The Dock of the Bay
How could four walls, a bar and a stage mean so much to so many people? Real all about this fixture of the BSL collective memory.
- story by Pat Murphy
Unbelievably, the property had been owned by the Episcopal church and was purchased by Artigues for the sum of $7,000. Ronnie and Marcia Artigues were riding in their car one night when the great Otis Redding song, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” began playing on the radio.
Artigues said, "There it is," and christened the establishment the Dock of the Bay. As a point of reference for newcomers, it stood in the current location of The Blind Tiger on North Beach Boulevard.
“The Dock” opened in July of 1975 to much fanfare. I heard more than once on opening night, "Can you believe that a place this nice has opened in Bay St. Louis?" The place was a big hit from the very beginning, especially with the younger adult crowd.
From the very start Ronnie Artigues brought in great New Orleans entertainment, like Deacon John and Irma Thomas, so there was usually good music on most weekends. Another real plus for the place was that Ronnie put ace bartender Rudy "Sport" Labat behind the bar. Rudy was widely known and loved by the entire community and generally considered to be the best bartender on the planet. Rudy Labat knew how to pour a stiff drink! Years later, after retiring, Rudy would still hang out at the Dock of the Bay.
While all this was taking place, local sweetheart Melva Luke was flying the friendly skies as an airline flight attendant. On one of her flights Melva encountered a passenger with shoulder-length red hair and a beard. The passenger turned out to be Oklahoma native Jerry Fisher, the lead singer with the famous jazz-rock group, Blood, Sweat and Tears.
The two chatted some and made plans to see each other again. Fisher often said that Melva cooked her gumbo for him and the rest was history, a testament to the old saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach! The couple married on January 1, 1975 and in the spring of 1976, returned to live in Bay St. Louis.
In September of 1976 Jerry Fisher (“Fish” to his friends), and his wife Melva purchased the Dock of the Bay from Ronnie Artigues. Fisher had previously been a club owner in Dallas, so he knew exactly what he wanted in a club and how to make it happen. The fact that the Dock of the Bay was already open with an established clientele was icing on the cake. Melva, as I said, was already a hometown sweetheart, and it didn't take long for Fish to endear himself to the community.
The live music at the Dock continued and only got better. The Fishers embraced the Gulf Coast musical community, and Dock of the Bay featured a revolving schedule of the local musical talent calling the area home.
George Mills-Johnny Hozey Band, Heater, Magic and a host of other Mississippi coast bands, including my band (“The County Line Band” at that time) all worked at the Dock of the Bay on a regular basis.
In addition to the coast talent, the Fishers also brought national talent into the venue. Through the years many big-name acts performed at the club, including The Average White Band, Elvin Bishop Band, Rick Derringer, Doctor John, John Lee Hooker, Professor Longhair and Delbert McClinton.
From the very beginning of their ownership, the Fishers were constantly improving the quality of the venue with things like vaulted ceilings with ceiling fans and acoustical treatments. Additions to the rear of the building, including a large open-air deck, added to the size of the club. The stage was enlarged and modified as well as a dressing room being added. As a singer himself, Jerry Fisher knew the different amenities that he looked for when he performed and made the effort to add them to the club.
One year around 1977, I approached The Fishers with the idea of having a big Christmas Jam. Fish and Melva were out of town but gave their OK via phone to Deb Ruhr, who was bartending and managing the operation in their absence.
At the time, some of the guys that I had previously worked with - like Tommy Moran and Danny Perniciaro - were on the road but always home for Christmas, so the jam seemed to be a good idea. The first one was an experiment to see how it would work out.
On that Christmas night, the place was filled beyond capacity, and Deb Ruhr was calling the Fishers to report that she had sold completely out of all beer and most of the alcohol on hand. The event was a home-run, and the Christmas Jam was a big deal for some years after.
One of the things that Fish wanted from the very beginning was to sing with his own band regularly in the club. It took several years for that to come to pass, but some time in early 1980 Fish put a house band together that he was comfortable with.
Guitarist Johnny Hozey and Fish sort of recruited each other and then added my old friend Eric Watkins on bass, and keyboard wiz Derril Brown on piano and organ. Lacy Evans came on as drummer, and Heater singer Debbie Stanbro was recruited to front the band with Fish. The Dock of the Bay Music Company was born and exploded onto the coast music scene like an atom bomb.
After The Music Company became established, Fish began booking out for private parties and playing occasionally in other venues. Whenever the band would book out, Fish would bring in other bands, often New Orleans talent like The Radiators, Ivan Neville and The Renegades, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Little Queenie and The Percolators. I have always been grateful to Melva and Fish for using my band frequently in those situations.
Thursday night was "50 Cent Drink Night," featuring bar brand drinks from 7 until 9 pm. The place would be absolutely packed to the rafters. At 9 The Music Company would begin, and drinks returned to regular price. Deb "Ms. Ma'am" Ruhr and Ricky "Son" Favre ran the operation behind the bar with Melva and her sister, Prima, stepping in to help when needed.
Some time around 1982, Johnny Hozey was involved in a pretty bad automobile accident while on the way to work at the Dock one night. Tommy Moran was asked to fill in for Johnny while he recovered, which happened pretty quickly.
When Hozey did come back, Tommy (who was still playing with Moe Bandy at the time) received an invitation to join the band. Tommy had been looking for an opportunity to come home and get off the road, and he accepted the position. Tommy joined the band, and the guitar wars between Johnny Hozey and Tommy Moran are the stuff of legend.
Original drummer Lacy Evans left the band and was replaced by "Mean" Gene Houston and later by Harrell "Boomer" Bosarge. Later the band included drummer Herman "Roscoe" Ernest, Jr. along with Bruce Elsensohn on keyboards, David Barrard on bass, and guitarist Tommy Moran. This configuration included Doctor John's entire rhythm section.
The Music Company, in any configuration, was always comprised of great musicians. People thought nothing of driving from Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Pascagoula or Ocean Springs to hear The Music Company at the club.
In the mid-80s Fish and Melva decided to introduce food at the Dock of the Bay. If memory serves me, early on there was talk of char-grilled hamburgers prepared in the area where the back bar was located. The restaurant quickly morphed into a full-fledged restaurant, with Melva running both operations and her sister Prima doing the cooking. The food was always excellent and became known for Melva's already famous seafood gumbo.
As time went on the restaurant became a bigger and bigger part of the business. Fish and The Music Company's run at the Dock of the Bay lasted an unprecedented 23 years. The last performance occurred on New Year's Eve 2003.
As I look back on things, the Dock of the Bay was a scene as much as it was a business. It was a normal thing for people to cruise by and just stop in to see who was in the place at the time. There were lots of characters who frequented the place at all hours on any given day - all part of the Dock family.
Jimbo Morlan and John "Beaver" Languirand were both paraplegics in wheelchairs who frequented the place on a regular basis. I'm laughing right now at the memory of being onstage and hearing Beaver's voice shouting from the bar "Hey, Murf, play 'Dead Flowers.'”
The Lady brothers, Jim, Steve and Bill, along with their stepbrother Lester Owens, were always in there. It seems that some weeks my wife Candy and I were in there every night. When our daughter Brianna was born in 1984, one of her first outings was to the Dock to show her off. As I said before, Rudi Labat was always in there socializing, as was Sonny Garrett and Charles Johnson. The list is endless.
One of my favorite characters who frequented the place was Nauman Scott who, along with his brother Hammond, owned and operated the great blues record label, Blacktop Records.
Most of the musicians in the band were in the club on off nights. Guitarist Johnny Hozey was a fixture of the place, as were his kids, Derek and little Johnny. They were like our own kids.
Before Tommy Moran joined the band and was still on the road touring with Moe Bandy, it wasn't unusual to see Bandy's tour bus parked on the street outside the Dock. My close friend, bassist Eric Watkins and Derrill Brown, along with house soundman, David Antonius, were all regulars in the club on off nights.
Many of the club regulars like Beaver Languirand, Jimbo Morlan, Charles Johnson, Jim Lady, Nauman Scott and many others have passed on. Band members, Debbie Stanbro, Herman Ernest, Derrell Brown, Johnny Hozey and Eric Watkins - as well as sound man, David Antonius - all have left us for the great jam session in the sky. I still think of these people often. They were my friends.
In March of 2005 the Fishers sold the Dock of the Bay to Desiree Parker. My band worked for the new owner several times, but without the Fishers, things were never the same to me. In fairness to Desiree, she didn't have time to gain much momentum with her new business.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped the Bay St. Louis beachfront clean, along with the Dock of the Bay and every other business on the beach.
There are multitudes of people who've flocked into this area since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and know nothing of Bay St. Louis' legendary club, the Dock of the Bay. It's hard for me to conceive of anyone who doesn't have the place totally ingrained in their psyche, but not so for a lot of people.
My purpose in writing this feature is to share with those who don't know of it and bring back memories for the many locals who were a part of this great downtown Bay St. Louis bar, music venue and restaurant.
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