Sixteenth Annual California Blues Festival.
There had been unseasonable rain in San Francisco. It was still overcast, but the sun peeked from gray skies through the day. It turned out to be a nice spring day and not windy. People were glad to get a break from the rain.
We’ve attended the California Blues Festival before when it was held at The Spreckels Temple of Music (“The Bandshell”) in Golden Gate Park. It was cancelled last year. San Francisco Recreation and Parks had hiked the rental fees, so the organizers called it off. Tom Mazzolini’s San Francisco Blues Festival has been gone for over two years now. We were looking forward to this one, but we knew what we were getting into.
The Festival was plagued by electrical problems at the site in Golden Gate Park. Two years in a row the sound system blew up just as things were really starting to really get going. When the electricity didn’t run out, they ran out of time. Local community oriented acts came on early. There were young kids dancing and Gospel music. I don’t want to deny the kids their moment in the sun onstage, but the Festival was poorly organized. When the main acts came on at the end of the day and things started cooking, they would run out of time.
This year it would be held at The Hamilton Park Recreation Center. It was on a strip of the park that is a couple of blocks from Fillmore Avenue. This is the neighborhood that was known as “The Harlem of the West.” There was a legendary Jazz scene in the clubs here. It was home to Bill Graham’s dance hall and much of the Sixties music scene. The site of the Winterland Ballroom, Graham’s larger venue is now an apartment complex a block away. The history of the Fillmore neighborhood has its dark side. Japanese residents were relocated to internment camps during World War II. Redevelopment drove most of the Black inhabitants out of the neighborhood. The former site of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple was across Geary. It’s a U.S. Post Office now.
Hamilton is an urban park that covers both sides of Geary Boulevard. It has seen big changes in recent years. The athletic fields across the street were converted to artificial turf. The library behind the stage and the swimming pool have been renovated.
Along the sides of the crowd were vendors selling clothes, jewelry, trinkets and art. One booth sold water and juice drinks. There was a small hot dog cart. Local families had come prepared with barbeque. There was no booze being sold, so expenses, especially security and insurance, were kept down. It was a more family oriented event.
The pace was like shows from the old days. There were long delays between acts. Most of the crowd were from the neighborhood and didn’t mind waiting. It was a day to get out and socialize with old friends. There were many friendly greetings and reunions. Everyone seemed content to spend a leisurely day in the park. The atmosphere was more like a neighborhood block party. I didn’t time it, but it seemed like there was an hour between bands.
As we arrive DJ Lance is acting as MC. He’s paying respect to DJs from the past. “And talk about rap ... I could never rap as fast as those guys.” He rattles off names of DJs who spun R&B and Soul records for local radio stations like KSOL and KSAN.
The first band finally gets going. They are Ascension with lead singer Judy Padilla. They look and sound like an Rhythm and Blues Lounge band. They start with a funny upbeat song from the Seventies: “Gitchee Gitchee Ya Ya Da Da.”
Once the bands started the sound was good, with few problems. They were using one generator behind the stage. The one generator looked weak, but once they got going the sound was pretty good.
This is Bobby “Spider” Webb’s event. He’s a local Blues and neighborhood icon. We’ve seen him many times at clubs and events like this. He’s dressed in black and wanders the crowd holding a clipboard. His hair is graying. He is getting old. Many local neighborhood people greet him and thank him for running the event. He’s still spinning records for local radio station KPOO. KPOO has a great station announcement: “Don’t touch that dial, it’s got pooh on it.”
We spread a blanket. A Park Ranger is behind us. I’m not sure what his authority is here, but he’s there in uniform. He’s talking with a friend. He can’t believe people were smoking pot near the front of the stage. He must be new in town. “420 they call it,” he tells his friend. He does stop some people from smoking cigarettes, but eventually he either gave up or went to some other duties.
A couple of scruffy middle aged homeless looking guys set up behind us. Someone onstage says, “We want to thank Bobby Webb for the wonderful weather.” One of the homeless guys says what I’m thinking, “Bobby Webb has nothing to do with it! God gives us the weather!”
It is Memorial Day weekend and a couple of older guys in V.F.W. caps wander the crowd. The Veterans say they’re being displaced from “our building on Market Street.” The two are campaigning to have this stopped. They ask around, “Are you a veteran?” One of the homeless guys says yes, he’s a veteran but then quickly adds, “I can’t do that stuff. I was court-martialed.”
Ascension goes on to play some mainstream hits including some Santana. They may be stuck in the Seventies. A friend wanders the crowd handing out their card. Yes, they are available for weddings. They sound fun, but they never play a Blues song.
There’s another long wait. A lone sound man struggles with mike checks and the sound board. He races back and forth from the stage to the sound board.
An old Hippie clown wanders the crowd. He’s blowing up and selling balloons to the kids. He has a big fake cherry nose and big clown shoes. I can’t blame the guy for trying to make a buck, but to me he looks like an evil Wavy Gravy. I guess most would say he’s harmless, but to me he’s Creepy Hippie clown.
The next act is Eddie Neon Blues and Special Guests. Ronnie Stewart plays guitar. He’s a veteran Bluesman from the Central Valley and President of the Bay Area Blues Society. They play “Any Time.” “This is for Koko Taylor, if she’s out there.”
The sound has been good, but they totally lose the guitar player on this song. It’s too bad. Even without any sound we can see the guy is good. Next is “I Always Knew This Day Would Come” followed by an Etta James song. There has been some line dancing going on. More join the dancing during this song.
It’s time for another break and Bobby Webb takes the mike and talks about “The Foundation.” The Blues and R&B Music Foundation is trying to preserve the music of the past. They made the nearby mural possible. Bobby Webb is the president and founder. He asks for donations to keep the Festival going. There’s a donation tub in front of the stage. Fillmore Slim bops up and puts something in. Bobby announces it to the crowd. “Look, Fillmore Slim made a donation!”
The mural is worth seeing. It’s on the wall of the swimming pool. Local R&B and Jazz stars from the local past are portrayed. Most of the big stars of Blues, Jazz and Rhythm And Blues are on the wall. They all played in this neighborhood. It’s an impressive collection of figures from music history.
The wait is a bit shorter before the next act, Angel. It’s a solo act with songs from the Eighties. I recognize the “Summer” song, a big hit in the Eighties. There is a good psychedelic synthesizer part. They play an original song, “Sexy Girl” but I lose interest during the Disco parts.
DJ Lance comes back on. It’s another long wait before the main act. It’s still early. Lance launches into a basic history of Black people in San Francisco. “We’ve been here since the 1820s!” The first prominent Black landowner, politician and entrepreneur was William Alexander Leidesdorff. “There’s a street named after him in the financial district.”
In the early days of San Francisco Leidesdorff’s mansion was used to entertain important guests. “The best people” from around the world wanted to visit San Francisco, even then. They were wined and dined lavishly at his mansion.
Mammy Pleasant had a mansion too. It was up on Laguna Avenue, not far from today’s event. It was right across the street from the infamous Lodge Residence Club, which is now the St. Anne’s Bed and Breakfast Hotel. Mammy may have been one of the most bizarre and controversial characters in the long history of odd San Francisco characters. She was sharp at business and made a fortune. She was well known for helping people. Many at the time were suspicious that a Black woman could be so successful. There could be only one explanation: Voodoo! It was rumored she used the dark arts to gain her fortune. She was later known as “the mother of Civil Rights movement.” She also had a mansion in Napa that is still there today. DJ Lance tells us the public is invited to visit.
DJ Lance asks the crowd if they remember the traditions of The Fillmore. It all happened right here “across the street” at Ben Franklin High School. Some in the crowd cheer. It was the kind of neighborhood where if you “did something bad” there was a good chance your parents would hear about it from the neighbors.
And there was The Paddle! “How many here got The Paddle?! Right there across the street, from Mr. Toler.” That name rang a bell. Burl Toler was a player on the University of San Francisco Football team that went undefeated. (USF had a very successful football team before dropping the program.) They were undefeated, but were not invited to a Bowl game unless they left several Black players off the roster for the bowl game. The players voted not to go. They were “the best team you never heard of.” An injury cut short Toler’s NFL career, but he became the first Black ref in the NFL. It sounded like he was a tough teacher.
It could have been an endless series of announcements and pleas for funds, but DJ Lance kept things interesting during the wait. He tells us that Bobby Webb is “paying for this out of his pocket.” They need donations if you want to see this event again next year.
There were some small children in family groups, but there were few teenagers or young adults. This was not the scene for the Hip-Hop generation. Maybe there were too many parents around.
Bobby “Spider” Webb and the band are ready to go. They do sound great on a song Webb often opens with: “Night Train.” They do the old Al Green standard: “Let’s Stay Together” and Bobby Webb blows a great sax solo. He’s still a great musician. Next is his signature song where he spells out his name: B-O-B-B-Y!
Bobby Blue Bland’s son, Sunny Blue Bland makes a cameo. He tells us about the song that made his father famous. It’s the “The B.B. King song, “Drifting.” Bobby Webb and the band has stayed onstage and they play “Further On Up the Road” and “I Hear You Crying” with Sunny Blue Bland singing.
Bobby Webb takes over again. “Now we’re going to play a request. Make sure you get your requests in.” Webb says they’re going to play a song from 1956, “Shotgun.” Hey wait a minute, is this the Junior Walker “Shotgun” from 1966? Bobby Webb makes the song his own with a great sax solo. After the song he corrects himself: “Shotgun” was from 1965 or 1966. He is a DJ.
The band does a good version of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming. Big City Cat Tolefree Angel joins them for “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Down Home Blues.” Big Cat is a large man with a big stage presence.
There is another break and DJ Lance takes the microphone again. “Hey, Fillmore Slim, how many times did you slam dunk at The Shack?” Fillmore Slim is near the stage, but I couldn’t hear his shouted answer. It’s a trick question. There was no basketball court in The Shack.
In the old days kids hung out at the end of this block in a recreation center called The Shack. There was ping pong, but no gym. They had to go to the gym up on Masonic to play basketball. They hung out at The Shack, but they couldn’t play hoops. “That was all we had.” A gym was later built there. The Shack is gone. It’s a dim neighborhood memory. This is a big part of today’s event. It’s not only seeing people from the old days, but remembering and talking about the old days.
Bobby Webb is clearly a respected member of the Fillmore community. He introduces Fillmore Slim, who is respected in a different way. Fillmore Slim (aka Clarence Sims) was a Player back in the day. He was “King of the Game” in his time. He left the music business for more profitable activities. He paid the price too, doing several stretches in prison. Fillmore Slim has been wandering the event all day, mingling with the crowd. He’s wearing a pimp suit and fedora hat. It almost looks like a Zoot Suit.
Bobby Webb introduces him and they play a James Brown medley. The band gets very funky. Slim’s singing style is more rapping than singing. He’s not playing guitar today.
Slim looks older and even slimmer than when we last saw him a couple of years ago. His sunken cheeks look a bit cavernous. He has many long time local fans. He’s still working the crowd.
There’s a group dressed like Fillmore Slim standing near the stage. They are wearing wild suits with fedoras or pork pie hats. They must be locals from the old days, and they’re obviously buddies of Fillmore Slim. He gives them a shout out from the stage and an occasional nod and wave.
A young woman in front looks like she’s in some kind of Fillmore Slim trance. She’s acting like more than a fan. Slim plays to her, leaning over to her and singing to her. She looks like she’s in a sexual ecstasy.
The band does sound funky and keeps churning behind Slim’s rap like delivery.
They slow it down a bit with the Elmore James song, “Dust My Broom.” Ronnie Stewart rips on guitar.
Slim asks for contributions for the bucket for donations in front of the stage. “I put a hundred dollar bill in!” It’s all right, he says he knows it will come back around to him. “You know how that goes.” They play “Hootchie Cootchie Man.”
Creepy Clown is doing some business on the fringe of the crowd. The kids show no fear as parents scramble to buy and distribute balloons.
Fillmore Slim tells us he’s been hanging out with Snoop Dog lately. Snoop will be playing Fillmore Slim in the “new movie.” Slim’s musical career was revived after he stole the show in a documentary, “American Pimp.” There’s a big director lined up for the Fillmore Slim movie: Quentin Tarantino. Slim says it won’t be long before the money starts rolling in. This is starting to sound familiar. He talked about this two years ago at the last California Blues Festival.
A few older guys use canes to get to a side of the stage. They look like geriatric bikers. They wear Levi jackets with patches including the most prominent: “The Triple O.G.$.” I imagine the stories these guys could tell. It wouldn’t be snitching. There has to be a statute of limitations.
The band goes into the instrumental “Chicken Shack” and Bobby Webb thanks us for coming out. It’s been a nice little event with a neighborhood charm of its own. The new venue, Hamilton Park, has worked out great. I hope Bobby “Spider” Webb doesn’t get soaked for the money and they can do it again next year.