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Music of the Fillmore - Musicians

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Music transformed the Fillmore into something more than a neighborhood. It brought people together from all walks of life and led them into the modern world of jazz, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll. They danced and sang along with the greatest musicians of the era. Read about some of these musicians, or click on a song and take a musical stroll down one of the greatest memory lanes in San Francisco's history: Fillmore Street.

Vernon Alley

Vernon Alley was a bassist and local musician who played the Fillmore with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald. Alley was discovered at Jack's Tavern in 1939. He soon became a member of Lionel Hampton's band.

Hear Vernon Alley's
"Benzadrine Dreams"
Listen (500k)
Hear Vernon Alley's
"Out of Nowhere"
Listen (500k)
Born in Winnemuka, Nevada, Alley came to San Francisco as a child. He played the clarinet first, but later switched to the bass and found the instrument that he'd stay with for life. Vernon lived on Post Street in the Fillmore for years. He recalled, "You could buy a house in the Western Addition in the 1950s for $2500." Alley had another career as a human rights commissioner under Mayors Moscone, Feinstein, and Agnos, and an art commissioner as well. Alley also had his own radio show on KLOK called "Vernon's Alley."

He recalled that Bop City had a quiet but swinging crowd. According to Alley, the owner, Jimbo, would keep everyone in line. "African Americans could not go into the Edison hotel until it was sold and the name was changed to the Booker T. Washington Hotel. Fillmore was like the Harlem of the West. Blacks liked to dress sharp when they went out. There was not a "Fillmore Sound" per se, but there was a swinging sound at the clubs. When you first started to play music, you would start out at the little clubs in the neighborhood. The Fillmore functioned as a training ground for both black and white kids. Before the WWII influx, whites supported the clubs in the Fillmore. Blacks would also come from all over to go to the clubs. There was pride in having a black neighborhood and the churches were very strong."

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Sugar Pie De Santo - http://www.jasmanrecords.com/bio.html

De Santo was born and raised in San Francisco to a Filipino father and an African American mother. After winning a talent contest at the Ellis Theater, she was discovered by band leader Johnny Otis who produced her first recordings on the Federal label, "Please Be True" and "Boom Diddy Wawa Baby". Sugar Pie was the opening act for James Brown for two years. Ultimately, this led to a contract with the Chicago record company Chess/Checker that was the foremost producer of blues and R&B legends like Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Etta James. Sugar Pie has written for artists such as Little Milton, The Whispers, Fontella Bass, The Dells and others. They have recorded some of the over 75 songs that she has written. At 62, Sugar Pie is still performing, most recently at John Lee Hooker's The Boom Boom Room.
Read more about Sugar Pie.

 

Sugar Pie performing
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Photo Credit: KQED

Hear Billy Eckstine's
"Blowin the Blues"
Listen (380k)

Billy Eckstine

Billy Eckstine loved the Fillmore but he was based in Los Angeles. He often appeared in the movies, playing in bar scenes. He was a band leader and key figure at Bop City.

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John Handy - http://www.sfsu.edu/~allarts/handy/handybio.html

Handy began his professional music career as a saxophonist when he was 15 years old playing in the famous clubs that lined Fillmore Street. He was born in Dallas in 1933 and subsequently moved to Oakland in 1948. Handy has been a mainstay in the Bay Area music scene, playing in and fronting blues bands. He has also balanced a teaching career while recording extensively, perhaps, most notably with jazz legend Charles Mingus. His performances at the Monterey Jazz Festival have also brought him much acclaim. When asked about playing in the Fillmore, Handy has said, "It was exciting to me because it was basically a new music in its developing stages. The music of Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles, and musicians like Max Roach and Art Tatum. I'd never heard anybody play on that level when I was 17."
Read more about John Handy.

John Handy
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Photo Credit: KQED

Hear Fletcher Henderson's
"You're Driving Me Crazy"
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Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson was a big band leader in the 1930s and 1940s who played regularly in the Fillmore.

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Johnnie Ingram
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Photo Credit: Johnnie Ingram

Johnnie Ingram: His Bass and Rhythm Czars

Johnnie Ingram was a bassist, vocalist, and bandleader during the Fillmore's musical heyday. His first engagement in the Fillmore was at the Subway Nightclub. He went on to tour nationally but returned to San Francisco to lead the house band at the California Theatre Restaurant. Ingram also backed the great Dexter Gordon and the blues giant, Big Joe Turner.

In the early 1940s, the following musicians played in his band: John Henton, Alto Saxophone; M.L. Mushmouth Morton, Trumpet; Ms. Beulah Forbes, Piano; Norville Maxey, Drums.
Hear Johnnie Ingram's
"Hello Girl"
Listen (500k)
Hear Johnnie Ingram's
"Whisper Baby"
Listen (500k)

His most celebrated recordings include: "Whisper Baby," "I'll Love You Forever," and "Hello Girl."
Click here to read a recent interview with Johnnie Ingram.

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Yehudi Menuhin - http://brainsys.com/ymschool/

Yehudi Menuhin was born in 1916 in New York but he grew up in the Fillmore district in San Francisco where he debuted as a prodigy in 1924. After many triumphant years playing at concerts around the world, Menuhin founded the Gstaad Festival in Switzerland in 1956. The 1950s are also considered to be the apex of his performing career.

Yehudi Menuhin as child
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Photo Credit: San Francisco Examiner
Hear Yehudi Menuhin's
Beethoven
Listen (380k)

In 1962, he founded a music school for children in England. Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary knight in 1965, and later, he received the honor of life peerage in 1995. Menuhin wrote an autobiography in 1977 entitled Unfinished Journey. He died of a heart attack in 1999 while on tour at the age of 83.

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Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis grew up in the East Bay initially playing jazz. In the 1940s, he was a band leader and producer who went to all the clubs in San Francisco and Oakland in search of new talent to record. He discovered Sugar Pie De Santo, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton.

Hear Johnny Otis's
"J T Stomp"
Listen (500k)
Earl Watkins
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Photo Credit: KQED

Earl Watkins

As a teenager, Earl Watkins was fascinated by the drums. At a dance one night Watkins noticed, "the drummer was setting up his drums and he had one foot playing the base drum, the other playing the high hat, two different rhythms, while he was setting the drums up, and then when he got them set up, each hand was doing something different." Watkins was fascinated and asked him how he could do all those different things. He ended up taking lessons from that same drummer. For his first lesson, his teacher set up the drums and a phonograph that played the Bennie Goodman trio with Gene Krupa on drums. "I listened to the drummer, Krupa, and I tried to emulate him, and that's how I got my start." Watkins would become a regular player at the height of the Fillmore Renaissance where the scene's heart and soul seemed to be located at Bop City: "You never knew who you'd see on the bandstand. I went in on nights when Oscar Peterson was playing, Earl Grinder, Dinah Washington. Bird, he played there. The combination might never be the same but it was absolutely fantastic."
Click here to read more about Earl Watkins.

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