A world war, a small city, and the largest movement of people in US history. Mix these together, and you’ll get a unique, patchwork style of music. Join us as we pick apart the ingredients of the West Coast Blues.
A BART train passes above an empty Esther's Orbit Room on 7th St, in Oakland, Calif. Esther's was one of the many blues and jazz clubs that thrived on 7th St. during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Photo by Brian Howey.
Just after the turn of the century, millions of African Americans left the American South to start new lives outside the former Confederacy. Many from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana landed in Oakland, Calif. during the economy boom brought on by World War II. Some of those migrants were musicians who played the rambunctious clubs of 7th Street in West Oakland.
Join Chloe and Brian as they explore the political factors that made, and destroyed, a microcosm of the West Coast music scene.
We’ll speak with the son of the founder of Oakland Blues, imagine 7th Street in all it’s rowdy glory, and explore the similarities of 7th Street’s downfall with modern issues of gentrification in modern Oakland.
Here are some links to dive further into the West Oakland Blues:
Here's an interview with Oakland Blues legend Jimmy McCracklin.
Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Oral History Center.
Here's the latest on Ronnie Stewart's "The Music They Played on 7th Street Oakland Walk of Fame."
Like the music on our podcast? You can listen to the songs we use on our YouTube playlist.
Check out another local podcast, called East Bay Yesterday, which has a great episode about Sugar Pie Desanto, an adopted local legend.
(We've made a point to make transcripts as accurate to the episodes as possible, nonetheless, transcripts may contain errors.)
Beats and Measures S01E01:
“Seventh Street & the Oakland Blues”
Sarah Carpenter Hello! I’m Sarah Carpenter of Oakland Council, a TV show from Studio To Be about Oakland’s journalism, government, and activism. I’m here to tell you about Studio To Be. It’s a home for journalists, producers, and community engagement with offices in Oakland, Fresno and Seattle.
Studio to Be is a labor of love and an act of resilience all rolled into one. It’s a content development and production studio as well as a collaborative community where stories that can change the world find support, resources and distribution.
If you have a new story idea, or need a place to camp while working on the next big thing, visit Studiotobe’s website and drop us a line at info-AT-studiotobe-DOT-com. That’s info-AT-studiotobe-DOT-com.
More locations coming soon, maybe Berlin? And if you feel like your community needs one, let us know! And now, here’s Beats and Measures.
[Beats and Measures signature sound collage]
Brian From Studio to Be…
Chloe This is Beats and Measures
[sound of record needle setting down]
Chapter 1: The Foundation
John When the sun goes down, this is a party time.
[Song: Ridin’ Hi by Johnny Ingram & his Rhythm Stars]
Dickie Everybody seemed so HAPPY! Just FUN!
John Restaurants, movie theaters anything!
Dickie Every other block there was music going on.
Brian These two are old friends.
John Henry Brown My name is John Henry Brown.
Dickie Lacey My name is Dickie Lacey.
Brian They grew up in West Oakland, California.
Dickie Oh heck yeah!
Chloe They’re talking about Seventh St., West Oakland’s main drag. John and Dickie remember how 7th took hold of them in the late 1950s and wouldn’t let go.
John The lure for me was when we used to drive through there to get to church and I’d see Seventh on the way home, ‘I gotta find my way down.’
Chloe Dickie found his way there with his older brother.
Dickie I can remember going down there at night with him and I’mlike, what, seven or eight years old.
Brian Pretty young for what’s going down on that strip.
Dickie...I can remember a guy giving me some money to go get some cigarettes--a runner they call it now--
Brian He means a kid who a grown-up pays to get cigarettes, or something to eat… or… other stuff.
Dickie I can remember a guy down there on 7th Street with his coat, you’d open the coat and he has a bunch of pints and stuff you could buy.
Chloe They compare it to the--
Dickie and John [simultaneously] Las Vegas strip.
[Music comes to foreground for a moment]
Dickie Everything was lit up. And people. Everywhere.
[Sound of large, talking crowd]
John People running into you up and down the street.
Dickie Like, congestion. Very congested. All. Night. Long.
John You can go into any club and party.
Dickie And everywhere you turned, there were cars going up, Cadillacs...
[sound of Cadillac starting up]
Dickie You had all of these gamblers down there.
John You go down on 7th Street and do your business. Whatever you gonna do.
Dickie People selling all kinds of things. Their bodies, drugs, anything you could name.
John ...and beautiful women!
[Sound of woman laughing/calling out added to car & crowd noise]
Dickie I didn’t know what “Ten and two” was. You know, this guy would be like a barker, you would see, ‘Ten And two! Ten And two!’
Brian John finds out what ‘ten and two’ means when he’s 15 and he steals his dad’s truck...
John In the middle of the night!
Brian ...and drives to where the action is.
John I got to seventh street and I was saying ‘MY GOD I’m here,’ and I’m looking around and all a sudden the truck door opens...
[sound of ‘63 Chevy truck door opening]
John ...and it was a woman and she says ‘Ten and two?’ She was beautiful!
Dickie And then I found out later: Ten for the woman, two for the room.
Chloe These women get paid by the hour.
John So I’m down here in a stolen truck. I don’t know I’m signaling a trick, I’m just trying to see what’s going on. And she looked at me like, ‘Well don’t stop on the corner if you don’t want nothing.’
Chloe John scrams.
John And I say, uhh, ‘I gotta come back!’
[Sound of door closing, car driving away, street sounds fade out]
Brian That was a normal night on 7th Street.
Dickie All this was exciting to me as a young boy. You know, WOW, look at these guys and these big cars and these fancy women and all these clubs and the music and there was restaurants everywhere…
Chloe These days...
[Sound of a lone car passing by on Seventh Street]
Chloe ...All that’s gone.
Brian Saturday night on 7th is pretty boring.
Chloe So...what happened?
[BART train sound comes loudly, cuts off]
Chloe Hey guys, I’m Chloe Behrens.
Brian And I’m Brian Howey.
Chloe This is Beats and Measures, a series that explores how music shapes people, and people shape history.
Brian In each episode, we’ll examine a person, a culture, or a whole group through the lens of music.
Chloe Today we’ll focus on music from the neighborhood we call home.
Brian The West Oakland Blues.
Chloe Shout out to another awesome show from Studio To Be. It’s called Cooking By Ear!
Brian Each episode, chef Cal Peternell brings on a guest and they make a meal together. As you listen to some tasty conversation, you can also cook along in real time.
Chloe By the end of the episode, you’re ready to eat! Where else could you listen to Frances McDormand talk about the occult and feminism AND learn to make a chicken stock?
Brian You can hear COOKING BY EAR’S first season wherever you get your podcasts.
Chloe Here’s a little taste of the show.
[Cooking By Ear highlight reel plays]
Brian And now, back to the show.
[“Old Time Blues” by Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds plays]
Chloe All kinds of people are mixed up in West Oakland’s long history. Here’s the short version.
Brian In the late 1800s, two booming industries--shipyards and railroads-- bring workers from around the country and the world.
Chloe That turns into a strategic advantage during World War II, when more people - many of them Black Southerners - flood into the Bay Area.
Brian Between the war decade and 1970, Oakland’s African American population multiplies nearly 15 times - to over 124,000 people.
Chloe Dickie Lacie’s family is part of that migration. His grandfather...
Dickie He was a pullman porter from Waco, Texas.
Brian Pullman porters serve passengers on trains.
Dickie And that’s what a lot of black people back in the day was able to do. He traveled a lot, so he wasn’t there a lot and that kind of put a rift between my grandmother and him. And my grandfather and my grandmother separated.
Chloe Dickie’s grandmother moves to Richmond, California, north of Oakland, where she cooks and cleans in people’s houses.
Brian She’s able to save up enough money to bring her three young daughters from Texas to California.
Dickie They were very involved in the church because my grandma was very religious and she had them singing in the church as the Brooks Sisters and they sung all around.
Brian One of those sisters is Dickie’s mother. After she him, she moves the family to West Oakland in the early 1950s.
Chloe During all this, Seventh Street is the hub of West Oakland. It’s close to the port and the trainyard, where most of the neighborhood works.
Brian After a long day, workers and military folk flood the restaurants and clubs on Seventh for a drink and a show.
Ronnie Stewart In them days you had either a hot band or a hot jukebox.
Chloe This man remembers those times.
Ronnie My name is Ronnie Stewart, Executive Director of the West Coast Blues Society.
Chloe Ronnie’s a blues guitarist in Oakland. He grew up a couple of blocks from 7th Street.
Brian Ronnie checks out some of the fancier clubs there...
Ronnie You had Slim Jenkins with napkins and tablecloths. Great food, great waitresses. They all dress in the same red and black.
Brian ...And the juke joints.
Ronnie The you had ‘ole Miss Essie’s place where they’d be sleepin’ on the bar, and drunk, and pukin’ on the table. In other words, the high end to the raw.
Chloe Ronnie’s dad gets him into blues early on.
Ronnie My father would come home drunk at three in the morning, this was 1955, ‘56 and he’d say, ‘Hey boy, put on Howlin’ Wolf.’
I said, ‘Daddy that’s that man with that ‘ole hoarse voice, I don’t wanna hear that.’
‘Boy you gonna love him one of these days.’
I’d say, ‘I don’t know…’
Brian But Ronnie’s dad needs a little help.
Ronnie See they was 78s and he’d be too drunk to put the needle on
He’d be scratching it and my mother’d say, ‘What the—?’
Chloe So he makes Ronnie do it for him. It isn’t fun, but it pays. He gives Ronnie a nickel for each record he puts on.
Ronnie By like six in the morning I’d even got a quarter. Wooo! I’d say, ‘A quarter?’ I’d go buy like, four or five candy bars and about two hours later I’d be puking.
Chloe Dickie’s mom schools him and his brother, too..
Dickie She always, always brought music in the house. Always encouraged us to know about cultural things. Always encouraged us to know about the history of our people…
Brian She introduces Dickie to...
Dickie I would say smorgasbord of music. She brought in Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Smith, Charley Pride, Hank Williams, classical music, reggae music. And that’s why I started wanting to play piano.
[Dickie’s piano composition plays]
Brian Dickie’s mom notices his natural talent.
Dickie First I was doing Elvis Presley impersonations.
Chloe So she puts him in a talent show at one of the hottest local juke joints.
Dickie At Esther’s Orbit Room. Yeah on Seventh Street.
Chloe Talent shows are hugely popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
[Larry Vann Band live plays]
Larry Vann That’s how we cut our teeth: talent shows and recreation center dances.
Brian Here’s Oakland blues drummer, Larry Vann.
Larry That’s me!
Chloe Now, he teaches drum lessons and handles percussion and lead vocals in his own band. The talent shows offer opportunities for up-and-coming musicians like Larry.
Larry That’s how we really got a chance to grow and develop because, we’d play behind four or five different acts ‘Hey man will you guys play behind us? Will you play behind us?’ ‘Sure man.’ So we got a lot of playing time.
Brian Here’s John and Dickie again.
John That was the highlight of our life. [Dickie laughs] Am I tellin’ the truth?
Dickie Yeah, you tellin’ the truth.
John Be on the talent show.
Brian Some musicians, like Larry, do pretty well for teenagers.
Larry I was making $12 a night--but in the 60s. Monday morning I had at least $24 in my pocket. I could go to the Flagg Brothers and get me a pair of shoes for $9.99. I’d go to the shirt store down the street here, get me a shirt for $6. I still got some money don’t I? [Laughs]
Chloe And he gets to play the music he loves.
Brian But mostly, John and Dickie do it for fun.
John That wasn’t about a record contract, that wasn’t about trying to make money.
Chloe While John plays with groups on the Oakland talent show circuit, a teenaged Dickie and his older brother form their own band.
Dickie And we performed all the talent shows all over. My mother would be there, we had costumes, she would get them made for us.
Brian They figure they can’t miss with a name like...
Dickie The MJBs: the Magnificent James Browns [Laughs] ‘Cause we saw James Brown at the Oakland auditorium and we wanted to be James Brown.
[James Brown “Ow!” sounds]
Chloe Despite a killer name and on-point routine, they faced stiff competition. From a little kid!
Dickie Little Dion.
Dickie I forgot about Little Dion.
John He trumped everybody.
Dickie Yeah. It seemed like he won every talent show.
John Every one. Everything looked good for the show, we on the show, everything looked good and then here he come! [background laughter] You know he gonna win!
Dickie It was rigged! [people laugh]
Brian Little Dion ends up on American Bandstand and even opens a few shows for John and Dickie’s idol.
[James Brown “Ow!” sounds]
John Five or six years old and he wasn’t that talented to me! [laughs]
Brian [in interview] You sound a little bitter.
Dickie and John [simultaneously] We are bitter!
Chloe For this episode, just about everyone we talk with mentions James Brown. To them, he walks on water.
Brian Please, please, please! James Brown? I thought we’re talking about the Oakland blues? James Brown is more funk than blues, right?
Chloe Well, Dickie’s playing talent shows in the ‘60s. But before then, blues musicians come to Oakland and set the stage for the James Brown wannabes who perform at these talent shows.
Brian And that’s the sound we need to pin down.
[“Irma Jean Blues” by Bob Geddins’ Cavaliers plays]
Chris Strachwitz It was a tough, tough down home blues.
Brian Chris tells us how it all began.
Chris My name is Chris Strachwitz and I used to run Arhoolie Records and I’ve lived in the Bay Area now since 1954…‘53, actually.
Chloe His label recorded tough, down-home music from Louisiana to Mexico to...West Oakland.
Chris They were playing really low-down Texas blues, you know, the penitentiary blues. You know, ‘Whoa man, you know, she didn’t do me good, no more’…. just really slow, slow blues.
Brian Chris says the roots of Oakland’s blues scene lie in the South.
Chris Not only blues but just spirituals too. That goes hand in hand.
Chloe In the 40s and early 50s, musicians who come from the south combine down home blues with gospel to create a slow, dragging sound that includes haunting vocal harmonies.
Brian Just like other blues, these lyrics are about hard times and heartbreak - the musicians’ scraping for money, respect and love. They’re basically talking about their lives through a song.
Chloe This is “I’m Just a Stranger Here,” by Bob Geddins’ Cavaliers in 1948.
Brian Bob Geddins is a name you’ll wanna remember.
[Song: I’m Just a Stranger Here by Bob Geddins’ Cavaliers]
Well I am going back home if I wear ninety nine pair of shoes,
Then I know I'll be welcome and I won't have to sing these blues.
Brian The notion of ‘going back home if I wear ninety nine pair of shoes’ shows up in a bunch of blues and old-timey songs. It’s this homesickness so strong, the singer’s gonna walk all the way back home--even if he has to wear out dozens of pairs of shoes.
Chloe The lyrics reflect the feeling that many Black migrants experience. Hoping to escape discrimination. But when they travel to Oakland from the South, the truth slaps them - hard.
Chris It was very segregated.
Chloe It may not be law in California, but it’s just as real.
[Song: So Tired I Could Cry by The West Side Trio]
Well I’m so tired I could cry, I could lay right down and die…
Brian The West Coast sound is an offshoot of Texas Blues. African American laborers in the Lone Star State start singing their blues at the turn of the last century.
Chloe And when they bring it to California, it gets mixed up with a few other genres. Here’s Ronnie Stewart again.
Ronnie Stewart West Coast Blues is a mixture of Texas, Oklahoma, some parts of Louisiana, and a little bit of Mississippi Delta.
Brian Gospel and guitar influence the Texas blues style. Louisiana style combines Dixieland jazz with Caribbean rhythms, piano and horns.
Ronnie And these musicians would come together and say, ‘Well play a, play a Mississippi shuffle.’
[Drummer playing Mississippi shuffle plays]
And they’d say ‘Ok, now horns play that jazz line and that big band sound.’ [Sings horn line]
[Horns come in over Mississippi shuffle]
And then they’d say, ‘Oh country boy, you’ve got to learn some 9th chords and some 13th chords. Can’t be playing up here. It ain’t gonna fit.
[Guitar plays over Missippi shuffle and horns]
Brian On top of all that, West Coast Blues adds smooth and silky vocals, like Charles Brown does in Trouble Blues.
[“Trouble Blues” by Charles Brown plays]
Someday, someday, my darlin’,
I won’t be,
Trouble no more.
[“Georgia Slop” by Jimmy McCracklin plays]
Chloe Then in the ‘50s, music changes. Musicians start amplifying their instruments - especially their guitars. And then the blues goes and has a really popular baby.
[“Georgia Slop” by Jimmy McCracklin plays]
And they don’t give a whoop about no police.
Brian By the mid-1950s, Rock and Roll is everywhere. Oakland blues players - like musicians everywhere - whip that sound into their mix.
Chloe Horn sections replace the vocal harmonies, the guitar rhythms get quicker.
Brian Combine that with Mississippi shuffles, jazzy 9th and 13th chords, and Dixieland horns, and you get a West Oakland sound like Lowell Fulson’s “Black Nights.”
[“Black Nights” by Lowell Fulson plays]
It used to be, when you’d see my face you would smile...
Ronnie And that’s Oakland Blues.
Brian Chris doesn’t agree.
[“Operator 209” by Willie B. Huff plays]
Chris I don’t think that this area ever had any sort of unique sound of any kind because Oakland Blues, if there is such a thing, would be these rhythm and blues and soul bands who grew out of McClymond High School--
Brian --That’s in West Oakland--
Chris --or some of the schools that most of the African American kids went to, you know, who got much more formal education than the guys who actually started to play blues here.
Chloe In other words, it’s hard to pin down the birth of these blues. To Chris, they’re just part of what’s trending when musicians move from the South to the Bay.
Chris They brought the sounds with them from back home. That’s why it’s called down home blues.
Brian Whatever you call it, this music has a huge influence on the people who grew up in Oakland in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Chloe And that sound traces back to one man.
Chloe Hey everyone. We wanted to take a moment to tell you about an important local resource. Bay Area Women Against Rape, or BAWAR, is one of the first rape crisis centers in the country. For over 45 years BAWAR has provided services for anyone who has been affected by sexual violence.
Brian BAWAR operates a 24/7 crisis line and does 24/7 accompaniments for sexual assault reports. They also offer youth services and programs for LGBTQIA+ and Latinx communities.
Chloe In addition to immediate support in the aftermath of a sexual assault, BAWAR also provides individual and group counseling at no charge.
Brian Sexual Assault Advocates are trained and state certified to provide emotional support, advocacy and resources.
Chloe BAWAR has no agenda for the next step after a sexual assault, only an advocate to be on your side and provide options for you to make the decision.
Brian If you or someone you know is in need of support, the 24/7 crisis line at 510-845-7273. That’s 510-845-7273.
Chloe If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to BAWAR or want them to host a sexual violence training seminar please visit their website at www.bawar.org for more information. That’s bawar.org.
Brian And now, back to the show.
Chapter 2: The Bob-Father
[“Operator 209” by Willie B. Huff plays]
Seem like the buses done stopped runnin’, you know the trains don’t allow me to ride no more...
Brian A freight train brings the blues to Oakland with this man's father on board.
Bob Geddins, Jr. He told me he was 17 or 18 years old.
Chloe This is Bob Geddins Jr.
Bob Robert Lee Geddins, I guess, Jr.
Chloe His father was Robert Lee Geddins - Bob Senior.
Bob He said he always liked the blues sound. And so he decided, him and a friend, to go to California. They jumped on a freight train, he said, from Texas.
Brian That train takes them as far as Arizona. When it turns the wrong way, the two jump off and figure they’ll walk. Until...
[blowing wind, passing cars]
...along the highway… Bob Sr. and his friend see a long line of shiny, idling cars.
Bob Either A model or T model Ford. Guy had about 10 of ‘em. The man had a bunch of drivers was driving the things all off the road—they didn’t know how to drive.
Chloe Bob Sr. sees his chance...
Bob The guy asked him if he knew how to drive, and he told him ‘Yeah.’
Chloe ...And he drives one of those cars from Arizona to Los Angeles. He settles there. In the 1930s, LA is the land of movie stars and music industry giants, and he wants to make it as a screenwriter. He even writes a script for-
Bob -a Black gangster movie.
Brian By then, Bob Sr. has a wife and a family. But when Bob Jr. is a baby, his father’s Hollywood hopes go up in flames.
Bob And evidently our apartment caught on fire where we was living, and it burned his manuscript up and he didn’t have but one. It just kinda really broke his heart, you know what I mean? He put the time into the script and didn’t have no copies. After he lost his manuscript, he was through with LA. He came to Oakland where his mom was.
[“Streamlined Baby” by Johnny Ingram & His Rhythm Czars / Jimmy Nelson plays]
Chloe Bob Geddins Jr. is a young boy when his family moves to West Oakland during WWII.
Bob I used to go down on Seventh Street as a kid and with all the military people down there, them soldiers had to keep their shoes and stuff clean, so every time my dad had a record shop or recording studio down there, I’d be out there shining shoes and make all kinds of money off them soldiers.
Chloe Bob’s father works as a handyman, helping people install refrigerators and fix up their houses. The whole time, he keeps loving and writing his kind of music.
Bob My mom used to get mad at him and say ‘Don’t you know no other kind of songs to write other than blues?’ He’d be walking around humming blues all day long. [laughs]
Brian His ears tell him that Seventh Street club owners and customers like the blues, too.
Bob He started his music career at that point
Chloe Bob Sr. knows enough about electronics to set up a home studio in his moms’s basement. Recording is a drag.
Bob They had metal discs then, no tape recorders...
Brian Every take has to be perfect.
Bob Wasn’t no going back and going over it again, know what I’m saying?
Brian It takes a while to get it right.
Bob It wasn’t nothing to be in there 16 hours, 20 hours trying to make one, just one side of a song. I hate to even think about that.
Chloe Regardless, Bob Sr. starts recording the locals.
Bob He would have Lowell Fulson sitting up in front of the mic.
Brian Before Fulson makes it big with a bunch of Billboard hits, he has to deal with Bob Sr.
Bob ...And every time Lowell Fulson would make a mistake, he’d have to take that disc up and bend it and throw it in the garbage can. And he had a little funny frown. [imitates father’s voice] ‘Man, you’re messing up now and I’m throwing my money in the garbage can’ [laughs]. Boy, he was funny then, boy. I’m not kidding.
Brian Most of the musicians Bob Sr. records aren’t famous when they first play in his studio. Here’s Chris again.
Chris Strachwitz He started recording the people who had drifted out here during the war, most of them.
Chloe Bob Sr. is a mentor to Chris.
Chris There were a number of people who got into this game but Bob Geddins was really, totally devoted to recording and he taught me a lot.
Chloe Bob Sr. even sticks his neck out for some musicians.
Chris I visited him, he said ‘C’mon, let me play you somethin.’ And the first notes I heard of course was Big Joe Williams, the guy who wrote Baby Please Don’t Go. I said, ‘Bob where did you go? Did you go to Chicago to record him?’ And ‘No Chris, he’s right here in Oakland. I just went his bail. They locked him up in jail because he pulled a knife on some woman.’
Brian Other famous local artists recorded in Bob Sr.’s studio include Jimmy McCracklin...
[“Bad Luck and Trouble” by Jimmy McCracklin plays]
Bad luck is trouble...
Brian And Sugar Pie Desanto...
[“I Want to Know” by Sugar Pie Desanto plays]
Please don’t start no stuff, ‘cause I don’t wanna get rough, I wanna know...
Chloe Bob Sr. taps into his son’s musical talent too….
Bob Dad was in the studio and he called me in and he said ‘Sit down there and see if you can make me a beat.’
Chloe ...so he lays down some piano tracks...
Bob I started playing and he said ‘Hey I like that!’
Chloe ...and Bob Jr.’s part makes it on Johnny Fuller’s “Haunted House.”
[“Haunted House” by Johnny Fuller plays]
I just moved in my new house today, movin’ was rough but I got squared away...
Brian He’s 21 years old. For his part in the composition, he gets $28.
[“West Side Jump” by The West Side Trio plays]
Bob The man gave me a big ole check and I said I’m going on and I’m gonna learn how to play me a piano. [laughs]
Chloe Bob Jr. heads to the local music shop. But the owner doesn’t have any $28 pianos.
Bob ‘The onliest thing I got for $28 is an organ.’
Brian Bob is not happy.
Bob ‘Man, I don’t want no funeral instrument.’ [Chloe and Bob laugh] ‘That’s all i can give you.’ So I took it. It was a little single manual organ.
Brian His father enforces a pretty strict practice schedule.
Bob I’d spend the night [laughs] in the studio trying to learn how to play that thing. My dad used to lock me up in there.
Brian [in interview] He would lock you in there, trying to get you to learn how to play the organ?
Bob Yeah. Yeah, I’d stay all night, me and that little organ.
Chloe Meanwhile, Bob Sr. keeps improving his home studio. He takes classes in electronics at a community college.
Bob I think the reason for it was, was to get involved with recording more, you know.
Brian But he doesn’t have total control of the process. He sends his master discs to a factory in Los Angeles, where he suspects the crew’s taking advantage of him...
Bob He knew that they was stealing records.
Chloe So he drives to LA, walks up to the owner, and says...
Bob ‘Man, can I go through your plant?’ ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Let me have a piece of paper and a pencil’ and he went through that man’s plant and drew every one of them pipes.
Chloe Bob Sr. returns to Oakland with his hand-drawn plans and makes his son help him build his own record pressing plant.
Bob You know you had to have hot water coming in to a steam table and two presses. Cold water return, oil pressure, steam pressure. And I seen pipes in my sleep.
Brian Once he gains total control of recording, pressing, and promoting his records, Bob Sr. had “do-it-yourself” covered.
Chloe He and the family load up their car with as many records as they can and hit the road. They aim to sell those records all over Texas out of the trunk.
Brian But there are some detours along the way.
Bob He was a jokester, too!
Brian Bob Sr. never backs down from a challenge, and his sons know it.
Bob ‘Dad, I bet you can’t drive with your eyes closed.’ You better not be saying nothing like that to him. [laughs] BAM! We ran into a car. We were stuck in Florence, Arizona for three weeks waiting for them to fix that brand new car.
Chloe They do eventually make it to the Lone Star state.
Bob We stayed in Texas for a whole year distributing down there.
Brian And when they can’t sell records in person , they rely on Pullman Porters, like Dickie Lacey’s grandfather. Bob Sr. isn’t the only one who employs the porters, Chris says.
Chris The porters on the Southern Pacific that came to Oakland, you see, they would be distributors of Paramount records.
Chloe Bob Sr. maintains full creative control over the sound and arrangements on his recordings.
Bob Most of the time--back in the day when we were recording--he’d pick out the instruments that he’d want and we’d create the music there in the studio.
We was using full rhythm, meaning bass, drums, and piano, and guitar. And horn sections.
Brian Remember those horns we mentioned earlier? They are the calling card of Bob Sr.’s blues sound.
Bob We’d go in the studio and didn’t have no idea what we were gonna play, and the next thing you know, if one guy’s sitting plucking on the guitar or something... he just started playing a lick and my dad was back there in the control booth and he come ‘round: ‘I like that, let’s build off that.’
Brian As Rock ‘n’ Roll hits the scene, the music evolves into the signature Oakland sound we talked about.
Chloe But as times change, Bob Sr. has a hard time keeping up.
Bob My dad never even had a contract out of all the years he was in business with no artist. So a lot of stuff got taken from him…
Chris That Mercury Boogie song really didn’t get that big until I happened to record KC Douglass again.
Brian You might remember Alan Jackson’s version of the song. It rose on the country charts in 1993.
[“Mercury Boogie” by Alan Jackson plays]
Well if I had money, I tell you what I’d do, I’d go downtown, buy a Mercury or two, I’m crazy ‘bout a Mercury, Lord I’m crazy ‘bout a Mercury...
Chris So I copywrote it in KC’s name.
Chloe Bob Sr. doesn’t like that.
Chris Bob Geddins came: ‘Chris, KC didn’t write that song, I wrote that song for him.’ I said, ‘But Bob why didn’t you at least put your name under the name on the record?’ And, ‘Well, I didn’t know no better back then.’
Brian If you ask Bob Jr., that sort of thing happened a lot to his dad.
Bob I was talking to BB one day over in San Francisco, he was in town. And BB was telling me, ‘Bob…I know your daddy wrote this song. And they done stoled it from him.’
Chloe BB is BB King, and the song is “The Thrill is Gone” - one of BB King’s biggest hits.
[“The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King plays]
The thrill is gone, gone away for good...
Bob My dad had wrote that song for Roy Hawkins.
Chloe Here’s the original version, recorded by Bob Geddins Sr. in 1951.
[“The Thrill is Gone” by Roy Hawkins plays]
The thrill is gone, gone, gone from me...
Chris Poor Bob... I don’t think he ever knew much about the publishing business and all that.
Brian Bob Sr. is old school, he’s hoping--
Chris --‘Well if it makes a hit, maybe I’ll get something out of it.’
Brian But Bob Jr. says that “something” was no more than occasional credit for the music his father wrote and recorded.
Bob Well the biggest money he made is no doubt was after he died. I mean Ford paid us a million dollars for just a commercial.
Brian For that Mercury Boogie song.
Bob So my dad made money in the music business...but he never got big hunk checks like we did.
Chloe And before he dies, Bob Sr. and the blues had to deal with the rise of Funk, Soul, and Disco.
Bob That might actually be one of the things for why he wasn’t doing recordings, see? Because he was a blues lover. And that’s it.
Brian As the blues falls out of favor, Bob Sr. isn’t making anything off recording that music. So he has to make money some other way, even if it means getting under the hood.
Bob The radiator repair, that was in the ‘70s man.
Chloe After that, he doesn’t record much of anything. In 1991, when he’s 78 years old, Bob Sr. dies of liver cancer.
[“I Can’t Succeed” by Johnny Fuller plays]
I tried so hard, to get ahead...
Brian By that time, the 7th Street blues scene is long gone. But how did it die?
[“I Can’t Succeed” by Johnny Fuller continues]
Out of all I do, I’ve failed instead.
No matter what I do, yes it’s plain to see, I can’t succeed.
Chapter 3: The Downfall of Seventh Street
Cheryl Fabio The history of African American communities is that displacement starts with the freeway.
Brian Cheryl has tracked the dispersal of African Americans in West Oakland.
Cheryl I’m Cheryl Fabio, and I’m a documentary filmmaker.
Brian Her film “Evolutionary Blues” traces the history of the Oakland blues, and its downfall, beginning with the Cypress Freeway in 1957. It connects Oakland to San Francisco until 1989, when the Loma Prieta Earthquake destroys it.
Chloe The Cypress - a big noisy wall between West Oakland and downtown - is the first in a series of urban development projects that forces thousands of Black Oaklanders out of their homes and destroys the 7th street music scene.
Brian The post office goes up next - but not right away. In 1960, the postal service demolishes 300 West Oakland houses, then maintains a giant, ugly, vacant lot that sits empty for almost a decade before building a regional mail processing center.
Chloe Then in 1972, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system adds an elevated railway…
[Sound of BART train screeches in]
Chloe [yells over BART] ...and its own distinctive sound...
[BART train fades out]
Chloe...to West Oakland. Night and day.
Cheryl So construction of the Cypress wiped out a certain number of homes, the post office wiped out homes. BART not only wiped out homes, [Cheryl fading out] but the sound is so, is so bad in West Oakland...
Chloe Like Cheryl says, houses used to occupy the land where the BART station and post office are now. Homeowners don’t choose to give them up.
Cheryl So it’s eminent domain that allowed both BART and the Post Office to capture that land in West Oakland.
Chloe Eminent domain is when the government says, “Hey, we need the land you live on. We’re going to take it. It’s--
Cheryl --For the public good…Which could have been nice if the intent was to go in and rebuild that community and instead of displacing...housing. But that’s not what happened.
Brian Fewer homes in the neighborhood means a lot fewer people go to the clubs and restaurants every night, and that’s bad for business.
Chloe So is the sound from the trucks that pull in and out of the post office --
[Loud sounds of postal trucks come in]
Chloe -- pretty much nonstop. Ronnie Stewart remembers when BART trains first started running along 7th Street.
Ronnie The clubs--the ones that opened back up--the bottles and stuff would shake at Esther’s.
Chloe BART and the post office were the most visible disruptions in the neighborhood in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. So when you ask most people why 7th is gone today, they’ll say...
Bob BART station.
Larry The post office.
Dickie Post office.
John Post office.
Ronnie Post office.
Brian Those projects didn’t exist in a bubble, though. There was something bigger happening.
Cheryl Because it’s not just the post office and BART. It’s urban renewal… it’s an idea of after you’ve segregated a community and discarded a community, you pull it back in.
Brian When Cheryl says ‘Urban Renewal,’ she’s talking about a concept that arose out of the Great Depression. It’s the theory that when a city clears out slums and replaces old buildings with new ones, the local economy will thrive again.
Chloe On paper, it sounds great, but what ends up happening in a lot of cities where poor people of color live, like Oakland, is that the city says...
Cheryl ‘Well that’s the red light district, that’s this, that’s that, those are all bad people.’
Brian Everyone we spoke with for this episode weighed in on this.
Dickie Remember they had to tear down a lotta houses to get those people out of there to do that and they had to go somewhere else.
Larry These cats would come in and buy you out.
[BART train--faint at first--begins to overtake background music]
Cheryl They got paid something like $4,000 for their homes.
[Post office truck booms]
Ronnie They had to shut down streets, and they had to shut down entrances into clubs.
Cheryl It robs these families.
Dickie These people out here are trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
[BART getting louder]
Larry So…You had a lot of places to play that, all of a sudden, they weren’t there anymore.
Bob It took out a lot of stuff.
Cheryl It’s part of reclaiming that land.
Larry There were a lot of cats that depended on just making money in this area…
John Now they’ve been displaced and pushed away.
Dickie ‘Cause now you go there, you got the post office, you got BART, it’s dead.
Chris It just disappeared, as far as I’m concerned.
John It couldn’t be maintained...Seventh could never be the same.
Larry ...So yeah, it affected them. Really bad.
[BART train runs into foreground, overtakes everything.]
Ronnie And that’s what destroyed West Oakland.
Cheryl I try not to be a bitter person but it’s hard. Because it just feels like every opportunity working class people get...there’s some external reason that becomes an external problem...and it devastates internally.
Larry It’s sad…it’s really sad….you know. ‘Cause where do you go? ...These were Black owned clubs, so, the Black clubs catered to the Black music: Blues, R&B, Jazz…when they left all that...died. So...that’s the sad thing.
[“I’ve Been Thinkin and Thinkin” by Willie B. Huff plays]
I’ve been standing here thinkin’, just what my baby takes me to be...
Brian Some of the folks we spoke with mentioned that blues was on its way out anyway because of Disco and Funk. They said that, even without BART, the post office, and urban renewal, the 7th Street scene still would have faded. I asked Dickie Lacey....
Brian [in interview] Do you think that there’s something to that? Do you think that the blues would have faded even if those things hadn't come in?
Dickie [troubled, contemplating] Well...it’s possible...I don’t know [pause] it’s, it’s, uh [pause] I don’t know…[measured, careful] When things, go, change, sometimes you have to change with it. With people changing into different forms of music, is that, you know, what they call progress? I don’t know if that’s progress.
Brian Oakland has been through a lot since Seventh Street’s heyday.
Chloe The rise of feminism and the Black Panthers, funk and soul music, hip-hop, the crack epidemic, and today...
KPIX anchor Oakland has become one of the hottest rental markets in the Bay Area.
KPIX anchor As gentrification changes the neighborhood, the people who have long called it home are getting pushed out.
CBS’ Jessica Flores For some, this is a story about progress and community investment. For others, it’s an ongoing story about gentrification.
The Business of Life host Has gentrification changed your neighborhood?
Stacey Sutton @ TEDx People are talking about gentrification.
The Constituent host Maleena Lawrence The issue of gentrification.
Mercury news interviewee Gentrification.
Anthony Weaver Gentrification.
MSNBC anchor Gentrification.
Brian It’s the hot-button word of the decade.
Chloe That’s why we feel it’s important to mention our own part in the gentrification of Oakland.
Brian Chloe and I moved to Oakland ten years ago. We lived in cars and slept on couches when we got here. The recession had just hit when I arrived. It was in full swing when Chloe showed up. We couldn’t find work. We were broke. Things are better now, but even today, we share a house with four other roommates to afford the rent. So we’re not the typical face of gentrification.
Chloe Neither of us drives a Tesla. We bike everywhere.
Brian But we have contributed to the new face of West Oakland.
Chloe Even though we aren’t rich transplants, we’re still pretty new to the neighborhood, and we’re white.
Brian The mere presence of new, white faces encourages other whites to the neighborhood. Prices go up, more non-white people get pushed out, and many of them end up living under the freeway.
Chloe Even recession-era transplants like Brian and I wonder how long we’ll be able to afford to live here.
Brian Though the 7th Street blues scene died out long before we arrived, there’s still music in West Oakland. Until recently, there were basement punk shows and backyard hip-hop concerts across the neighborhood. We were part of that scene.
Chloe Today you’ll have a hard time finding a living-room show in the neighborhood. Nobody wants a noise complaint. If their landlords hear about it, they could be house-hunting again by the end of the month.
Brian Another wave of the West Oakland music scene has come and gone. Chloe and I feel partially responsible.
Chloe But no one wants to sit by and watch music disappear from the neighborhood, and some of the old-school musicians who played Seventh Street are still rockin’ out today.
Brian Like Ronnie Stewart.
[Ronnie Stewart live concert plays]
Chloe Ronnie preserves the blues by playing with his band every Saturday at a local barbecue joint. He’s worked for years with the City of Oakland to install sidewalk plaques that commemorate 7th Street Blues heroes. He calls it...
Ronnie “The Music They played on 7th Street” Oakland Walk of Fame.
Brian In 2012, the city installed the first plaques in the sidewalk in front of the West Oakland BART station. Each carries the name of someone who played 7th Street. Ronnie plans to place more in front of Esther’s Orbit Room. It’s the only old club still standing on 7th. It closed down in 2009.
Chloe You can catch the Larry Vann Band playing in other parts of Oakland...
[Larry Vann Band live plays]
Chloe ...And he teaches private music lessons to young kids, too.
Larry I just love teaching them, sharing with them the knowledge I have, and making ‘em feel good about themselves.
Chloe Cheryl shows her documentary at film festivals around the country and on Oakland’s public access TV channel, KTOP.
Brian Dickie lives in Richmond with his wife and son. He doesn’t play in public anymore, but he can still blow.
[Dickie rockin’ a harmonica plays]
Chloe Other sounds have overtaken the popularity of West Oakland Blues but its spirit hangs on.
Brian Solidarity forged from racism, dispossession, and displacement, and the unique flavor Oakland adds to everything lives on through hip-hop.
Chloe This is Spiritual Souljah, by Dickie’s nephew, Ken Cummings.
[“Spiritual Souljah” by Ken Cummings plays]
I’m a spiritual soldier, I’m a spiritual soldier...sworn on the battlefield, struggle to survive, to stay alive, ‘cause I’m a spiritual soldier...
Chloe Hip-hop artists are still scraping for respect, money, and love, the way their forebears did.
Brian Seventh Street may be a different place today, but the people of this city continue to adapt, no matter what the system throws at them. That perseverance draws from the blues.
Ronnie Stewart America’s only true contribution to the world of culture—we don’t have symphonies, we don’t have Beethoven, Bach—is blues, jazz, and gospel.
Larry Vann It’s the root of the different forms of American music. It’s the foundation of everything. And by understanding that, you can really go anywhere.
[Larry Van Band live plays]
Brian Hey listeners! If you enjoy the music you hear on this episode, you should know that much of it was made possible by our friends at JSP Records!
Chloe Since 1977, JSP Records has kept the spirit of the blues alive by bringing American blues artists and their music to the UK for concerts, tours, and recording sessions.
Brian JSP pioneered the high quality re-mastering technique for vintage recordings and revolutionized the reissue market with affordable box sets of complete recordings or key sessions of legendary artists like Charley Patton, Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller, and the Bob Geddins Legacy, featured on this episode.
Chloe You can check out their catalog and purchase original recordings and stunning box set reissues on their website at J-S-P-records DOT com.
Chloe In the next episode of Beats and Measures, we’ll take a look at an often overlooked Bay Area community and its musical traditions:
Brian Buskers; street musicians who play their hearts out for handouts.
Unidentified Woman And it hasn’t been easy...some days I make some actual money, and the rest of the time I make enough to sort of get by.
Chloe And some of their personal hardships...
Brian [in interview] What was your parents’ reaction like when you came out?
Unidentified Woman Well, I don’t think my dad was as shocked. I think he was depressed...But I just don’t relate to the world in the same way that you think I should.’
Brian [in interview] What way was that?
Unidentified Woman You know, being raised as a male.
Brian That’s on the next episode of Beats and Measures.
[Larry Van Band live plays]
Chloe Thanks for listening to our first episode. If you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe to our channel and rate us on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. It helps us A LOT.
Brian Beats and Measures is a production of Studio To Be in Oakland, CA.
Chloe Executive producers are: Joaquin Alvarado, Ken Ikeda, and Kristin Belden
Brian Edited by Cheryl Devall
Chloe William Sammons is our sound engineer.
Brian And an extra special thanks to Kristina Loring, for everything.
Chloe This podcast was created by your hosts: Brian Howey and myself, Chloe Behrens.
Brian JSP Records, Boot House of Tunes, Third Side Music, Ronnie Stewart’s Caravan of Allstars, The Larry Vann Band and Ken Cummings provided music for this episode.
Chloe Thanks to Classic Cars West in Oakland for letting us record the cool sounds of your vintage rides. And to the Greasy Gills and Stan Behrens for helping us build the West Oakland Sound.
Brian To Sarah Carpenter for the Studio To Be shoutout.
Chloe And to Abby Larson from BAWAR, and Cheryl Fabio. Lowell Fulson takes us out of this episode with “Prison Bound.”
[“Prison Bound” by Lowell Fulson plays]
Dickie But what I mean about blues is not always-- everybody, you know “my dog done bit me” and “my woman took my pants” or something…[everyone laughs]
Brian I hate it when that happens. [laughter]
[End Episode. Time: 53:41]