Like a sound you hear
That lingers in your ear
You can’t forget
From sunrise to sunset
It’s all in the air
You hear it everywhere
No matter what you do
It’s gonna get a hold on you
– Marlena Shaw, California Soul
California soul. The sound of the West. It’s music that crackled from sandy portable radios while SoCal surfers perfected hang 10s, and it’s tunes that jam band devotees follow from show to show. It’s West Coast hip-hop, L.A. punk, Seattle grunge, and San Francisco disco. Recent weeks saw the deaths of three people whose contributions helped create our West Coast sound. Dick Dale, Hal Blaine, and Jeanie Patterson contributed to the California soundtrack—and paved the way for new generations of Golden State music makers.
Born Richard Anthony Monsour in 1937, Dick Dale helped define the unmistakable riffs of surf rock and roll in the 1960s. A surfer himself, Dale worked with guitar maker Leo Fender to develop a sound that would resemble the rumble of the waves, or tubes, as it curled around him, mid-surf. According to Dale, he blew out 48 speakers and amplifiers in the process. His biggest hit, “Misirlou,” became known to later fans when it was featured in the opening credits of the 1994 cult hit Pulp Fiction.
“When I die, it will not be in a rocking chair with a beer. It will be onstage, with one big explosion and body parts.” – Dick Dale, 2004
Oakland-born Fantastic Negrito is one of the musicians adding to that West Coast sound. Like Dale’s, his riff-heavy work—he uses seven different bass guitars—produces a recognizable sound that has won over serious music fans and won him Grammys.
“I wanna put everything on the line. I don’t wanna be one of these people trying to do stuff safe and safe.” – Fantastic Negrito, 2018
Dale’s surf music even touched the soul of teenaged guitarist, Liam Zito, the son of Alta contributor Tom Zito. Two years ago, father and son drove from San Francisco to Omaha, Nebraska to hear the legend play. Zito recalls that after the show, Dale “invited Liam to the dressing room, told him to keep practicing, to always wear earplugs, and sent him packing with the guitar pick he had used in the show: full of nicks from his furious downstrokes. It’s still sitting on Liam’s desk.”
Drummer and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Hal Blaine might not be a household name, but you’ve likely heard his work on thousands of rock and roll hits. A prominent member of the Los Angeles collective of musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, Blaine (born Harold Simon Belsky in 1929) was the most recorded drummerin rock and roll history, working with everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra and from the Beach Boys to the Ronettes.
Known for his own larger-than-life personality, Blaine would have likely appreciated the old-school stage presence of Los Angeles’s Chicano Batman. The four-piece band are largely unknown outside of L.A., but their showmanship, right down to their wedding-band tuxedos, made a big impression on Erik Himmelsbach-Weinstein when he reviewed them for Alta’s Winter 2018 issue:
“Chicano Batman delivers a smooth, seductive sound that’s stone classic—an irresistible retro modern mashup, equal parts Brazilian Tropicalia, Colombian cumbia, and vintage garage freak-out, with nods of respect paid to spiritual godfathers like El Chicano and the Premiers.”
Jeanie Patterson’s tiny Sweetwater Saloon in downtown Mill Valley provided a musical home away from home for performers like Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and Clarence Clemons. Patterson took over the small bar in 1978 and transformed it from a local watering hole into a touchstone of the Bay Area music community. She stepped down after 20 years, and the business closed in 2007 after a dispute with the landlord.
“[The Sweetwater] built the local music scene. It turned Mill Valley from a place to live to a place to hang out.” —Mill Valley record store owner John Goddard
In 2012, Sweetwater Music Hall reopened in a larger space nearby. On opening night, the Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison helped christen the new stage. A former Harvard roommate of Alta publisher Will Hearst’s, Harrison describes performing at the Sweetwater in his Alta Q&A with Hearst.While Patterson never returned to see its rebirth, her vision for a small venue with big sound lives on. As Fantastic Negrito, Chicano Batman, and Jerry Harrison continue to contribute to the soundtrack of the West, Patterson’s Sweetwater Saloon, Dale’s guitar riffs, and Blaine’s drumbeat remain forever a part of California’s soul.
A condensed version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2019 Alta newsletter.