|Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The
The Music of the Fillmore
Looking at San Francisco's Fillmore District today, it's hard to imagine that up until the end of the 1960s, it once was one of San Francisco's most thriving entertainment areas. Soon after the earthquake and fire of 1906, dozens of vaudeville houses, theaters and dance halls began to spring up in the Fillmore. A youthful Al Jolson could be seen at the National Theater on Steiner Street playing for $60 a week. A Yiddish cultural center featured Jewish singers, dancers and theater groups, and the Majestic Ballroom (now known as the Fillmore Auditorium) opened and offered dancing lessons during the day and dance bands in the evening.
Growing up exposed to so much music, it is no wonder that the Fillmore produced a number of accomplished musicians, many of whom went on to national and international fame. Listed below are some of the better known musicians to have grown up or to have lived in the Fillmore for a time.
Vernon and Eddy Alley grew up in the Fillmore at a time when the African-American population of the neighborhood was still quite small. Eddy became a drummer and played with local bands in many of the Fillmore clubs. Vernon began with the clarinet and later took up the standup bass. He was playing in a Fillmore club in 1939 when Lionel Hampton discovered him. He toured with Hampton for many years, recording several 78s with Hampton's band. Vernon also played in the bands of Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.
Richard Alan Berk (nicknamed "Sputnik") was born in San Francisco. A professional drummer by age 14, he began appearing on stage at the Fillmore jazz clubs, playing with Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day and Art Pepper, among others. He eventually moved east, becoming part of the New York City jazz scene and working with Charles Mingus, Walter Bishop Jr., Freddie Hubbard, Mose Allison and Monty Alexander.
John and Francis Coppola
Husband and wife John and Francis Coppola played at many of the Fillmore clubs and still live on the outskirts of the Western Addition. Francis sang with Dave Brubeck during the 1950s and 60s. John has performed with Charlie Barnet, Stan Kenton, Billy May, Woody Herman, Henry Mancini, Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Nelson Riddle, Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra.
Sugar Pie DeSanto
Rhythm and blues singer Sugar Pie DeSanto (originally named Umpeylia Balinton) grew up in the Fillmore with her cousin, Etta James. She was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis -- who regularly visited Fillmore clubs in search of talent to record in Los Angeles -- who nicknamed her "Sugar Pie." DeSanto is best known for her 1960s hit "Soulful Dress."
Born in San Rafael, Duke studied the piano at school and emerged from the San Francisco Conservatory with a Bachelor of Music in 1967. From 1965-67 he was resident pianist at the Half Note Nightclub in the Western Addition, accompanying musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham.
A young Eastwood grew up in San Francisco and, as a teenager, would sneak in to Fillmore clubs to hear the music. His teenage years are where his love of jazz grew, resulting in films like Bird.
Teddy Edwards started out playing alto sax and clarinet. In 1944, he joined Ernie Fields in Tampa, Florida. They worked his way to Los Angeles in October 1944 and the next year, working with Howard McGhee, Edwards switched to tenor sax and made his first records. Except for the three years in the '50s that he spent in San Francisco, Edwards has lived in Los Angeles ever since. He has worked with Benny Carter, Max Roach, Gerald Wilson, Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars and with his own groups.
The Fillmore Violinists
During the 1920s and '30s, violinists Isaac Stern, Misha Elman and Yehudi Menuhin all spent part of their childhood in the Fillmore District. Menuhi'ís father was a well-liked Fillmore music teacher who taught many of the neighborhood children, including Yehudi and his two sisters.
Blues musician Lowell Fulson lived in the Fillmore during the 1940s. His time in the neighborhood inspired his song "Fillmore Mess-Around." On another track, "San Francisco Blues," Fulsom sings "...Came to Fillmore Street, it's the place to be. There's the finest women, a man'd wanna see..."
In the 1940s, the handsome and colorful singer Slim Gaillard moved to the Fillmore district and opened up a jazz nightclub he called Vout City. Gaillard had a good ear for music but poor business sense -- the club struggled. One night Gaillard didn't show up to open the club and wasn't seen in the neighborhood again for several years. The club was later taken over by Jimbo Edwards, renamed Bop City and became the Fillmore's premiere jazz spot, drawing large crowds every night.
Saxophonist John Handy began sneaking into Fillmore clubs at the age of 16 in 1949. For Handy, one Fillmore club, Bop City, was like a second home, and musically it was his first home, having been a member of the house band at one time or another. Handy says that the club was a place where young aspiring musicians could sit mesmerized for hours, watching their heroes play on stage, and maybe even be given a chance to join them on stage. Handy played with Charles Mingus in the 1950s and '60s. The sax player has also recorded numerous albums with his own band for Warner Brothers and Columbia Records.
Local favorite Lonnie Hewitt was the house pianist at Jackson's Nook, one of the many clubs in the Fillmore during the 1940s and '50s. He later toured with Cal Tjader.
Fillmore resident Johnny Ingram and his band, the Rhythm Czars, often appeared on Fillmore stages in the 1940s. The band recorded several 78s before breaking up. Ingram later formed The Four Naturals in the 1950s. The band also recorded several singles.
Jazz and R&B singer Etta James and her cousin Sugar Pie DeSanto grew up in the Fillmore and began sneaking into the Fillmore clubs when they were children. Bandleader Johnny Otis recalls when he discovered James -- or, rather, when Etta James discovered him. "Etta came up to the hotel in the Fillmore where I was staying. She was 16; arrogant, yet shy. She turned toward the bathroom and started singing at the tile for better acoustics. I was impressed and offered her a job singing on the spot. She said she had to call her mom, so I handed her the phone. She had a conversation, her mom said yes, and she came with my band that night to Los Angeles. I later found out that there was no one on the phone, and her mother didn't know where Etta was for a few days!"
Al Jarreau was living in San Francisco and working as a rehabilitation counselor when he decided to begin singing professionally. He got his start at the Western Addition jazz club the Half Note, and would often team up with pianist George Duke.
The Saunders King Band was the house band at Jacks on Sutter in the 1940s. The band is famous for their 1948 hit, "SK Blues."
Singer Johnny Mathis grew up on the edge of the Western Addition and got his start singing at the various Fillmore Clubs, including Bop City.
Jazz singer Bobbe Norris lived in San Francisco and got her start onstage at many of the Fillmore clubs. During the 1960s, she recorded several albums for Columbia Records.
This Fillmore Filipino piano player often played with Pony Poindexter on many recordings, including ones by singer Bev Kelly. Nunez also recorded several solo albums.
During the 1940s and '50s, Pony Poindexter was a fixture in the Fillmore clubs, and was a member of several of the venues' house bands. In the 1940s, he toured with Billy Eckstine's Big Band and later toured with Lionel Hampton. He appears on many recordings, several which team him up with top saxophonists including Erick Dolphy and Dexter Gordon. Poindexter wrote extensively about the Fillmore jazz scene in his 1985 autobiography.
Born in Oakland, Jerome Richardson began playing flute and sax in the Fillmore clubs at the age of 14. During his teen years, he also toured with Lionel Hampton's band. He moved to San Francisco as a young adult and attended San Francisco State University. He was a founding member of the Thad Jones -- Mel Lewis Orchestra and collaborated with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis on more than 4,000 recordings, making him one of the most recorded musicians in jazz history.
Keyboardist Merle Saunders grew up in the Fillmore and would frequent the local clubs during his teen years. He later went on to play with countless musicians, including the Grateful Dead. Saunders also created soundtracks for dozens of movies and television shows.
One of the most acclaimed artists in the vibrant Fillmore District jazz scene of the 1940s and 50s, Smith is credited with helping break down many racial barriers in Bay Area music and theater. The trumpet player has performed and recorded with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter.
Encouraged by her saxophonist uncle, Orlando Stallings, Mary sang in local Fillmore jazz clubs during her teenage years. While still in high school, she joined Louis Jordan's band. Mary also performed with saxophonist Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, the Grover Mitchell -- Earl "Fatha" Hines Band and Count Basie. Her 1994 release, "I Waited For You," won Pulse Magazine's poll for Best Vocal Album of the Year.
Joe Lewis Walker
The highly regarded blues musician Joe Louis Walker spent his teen years at the Fillmore at Pine and Baker Streets. He says that he was heavily influenced by the bands that played in the neighborhood. "I saw the Temptations, James Brown and Bobby 'Blue' Bland all at the Fillmore Auditorium. It was like the Apollo of the West." As an adult, Lewis has recorded numerous albums and has played on the Fillmore Auditorium stage several times.