Robert Mercurio: Crystal Bay’s Crown Room is the Tipitina’s of Lake Tahoe

Tahoe Onstage
Galactic’s gumbo of funk fills the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room on March 25, 2018
Tahoe Onstage photo by Michael Symth

Uptown New Orleans has Tipitina’s. The Sierra has the Crown Room in Crystal Bay Casino at Lake Tahoe.

The venues contrast, with Tipitina’s having a horseshoe-shaped balcony and the Crown Room with its a single-story, wide floor a bar in the back. But the sizes are similar – Tipitina’s holds 800, the Crown Room 700. And many of the same bands perform in both venues. Crystal Bay has featured dozens of bands from the Crescent City, including The Neville Brothers, Dr. John and Galactic, whose members recently purchased Tipitina’s.

Galactic bass player Robert Mercurio said the concertgoers are similar, too.

“It’s just kind of a throwdown party atmosphere and we look forward to Crystal Bay every tour because it’s such a fun situation,” said Mercurio, whose band returns to the Crown Room on Sunday, March 24. “You play a show and then you go out into a small casino that’s just filled with everybody having a great time.

“It’s similar to what might happen in New Orleans. A lot of cities, you play a show and everyone disperses. In New Orleans, it’s, ‘Where are we going next? What’s the next party? What’s the next bar?’ Crystal Bay kind of has that feeling of a never-ending party.”

The Crown Room memorializes its original sound engineer with Blake’s Tree, located on the showroom floor at the former spot for the soundboard. Blake Beeman died of stomach cancer in 2014. The room was first used as a bowling alley, then it was a restaurant.

When Elise and Roger Norman purchased the Crystal Bay Casino in 2003, they hired Beeman to run the music in the former Stage Lounge, which was renamed the Red Room. Soon there was a need for a larger venue, and Beeman helped transform the restaurant to a concert hall. The last of the dining booths were removed in 2018 to make way for a new exit and soundboard area.

About one-third of the crowd can watch a show from Tipitina’s balcony.
Photo provided by Robert Mercurio

Tipitina’s was created for Professor “Fess” Longhair, who was born Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd. A bust of Professor Longhair greets concertgoers at the entrance and there is a giant mural of the famed piano player behind the stage.

“He did not have any big hits compared to Fats Domino, but he had a unique style and was hugely influential over every New Orleans piano player who came after him, including Dr. John and Allen Toussaint,” Mercurio said.

Professor Longhair made numerous 78s for Atlantic Records in the late 1940s and early ‘50s but his career faded. He was rediscovered in 1970 at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. His popularity soared, but he chose to remain in New Orleans – and the Deep South – and not tour.

“It was not a healthy environment, especially for African-American artists,” Mercurio said. “That’s one of the reasons that Tipitina’s was opened by the original 14 owners. They wanted Professor Longhair to have a place to play where people respected him, the owners respected him. I believe there was an incident at a club where he was playing called Jed’s, which was Uptown and people had witnessed him not being treated fairly, so they wanted to give him and environment where he would be respected.”

The 501 Club, named for the address 501 Napoleon Avenue, was changed to Tipitina’s in 1977. Sadly, Professor Longhair’s residency lasted just three years. He died in 1980 at the age of 61, the day before the release of his debut album on Alligator Records.

“Many people consider Professor Longhair’s “Crawfish Fiesta” to be the best album Alligator has ever released,” Bruce Iglauer wrote in “Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story,” published on Oct. 29.

Related stories:
— Galactic band members purchase Tipitina’s
Remembering Crystal Bay sound engineer Blake Beeman
Book review: “Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records story”

  • New Orleans bands that have played at Crystal Bay Casino
    The Neville Brothers
    Big Sam’s Funky Nation
    The Soul Rebels
    Stooges Brass Band
    Cowboy Mouth
    The Funky Meters
    Tab Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands Allstars
    Anders Osborne
    Carsie Blanton
    The Revivalists
    Jon Cleary
    Dragon Smoke
    Rebirth Brass Band
    The Nth Power
    Flow Tribe
    Eric Lindell

    Tahoe Onstage
    Blake’s Tree shines in the Crown Room during The Motet show on Saturday, March 1.
    Robert Mercurio with his side project Dragon Smoke in 2017.
    Original band mates
    New Orleans meets Crystal Bay: Walter Ramsey of the Stooges Brass Band, left, and Big Sam Williams and Drew Baham of Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
    Art “Papa Funk” Neville and the Funky Meters at the Crystal Bay Casino on June 17, 2016.
    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
    Ivan Neville at the keys for Dragon Smoke.
    Tim Parsons
    Eric Lindell in the Crystal Bay Casino in 2013.
    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
    The Soul Rebels in 2016: Julian Gosin, Derrick Moss and Marcus “Red” Hubard.
    Clare Foster / Tahoe Onstage
    Eric McFadden, Carl Dufrene and Anders Osborne serve a gumbo of soulful rock at the Crystal Bay Casino on April 13, 2017.
    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
    Cyril Neville has played at Lake Tahoe with his many bands.
    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

    Larry Sabo / Tahoe Onstage
    Nikki Glaspie fuels the Nth Power in 2017.

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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