Bay Area Blues Women

We all know that Chicago is a home of a certain type of blues that came up the Mississippi and lodged in the Windy City. It gave Chicago a shot of adrenaline and an edge. That blues is from the deep South of course, from places like Mississippi itself and also Alabama and Georgia. However, the there are many types of blues and the Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley) is home to another blues tradition – delivered to California from Texas and Louisiana.

Natives of these states, many of them holding on to their musical heritage, came here 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. They were perilous times for Woody Guthrie’s family, 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 many of these “immigrants” 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 were often just a little larger than someone’s living room but some remarkable women sang the real blues in them. They included 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 her 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 Café. 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 this 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, Ms.Taylor P. Collins, Lady Bianca and 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.

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. She often played at Eli’s Mile High Club which shut its doors in 2008. Eli’s may have been the most professional blues club in West Oakland.

Michelle Vignes a French photographer who lives in San Francisco has a book out entitled Bay Area Blues with many gritty 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 was very embracing. Racially the bands were almost always mixed. The only requirement was that you know how to play.

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. Angela Strehli, along with Lou Ann Barton and Marcia Ball, is mainly known for being one of three famous Austin based female singers. Strehli knows lives in Novato, CA.

Maria began with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and she had a soft, tinkly vibrato less 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 the style of her youth.

Angela Strehli has more or less retained her Texas persona which was honed at the legendary Antone’s nightclub in the company of many great players like Jimmie 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. 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 was largely responsible for bringing Sugar Pie to Chess Records. Sexy, playful and a commanding blues singer, Sugar Pie DeSanto continues to define the tradition of women blues singers in the Bay Area.

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 in such a dynamic and colorful way.

Big Brother: After The Party Is Over

After Janis Joplin and I left the band Big Brother was in disarray. Peter Albin (bass) and Dave Getz (drums) played desultorily with Country Joe and other bands and James Gurley (guitar) went to live in the desert. Later, disgusted, disheveled, despairing and distraught, I returned to the West Coast just after being asked by Janis to play with the Kozmic Blues Band at Woodstock. I was at the end of a chapter though and just did not have the reserves to stay the extra two weeks in New York. It was definitely time to return to the fold.

I called my “brothers” here in Marin and we had a meeting in Fairfax to discuss future strategy. We wanted to work with Nick Gravenites because of his superlative songs and he seemed agreeable so we began to rehearse. I also had had the good fortune to meet Kathi MacDonald a year or so earlier when I had been volunteered to be her birthday present one fine sunny afternoon. We wrote a song together immediately and I resolved to have her in any band I was in as soon as the opportunity presented itself. She is a wonderful singer with an awesome array of vocal devices and an encyclopedic knowledge of the American popular song in the second half of the twentieth century. She knew ALL the words to all the songs we ever heard together, however obscure, recondite or esoteric. But it was Kathi’s basic equipment that was most impressive. There was a razor sharp edge in her voice that could cut through any smoky barroom atmosphere and her mind and heart were just as sharply defined.

Big Brother went on the road with these stalwarts and we had a lot of good times. Nick and Kathi were a good team and we had all finally learned how to play and even to play in tune. We played a memorable date in Salt Lake City that I still have a tape of. The band was going through an adventurous period and we experimented with a lot of different styles. This was to change later when a more conservative (Republican?) approach reared its ugly head but during this 1970-­1972 period we were wide open to many different styles. We did a song called Promise Her Anything But Give Her Arpeggio that was Slavic in feeling. There was another (Maui) that featured what James and I called the Big Kahuna Lick right at the beginning. We had been going over to the Hawaiian islands for a year or so and living on Makena Beach on Maui and every local song we heard featured a very characteristic bit of melody over
the II­V change (D minor to G7 in the key of C). We put this in the intro to Maui playing it in a very sinuous, island style and it worked.

Be A Brother - 1970

Then there was Home On The Strange which had a rather jazzy feel and some metric experimentation. The amazing thing now is that everyone was willing to try these different directions…a very good growth period for the band. I played piano on a sort of Mexican piece in 3/4 and Dave played the marimbas. These tunes are not so time bound and when we hear them today they are not dated but still interesting.

Kathi and Nick were a pleasure to work with because they were each formidable singers and really knew how to get the most out of a tune. It seems amazing now that we took both of them on the road. Nick was as big as Kathi was small. He looked like a giant Chicago truckdriver right out of a Zap Comic and she could hide behind the mike stand until that huge voice came out of her tiny rail­thin body.

We had a lot of laughs and played some fun gigs but times were tough along about this point. Hard drugs had come into the society as a whole and into the band in particular and it was increasingly difficult to maintain a grueling touring schedule. One by one the members of Big Brother stepped off the bandbus until for long periods of time I was the only original member still keeping the flame alive. We played some really strange dates down in the South, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and we played them with some strange people sometimes. The Big Brother mystique was definitely lost at this time and I was just blindly following directions, riding on auto pilot many times and others reaching deep into my heart and soul and pulling out everything that had ever meant flying high with inspiration. Finally even I had to recognize that it wasn’t working. Playing with Kathi was worth it right up to this point but when she called it a day so did I.

This was a time for anonymity, regrouping and going back to school so I did these things in New York City where they were all not only eminently possible but the only course to take at that time. Based in a studio apartment where West 11th and West 4th meet, I studied harmony and counterpoint at the New School For Social Research and composition at Mannes School of Music. The study of counterpoint (the aural equivalent of a plastic artist taking on the discipline of perspective) was extremely seductive and I wrote a symphony and two string quartets to exploit this new way of feeling the music.

Big Brother was completely on hold and I did not even see Peter, Dave or James for the eight years I lived in New York. I did a lot of studio work with some very proficient players and went on tour with a couple of Afro­Cuban groups which was quite educational in many ways (some extra musical). Finally the New York chapter was drawing to a close and I seized an opportunity to play in Richmond, Virginia, over the summer of 1978.

Right at the end of this period a call came from California that Chet Helms was holding an event at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley with David La Flamme, Country Joe, Quicksilver and lot of old friends. It was a reunion and it could not have come at a better time. I really looked forward to seeing everyone in the band. The four of us in Big Brother had not played together in almost ten years and there was some apprehension as to whether we even could. We rented a rehearsal space at Hun Sound in San Rafael and I was even late arriving for that. Peter Albin was waxing nervous and he called in Chuck Day, an exemplary guitarist, just in case I didn’t make it. This considerably muddied the waters since Chuck really wanted to play on the final day (who wouldn’t?) and he was quite reluctant to give up his chair when I did arrive. I had to play the bad guy and remind him that after all I founded the band with Mr. Albin. Peter very graciously left me to deal with this situation that he had created and we did get through it. Chuck stood in the back of the band on that final day and played very well indeed. The same could not be said of Big Brother who were out of practice. We finally rose to the occasion though and there were lots of smiles for old pals. I tried to persuade the band to get back together but there were no takers. They were happy with their lives as they were and settled into domestic routines. It was really hard to have traveled three thousand miles for one engagement, spectacular though it was, and then be at loose ends so I learned to play the saxophone and played jazz for a few years in a small room, monklike, shaven head, renunciation of the floating world and all.

The big change came in 1986 and it is difficult to say why. The immediate cause was Matthew Katz, the man who had such an effect on Moby Grape’s career. He called us to ask if we would play a gig down south somewhere and the answer was a resounding no, but that question planted a seed. It was an anniversary of the Summer of Love, a title which seemed sentimental and simplistic even in 1966, and there was supposed to be resurgence of interest in the bands of the sixties. Well, there was, but not entirely in the way imagined by retailers and promoters.

The important thing is that we reunited and it was wonderful. We put an ad in the paper advertising for a singer to go with a band “similar to Big Brother and the Holding Company” to Europe and began holding auditions. Herb Caen mentioned that we were doing this and there was a splash of interest in the reunion. The scary thing was: would we still be able to play and could we even remember how? From the first moment this doubt was dispelled. All of the feelings and finger memories came flooding back into that little studio of Joey Covington’s in Mill Valley. I had played all of those tunes most recently (in a stint with Pearl Heart aka Joey Amoroso a flamboyant gay man who made Liberace look tame) and remembered them well enough to teach them to the rest of the band when the need arose. The main thing is that the feeling and the joy were there and that we were unified in chordal memories and spiritual congruencies.

A lot of women singers came to this little boite of a studio by Tam Junction and many of them were quite good. There were the inevitable Janis clones, flowing hair and bracelets aplenty screaming out feelings of solidarity with the beautiful Janis of their dreams, hippie women keeping the flame alive, God bless them all. Nancy Wenstrom came by. She could play her ass off on the guitar and was a good singer too. She had style and originality and later I called her on a few engagements that I did with my band. She has always been a total professional and a pleasure to sing and play with. Plus she can boogie down with the best of them.

Some of the singers were on the pop side, attractive, perky, trying so hard to be good and funky. Others were the dark side of the moon, jazzy, beat and poetically understated. Then there was Michel Bastian, politically incorrect (she was wearing a rabbit fur coat down to her ankles) in a Reno lounge style and totally prepared for the audition. It was obvious that she knew all the tunes and that she sang them night after night. She had dreamed of this auction and she was ready for the big time. Michel had long dark hair and a gospel sound right out of Oakland. Her voice was wide open, full of emotion and yet trained by Judy Davis, doyenne of the Bay Area vocalists. Michel was so organized, so redolent of the professional lounge engagement, so disciplined, so South Bay and East Bay that she was immensely appealing. To this day she never fails to make an emotional connection with the audience. Something in her reaches out and takes one at a very elemental level for all of her seeming artifice. When she came to us that day she looked like a Mediterranean Marilyn Monroe. Spectacular. We were shocked, surprised and very pleased from the first note she sang. There was no question; she was the only one even close to what we had imagined. Oakland meets Marin. Lounge meets lunge. Steak and potatoes meets tofu. What can I say? The comic and cosmic possibilities were endless.

We made every possible mistake that we could and even invented a couple that any self respecting novelist would blush to record. We had a decent booking agent who at least kept us in a few engagements a month and as soon as we could we discharged him and never found another. We played up in Alaska in August when it was cold as ice and rode for hundreds of miles in a tour bus not in the best of spirits.

Michel and I were on the phones for months trying to find someone to book us and it was impossible. It would be a whole story in itself to chronicle all the mistakes we made. Mainly we were just coming from the small end of the looking glass (or low self esteem as James Gurley would put it). It stayed this way for years.

Then all of a sudden this year (1994­-1995) there has been a sea change of some sort. Last October we went to Moscow and that worked really well and I have been writing letters to Russia (in Russian) for many months now trying to follow up. The future is so bright I wear sunglasses most of the time. We are going to Japan in April and will be just in time for the cherry blossoms to come out in Kyoto, that most Japanese of cities. We will also be in time to play benefits for victims of the latest quake that centered in Kobe and we are eager to do this.

Two days after we return from Japan I am going to Paris where there is every promise of a creative collaboration on many levels with many of our francophone friends. If anyone knows of good people in Paris, please let me know. I will call them and that is a promise.

Thus, this late in the game, we are all of a sudden an international band with connections in many countries and every possibility of making a lot of people very happy. This is wonderful and exhilarating and we are now able and willing to grab this opportunity with both hands (the way one is supposed to take a business card in Japan). I am learning the two Japanese alphabets and about five hundred kanji (Chinese characters that are used in Japan). Everything looks good and we are all working very hard really to deserve this new chance to play music.