“For every successful local group that ever packed the Fillmore, Avalon, or Winterland Ballrooms, there were dozens of overlooked, and much better, groups that also hailed from the City by the Bay.” Explore the primitive, rocking rhythm and blues of the fifties, the garage and psych of the sixties, and the seventies punk and new wave scenes with this definitive history of an unsung era. Spanning rock & roll’s first three decades, these were the bands left out of the history books. This second installment in the Scene History Series is essential reading for music history nuts and record collectors, and mandatory for all Bay Area devotees.
About the Author
Cory M Linstrum is a Bay Area-based musician, writer and music historian. His written work has appeared in Ugly Things, Human Being Lawnmower, as liner notes on record jackets and in his self-published fanzine Savage Damage Digest. Among other projects he is currently at work on an in depth history of the Berkeley 1970's punk and new wave scenes. He lives in Alameda, CA with his wife and two children.
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East Bay Rockers
"The San Francisco Rock scene: blah, blah, blah." What more could possibly be said that hasn't already been written in hundreds of books, on the back of a thousand record jackets, and over the pages of a billion magazines? Sure, there has been (and still are) some great bands from this city. Many of them are legendary. But in my opinion, some have gained this status while actually sounding pretty lousy. I won't mention names, but for every successful local group that ever packed the Fillmore, Avalon or Winterland Ballrooms, there were dozens of overlooked, and much better, groups that also hailed from the City by the Bay.
These neglected bands are the ones guaranteed to pique my interest. They are the ones I choose to write about. In fact this article right here is dedicated to an entirely overlooked region that's still a hotbed of rock 'n' roll action: The East Bay. Oakland and Berkeley are definitely the most well-known cities of this area. But there are dozens of towns and cities sprinkled throughout the fifty miles between Fremont — to the South on interstate 880, Vallejo — to the North along interstate 80, and highway 24 west — to Emeryville and east — to Walnut Creek and Concord.
Over the last fifty-or-so years there have been countless numbers of bands in these towns. Everyone already knows the East Bay classics: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen (by way of Ann Arbor, Michigan), and Country Joe & The Fish; these groups are well known and loved across the globe. They, among countless other coveted groups as well as the unknowns, defined this era with their bold sound. I won't even attempt to discuss them all, but rather I will stick to the few I feel were the cream of the crop.
As far as the Oakland blues scene goes, the 7 Street days have been well documented in multiple places. So if you're interested in Sugar Pie DeSanto, Johnny Otis, Jimmy McCracklin, or Lowell Fulson — there's a number of well-informed sources where you can gather that type of knowledge. The same goes for the Berkeley Folk scene. There's plenty of well-informed resources made available documenting the intimate concerts that took place on San Pablo Avenue at the Cabale Creamery and the Steppenwolf Bar, or the Jabberwock Coffee House on Telegraph Avenue (where innovative finger-style guitarist, John Fahey, Vanguard Records' Notes From The Underground, and often forgotten Elektra Records recording artist, Pat Kilroy all got their start). If you're looking for Oakland soul and funk, I'm sure there are plenty of back issues of Wax Poetics worth digging through. And if you're not already familiar with Rodger Collins' "Foxy Girls In Oakland" single (and its far superior B-Side, "All Toe Down"), released on Fantasy's Galaxy subsidiary in 1970, you've got some record shopping to do. Additionally, as much as I enjoy some of it, I won't be discussing any East Bay punk rock or heavy metal bands — formed after the year 1980. The details regarding the records and groups making up these two scenes are well known and heavily circulated worldwide.
I was born in Berkeley in 1971, to hippie parents (with a large record collection) also born and raised in the East Bay. My first concert was, embarrassingly enough, Oakland's Tower Of Power. However, I spent my teenage years in San Diego during the eighties. Like most thirteen year olds of my generation, I graduated from entry-level rockers like Kiss, Van Halen, and AC/DC into those more "sophisticated" artists like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. Still, I was always drawn to those strange sounding (and looking) records filed away in my folks' record collections, especially the Bay Area Sixties groups. These were by bands with strange portrayals of "Grapes," "Airplanes," "Big Brothers," and, of course, "Dead" in their titles. I would often stare at the Psychedelic images on their jackets for hours. Upon listening I found that not all of them were to my liking — but were certainly visually stimulating. Still, Southern California is where I developed most of my own early musical tastes, running that natural progression through acid rock, heavy metal, punk, and garage rock. But I still vividly remember visiting Euclid Street on Berkeley's North Side as a kid, and seeing rocker freaks hanging out in front of Rather Ripped Records. It left a strong impression. I can also recall seeing the dozens of Dead-Heads on every corner of Telegraph Avenue (a tragic, but humorous, memory that never seems to fade). I was back living in the East Bay soon after graduating High School. It was after returning to this area when I started to obsess about locally produced seventies punk records. From there it snowballed into sixties records and more recently, records from the fifties.
The black rhythm & blues scene thrived throughout the second half of this decade. Johnny Fuller cut a big ol' stack of killer, locally written and produced, sides in his own "black rockabilly" style. Some were released with Bob Geddin's Veltone and Irma imprints, while others appeared on Los Angeles' Specialty, Hollywood, Imperial, and Alladin labels. He also recorded for Chicago's Chess Records and its subsidiary Checker. But Fuller was simply known as a "West Coast Bluesman," and can't be specifically pinned to the East Bay scene. However, I strongly feel he's worth mentioning on the strength of his recordings and his popularity in the East Bay. Even if his association with this area was only transient. Some cuts worth hearing by Fuller are, but not limited to, "Sister Jenny," "Roughest Place in Town" (both 1956), "First Stage of The Blues" (1957), "All Night Long," and "Haunted House" (both 1958).
There were a few other cats that passed through this region to leave their mark before heading elsewhere to find fame. It's rarely been mentioned that The Coasters' guitarist, Adolph Jacobs, was at one-time an Oakland resident. Jacobs immigrated to Oakland from the South with his family as a young man. While living here he backed up several local Doo-Wop groups before joining up with The Coasters down in LA. Despite never leaving California for New York City (as the rest of the band members had), Jacobs was with the group from 1956 thru '59. His playing is featured on the hits "Yakety Yak" and "Poison Ivy." The same year he left The Coasters he issued a killer R&B single as a solo artist, "Move Around Easy" b/w the instrumental "Walkin' And Whistlin'," on Class Records out of Los Angeles. Continuing to base himself in Southern California, his career rolled on throughout the next few decades.
Another Oaklander who left for Hollywood was the very influential Larry Williams, of "Boney Maroni" and "Long Short Fanny" fame. As a teenager, Williams was singer and pianist with Oakland R&B combo, the Lemon Drops. This group unsuccessfully auditioned for Specialty Records. However, the label was interested in taking Williams on as a solo artist. After moving to LA (via New Orleans) and releasing three amazing seminal singles, "Just Because," "Short Fat Fanny," and "Boney Maroni" in '57, and the killer double whammy, "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" b/w "Slow Down" in '58, his stake in music history was rightfully claimed. The ups and downs of Williams' short life and career proved to be interesting events themselves and have been documented in numerous places. It's a fascinating story which includes a narcotic fueled attempt on Little Richard's life, multiple drug convictions, his collaboration with Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and working as a pimp in between musical ventures. He remains one of the most colorful, as well as talented, figures of his scene.
Perhaps one of the most representative records of the 1950's East Bay would be the fantastic Johnny Heartsman instrumental "Johnny's House Party" (Pts 1 & 2). This disc is so loose and greasy it almost slips out of your hands when flipping it over! His lower- register lead guitar tone is about sexy as a heaping plate of chitlens! This record is a dance floor killer guaranteed to take any party up a notch. It was released on Berkeley's Music City Records — an R&B and doo-wop record label, recording studio, and retail shop located at 1866 Alcatraz Avenue, just a stone's throw from the Oakland border. Heartsman was on salary as leader of Music City's house band, playing guitar, piano and bass on many of the company's sessions. He remained active in the blues scene, and as an in-demand session player, one and off until his death in 1996.
Another one of Music City's regional classics was "W-P-L-J" by the 4 Deuces — which wasn't even a local band. Released in 1955, the song title is an acronym for White Port & Lemon Juice. The Four Deuces was a superb doo-wop group hailing from the Salinas/Monterey area, but were signed to and recorded with Music City. This song (which takes the liberty of structurally borrowing from Midnighters' R&B hit "Work With Me, Annie") quickly caught on in our area becoming a local "party-hit" that's still remembered today. To make things confusing, the flipside of "W-P-L-J" is by another artist; it being the moody "Here Lies My Love," by Mr. Undertaker — a pseudonym for LA based R&B legend Roy Agee (this B side is a great song in its own right). "W-P-L-J" received some heavy rotation on Bay Area radio and the band did its fair share of live work in Northern California. Just before disbanding, The Four Deuces recorded one more (two sided) record with Music City, "The Goose Is Gone" b/w "Down It Went". Going at it solo, lead Deuce, Luther McDaniels (aka Lord Luther) cut some more sides with Music City, Frantic, and Imperial in a career that brought him up into the late sixties.
Continuing with the Music City catalog, another record in this style is by Berkeley's the Crescendos, a female fronted vocal group. Led by Wanda Burt, The Crescendos released "My Heart's Desire" b/w "Take My Heart" in 1957 (and again in 1960). Both sides of this disc are excellent. The Crescendos released two other singles with the company before Burt took off for a solo career. Other East Bay vocal acts that recorded and released discs with the Music City label were Pittsburg's the Midnights, Richmond's the Klixs and Oakland's 5 Campbells. I should mention the reissue compilations that hipped me to these great songs: Music City Records — California Doo Wop Sound From The Bay Area (1954-61) on Sweden's Earth Angel label was issued on vinyl in 1988. Its lengthy liner notes by historian Jim Dawson are as informative as was possible at the time (as M.C.'s Ray Dobard shunned all interest in his former label and declined any interview requests). There's also a CD set, Music City Volumes 1 & 2 on Italy's Titanic Records. And then there's the Music City mother lode, The Music City Story, released on Ace Records out of the UK. This three CD set was attentively produced by Alec Palao after Dobard's death, once family members provided full access to Music City's vaults and archives. Simultaneously Ace and Palao released Going Wild! Music City Rock 'N' Roll, a collection of rockabilly and overall more rocking material found in Dobbard's vault, alongside the many reels of R&B, doo-wop, blues, soul, and gospel. As expected these sets come with page after page of Palao's meticulously written and researched liner notes — even elaborating on Dobbard's strange business practices (such as some singles featuring B-sides by different artists).
Another great doo-wop group that emerged from the Oakland/Alameda area was Morry Williams & the Kids. This combo released a small handful of stellar sides. "Are You My Girlfriend" b/w "Louise" is a tight little single. The record came out on the Tee Vee imprint (an early incarnation of the soon-to-be infamous budget label, and is now a collector's item. "Time Runs Out" b/w "Long Foot Jean," on the Oakland based Luck label was much easier to track down. Both are prime slabs of great West Coast doo-wop.
Despite country & western being a top draw in the area throughout the 1930s and 40s, and Elvis Presley having played his second-ever California concert in Oakland (June 1956), there wasn't a very big white rock 'n' roll, or rockabilly, scene here the 1950s. Some of the few exceptions were near the tail end of the decade:
Out of the Hayward area was Jimmy Cicero. A pianist and vocalist, Cicero cut a killer 45 of teenage balladry in a white doo-wop style, on the Legend label in 1959. Recorded at a forgotten Oakland studio, "Sherry" is an awesome pre-pubescent tearjerker while "I Got My Eyes On You Baby" kicks it out with a honking sax in a Rocking style. Cicero actually recorded some material at Music City: "Devils Child" is included on Going Wild! Music City Rock 'N' Roll.
Actually released in 1960, Oakland's Chris Clay and his Virginia Buckle Busters issued a single on Oakland's Veltone Records (mostly a Blues label and Music City's main competitor). "Shot Rod Lincoln," and its flip, "Her Age Was Red (Her Hair Was 19)," are bonafide rockabilly rarities. The A-side, a parody of "Hot Rod Lincoln," has appeared on quite a few reissue collections. Chris Clay was really Chris Borden, a local jock on Oakland's KEWB radio.
Finally, a mystery to me is "Paradiddle," an instrumental by the Centurys. This 45 also came out on Veltone and rocks like no-other. It, and its flip "Strollin' Time," are stomping, fun, sleazy strip club-style grinders. This single is also dated 1960, but if the Centurys were indeed a working band — they must have been active during the late 1950s.
Of course there are other records and other bands from this area. However, time and money hasn't allowed me to listen to, locate copies, research and write about them. My apologies regarding any artists or bands I've neglected to mention. Time has long since passed when a person might find these records at local flea markets or junk shops, but I've found some of these up on eBay and other online sources. Definitely try your favorite record collector outlets.
The musical environment of the East Bay during the sixties was a different ball game. As one might expect, some of the acts from the Fifties were still active.
Johnny Cicero had opened a nightclub over in Hayward, where his band, Johnny Cicero & The Playboys, were the headlining act. They could often be found rocking the house with their R&B repertoire a few nights a week. Cicero released just one more single, "Blue White Diamond" b/w "Susie Q," on Penthouse Records in 1961.
Tommy & The Hustlers were thrilling audiences throughout this region from about 1962 until '65. The band only released one single on Fantasy in '63: an instrumental track, "Diggin' Out," b/w the blue-eyed soul sizzler, "The Right Size." The Hustlers were just one of many "dance" bands from the East Bay. It was common to attend a dance, usually held at a local Veterans, or Knights Of Columbus, hall, and be entertained by Tom Thumb & The Hitchhikers, The Nightcaps, Stanley & The Four Fendermen, or the previously mentioned Tommy & The Hustlers, among many others. In this pre-British Invasion era, these groups specialized in a blend of American, Buddy Holly type rock, rhythm & blues, instrumentals, and Kingsmen/Wailers/Raiders Frat rock material (anything to keep folks dancing).
Oakland surely wasn't exempt from the surf rock craze that took place during the early Sixties. The Offbeats took care of this category. Between July 1963 and June 1964, "Mister Machine" b/w "Landslide," "Grind" b/w "Some Are Lonely," and "Surfin' Elephant" b/w "Pipe City" were all issued on Merritt records. This was one of many hometown independent record labels existing in the mid-Sixties. It was obviously named after the lake in Oakland. Merritt was even rumored to have the young, locally born, Ben Fong Torres scouting for it (quite a few years before his stint with Rolling Stone magazine). "Surfin' Elephant" and "Pipe City" were comped on The Surf Creature Volume 3 LP, on Romulan, but the rest of The Offbeats recordings remain rare and mostly unheard. Eventually, The Beau Brummells (across the bay in SF) poached the band's bass player, Ron Meagher. After a lineup change, The Offbeats evolved into The Shillings.
By the time 1965 finally rolled around the British Invasion was in full swing and hundreds of local teens were starting bands. The East Bay music scene became rapidly invaded by raw, teenage combos (aka garage rock bands). Some having just learned the simplest of guitar chords, usually inspired by the Beach Boys, the Kingsmen, the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, or the Kinks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rock & Roll of San Francisco's East Bay, 1950-1980"
Copyright © 2015 Cory M Linstrum.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
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