle resident who later became a state representative – began a record business along with the studio.

Kirkland has the four records they cut through their business venture. One of the songs was entitled “Bayou Pigeon.”

Millett also headlined local venues, including The Casino, a wooden venue on La. 1 not far from the area now occupied by Dow Chemical.

He headlined a Casino show in 1955 that featured a young Elvis Presley in the opening act. The following year, Presley became a blockbuster music sensation after his national TV appearance on the CBS variety series “Toast of the Town,” which became known as “The Ed Sullivan Show” one year later.

Charles Schwing bought a share of the White Castle radio station in 1959, along with Plaquemine native Bill Lee, a Major League Baseball pitcher whose career from 1934-46 included 10 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, two with the Philadelphia Phillies and one with the Boston Braves.

White Castle was far from the only music hub in the area. Lance Chauvin of Maringouin wrote and arranged “The 12 Cajun Nights of Christmas."

“High School Ring,” recorded by The Falcons, is one of the many vinyl records from local musicians that will go on display as part of the exhibit be part the exhibit “Downhome Music: Iberville and the Surrounding Parishes.”

The Fabulous Falcons – a band from the Pointe Coupee community of Valverda, just north of Maringouin – consisted of members of the Millitello family, which remains prominent on the local music scene today. They recorded “High School Ring” on the Sal Records label, based in Maringouin.

Meanwhile, the Carl Records label released “Strange As It Seems,” written by Wally Joffrion of Plaquemine.

In 1960, the Plaquemine teen band “Darryl Cheek and the Goldentones” – which also Mickey Billings, Ronnie Billings Bernie Cheek, Clarence “Bubby” Dupont, Mike Monson and Jack Marionneaux – recorded a 45-disc under the “Cheek-O Records” label that included “I Need a Girl” on the A-side and “Tell Me the Truth” on the B-side.

The songs got airplay on WLCS-AM, a top-rated Baton Rouge “Rock & Roll” radio station in that era.

They recorded the songs at the old Plaquemine Youth Center, which hosted Saturday night sock-hops that occasionally included artists such as Fats Domino, John Fred & the Playboys and Van Broussard, among others.

“A lot of those bands started when their parents would buy them instruments for Christmas, and then bring them to music lessons at O’Neil’s Music House in Baton Rouge,” Kirkland said. “That’s how they got started.”

He also has five of the records featuring his father, Charles Kirkland.

The Plaquemine Youth Center – a small dance and reception hall at Main Street near the levee – was a hub for teenage dances that local resident Agnes Landry promoted from the 1950s into the 1970s.

John Fred Gourrier, of John Fred & the Playboys, returned a benefit gig at the Youth Center after his 1968 smash “Judy in Disguise” ended a 13-week hold on the No. 1 by the Beatles classic “Hey, Jude.”

The Youth Center played a major role in the success of the area music scene, Kirkland said.

“It was a very simple,” he said. “When I was coming up, every Saturday night we could go to Plaquemine Youth Center to see a live band.”

Venues such as Holiday Park in Grosse Tete and Gaudet’s End of the World in Bayou Pigeon were among the other big favorite, Kirkland said.

“Music venues were everywhere,” Kirkland said. “Our area also had Mike’s Club, OK Corral, Tullier’s Lounge, the Korner Lounge, Brown’s and others.

It was during that area that the term “sock-hop” became commonplace across America.

“I played with Terry Granier and Rickey Orillion on Saturday nights, and those events were called sock-hops because they wouldn’t let you get on the dance floor in your shoes,” Kirkland said. “You paid to dance on that floor.” 

Most of those venues played mainly rock and roll, except for OK Corral, which was exclusively country, he said.

Other popular spots included Leaping Lena’s, as well as the Little Chief Teepee in Addis, which played host to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Live music was a mainstay from the 1950s into the 1970s and early 1980s, but it’s a different landscape today, Kirkland said.

“Managers don’t want to pay a fulltime band, so these days you get a one-man band that’s very good,” he said. “They bring their keyboard and one other player.”

It’s not to imply that local musicians are a thing of the past.

“One of them that quickly comes to mind is Jayce Guerin,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent out there.”

The number of artists who have come on the scene in the recent years remains uncertain to Kirkland.

“I haven’t even put a dent in the 1990s,” he said.