Ronnie Stewart, E.C. Scott, Terrible Tom Bowden, and Lee Ashford (from left) gather outside the shuttered Esther’s Orbit Room in Oakland on October 27, 2020.
Music critics differ on the origin of the blues. Many say that it began to appear in the late 1800s. But the blues scale, the pentatonic minor, was heard on the slave ships. Some have even called it the slave scale. There have been angry denunciations of those who claim that John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” was based on the songs he heard on slave ships. But its reliance on the pentatonic minor—common in Black spirituals—points to an African origin.
This slave scale has generated a billion-dollar industry. Currently, it propels advertisements from Peloton, Land Rover, Popeye’s Chicken, and others; it’s the basis for the soundtracks of television series like Bosch, Power, and the latest season of Fargo, starring Chris Rock. The complaint one hears from Oakland musicians is that while the blues have increased the revenue streams of imitators like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Eric Clapton, the pioneers are neglected. The story of blues singer L.C. “Good Rockin” Robinson is not uncommon. His Oakland friends had to take up a collection to pay his funeral expenses. “The Thrill Is Gone” is considered the greatest of Oakland’s blues songs. Cowritten by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell, it was recorded first by Hawkins in 1951, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard charts, and then in 1969 by B.B. King, who took it to No. 3 and won a Grammy. Roy Hawkins ended his career selling furniture.
My introduction to the Oakland blues and its unique sound, a fusion that originated in a collaboration among musicians from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, was the 1970 album The Oakland Blues. The heyday of the Oakland blues—its sound and scene—went from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Ronnie Stewart is the executive director of the West Coast Blues Society, which began as the Bay Area Blues Society. I met him in the 1990s during public hearings about how to best use vacant space in Old Oakland; the Blues Society obtained an office there. Stewart has observed that promoters prefer white interpreters of the blues over the originators. This is because, traditionally, millions of whites insist on quarantining themselves from Black creators. They rely on white interpreters of the Black experience. The day after the late John Denver crowned Bill Haley of the Comets the founder of rock and roll, I ran into Chuck Berry at the baggage claim at the San Francisco airport. I was the only person who recognized him.
For my 2003 book, Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, I asked photographer Richard Nagler to take a picture of some of the legendary Oakland blues musicians. Stewart contacted them, and the photo was taken in front of Esther’s Orbit Room, the last remaining reminder of a time when Oakland was a blues mecca. We expected only a dozen or so musicians to show up. We got 40.
For this Alta article, I contacted Stewart again. Since the Oakland blues photo was based on the famous 1958 Great Day in Harlem shot of 57 jazz musicians, of whom only Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson are still alive, I wanted to know what had become of the subjects of the Oakland blues photo. Esther’s Orbit Room had come to an end in 2010. Two years later, the street where it was located was memorialized by the Music They Played on 7th Street Oakland Blues Walk of Fame, a civic project two decades in the making built in front of the West Oakland BART station. The Blues Walk of Fame was financed by the city of Oakland, BART, and private donors. In total, 88 brass plaques—for the number of keys on a piano—decorate the sidewalk, honoring those who once played in West Oakland. Ironic that BART would be among the donors. Blues artists claim that it was the establishment of a post office and elevated BART tracks that disrupted the active blues scene on Seventh Street.
With Stewart’s help, I found the durability of the blues musicians photographed in 2003 to be remarkable. Only 7 of the 40 had died since the blues photo had been taken. Was being part of a blues clan the key to the longevity of the others?
Like some of the other Oakland blues musicians in the photo, E.C. Scott started out early. And like that of other blues and jazz musicians, her music has gospel roots. Comparing the first two, she says that blues musicians are more of a family. While jazz musicians use standards by composers like Cole Porter and George Gershwin as the basis for their improvisations, blues lyrics tend to be more about everyday life. The songs are original. Danceable. Their music hits the viscera. It generates the primal screams and shouts one hears from dancers as they listen to a tune like Marvin Gaye’s stirring blues classic “Got to Give It Up.” Try dancing to a jazz piece like Bud Powell’s up-tempo “Tempus Fugit.” The more cerebral jazz musicians became, the more they, like Black abstract painters, lost their connection to the grassroots.
E.C. Scott, like many blues and jazz musicians, was inspired by gospel greats Shirley Caesar and Inez Andrews, who performed at the Oakland Auditorium in the mid-1960s. Then she heard blues master Bobby Blue Bland. She would eventually get a three-album deal with Blind Pig Records. Scott has shared the stage with Ray Charles, Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, John Lee Hooker, and the Ohio Players.
Unlike many other blues musicians, who find it difficult to get jobs as a result of new white entrepreneurs in Oakland demanding that blues groups be integrated or favoring white blues musicians, Scott has sustained a career by becoming an entrepreneur of the blues as well as a performer. “I started a show called E.C.’s Juke Joint, and it aired on one station in Palo Alto, and in a year we were on over 400 stations across the U.S.,” she says. “Five years ago, I created and launched the Blues Television Network, which is a 24-hour news network.” Scott is the program director of Aitterce Productions, the owner of BTN. Her company’s shows are available on Roku, Amazon, and Apple. “There’s nobody bigger than us right now in blues,” she says.
TERRIBLE TOM BOWDEN
Like Scott, Terrible Tom Bowden, a.k.a. the Mayor of West Oakland, got his start with local groups. As a kid, he had helped support his family by shining shoes. His territory was Seventh Street. Among his customers were the famed Black Pullman porters. His largest tip came from President Harry Truman. Bowden went from being a young street performer to building an impressive career. He has played with Ray Charles, Count Basie, and the Four Tops.
“Do you think Oakland’s doing enough for the blues?” I ask him.
“No. Not at all. They’re putting us under the table, and what they are doing is taking a unique sound and coming with fake. Making the blues all white,” Bowden says. “They want to cross over and take it. You know what Little Richard went through when Pat Boone wanted to take over ‘Tutti Frutti.’ That’s what’s happening with the blues. We’re covered. They got people who can imitate.”
BIG BOB DEANCY
Big Bob DeAncy was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Like many Black blues musicians, DeAncy has found a more favorable reception to his music in Europe than here.
“Why?” I ask him.
He says, “In Europe, being a musician is like a job. Over here, it’s viewed as a hobby.”
“So what period do you think is the high point of Oakland blues?”
“I would say back during the time when myself and the guys were doing things, back when Seventh Street was the hottest street in the Bay Area. If you didn’t play Seventh Street, you didn’t know how to play.”
“How would you analyze the state of the blues in Oakland?” I ask.
“There seems to be more white people that’re into the blues than Black people. I would especially say that younger Black people are more into rap or something other than the blues scene,” DeAncy says.
Lee Ashford gives Charles Sullivan, a Black booking agent, credit for assisting Black blues musicians in their careers. “Bill Graham came over here from Hungary, and he started working for Sullivan,” he says. “Without Sullivan, there would be no Bill Graham. Sullivan would say, ‘Hey, I’m doing a show down at so-and-so and so-and-so, and you better get down here to learn how to do some of this stuff, boy,’ so we would go and stand backstage. We had a different way of teaching, the ones at the top teaching the ones at the bottom.”
Ashford was one of those who put hip-hop on the map, despite opposition from the downtown Oakland establishment. He assembled Hip Hop on the Green, an outdoor concert series held in Oakland’s Estuary Park during the 1990s. “I managed Master P. Master P started with me,” he says. “I got into hip-hop because a good friend of mine used to work for Motown. He used to do concerts, and he told me, ‘I’m going to take you through some rap.’ It was called rap then. They were doing breakdancing in the streets. People were fighting about rap all over the United States at that time. That was ’91, ’92. We’re planning to do our 30th anniversary next year if COVID-19 lets us. I’m going to do it downtown. It will be free.”
“The state of the blues in Oakland?” I ask.
“Well, one thing about it is the promotion for blues and stuff in the Bay Area is just about taken over by other races. Don’t get me wrong. I love the blues, and I’m glad that white people took it up, because it was in trouble for a while, so I’m not saying this in a racist kind of way. Not that many gigs are available for Black blues musicians. A lot of them got older, and the young Black people unfortunately are not picking that up.”
One of the best films ever made about Black music is Evolutionary Blues, by Oakland-based filmmaker Cheryl Fabio, daughter of the late professor Sarah Fabio, who taught Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and is called the Mother of Black Studies.
Fabio agrees with the musicians I interviewed. “We’ve killed off all of the venues that these musicians can earn a living in, that they could play in and hone their skills and continue to grow,” she says. “All of those venues have basically died, and this regentrification has flipped the demographic of who owns the blues now. I would hear from many of them that they can’t get a gig unless they integrate their band. These upscale new restaurants that do bring in live music want to integrate it.”
“I think about Taj Mahal, for instance,” she adds. “Taj, his love was the blues, but he went through a phase where he was doing reggae. He was trying to make a living. Eventually, he said, ‘I love the blues, I’m playing the blues,’ and he went back to that. But it’s a different world for Black musicians and white musicians.”
WALKIN’ DOWN SEVENth STREET
Ronnie Stewart was very pessimistic about the future of the blues when I interviewed him in 2003. This time, I ask him, “Have things changed?”
“Believe it or not, the picture’s still about the same when you talk about the blues scene,” he says. “At one time, there were about 50 clubs. The whole irony of it is that the Lakeside Lounge, Everett and Jones, and Eli’s are probably the only remaining ones. Festivals and events are 95 percent white artists, in terms of how blues festivals and concerts go. You have one token band, say a B.B. King or a Robert Clay type. You have to be super big, but the rest of the lineup is white. Oakland used to be a very lively blues mecca. All of the blues musicians that reside in Oakland have to go to other towns to perform, because there are only two or three venues that are open in Oakland.”
Stewart explains how his hopes for the Blues Walk of Fame to bring new life to the music scene have been put on hold by the pandemic. “I played at the opening celebration,” he says of the project’s 2016 unveiling. “The first phase, before we finished, was almost 20 years, and the second phase came along relatively faster than the first one.” But last year, he says, “just about a week or two before, I had just started with the promotion, gearing up, getting graphic artists to do work and stuff, and they shut everything down in March [because of COVID-19]. So I had to cancel everything. But like I said, we had gotten everything ready for the grand opening of the second phase of the Walk of Fame, which was almost a million-dollar project.”
Stewart hopes that another forthcoming project might give the Black blues a boost. It would be a mixed business-residential complex with room for nonprofits, including a blues organization. Its tentative name is the Mandela Project. Stewart presided over the now-defunct West Coast Blues Hall of Fame awards celebration. It was one of the most attractive Oakland events of the year. The blues greats would arrive with all their finery and put on a great show.
One of the highlights of my career was when I received the 2008 Blues Songwriter of the Year award for my song “The Prophet of Doom,” recorded by Cassandra Wilson with music by David Murray. Stewart thinks the blues could be as much of a commercial draw for Oakland as country and western music is for Nashville.
Some organizations are discussing the possibility of reviving the awards ceremony on Zoom. In the meantime, Esther’s Orbit Room, which was the center of West Coast blues, stands empty. It would make a great blues museum. When it comes to Oakland blues, maybe the thrill is not gone. It just needs a reboot.