Evolutionary Blues…West Oakland’s Musical Legacy
90 minute film documentary
Directed by Cheryl Fabio
Commissioned by the City of Oakland
Produced by KTOP
Since the dawn of the modern era, historians have described at length the spread of the music we love from West Africa to the Mississippi delta then Memphis, Chicago and the Northeast. But this star-studded documentary film takes blues lovers to a place few realize even existed: the fertile breeding ground of Oakland, Calif., as it paints a vivid picture of a scene that gave us T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Sonny Rhodes, Sugar Pie DeSanto and many, many more.
While San Francisco and the wealthy suburbs that surround it are home to one of the most important scenes in the blues today, what transpired in the neighboring black district across the Bay Bridge to the northeast has remained hidden and cloaked in time despite contributing mightily to the sounds we recognize as modern blues, funk, soul and hip hop today.
East of the Mississippi, big-city blues evolved after folks migrated from the cotton fields of the deep South. The West Coast scene, however, came about after a later, separate migration. As World War II raged, a new generation of blacks – musicians included — moved from rural Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas to cash in on the decent-paying job opportunities that resulted.
In Oakland, they settled an industrial area near one of busiest ports in the world, quickly establishing a community of their own along Seventh Street, and their ranks swelled as GIs returned from the Pacific. The neighborhood flourished until urban renewal in the ‘50s. Fortunately, however, the rich musical heritage remains strong.
Like the families of many of her subjects, Evolutionary Blues producer/director Cheryl Fabio’s Tennessee kin made that move themselves. That history is a vital part of the fabric of the she weaves into the story and is aided by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson (The Warm Of Other Suns) and others while a trio of music journalists and dozens of musicians describe the scene as seen through their own eyes.
Included in the dialog are Rhodes, DeSanto, the Dynamic Miss Faye Carol, Lady Bianca, Alabama Mike, Freddie Hughes, Marvin Holmes, Fantastic Negrito and others in multiple disciplines, all of whom have built their careers from the seeds laid after the migration. “The people brought the sounds with them,” Carol explains. “And once they became city people, the sounds evolved because they were evolving.”
But the scars from segregation were deep, as the Texas-born Rhodes recalls. He recounts how, as a young man, he knew he wanted to be a musician and play lap guitar after being enthralled by a white man one day. Decades later, he’s on the verge of tears as he describes how the man tells him it will never happen because of the color of his skin. Equally troubling, Louisiana-born soul blues singer Jesse James shares the memory of his family emigrating to avoid the Ku Klux Klan.
The music that Rhodes, DeSanto and others deliver provide the backdrop of a bittersweet tale. As the film details, the West Oakland scene got its jump start through the work of Charles Sullivan, a WWII-era jukebox entrepreneur who became the biggest concert promoter on the West Coast. The original owner of the Fillmore Auditorium, his shows featured a who’s who of top blues and soul acts. The building became a rock music mecca for Bill Graham after Sullivan was murdered in San Francisco in 1966.
Several small clubs sprung up around the Fillmore, and audiences’ demand for the music they grew up on was satisfied by the arrival of Bob Geddins, whose downhome-style guitar and skills as a record producer put Oakland on the map. Soon, however, the slick sounds of T-Bone, Fulson, McCracklin and bands with big horn sections filled the night air.
Among the highlights of Evolutionary Blues are the reminiscences of petite Filipino-American powerhouse Sugar Pie about her early career as well as the rich memories of Lady Bianca and several very talented artists who began as sidemen before becoming regional legends.
But the importance of the Oakland scene stretches far beyond the blues. As the movie illustrates, the sound of popular music through the work of Larry Graham, one of the top bassists in the world and a fixture in Sly & The Family Stone. Graham recalls working with James Brown to create what became known as the James Brown sound by pushing the rhythm on the first note in a standard four-note phrase while still keeping the beat on the two and four — a format that still fills your ears today.
That’s only one aspect of how West Oakland changed music forever. Unfortunately, space doesn’t permit discussion about how the blues scene contributed to funk and, later, rap. But one thing’s for certain: Evolutionary Blues is a treasure trove on many levels, a treat for both your eyes and ears. Catch the trailer at the website address above, and be sure to view it live if it plays in your neighborhood. You’ll learn something and hear some great music clips, too.