Phil Melancon has been an active musician and entertainer in New Orleans for over thirty years. He is probably best known in the city for his tenure playing piano at the legendary Pontchartrain Hotel, but he is also part-owner of the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse. In this interview, he discusses topics including his own musical career and the history of the Neutral Ground, offering interesting, poignant, and often-times humorous insights into both.
- Interview Date: Nov. 11, 2014
- Interviewers: Joshua Young, Bridgit Peterson
- Interview length: 51:09
- Interview location: Studio B, Music/Communications Complex, Loyola University New Orleans.
Citation (Chicago Manual of Style):
Philip Melancon, interviewed by Joshua Young and Bridgit Peterson, Neutral Ground Collection, Documentary and Oral History Studio, Loyola University New Orleans, Nov. 11, 2014.
[00:00:05.17] Joshua Young: And who do I have the pleasure of interviewing today? [00:00:08.16] Phil Melancon: I’m Philip Melancon [00:00:12.05] Joshua Young: Okay, Philip. Can you tell us where you’re originally from? [00:00:15.03] Phil Melancon: I’m from New Orleans. I was born over at Touro Hospital. Raised my early years down near Xavier, on Telemachus and Howard. And then as a teenager we moved out to Metairie, to the suburbs. [00:00:29.12] Where I spent my, the rest of my youth and now I’m back leaving in this area, Uptown. [00:00:39.13] Joshua Young: And I just sorta want to dive into The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse . How many years have you owned The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse? [00:00:46.16] Phil Melancon: It’s about the year 2000. The Coffee House was, up to that point, co-op and it was run from 1997 to that point as a co-op [00:01:00.14] and it was owned by anyone who walked in the coffee house and paid twenty-five dollars, you were a member, and equal member with everyone else. [00:01:10.00] That went on for all those years, twenty-some years- twenty-three years, and then eventually the board got tired, they went broke several times. [00:01:25.08] Of course you helped get things going again and it was originally called the Penny Post and in 1990 or so they changed the name to The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse, same people though and then at about year 2000, [00:01:46.05] they went broke again. So they decided to sell it. I was not really associated with the Coffeehouse then, at least not active with the the Coffeehouse. So they put it in the paper, was kinda interesting, [00:02:03.13] and they had two prospective buyers. One couple apparently had some money, some family money, they wanted to open a restaurant. [00:02:17.17] The other couple had no money, but supposedly has “restaurant experience”. I think they guy was a busboy somewhere so of course the Neutral Ground being the Neutral Ground sells it to the couple with no money [00:02:32.01]and after about a month they realize “Oh my gosh no money’s coming in” so they were kinda stuck. So that’s when they called me in. [00:02:39.04] They said well Phil you’re not doing anything, being a musician. Would you take it? So that’s why I got it. I kept it for about ten years and then started to pass it off to Michael Calabrese and David Rigamae and the three of us own it now. [00:03:01.03] Joshua Young: And you said it isn’t a co-op anymore? [00:03:04.12] Phil Melancon: No it isn’t. No it’s a, I’m not exactly sure what the term is, but we have three owners right now. [00:03:11.19] Joshua Young: Are was reading the story about the Coffeehouse online and there was a character named Greta who was interesting. Can you tell us about Greta? [00:03:21.04] Phil Melancon: Yes, Greta was a nurse and I think she was from North Carolina or one of the Carolinas. She opened the Coffeehouse originally when it was on Maple Street. [00:03:31.07]I don’t know the address, but now it’s a florist. It’s about a block off of Carrollton. It was open for eight, nine months and then they had a fire [00:03:45.10] and when they had the fire of course they lost that building and they wanted to reopen/ At that point Greta said if anyone wants to open it, kick in your money and we’ll see what happens. [00:04:00.14]That’s when the co-op was born. They moved to the present location of where the Neutral Ground is and they opened it as the Penny Post Coffeehouse. [00:04:12.05] Joshua Young: Did you have any relationship with Greta? [00:04:18.21] Phil Melancon: No I knew Greta as years went by. I was not in the original group that started the Coffeehouse. I came in I’d say early 80s, mid 80s. But I knew her, but she was no longer associated with the Coffeehouse. She was a wonderful patron and friend. [00:04:43.01] Joshua Young: Did you ever go to the Coffeehouse while it was still the Penny Post? [00:04:44.18] Phil Melancon: I did, I was the last manager of the Penny Post. So when it went down… Yes I did, I was certainly an active member of the Penny Post. [00:05:00.00] Joshua Young: And is that when you got involved in The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse? [00:05:04.00] Phil Melancon: Yes, yes, yes and I could tell you my personal story for that matter. You can imagine the Penny Post twice the size of what it is. [00:05:15.16]The bar was not just that side bar you have right now, it was a horseshoe bar. And the other side of that building, together they made Red Lion Bar. [00:05:30.10] The Red Lion Bar was a beloved bar Uptown New Orleans where underage kids could go drink. So that’s where we went to get our drinks and stuff. And they had many bars in there prior to that, [00:05:42.22]but the Red Lion had had problems. They had people misbehaving, etcetera, so it was shut down. And when they shut it down they made two coffeehouses. [00:05:54.15]They cut it in half and one side was the Penny Post. which was their mission, their focus was music. The other side was Barsotti’s, which was owned by Bob Barsotti and Barsotti’s was more interested in poetry and doing theatrical performances. [00:06:15.20] Barsotti’s stayed open for several years and they were not connected, they were not tied to each other, but they ran simultaneously and a few years later Mr. Barsotti moved on and opened up a couple of other coffeehouses in the area. [00:06:32.16]The Penny Post went on, stayed on as it was as much as it is right now. I started playing piano when I was 30, I bought a piano.[00:06:48.06] Towards when I got to be about 40 I figured I would want to start playing somewhere. I was school teacher and a PTA meeting ended early and I slipped over there. [00:07:03.01] I’ll never forget. I went in there and I walk in and there were two people behind the bar. No one else in the place and I ask if I could play a couple of songs, sheepishly.[00:07:16.08] “Of course, of course!” So I went up there and I played a few songs and stumbled through them and the woman said “Oh you’re very good.” Of course which we know boosted my self-esteem, needless to say.[00:07:32.23] “Would you like to play here?”And I said oh wow, I don’t what I was expecting, but sure enough I said yes, I’d love too. And she says well what’s your name? And I remember thinking at that time, [00:07:47.04]you know you can’t give your real name when you’re in showbiz, nobody uses their real name. I need another name. And this is all going through my head of course at light speed. At the time I was working on my thesis on a name by the name of Henry Salt. [00:08:03.20]And I said Henry Salt and she looks at me with my Cajun background, wannabe Italian. And I remember her looking at me and saying “Henry Salt”. [00:08:23.07]So the first couple times I played, I played under the pseudonym Henry Salt. But from that time I played routinely. Every month, once or twice a month and like so many young musicians [00:08:35.22]you develop your chops there and from there I went on to playing other places and started making my living as a musician. [00:08:48.00] Joshua Young: That’s really interesting. I want to know about the names of the Coffeehouses. Can you tell us where the name the Penny Post and where the name Neutral Ground came from? [00:08:59.19] Phil Melancon: Sure. The Penny Post I believe came from Gretchen and I believe it had to do with the Penny Postal System in England. which was apparently a very easy way to communicate in England in maybe the 19th century. [00:09:12.12]That’s what she wanted a place where people could meet, discuss things. It was a Coffeehouse as opposed to a coffeeshop.[00:09:21.07] When you went to the Penny Post or you go to The Neutral Ground as you know coffee is like third or fourth on your list of things you’re interested in doing when you get there When you go to another coffeeshop…[00:09:36.13] you go to a modern coffeeshop you go in there for coffee and that’s what you get, you sit down get your coffee and take off. [00:09:42.18]It was more a matter of developing a community of family and friends. When the Penny Post went under in 1990 we had a meeting [00:09:55.16]and we decided we wanted to keep it open, but we had to change the name because of tax reasons. So they named it, interestingly enough I had just put out an album, my first album,[00:10:11.15] my first adult album and it was called Off The Neutral Ground. I remember a young lady suggesting “Hey Neutral Ground from Philip’s” and that’s how the Neutral Ground got its name. [00:10:26.01] Joshua Young: Interesting. I like that you guys sorta call it a coffeehouse and it embodies that homey type atmosphere that I hear about. It’s really interesting. [00:10:38.07] Phil Melancon: Yeah I tell people all the time Josh that we’re the older coffeehouse south of New York and of course people quickly stop and say wait a second. [00:10:44.14]Matter of fact we were in Blake Pontchartrain for the Gambit one time. We set up at fake thing where a fellow writes a letter saying “How can the Neutral Ground say that they’re the oldest coffeehouse south of New York? [00:10:58.17]What about the Morning Call? They’re much older.” And when they called me I explained to them, well you know the Morning Call is a coffeeshop. You go for a cup of coffee. [00:11:10.00]Coffeehouse is a much different animal. It’s a community gathering place. It’s a place where you have entertainment and things for families to go to and enjoy as a community. [00:11:26.02] Joshua Young: I just want to know have you been able to reinvent the The Neutral Ground? [00:11:34.19] Phil Melancon: No and not that I wanted to. Of course as time goes on you change how you do things, specific little things like when I first went in there they had a calendar on the wall and you wanted to play music?[00:11:49.11] You just walked to to the calendar and you wrote your name down. Well Philip Melancon said I could write his name down for the 10 o’clock act on Saturday night, which was a very preferred spot to be in [00:12:00.17]and I might not be able to do anything but beat a hubcap, who knows? So in that sense we changed it. We started to schedule people and hopefully put some of the better acts in the more prime positions. [00:12:12.13]When you go to the Coffeehouse you notice it looks like it’s almost cut in half, it’s almost as a half side. One half has the stage and the bar and the other side has the long tables which we got from the closing of the original Bud’s Broiler. [00:12:32.22]Anyways, but that used to be a wall that would separate those two side with a very small door, which you’d probably have to stoop to get through.[00:12:46.00] So when I first got it the first thing I changed was that, I opened it up between things. [00:13:00.16] I was just mentioning, talk about family… So I decided I wanted to open it up. [00:13:10.07]Before that when you wanted to do something at the Coffeehouse you had to go through the board. Everybody had to agree [00:13:18.08]and of course everybody would say oh yes let’s open it up and then the last guy in line would say “you know I like the quiet on my side so I can play the games and blah blah blah [00:13:31.22]so I’m voting no” so of course it was done, we’re not doing it. When I took it over, I’m the king, I get to do whatever I want to do. [00:13:40.12]I call my friend Jim, Jim’s a musician from Detroit. Didn’t know anybody really. Likes to play, plays at the Coffeehouse, he’s a friend.[00:13:57.14] I tell him what I want to do. So Jim got his helper, he came on over and the three of us took down that wall. We took down that wall, we put up a big beam [00:14:09.16]and did the whole thing. I just a call right before I came over here. Jim just died last night, uhm everytime I look at that hole in the wall right now I’ll be thinking of him. [00:14:28.02] That’s what it is. It’s friends and for so many of us it’s a family place. There was a book written years ago called the Third Place. [00:14:43.13]And in the Third Place it had to do with we all have our homes as our first place and we have our workplace which would be our second place and we have a third place, [00:15:00.20]where we gather and see our friends. You know some people it’s a church, some people it’s our friends house where they hang out pretty routinely. The Neutral Ground was a third place [00:15:11.20]and it was identified as one of the third places and it was a nice whole chapter written about the Coffeehouse in that book. We have friends and we’ve seen so many years go by. [00:15:30.00]You see people just you know take on different characters I should say, or find themselves in the Coffeehouse, meet their loves in the Coffeehouse. [00:15:44.02]I met mine. So, not to make it too morose, a guy like Jim dies I know where his pictures are. I know where the broken left-hand guitar is he left there, you know. A lot of people will be very touched by it when word gets out. [00:16:18.12] Joshua Young: I want to go back to the beam, besides serving as a reminder of your dear friend, what else does that beam symbolize? Does it symbolize the Coffeehouse coming together? [00:16:37.20] Phil Melancon: You know Josh how these things work. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The change of the ownership of the Coffeehouse to me to be able to say we’re doing it,[00:16:46.00] we’re opening this place up a bit so you can hear the music on the other side. Of course you know people got upset, but as soon as you did it oh that’s a good idea right? Some people came in and were shocked by the change, [00:16:59.03]but you know they went with it. We started taking down the wall and the owner walks in, of the building. Of course he blows a gasket, “what are you doing? You know my buildings going to fall down right?”[00:17:16.22] But by this time we had already taken it out so what’s he gonna do? Put it back at this point? It showed to me, it showed a sense about the Coffeehouse that people want to go in there,[00:17:29.22] I don’t care if you’re a professor, if you’re a doctor, if you’re a garbage collector, you’re a plumber, whatever you do in your life, you go in there and you have your persona[00:17:42.02] of what you are at the Coffeehouse, in a place where you can be you, do whatever you do. [00:17:49.20]You have something there that makes you special. You start to get identified with it, it starts getting identified with you. It’s a beautiful thing. [00:18:05.21] Joshua Young: I want to start talking about the music scene there. First off, where is your favorite place to perform? [00:18:19.00] Phil Melancon: Where’s my favorite place to perform? Well I guess I should say the Coffeehouse. Are you talking about in the Coffeehouse? Or just in the city? [00:18:24.22] Joshua Young: Just in New Orleans [00:18:30.08] Phil Melancon: I have been very fortunate in my life in the music realm. Like I said, I started at the Coffeehouse playing my adult music I should say[00:18:41.10] and it’s always been dear to me for that reason. I spent twenty years, I got a job playing very early on when I stopped teaching, I got a job that weekend playing at the Pontchartrain Hotel, [00:18:57.22]where I stayed for 20 years playing. It became a real Uptown gathering spot where people who, like my jokes about the city [00:19:10.20]also like the old music that I would play. I like to play music of the 30s and 40s. That’s my meat and potatoes, my tessa tora.[00:19:24.08] So I liked that very much, but now once again as you move on things change. You find places that you feel comfortable in. I feel very comfortable at Le Pavillon right now. [00:19:44.11] Joshua Young: What is your favorite instrument to play? [00:19:47.23] Phil Melancon: I play several instruments, poorly. My favorite instrument, it’s almost like saying your favorite kid, you know? [00:19:58.18]Of course I love the piano. It’s so clear, it’s all laid out for you, you can play such a variety of things on it, you don’t have to carry it, [00:20:11.20]that’s good too and you get to sit down. Many times you get to dress up a bit so you don’t have to be grungy or something. [00:20:22.20]I play a bunch of others, the other one I’ve gotten kind of a name for is the Ukulele, which I picked up a number of years ago. [00:20:36.10]The ukulele is fun because my God as soon as you take out the ukulele the bar of expectations are very low. [00:20:46.23]Almost anything you do is considered really special, you know? I was just mentioning last night we had the Uke Joint. I know you’ve interviewed my friend John Pult. [00:21:01.18]Well John and I started the Uke Joint, which is a monthly gathering of ukulele players at the Coffeehouse and we’ve been doing it for twelve years, we’ve lost count, not sure if it’s twelve or thirteen, but every month we show up and we pluck away at the Ukuleles. [00:21:21.04]And last night was very special. It was surprising who came back and we got to do things. [00:21:33.18] Joshua Young: You talked about making adult music. Could you sort of elaborate as to what that is? Is it music with adult themes in it? [00:21:44.08] Phil Melancon: Yes, yes, and also for adults. The reason I separate them quite often is this: I was plucking away at the Coffeehouse and before that I could play the guitar, [00:21:55.22]not well but I could strum a guitar. When I was in 6th grade I wrote a song because I went on a fieldtrip to a farm [00:22:07.21]and I saw a cow for the first time and I came home on my little guitar and wrote a song called Millie the Cow. [00:22:17.01]Millie the Cow not only got me national recognition because it won some people four dinners to Momma Leone’s It stumped the band on the Johnny Carson show, [00:22:31.18]but more importantly a friend of mine gets on a local television show called Popeye and Pals which was a legendary show in New Orleans on Saturday mornings [00:22:44.08]where you’d put about 30-40 brownies on stage with you and they would show Popeye cartoons and at some point eat Popeyes fried chicken. [00:22:54.13]So I got involved with Popeye and Pals and I became their songwriter and as a result of that I started playing a lot of children’s music. [00:23:10.18]My first two albums were children’s albums, songs for kids. Some of the music is really delightful, you know? But I must say “I Love Nachos” is not really a real popular song in most bar rooms,[00:23:26.20] or “Let’s Go Floating in a Donut Hole”. Kids like it though because you get to make animal sounds. So I do that, I still do that. I play for kids all the time. [00:23:39.14]Particularly in the summer I travel around the whole regions, throughout the state, etcetera. I play for kids, But at the same time I play for adults and for the most part I have to play a different kind of music for adults.[00:23:56.21] People walk in and they’re 70 years old, 60 years old, it’s like anything else. I can’t play Nicki Minaj for them, they would not relate to them at all,[00:24:08.13] but I can play Hoagy Carmichael for them or Cole Porter, or I can play a cute little dirty song, you know kinda touching on that. Or I can play songs about New Orleans,[00:24:22.08] many of them I’ve written, many of them are just standard songs about the city, that help them remember, not help them remember, but perk their memory, you know?[00:24:34.05] Perk their memory about what the city was like and kinda laugh at themselves. So that’s why I kind of differenciate between the two. [00:24:44.12] Joshua Young: Would you say there’s a certain type of instrument that helps you convey and sort of tap into those adult lyrics in order to you know reach out to your audience and help visual or understand? [00:25:01.03] Phil Melancon: Well yeah, for the most part in a bar room I’m going to have a piano. So the piano is very easy and people are gathered around it and that’s where the focus is so I can do that easily there. [00:25:10.20]I also have people come up and sing some songs with me and so at the piano it makes sense to accompany them on that. [00:25:21.04]The ukulele is fun too that way you can get up and you know sing Don’t Mess With My White Suit, or whatever other song you want to carry on about. [00:25:36.23] Joshua Young: Have you noticed the music scene changing over time at The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse? [00:25:40.17] Phil Melancon: Oh yes, very much so. Oh yeah, very much so. OF course what people play. For the most part the people who play there are young people, [00:25:48.23]for the most part, I’d say college students and just out of college. We have some old timers of course.[00:26:00.11] People play the music of, for the most part, our youth. Even the old timers who play there, many times are playing the songs of Bob Dylan from 1967. When I first got involved with the Coffeehouse, [00:26:18.14]people were playing older instruments. We’d have several acts that were doing kind of Renaissance instruments or instruments that no longer exist, the hurdygurdy and things like that. Of course now people are playing a lot more electric instruments, of course.[00:26:42.20] Whatever the wave is going through, whether it’s the zither or the theremin, whatever they call that thing. People are using new instruments to play. People are playing differently now.[00:26:59.22] When I started at the Coffeehouse everybody played at the end of the neck of the guitar. i mean you had some people who were very good and could play up and down. Now? Everybody plays up and down the neck, everybody. [00:27:15.10]You get the kid in from high school he’s playing up and down the neck. Maybe because the instruments are easier to play, they’re better instruments, but it’s just different. Of course the music we’re playing is different. [00:27:31.16]No one plays Kingston Trio anymore. Early on they were playing a lot of that, Peter, Paul, and Mary. Now it’s much more rare that you hear that. [00:27:48.11] Joshua Young: Do you have any particularly interesting stories regarding or memories regarding a specific musician or group? [00:27:55.04] Phil Melancon: Oh yeah. We had a guy, Jack Nielson. Jack was a son of a wealthy family, Uptown family. He had a friend of his, Johnny Parker, who still plays at the Coffeehouse, son of a wealthy family.[00:28:24.04] Neither one of these guys wanted to go into the family businesses, they wanted to play music. Jack played Folk music, wrote a lot of songs, played a lot of standard folk songs. [00:28:37.06]Made his living playing folk music, so he was, you know, he was living on nothing basically over the years. Never really recognized except at the Coffee House, but he was beloved. [00:28:56.02]Well, Katrina comes. Everything gets wiped out and Arlo Guthrie decides he wants to do a benefit concert for New Orleans, and he starts the City of New Orleans Tour. [00:29:13.22]He calls down to New Orleans, he’s looking for a folk musician to open the show and Jack gets picked. Jack gets on tour with Arlo Guthrie,[00:29:31.02] goes up and down the river, plays Jackson Square, does a couple more concerts with him. Of course then the City of New Orleans Tour is over, but Jack has a bit of a name all of a sudden. [00:29:39.22] He said for the first time in his life, he sets up a tour schedule. Before he goes on his first show, he has a heart attack and dies. [00:29:52.18]Other musicians, my gosh, there’s just so many. The ones I love are stories of people come in, much like myself, not sure of your musicianship You think you got something, but you know who knows, you know? [00:30:17.01]And somebody encourages them to get up and play, and they do. And they get a little applause, a little feed back and they think well it’s not as hard as I thought [00:30:30.10]and they start playing routinely. We have a number of musicians who were kind of prodded into playing and after they did it for a while they got more and more comfortable. They realize that they did have a precious gift, shall I say, [00:30:50.06]and they play routinely, they play routinely ’till today. One of them is probably John Paul. I’m sure you interviewed Mark Fernandez, he’s another good example of that right there. [00:31:05.08]So people have found themselves at the Coffeehouse and made music and I guess that’s what Folk music is all about, it’s the music of folks, which is people. [00:31:19.04]Didn’t Armstrong say all music is folk music? Never heard a horse sing! [00:31:28.19] Joshua Young: I read on the website that Katrina did it’s damage to The Neutral Ground and while reading it it didn’t seem like Katrina was a big issue so can you tell me, how did the The Neutral Ground survive Katrina? [00:31:42.03] Phil Melancon: Yeah. I had it them. I’m picking my way through the, I realize the power lines might have been live, I don’t know.[00:31:51.16] I stayed for the storm and I get over there and what had happened was that we did not flood. Right across the street they were putting boats in the water though. [00:32:05.04]Right across the street was flooded, but Daneel Street acted as a dam basically to keep the water from hitting the Coffeehouse. We lost the roof. So all the water from the roof came on through [00:32:18.18]and it obviously soaked everything. So we weren’t flooded officially, but we got water from above. We wanted to reopen like as soon as we could, almost immediately, but they wouldn’t allow us to. [00:32:38.00]We tried to and they stop us and of course there we had no electricity and there was a curfew at the time, of course the place didn’t really smell all that good either.[00:32:50.04] *phones rings* Ah, I think I’m beeping, right now should I turn this off? Excuse me. Yes so it wasn’t too long after that, I think in December [00:33:07.18]we got to open, so we did. Like I said we had damage, we lost a piano and we lost just things, we lost the floor. We had to rip up the floor, it worked out better for us actually. [00:33:22.08]This guy who was just calling me right now? He said, you know what you need? A better back bar. He’s a carpenter and he built that back bar for us, for free. Refused to take anything for it.[00:33:43.08] So people chipped in, people from around the world sent us a few bucks. You know it was really as sweet as can be. We didn’t get anything from the city or anything from the state, [00:33:57.08]but people from the Netherlands and France, they seemed to remember us, which was very nice. [00:34:04.08] Joshua Young: That’s really interesting that you have an international sort of fan base. [00:34:09.13] Phil Melancon: Yeah it is. It’s known, you know, around the world. As a matter of fact, they even came in and a French, I don’t know what channel it was [00:34:18.14]must have been French state television, they even came and picked me up, brought me to the coffeehouse and interviewed me. [00:34:58.01] Joshua Young: I kind of want to start talking about if there’s been any celebrities that come and perform at The Neutral Ground? [00:35:07.14] Phil Melancon: Oh yeah. We go back far enough you get Allen Ginsberg read there, about ’78/’79. [00:35:15.22]You know he was one of the Beat poets and he was at Tulane doing something, doing some lecture series or something and he came and read for our poetry night.[00:35:27.20] Emily Saliers, from the Indigo Girls, started there. Béla Fleck played there a little bit because he was trying to get tips from Pat Flory who still plays there, [00:35:40.22]playing the banjo. Corey Harris is a wonderful Blues player, spent a number of years playing there early on.[00:35:51.02] Lucinda Williams played there several time over the years. In more modern times, Allan Toussaint, but Allan Toussaint just stops in places and plays, but he’s played there. One night I’m working the bar [00:36:10.12]and little girls run up to me and go “Oh my gosh you know who’s here?” That guy over there? Justin Timberlake’s here. I don’t know who Justin Timberlake is, [00:36:22.07]I had no idea. So this guy, tall, lanky kid, comes over and I says what can I get you man? And he says he wanted ice coffee, so I sold him an iced coffee. It was Justin Timberlake,[00:36:32.16] I don’t know who he is and all the little girls are gaga about him. So of course that year is the Superbowl and when the Super Bowl comes on Justin Timberlake’s on the Superbowl! And I thought oh my gosh this guy is really big! [00:36:47.22]I want to see what he does. So I’m watching Justin Timberlake as he’s dancing with Janet Jackson. Now I’m the only man in America[00:36:56.13] who missed Janet Jackson’s breast because I was looking at Justin Timberlake! But anyway, so I’ll never forgive the man for that.[00:37:04.11] Who else? You know, there are a number of people seem to be kind of on the edge of doing something, but you never know what’s going to happen to them. [00:37:22.11]Almost every musician of New Orleans played at the Coffeehouse early on. Like me, so many of them you went there and kind of developed you chops. [00:37:39.01]I go down to Bourbon to work and I’m always seeing these guys play, always. They’re making their living doing it now. [00:37:51.01] Joshua Young: Let’s actually talk about the coffee. Although it isn’t something that you said people come there for because you said it’s a coffeehouse, [00:38:02.05]a lot of people come there for the music and entertainment. Has there been any change in the recipe or has the menu expanded over time. [00:38:12.21] Phil Melancon: Oh yeah. When I first got the Coffeehouse, I don’t think I brought it in, it was only drip coffee then. You got yourself a little container and they gave you it and you out some coffee, they put hot water in it and it dripped and you got a drip coffee.[00:38:31.06] Everyone had their own little coffee canister, you know, coffee pot. Of course as time goes on that gets a little cumbersome, it’s slow.[00:38:39.23] So by the time I got there, we had electric coffee makers for the most part. I must tell you I’d go down to the A&P and buy 8 O’clock coffee and I was happy with that. [00:38:59.04]I must admit I’m not a coffee connoisseur and I would just buy whatever coffee I could find, for the best price I could possibly get ahold of. [00:39:09.10]Now when Michael took over, Michael Calabrese took over, Michael was the youngest captain at Commander’s. He loves food, he loves drinks. So what Michael did, to his credit, he started buying raw beans, [00:39:30.08]special raw beans, he would roast them himself on the spot. So right now the coffee at The Neutral Ground is probably the freshest and best coffee in all of the city[00:39:45.23] because it’s fresh and i’s roasted either that morning or the day before at the earliest. [00:39:55.00] Joshua Young: What’s your favorite thing to order from the menu? [00:39:58.13] Phil Melancon: Well I get coffee all the time. Then eventually I ended up with an Uptown Water, which is Perrier. [00:40:09.13] Joshua Young: That’s a pretty funny name for it. [00:40:10.03] Phil Melancon:They probably got it still on the list up there. [00:40:15.13] Joshua Young: My favorite thing to order is the Italian Sodas. I actually had it when i went there and watched the performance from Gina Forsyth, it was really delicious. [00:40:24.02] Phil Melancon: Oh yeah, Gina’s our patron saint, you know? Gina’s the one, she’s the one. Matter fact let me tell you a quick story,[00:40:29.22] I got so many stories about her. Tell how much she’s beloved. I’m putting together the December calendar right now and I called Gina and said when can you play Gina? [00:40:43.06]And she looked at her schedule and said the only time I can play is the 19th. The 19ths was already packed. So I called this group up that plays at the Coffeehouse and I said [00:40:55.00]the only night Gina can play is the 19th and they said oh well don’t even bother to ask, of course, we will not play. Gina wants to play, she plays. [00:41:07.02]The respect for Gina for making a living how she does, being such a beautiful and thoughtful songwriter and wonderful musician is truly held in high esteem there. [00:41:24.17] Joshua Young: That’s really interesting. I like that there’s a respect among the artist. There’s no egos, that everybody’s really close together and respectful for one’s style of art. [00:41:38.20] Phil Melancon: Well you know what I love is when we do the open mic and I get up there, or somebody gets up there and plays and are terrible, everybody applauds. [00:41:46.13]Nobody boos, nobody laughs, you applaud. Alright you only have to wait for three songs and they’re gone. But everybody encourages the person up there [00:42:01.06]and no one ever tells you to do that but people do, all the time. It’s a beautiful thing. You just pray you don’t go on after somebody who’s really good. [00:42:12.21] Joshua Young: We sorta talked about this before the interview, but with the flourishing of the internet and review sites like Yelp. I read some of the reviews and not all of them were positive, [00:42:24.00]do you ever take into consideration negative reviews about the Coffeehouse and try to improve them? [00:42:31.07] Phil Melancon: I don’t necessarily go online to dig for that, but of course people do mention things all the time. Of course you try to as a reasonable restaurateur, [00:42:47.11]you try to make the place comfortable and accepting of everyone who comes in. Some things you can do and some things you might just be lazy about not doing. [00:42:59.04]We certainly do, we certainly listen to people and we just do. [00:43:08.19] Joshua Young: If you could describe the Coffeehouse’s atmosphere with any word, what word would it be and why? [00:43:14.17] Phil Melancon: Well the one you hear all the time is oh it’s like my den. Or it’s a home, you know? It’s a very welcoming place/ It’s a place where you go in and stretch out on the couch[00:43:27.03] and you listen to music and nobody’s bothering you and nobody had to sit there. You can just lay down and you might fall asleep listening to the music or something like that.[00:43:36.16] I like to think it’s very welcoming and it’s just a very friendly place. [00:43:46.04] Joshua Young: What do you see for the Coffee House’s future? Any changes and do you any plans of passing, well you said you’ve already passed the Coffeehouse off sort of, correct? [00:43:58.18] Phil Melancon: Well I own a piece of it right now, a small piece. The two fellas who we agreed would take it, David Rigamore and Michael Calabrese are two of the finest young fellows I’ve ever known,[00:44:16.19] wonderful young men, but you know what, they’ve gotten older. They’ve both gotten married since then, Michael just had a baby. [00:44:27.14]His job will eventually take him somewhere else. So before too long we’re going to have to do something different. [00:44:42.04]We haven’t set it up yet, but we’re going to have a meeting to decide what we’re going to do. I think we all agree when they took over the Coffeehouse, just like when I took over the Coffeehouse, we wanted to keep the Coffeehouse basically how it was. [00:44:58.13]We don’t want to serve booze, we want it to be a coffeehouse. We don’t want to put video machines in there. We want to make it pretty much what it is.[00:45:11.12] So I’m sure as we look forward, we will think of trying to preserve it as it is, but that being said, there will be changes. If you have $25 in your pocket [00:45:27.18]you can become a full fledged member and vice president of the brown couch just to your left when you walk in. [00:45:38.17] Joshua Young: Could you tell me the story about all the items that adorn the walls of The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse? You see an assortment of things on that beam when you walk in on the left hand side, there’s faces and hands and other things. [00:46:01.04] Phil Melancon: What that is uhm.. There’s a woman, an artist, in town who took caste, plaster caste, of people who were working at the Coffeehouse [00:46:21.08]and playing at the Coffeehouse about 20 years ago. So those of us who were around at the time,[00:46:28.16] we either have hands or some of us may have our face on those castes. When I first got the Coffeehouse, the first person I called up was Les Jambol, cause Les was a manager of the Coffeehouse for years,[00:46:54.09] a musician also. I asked him, I told him neither one of us could believe it, of course, but there it was. He made certain suggestions about things and none of them which made sense perfectly because he’s of The Neutral Ground, [00:47:13.18]he’s of the Coffeehouse. Les was working on woman’s house, as a carpenter, the woman who made the castes? And he fell off and died. A week after I got the Coffeehouse [00:47:31.22]so I took those castes and I assembled them on that wall above the beam and what that is is they’re assembled in a major musical scale. Whole note, whole note, half note, whole half, whole note, whole note, half note, whole note, whole note. [00:48:04.21]So there in a musical scale, the C scale to be exact and their pictures or their images or their impressions are people who work there. [00:48:18.03]Some of them I remember their faces, I can’t imagine any particular hand, except mind that’s up there, but that’s who they are. [00:48:32.22] Joshua Young: That’s interesting. Every other item has it’s own story? [00:48:37.15] Phil Melancon: A lot of them do, a lot of them do. Gosh I wouldn’t even know where to start with them. [00:48:51.23]I got a photograph up there of Nat Cole and Fats Domino. It was taken in the early ’50s. Here are these two guys, Fats Domino coming on the scene, looking like a little bowling ball he’s a little fat boy, with a bowling shirt on. [00:49:11.10]And he’s standing next to Nat King Cole who was about as dapper as I don’t know, the dapperest human being in the world is today. And Nat Cole is standing there with his pipe and Fat’s Domino is looking up at him.[00:49:27.12] The photograph was taken by the Louisiana Weekly photographer. These men who were performing in New Orleans could not stay in the hotels in New Orleans. [00:49:40.01]Could not stay at the Blue Room, where Nat Cole was performing, So they took the picture down on Melopmene, at the Maison, which was a little drive-by sleazy hotel, where they are and there you see those two guys [00:49:59.13]and you saw that stairwell back at that old hotel back there. Someone gave us that as a gift. It says beautiful little things on it. [00:50:17.14]The Chairs at the bar are all from the original Red Lion, the bar that was there before. The long tables are all from the Original Bud’s Broiler. [00:50:34.00]The coffee table right in front of the stage which is a golf t-marker? There were four golf courses at City-Park. They closed one of them, the south course, the beautiful little south course. [00:50:55.04]The day they closed it, I played golf that day there, that’s where everybody in New Orleans learned to play golf and they closed it to make a park or make the Voodoo or whatever they made.[00:51:06.14] So that night we went over there, several guys from the Coffeehouse, and we pulled that big tee marker out of the ground for the 18th hole and that’s it. A lot of things are just precious to us. [00:51:32.00] Joshua Young: That’s really interesting. [00:51:32.21] Phil Melancon: I know, it’s beautiful, it’s a beautiful thing. I even had the head of City Park over there to check it out. He said I’m glad you got it, it would have been lost. [00:51:42.23] Joshua Young: That’s cool [00:51:43.14] Phil Melancon: I love it. [00:51:44.04] Joshua Young: Well thank you, Mr. Melancon. [00:51:48.19] Phil Melancon: Thank you Josh, it was fine. [00:51:50.11] Joshua Young: I really appreciate your time, you coming out here and giving us all this great information and contributing to Oral History. You’ve been a big help. [00:52:00.02] Phil Melancon: Thank you and thank you for working on this project and putting it together and keeping things alive, the memories alive. It’s a beautiful thing and you’re right in the middle of it man. It’s a beautiful thing, thank you.