We all know that Chicago is a home of a blues that came up the
Mississippi and lodged in the Windy City which gave it a shot of adrenaline
and an edge. That blues is from the South of course, from places like
Mississippi itself and also Alabama and Georgia.
The Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley) is home to another
blues tradition. People from Texas and Louisiana came there after
World War II. The soldiers who disembarked from the Pacific Theater
liked what they saw in the Northern California hills and decided to
bring their families to the Golden State. They had a choice in the
matter at least. Earlier, before the War the dust storms of the thirties
blew many people right out of Oklahoma and Texas all the way to California.
The blues from Texas and Louisiana was perhaps more varied than
that of the Deep South. In Texas there was the accordion music of
the German and Polish immigrants, the "country" music and
sacred songs of the Scotch-Irish people and the indigenous Mexican
style of playing. These national strains were all melded together
within the Texas blues tradition. In Louisiana of course there was
also a French Cajun feel over an underlying swamp beat that was often
sly and tricky
All of these elements came west to the Bay Area at the end of
World War II. The pace of these western blues was purposefully slower
than the Chicago tempo. The "drag" was a part of the Texas
These blues people who came west migrated for the same reason
that the Okies did. Times were tough in the Dust Bowl. Parlous, perilous
times for Woody Guthrie’s family, yes, but imagine how much tougher
for the African-American family during the thirties. California was
touted as the promised Land in flyers and leaflets distributed throughout
the Texas-Oklahoma region during the Depression and people were ready
to believe them. Going anywhere was better than choking on red dust
at home, but California seemed to hold a special promise.
When the "other" Okies arrived in the Bay Area they
naturally gravitated towards Oakland where there were jobs in the
various defense industries. The Southern Pacific Railroad tracks ran
right into West Oakland mere yards away from the doors of some of
the soul food restaurants, places of worship and blues clubs today.
It is obvious that quite often people merely set up housekeeping right
where they got off the train.
The juke joints, clubs and roadhouses in this part of Northern
California are often little larger than someone’s living room but
some remarkable women sang the real blues in them. Your Room, the
Cozy Den, the Deluxe Inn Café, Eli’s Mile High Club, the Three
Sisters and the Last Deposit. These venues in West Oakland and the
Shalimar Club and Larry Blake’s in Berkeley saw a real blues tradition
emerge in the fifty years after WWII.
Maxine Howard played these rooms. She was a little scorpion who
could sting you so you would know it. Slinky Queen Maxine put a lot
of style and verve into here blues and she had a taut and muscular
delivery with a lot of sass. She Made all the scenes including some
of the ad hoc juice joints that would spring up now and then to finance
someone’s rent woes or their latest bout with Uncle Sam.
Bobbi Luster often played the Deluxe Inn Cafe. She was
the waitress there and she has a big voice which she often uses even
now in the Holy Ghost Deliverance Church where she is a minister.
She has that long Ethiopian look and looks a bit like Muddy Waters.
She also has his slow and relaxed way with a song, but she can get
down when the occasion calls for it.
Zakiya Hooker knows many of these women and has worked with Sister
Monica, Brazen Hussy ("Huzzy"), E.C. Scott, Taylor P. Collins,
Lady Bianca and really, just about everyone in the East Bay blues
world. Zakiya the daughter of John Lee Hooker can sing a mean blues
herself even though her tastes are generally more eclectic. She injects
her material with a lively, boisterous sense of humor and she loves
her Oakland sisters.
Michelle Vignes a French photographer who lives in San Francisco
has a book out (Bay Area Blues) with many gritty and real images of
this West Oakland scene. The shots are rhythmic in themselves and
they make you want to jump in the car, drive to Oakland and get out
on the dance floor of Eli’s Mile High Club or indeed join the band
on the stand. The scene is very all embracing and unselfconscious.
Racially the bands are almost always mixed. The only requirement is
that you know how to play.
Beverly Stovall can and does play the Hammond B3 with total confidence
and aplomb. Her hands just land on the keys with no hint of effort.
They are guided by a sure instinct and real soul. Ms. Stovall is a
sweet, gentle musician with a deep respect for tradition combined
with a no nonsense attitude. Eli’s Mile High Club where she plays
a lot is the most professional of the blues clubs in West Oakland.
During the 80s Eli’s advertised on KJAZ the Bay Area’s premier jazz
and blues radio station at that time.
On the other side of the Bay in Marin County there are two blues
singers who became known elsewhere. Maria Muldaur came out of the
folk milieu at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Angela Strehli
who now lives in Navoto, California, is mainly known for being on
of three Austin singers (the others are Marcia Ball and Lou Ann Barton).
Maria began with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and she had a soft,
tinkly vibratoless voice which changed radically as she matured and
entered her Midnight At The Oasis period. Today she is a blues belter…the
real thing with a big wide open Hot Mama style. Quite a change from
her young self.
Angela Strehli has more or less retained her Texas persona which
was honed at Antone’s in the company of Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
She is leading a quiet life these days and doesn’t get out much but
she can still send chills up your spine when she wants to.
One would certainly be remiss without mentioning the then and
now reigning Bay Area Queen, Blues Diva Sugar Pie DeSanto. Recently
cited by Natalie Merchant as a major influence, the energetic Ms.
DeSanto continues a prolific career, dazzling audiences everywhere.
Sugar Pie grew up with friend and singing cohort Etta James in the
rough and tumble projects of Hunters Point, San Francisco. Sugar Pie
scored locally, and eventually nationally with recordings such as
"Hello San Francisco", "Slip-in-Mules", (an answer
to Tommy Tucker’s "Hi-Heel Sneakers"), and "In The
Basement", a duet with Etta James (Etta, by the way, way responsible
for bringing Sugar Pie to Chess Records). Sexy, playful and a commanding
blues singer, Sugar Pie DeSanto still continues to define the tradition
of women blues singers in the Bay Area.
Yes, the Bay Area Blues scene is very alive and evolving as we
watch and listen. It is a pleasure to see these strong women sing
their lives in such a dynamic and colorful way. Etta James continues
to astonish and all the women around here have a go at her Shaky Ground
at least once in their careers. Well, hey, I think I will go hear
her now. Come out West when you can and give me a call. We’ll go check
out some of these fine people and learn a thing or two.