Welcome to the sixth edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco and the Russian River. Can you spy a glimmer of your yesteryear from these tales? Hold on tight for a slippery ride down memory lane.
A True Story(or so I've been told):
Bill Graham was a music promoter and a tough cookie. As a Jewish kid growing up in W.W.II Germany, he soon learned the ins and outs of survival. His mother and sister were gassed by Nazis. At the tender age of nine he trekked across Europe alone and found his way to Portugal and Casablanca finally landing in New York where he ended up in an orphanage.
After serving in Korea, he worked as a New York cab driver before coming to San Francisco. It is here where I found some rather interesting facts that would take center stage for my next novel (Don't Stop the Music).
Charles Sullivan was a player and the top black music promoter west of the Mississippi during the fifties. He had turned the Fillmore District of San Francisco into Harlem of the West. After-hours jazz clubs featured Miles Davis, John Handy, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and so many more. Then one night in a dark alley in August, 1966, Charles Sullivan was found dead under very mysterious circumstances. The police ruled it a suicide, but the locals figured it was just another move by the powers-to-be to tear down the district. Sullivan had bequeathed Graham his dancing license for the Fillmore Auditorium, but the young entrepreneur’s efforts to renew the permit were stonewalled. Tough and determined, Graham blackmailed a crooked cop by taking pictures of him entering a brothel across the street from the dance hall. And that, as they say, was only the beginning. The remainder to be revealed in Don't Stop the Music.
Keep the rhythm going, baby!
The Irish ruled San Francisco in the sixties. Judge O'Connor was responsible for the juvenile justice system, Tom Cahill was chief of police while Jack Shelley occupied the mayor's office. All was as it was apparently meant to be. Until 1966. The mysterious death of George Sullivan seemed to trigger an avalanche of racial tension. 167 dissidents were arrested for picketing the Sheraton Palace Hotel's failure to hire blacks. 180 civil rights demonstrators were hauled downtown for illegal sit-ins at Wessman Lincoln-Mercury and Cadillac dealerships. A riot broke out in the Fillmore District after a white officer shot and killed a sixteen-year-old African American for fleeing the scene of a stolen car. The Black Panthers commandeered the local laundromat. The National Guard was brought in to restore order, an order that was once defined by distinct boundaries, where everyone stayed within their own piece of dirt.
The Redevelopment Agency ran Geary Boulevard under Fillmore Street so that white commuters could bypass any "trouble' on their way to their glass cages in the financial district. The wrecking ball found its target on the backsides of some two thousand painted ladies as well. The Victorians were left to rot where they fell.
Absentee landlords took advantage. In one building, four different families (sixteen persons total) alternated shifts living in a one bedroom apartment, the other three families making do in the nearby rubble for a night or two. And there was no toilet. Don't let the cops catching you pissing in the street. Better do your business at the gas station down the block.
Despite the chaos, George Sullivan had left behind a legacy that would endure, a legacy that was to be carried on by none other than a Jewish boy from New York. "Harlem of the West" was on life support, but the music prevailed. At Mario Sullivan's speakeasy (George Sullivan's brother), John Handy played in the backroom of the barbecue rib joint, training other jazz artists to keep the sound alive. Up the street toward Geary it would not be unusual to find Leola King boarding a tour bus, promising a free drink if they took a chance to venture into her Birdcage, a cabaret with live music and the best chicken-in-a-basket. Another fixture in the hood was basketball great, Nate Thurmond, driving his Silver Shadow, dressing up the neighborhood.
Bill Graham pushed hard to establish the Fillmore Auditorium as a respectable concert hall. Downtown was concerned that such an establishment would draw too many kids from the Richmond and Sunset Districts. The potential for further trouble was palpable.
Scruffy bearded young men wore tie-dye headbands while their dates swayed to the music in their heads, their loose fitting blouses drenched in patchouli oil. Bill policed the ticket line at the Fillmore Auditorium himself, manhandling drug dealers and pickpockets. Once inside, you climbed a staircase to a giant room festooned with chandeliers and bands of colored lights. Free apples awaited in a nearby ice bucket while an attendant passed out complimentary posters of that night's entertainers. The passageway toward the stage would be laced with the sweet scent of Mary Jane. Billowing clouds spiraled into the dust-mite air, cardboard-tube bongs standing at attention.
Jerry Garcia might be the opening act for Jefferson Airplane while Peter Coyote of the Diggers would protest the idea of charging money for such heavenly music. Backstage, the house punch would be spiked with Owsley's acid and the electric Kool-Aid night was officially underway.
Bill Graham managed the S.F. Mime Troupe where he made the acquaintance of Peter Coyote who would later star in such movies as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Erin Brokovich. Graham went on to not only manage the Fillmore Auditorium but also Winterland and the Carousel Ballroom, which he called Fillmore West. He died in a helicopter crash along the Novato narrows in 1991.
George Sullivan changed the name of the Majestic Hall to Fillmore Auditorium in 1954. Both he and Graham had a close association with Chet Helms who managed such groups as The Grateful Dead (they played 51 concerts at the venue), Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane. Besides these ensembles, the Fillmore Auditorium also featured Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Credence Clearwater, The Who, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin to name just a few. The light shows were spectacular, showcasing the use of stroboscopes, slides and film projectors.
Nate Thurmond played center for the San Francisco Warriors when their home court was at the Cow Palace (note the chandelier in the photo). He was often seen in the Fillmore District, driving with his Great Dane in his Rolls-Royce. Nate was into soul food and started Nate Thurmond's The Beginning restaurant and later Big Nate's Barbecue. He passed away this last July at age 74.
The Diggers were an anarchist group that believed everything should be free. Peter Coyote and Belva Davis (who became a news anchor woman) were part of the original organizers of The Diggers and helped to open up the Free Store and the Free Clinic in the Haight.
Under the professional name of "Bear", Owsley Stanley was the soundman for The Grateful Dead, whom he met at a Ken Kesey acid-test party. He soon became an amateur chemist, mass producing huge amounts of LSD. It is estimated that Owsley produced 500 grams of acid between 1965-1967, the equivalent of ten million doses.
John Handy was born in 1933 in Dallas. He soon found San Francisco's Fillmore District to his liking. Many of his jazz songs were recorded live at Mario Sullivan's speakeasy while he was under contract with Roulette Records and later Columbia. He is still kicking it, mixing it up between the saxophone, clarinet and oboe.
Perhaps you have a story of your own you would like to share with Fellow Book Benders. Go to www.johnmccarty.org and click on "Contact" and tell all. The taller the tale, the more majestic.
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In November, we'll explore the Haight Ashbury during the summer of 1967. It's all about the love, baby. Stay tuned.
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