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.