MotGC renovatesMusic Hall of Fame with fresh tech
Anyone following the “Blues Trail” will inevitably stop in Port Arthur, if only to visit Janis Joplin’s birthplace. However, Southeast Texas has deep roots in American music and the Museum of the Gulf Coast is the place to take a deep dive into the area’s famous — and not-so famous — musicians.
The museum will re-dedicate its Music Hall of Fame, Oct. 29, after a major renovation. The Hall of Fame has inducted more than 80 people since opening in 1994, and its influence has spread both nationally and internationally, from J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson to Clifton Chenier, from Edgar and Johnny Winter to recent inductees Larry Graham and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
As part of the renovation, the museum has installed several 55-inch touchscreens where visitors can access information. Instead of being limited to a few cards on the wall of the display, visitors can spend hours reading information about the artists’ careers, museum director Tom Neal said.
“We’ve got five of these screens rocking and rolling now,” he said.
As well as biographical information, Neal said visitors can also access the most important thing — the music.
“What’s so cool about this, we had a guy one time come in right when we were putting this in,” Neal said. “(The guy) says, ‘I’ve been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the country (Hall of Fame); is that thing playing music?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ He said, ‘Not a one of those things played music.’ I said, ‘Then what’s the point?’”
Neal said the entry on Charles Brown, the blues pianist and singer who played with Bonnie Raitt and is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, has more than 10 hours of performance video.
The Blues Trail starts in Corpus Christi and goes up the Texas coast, through Louisiana, and up to Memphis and Chicago, Neal said. The museum gets visitors from eight to 20 countries every month, and recently recorded its 350,000th visitor.
“We actually have people that are either coming from that direction, or they’ll come from the West Coast and starting the Blue Trail, so they’ll start with us because of knowing about some of the people (here),” Neal said.
The renovation was made possible by a $32,000 donation by Ron and Susan Arceneaux. As well as the new technology, Neal said the hall was repainted and new lighting was installed.
“We needed more space because this is ever growing,” he said. “A critical part of this is looking at the way we’ve expanded the messaging. I wanted something that was really entertaining for someone.”
The exhibition allows visitors to discover lesser-known stories behind songs we all know. For example, Bill Haley and the Comets had a huge hit with “See You Later Alligator,” but how many know that it was written by Bobby Charles from Abbeville, Louisiana? Legend has it that Charles was playing at a roadhouse in Cameron and as he left, he shouted, “See you later, alligator, to which a woman replied, “In a while, crocodile.” He went home and wrote the song in an hour, Neal said.
Charles tried to sell the song to Fats Domino in New Orleans. Domino liked the song but wouldn’t sing it because he didn’t like alligators, but invited Charles to visit him in New Orleans. Charles said he didn’t have a car and would have to walk there. Subsequently, Domino had a hit with Charles’ song, “Walking to New Orleans.”
Of course, the museum doesn’t shortchange Port Arthur’s most famous musician. As well as other memorabilia, the museum has a replica of the singer’s psychedelic-painted Porsche 356C (the original sold at auction for $1.76 million in 2015).
One fascinating piece of memorabilia is a ‘Vest Frottoir” that belonged to King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier’s brother, Cleveland. The instrument is a metal washboard or scrub board that sits on the shoulders, rather than the traditional washboard that hangs around the neck. Neal said the Chenier brothers worked at a refinery and would play during their lunch breaks. After a while, they became so popular, they quit to play music full time.
“Clifton got tired of seeing his brother over there with a rope around his neck,” Neal said. “They drew (the design) in the dirt and had a machinist make it up.”
Neal said the vest frottoir is credited with being the only instrument that is wholly from North America.
While the Music Hall of Fame can be toured in an hour or so, Neal said he encourages people to get a membership because they are going to want to make multiple visits to be able to take a deep dive on the artists’ virtual pages.
“The cool part about this is, you don’t think you’re going to get invested because what happens is, people don’t remember the name of the artist, they don’t remember the name of the song, then the song comes on and it’s, ‘Oh, that guy!’” Neal said.
While popular performers such as George Jones, Percy Sledge, Marcia Ball and Barbara Lynn are well represented, it is the lesser-known names that provide fascinating insights and anecdotes to keep us wanting more and, Neal hopes, keeps us coming back.
The Museum of the Gulf Coast is located at 700 Procter St. in Port Arthur. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is $8.
For more, visit www.museumofthegulfcoast.org.
This story first ran in the Oct. 8, 2021, Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise