CHRIS STRACHWITZ Sept. 26, 2020 by phone
PART 1: (Edited by Chris Strachwitz on October 4, 2020 page 1
All right, well let’s start with Bob Geddins. He was a wonderful guy from Texas, a black man, who had this wonderful easy going talk about [imitates slow Texas drawl] “Well, you know…” He was just the kind of person that you just got to like him right off. And he was so nice and helpful to me every time. And he really was one of my main teachers when I was trying to learn how to record this music.
I would go to Oakland every now and then when I was teaching at Los Gatos High School by 19 — it must have been ’59 or thereabouts. I’m not sure if I met him before. Yeah, I think I must have met him because I recall, even recording some people there at his little studio. And because he was typical of many nice people who want to do good work but were hampered by lack of funds as usual, and especially being a black guy he had a heck of a time getting his records distributed in a more widely fashion. And so what he did, he said, “Well Chris, I couldn’t do that much with it, but I let them boys have it, hoping they would do something with it.” By that he meant these other companies that he would send his masters to. Like for example, the K.C. Douglas one, I forgot which one it was, I don’t think it was the Down Town recording, but it was issued on a Los Angeles Label.
And I believe that the Lowell Fulson sides, like “Lazy Woman Blues” which was only Lowell and his brother Martin on two guitars. It’s the most lowdown, slow and old time Texas blues you’ll ever hear. And especially that title impressed me later when I thought about the lyrics, how amazing that line is about
I ain’t gonna pick no more cotton,
I ain’t gonna pull no more corn.
If you see a mule run away with the world,
Let him go ahead on.
I mean that man was really a marvelous, pure blues singer that day. But he knew he had to progress — this is talking about Lowell Fulson — in order to survive in this modern era. So he started getting more modern as time went on. But some of those things, especially, I believe those titles that day were recorded by Bob Geddins, who then leased it or sold it to the Swing Time label, owned by this fellow Jack Lauderdale, also a black man who was sort of in a similar position in Los Angeles, but his label was somewhat more successful and had better distribution than I think most of Bob Geddins’s labels had.
And then I went back to his little studio. I first of all found out how to record an electric guitar. I really had no clue and he said, “Chris, just put that amp on a chair and put one mike in front of it, and give the other microphone to the singer, and that’s how you could get a good mix.” “That’s a damn good idea. Okay.” And then he was really such an amazing, casual man yet he loved the music, both the gospel music and the blues. He also made some novelty records on his own like “Hello Italy – I want to talk to Maria” and also some sides by his Geddins’ Cavaliers! And I always felt a bit sorry for him because I really had no resources at that time myself. I hadn’t really started to make records. Really, I was just trying out, learning things.
This is all after I came to Berkeley in 1953 to attend U.C. Berkeley, and then I was drafted into the US Army from 1954 to 1956 when I returned to UC. Anyway, later every time I came up from Los Gatos, (I began teaching in ’59 at Los Gatos and Saratoga High Schools) I would come up on the weekends to visit my friends and would try to find Bob Geddins again. And so, often I would go to his place where I’d
previously been, there would be a sign on the door: “Moved. Moved to such and such an address.” That happened at least three or four times. It was unbelievable – I think the rent was always raised on him. Actually, one of the last times he wound up on San Pablo Avenue. I remember an upstairs building and I’ll never forget that one because there was a large shape of someone laying on the couch. And I asked Bob, “Who’s that there?” “Oh, that’s Big Mama. Big Mama Thornton. [laughs] She was lying on the couch. I think it was probably the time she was recording for the Bay-Tone label. That was another strange character. He seemed like a nice quiet guy Brad Taylor, a Black guy from San Francisco with his small Bay-Tone label. I think I met him once and he made perhaps the first recording of Big Mama’s since her hit of “Hound Dog” on Peacock. He was also the first one to have Big Mama record that song that Janis Joplin made into a hit “Ball N’ Chain” but he never released it. But in typical fashion, once I recorded her with that song of course he turned up and he had the copyright on it! So Big Mama never got a damn nickel for it because at that time the guy was broke or something and the copyright became a contested mess! I tried to get my claim back but it never worked out!
Anyway, these are all kinds of things that tangle together in my mind when I think about these wonderful people. Bob Geddins, he was such a kind soul, always ready to make records. And he was totally enamored by the whole process. I know he had his own pressing plant in Oakland but he was not a good businessman, obviously. But that’s a rare combination, I guess. Somehow I was lucky to survive, even though I knew nothing about business when I started. But you try to learn from people.
There was a similar guy, not just Jack Lauderdale, in L.A. who was much more like Bob Geddins. That was Mr. Fulbright also a black man but they called him “Pinetop” and he had white hair that grew straight up, but he was the first one to record Clifton Chenier on this Elko label which he “gave” to the bigger Imperial label. But I had a kind of a weird experience with him because when I walked into his house there in Los Angeles, I told him who I was. And he said at once: “Are you a Jew?” I said, “No, I’m not.” “All right, come on in.” A lot of the small black record guys apparently had some problems with some of the smaller but up and coming R&B labels whose owners happen to be Jewish but were good businessmen, who usually knew how to survive.
They probably didn’t always treat the people who supplied the master recordings all that well. But in those days, a record was nothing big and most of them did not become HITS! But any record was a potential meal ticket. If you can get a record out there that will get on the juke boxes, sell, and even get heard on the radio and if you are smart enough and willing and able to tour behind it then you might make some money from a record. And this is what a lot of musicians did in those days. The most wonderful, amazing example I can give you is when I finally met Rose Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, they were a white hillbilly band, of course. They were actually billed in the late forties and early fifties as “America’s most colorful Hillbilly band” and she told me: “Listen, Chris, when we started recording for Four Star Records, (that was a Pasadena company, and they had to be a union label in those days) they would give us a check, and at the end of the session we had to give it back to them! But listen, we didn’t give a darn about that because that company had our records on every juke box, in every hillbilly joint there was, and on the radio. any place that would play this music on the whole West Coast. They promoted us. And we would play dances and shows behind our records. And we just made a lot more money on the live shows, you see.” And that was their way to make a living from the records which got out there! And I think this was the case with other kinds of minority music, both the gospel music and the blues, of course. And so this is what people do forget.
Anyway, before Bob Geddins, I think the first one I actually met in Oakland was Mr. Jaxyson. He spelled it Mr. Jaxyson, but underneath it said, “Pronounced Jackson” the Jaxyson label, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but there has been a re-issue of that stuff. He recorded people who were wandering along 7th Street in the late ‘40s, and had them come into his little radio repair shop, which was right next to the
Lincoln Theater on 7th Street in Oakland. And he recorded people like “Gold Rush” who played the funkiest piano you ever heard. And he recorded Blind Butler – I forget now, on the label it said “With guitar and tin bucket.” I forget what it said exactly. I’d have to show you one of the records, actually so that you can see these records. And he was also the first one to record Reverend Louis Narcisse, who later became locally quite famous as His Highness, King Louis H. Narcisse of the Mount Zion Spiritual Temple, which was on the corner of, I think, 12th and Wood St. if I’m not mistaken. Anyway, he became well known and was on the radio all the time. I would listen to him live from his church. You can actually see some footage of King Narcisse if you look at our video that the Arhoolie Foundation put out, called “Down Home Music ’63: A Journey Through America’s Heartland” when I made a bunch of films with this German couple who hired me. I was very lucky. This was my first experience making films and we also filmed Lowell Fulson playing at the Blue Mirror in San Francisco and also Barbara Dane who had Sugar Hill, a club on Broadway in San Francisco and presented legends from the past like Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red and Mama Yancy . And we visited Jesse Fuller of course. He was known to almost anybody who came to Berkeley because he was this legendary songster, folk singer, and he was a character. Unbelievable. I first met him in the mid Fifties and went to his house. And he would have all these 78s that I’d never heard before. And I just made some amateur tapes of him. He had a shoe shine stand in Oakland.
And of course there was K.C. Douglas. He was a little more, a little more in the commercial world, shall I put it this way? KC still played dances from time to time. Jesse Fuller, I don’t think—well, he did make one funny little 10” LP back in the early Fifties or late Forties. But anyway, KC came from Mississippi. He was not from Texas, like so many of the others, or Louisiana. He was actually from around Jackson, Mississippi where he knew and learned from Tommy Johnson who made that record called “Canned Heat” back in the late Twenties. But in the late 40s he had also made a record for Bob Geddins’ Down Town label with his “Mercury Blues” which was later made famous by Steve Miller and then made a real hit by Alan Jackson. KC also had made a 12 LP for the Cook label in the early 50s. It contained mostly the old blues he had learned from Tommy Johnson but KC was also trying to stay more up to date and composed new blues which I later recorded with him for Arhoolie. K.C. also introduced me to Miss Jessie Jenkins who recorded “The 1919 Influenza Blues” for me – she was a fine but mainly religious singer and pianist but I issued this item only later on our “Blues With A Message” CD.
Most of the blues singers here in northern California came mostly from Texas. K.C. Douglas was unusual, and he had been working for the City of Berkeley. Then I also encountered L.C. “Good Rockin” Robinson. I really liked him and his brother as well – I think he called himself AC – I had them both on my radio program on KPFA when I started doing those. But that was later – probably in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. I really don’t remember. L.C. could play both fiddle and lap steel guitar and he was a good singer as well and I made some records with him. LC had this wonderful drummer with him – called himself The Chicago Kid – he put on a good show by sometimes beating his drum sticks on everything in sight!
There were a number of black clubs and bars in the Bay Area – but the one I really remember with fondness was the Savoy Club in North Richmond where I had booked Lightning Hopkins in the early 1960s after he had played a much bigger black club in Oakland, but I don’t recall that name. After I had Lightning come from Houston to play several club dates in California, I remember taking him to the Savoy Club. And I’ll never forget this isolated section of Richmond where you also had the small Jazzland Record Shop, I think it was run by Ollie Freeman, a very nice and kind proprietor where I saw these early C.L. Franklin sermon records. They were pressed on the Chess Record label, but they were on 78s and came in these paper packages with about four or five 78s in each because he made these long sermons. Reverend C.L. Franklin, you probably know he became the most famous preacher in Detroit and was the father of Aretha. A few years later I found out that these recordings were made by a black small shop owner by the name of Joe Von Battle. I was just constantly learning how this whole world of Black gospel music and blues existed sort of in the shade of the much bigger white world in the US. And just like Bob Geddins here in Oakland, there was this amazing man in Detroit and he recorded all kinds of local black talent from blues to wonderful gospel and jazz in his small radio repair shop. But this man also realized that he couldn’t find good distribution for his own labels, so he licensed or sold some of his recordings to better established firms like Chess (Chicago) and Gotham (Philadelphia) but continued to also release material on his own JVB and other labels! Including the amazing “Alabama Bus” (parts 1 and 2) by Brother Will Hairston with Washboard Willie about the big bus boycott. He also recorded the marvelous Mississippi preacher and singer, Elder Wilson and his sons, who all played their three harmonicas in harmony alone together! This item was issued in Philadelphia on the Gotham label. I think Joe von Battle was kind of like Bob Geddins who would somewhat bigger firms “just let them have ‘em” hoping they would sell more. This was happening all over the country because the major labels had almost given up recording minority music during World War II when shellac became rigidly rationed and impossible to get by small firms and the national musicians union had prohibited non-union recording activities. Also many African Americans looked down on this “low class” stuff and looked down on these like gypsies in Europe. They were the lowest category, and like the “Okies” who were often impoverished people who came out here to the West Coast during the Great Depression, and especially during the Second World War when industry demanded labor and would even actively recruit in Louisiana and places. And so a lot of them from Louisiana came out here. That’s how Creoles, the Louisiana contingent including Queen Ida, and all those people that I also met, came out here and continued to enjoy their own culture. And, to me, this was a marvelous world that I had never realized was out there.
I think Bob Geddins did more for the local blues singers because he was there for a long, long time – even into the 45 era. Anyway, to me Bob Geddins was a real teacher. And I’ll never forget the time I came up from Los Gatos, it was in 1960 and he had again moved to another place where he said to me: “All right Chris, let me play you this tape I got right here. See what you think of it.” You see, by that time I had started a label, I had just started Arhoolie Records. And he played it for me, and of course I instantly knew who it was, it was Big Joe Williams, who I had known as one of the great blues singers who was the composer of “Baby Please Don’t Go”. I thought he was in Chicago where I think Bob Koester had started to record him by 1960. But anyway, I said “Where did you go to record him? Did you go to Chicago?” “No man, he’s right here. I just bailed him out of Greystone”, that Alameda County jail out in East Oakland. They called it Greystone at the time but it is Santa Rita now. Big Joe Williams had driven out here, with his wife and child. Although he was basically illiterate, he had found his way out here, and located Bob Geddins, and had made this audition tape for him. Big Joe was just this extraordinary elderly man, and blues singer who got arrested because living here in this absolute sleaze ball hotel with his wife and his little boy on San Pablo Avenue had apparently pulled a knife on a woman during some argument whereupon the police were called. His environment was literally horrific. Whenever I tried to visit him, there were always these guys bugging and hitting on his wife. I mean it was such a nightmare kind of existence of which I only had an inkling. He was always very kind to me and later in Mississippi, he was very helpful in finding interesting older singers for me.
I met Lowell Fulson one time, when I was teaching high school in Los Gatos. It may have been in ’59 or ’60, or ’61 – he was billed as part of a Rhythm and Blues show at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. These R&B shows would come to town and this particular one had Lowell Fulson as the headliner. I went to that show, saw and heard him there and afterwards went backstage, introduced myself as a fan of his music and took his picture and I think spoke to him about his background in this music. By that time I had bought some masters by Lowell Fulson from Jack Lauderdale in L.A., from his Swing Time label, including the early ones with just his brother, Martin Fulson on second guitar. I used that photo on the cover of that Lowell Fulson Arhoolie LP 2003. That was very early in my career. And so it was an amazing world of blues but no one spoke about certain regional styles in those days. It was just down home blues!
I think I first heard Rhythm & Blues and downhome blues when I was at Pomona College in Southern California. This must have been in the summer of ’51 when I heard this music on radio station KFVD where Hunter Hancock had a two-hour program in the afternoons called “Harlem Matinee.” But this was the beginning of Black radio. I mean there were no full time Black radio stations at the time. “Old HH” as he called himself, probably bought the time. It was the same station on which Woody Guthrie started playing in the ‘30s. That’s where I got to hear real blues when suddenly they began to become very popular, like Fats Domino “Careless Love”, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Do It If You Wanna” on Trumpet records, Lightnin’ Hopkins “Sugar Mama” on Aladdin and “Hello Central Give Me 209” on Sittin’ In With, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, etc. Now I heard all this amazing down home blues. Not just the jazz blues. And I finally took a bus and went to a record store into downtown L.A. I think it was Dolphins of Hollywood on Central Avenue. Of course a young black sales lady came up to me and said, “May I help you sir? Are you looking for maybe people like Sarah Vaughan or Billy Eckstine?” That’s what she was expecting a white person to be looking for, And I said, “No, do you have any records by Lightning Hopkins or Sonny Boy Williamson?” “Oh man! You like those down home blues!” She absolutely flipped out, because that was really the beginning of blues (now called Rhythm and Blues), widely appealing not only to Blacks, but also Whites and Mexican-Americans. Because R&B was suddenly heard on the radio – a very democratic medium which could be heard by anyone with a receiver. That may have also been the same day that I went to one of Hunter Hancock’s live R&B shows at the Olympic Auditorium – usually a boxing arena! That show included a blues singer named Smilin’ Smokey Lynn who had the longest guitar cord – and pranced around the stage like a praying mantis – preceding Chuck Berry by several years! Also there was a vocal group – maybe The Spiders? I forgot – and the very popular “honking band” of Big Jay McNeely and his tenor sax! As I recall, the audience was mainly just Blacks and what we called Pachucos – or Mexican-Americans. I think I was one of the few pale faces! But I also got my first whiff of the Weed in the men’s room!
I realized that blues and jazz appealed to Whites from the start of the genres with jazz in the 1920s and also in Country music. In 1960 when I drove to Texas with my collector friend, Bob Pinson, we interviewed I think the first guitar player in the Bob Wills Band, Clifton “Sleepy” Johnson, who Bob had found out lived in Fort Worth. And I asked him, “Where did the Bob Wills band get songs like “I walked from Dallas clear into Wichita Falls, if I can’t find my baby, there won’t be no walk at all.” (“Swing Blues # 1”) and he replied “Oh man, we just went to the furniture store and listened to all them “N” records, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and like that!” And so they would listen to those blues records back in the ‘20s and Bob Wills’ great singer, Tommy Duncan really caught my ears! So that tradition goes back to White people copying basically Black music, but it always comes up very different when they do it. But that appeals to a whole new audience. And to me those are the most fascinating aspects of this whole evolution of blues, for example. And then more middle class Blacks would turn their backs on them. It didn’t take very much, I think, to turn against these down home blues. I remember Ebony Magazine ran a big article when Big Bill Broonzy died, “The last of the blues singers has died.” They almost celebrated it. They apparently did not appreciate his artistry or poetry.
I don’t know if you have met this wonderful lady who works as a park ranger at the Rosy the Riveter Museum in Richmond, Betty Reid Soskin.
MK: Oh yes. Betty Reid Soskin. Mike Kappus brought her to one of our last Arhoolie Parties and that is where I met her and talked to her. She came from a nice middle class Creole family in New Orleans and those type of down home blues were never even on her listening horizons! But then when I found out that she and her husband started Reid’s Records in Berkeley, I was curious and asked her what got them interested in carrying what we call today Blues and Gospel records back in the 1940s. So she told me about what happened there: that her husband had an Italian-American friend who ran juke boxes all over the area. So one day he came to Mr. Reid and said, “Listen. Is there any way you can get these records for me, because my customers ask for them but nobody else seems to carry them.” meaning blues and gospel discs. So Mr. Reid soon became one of the major retailers of R&B records, but also a great promoter of gospel shows for the Bay Area.
I’ll never forget first hearing the Staple Singers at the Oakland Auditorium. I was going to U.C. Berkeley at the time (ca. 1957) and I had never been to one of those gospel concerts myself before either. And I invited a young lady from UC to come along. And I’ll never forget, when a Black couple sitting next to us in the audience loudly commented when Mavis Staple started singing in her amazing low voice: “Looka’ here! That ain’t no man, that’s a girl singing there.” It was just like a church service, it really was. And at that time, to me it was the greatest period for the Staple Singers because they were so sincere about it, it was just, God, I don’t know. Little Mavis just came out with that powerful, low voice like out of nowhere. Just unbelievable and haunting to this day!
MK: But tell me a little more about Big Mama.
CS: I first heard her when I was still teaching in Los Gatos, it might have been 1960, I think. Somebody came to me when I was living in a cabin just south of Los Gatos in a place called Holy City, the only place I could find a cheap shack to live in and told me: “You know there’s this black woman singing at this bar in Santa Cruz and you might like her. She plays the drums and harmonica and she really hollers.” And so I went there, and sure enough, that’s who it was, Big Mama Thornton sitting behind the drums, and she also had a piano player. I took a few pictures of them and she had a glass of water sitting on the window sill next to her with her harmonicas in it. I guess she kept them nice and soaked. I guess that makes them play better. And so when she sang and played the harmonica, she was almost a one-woman band! I was told that there was also a guitar player, but he had vanished! Anyway, that’s how I first heard her. But I didn’t know what to do with her, it was one of those instances where this singer who once had a hit (“Hound Dog”) but was now struggling to stay alive tried to find work any place she could. Later on she always told me that, “I’m trying to get me another dog.” [laughs] because one hit record doesn’t always carry you along. And especially if you didn’t write the song yourself – Leiber and Stoller wrote the song and so she didn’t get anything for it except some name recognition and a little publicity.
But I remember later when my Arhoolie label was beginning to get some attention, I wanted to find her again. Someone had told me that Big Mama had moved back to Los Angeles and so I drove to LA and went to Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a big record shop on Central Ave. and asked them, “Do you have any idea where I could find Big Mama Thornton?” And they said, “Yeah, there’s this park right down the street. You can’t miss it and she might be hanging out there.” So I went to this park, I don’t remember the name of it, and there she was sitting at the head of a big, long, rectangular table with a whole bunch of guys around the sides, and Big Mama had a big pistol laying right next to her. [laughs] So they didn’t want to mess with her, I don’t think! But to me she was always just the nicest person. God, when she was making money she would buy people drinks, she would treat people nice. But I guess she could be rough as hell too. That’s due to the mean world she grew up in. It was the roughest kind of world that very few of us — I don’t know anything about your background — but I certainly never experienced that before.
MK: No, no. Nor I.
CS: So it was all a kind of amazing venture into meeting people and cultures that exist in this country. Oh yeah, I think it was sometime after, or sometime between those times that I saw her on Bob Geddin’s sofa in his little studio. And he said, “That’s Big Mama there, taking a rest.”
She was an amazing person and I really wanted to capture her on record. I finally tried to record her once with Gatemouth Brown and his band when they were booked in San Francisco at a black club but it sadly just didn’t work out, possibly also due to my very limited financial resources at that time. So it wasn’t until I went to Europe for the Lippmann & Rau American Folk Blues Festival with Fred McDowell that I was finally able to record her.
Follow up 10/21/20:
CS: It was basically a meal ticket, a record. And of course most records didn’t ever make anything. They just didn’t go anywhere. It just cost a lot of money. But anyway, making hits was always a struggle for a numbest of reasons, including that most of the musicians or artists really had no concept of what was involved. First of all, who wrote the song, and whether they would get any credit for them. Because they all thought, like Big Mama thought it was her song but it wasn’t. [Hound Dog] It was by Leiber and Stoller, these two guys, “Hound Dog.” Anyway, it went like that. It was really difficult to make them understand what was all involved in the record business. And in those days, most of them didn’t pay any royalties for the sale of the records. This why so many of them also got into the publishing business or copywriter things. We were all pretty ignorant in those days, and learned slowly.
CHRIS STRACHWITZ Sept. 26, 2020 by phone