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Once Booming, Where Are the Blues in San Francisco Now?

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An older black man plays a guitar on a pier with Coit Tower in the background
John Lee Hooker in San Francisco. A new reissue of the blues master's 1989 album 'The Healer' recalls a different, far more robust and active era for the blues in San Francisco. (Courtesy Fantasy Records Archives)

No take on San Francisco is more clichéd than proclaiming that the year of one’s arrival was a golden age from which the city has steadily descended, shedding its luster with each passing season. And when it comes to the city’s blues scene, one can make a righteous case for any decade in the latter half of the 20th century as a high-water mark.

But by God, the mid-1990s, when I just happened to move to the Bay Area, was an extraordinary moment for the blues in San Francisco, an era reigned over by one of the fiercest artists ever to walk the earth, John Lee Hooker.

A potent artifact from that long-gone moment arrives Friday with the Craft Recordings reissue of Hooker’s epochal 1989 hit album The Healer, which reignited his career amidst a gaudy cast of guest artists eager to bask in his sharkskin-suited glory, including Carlos Santana, George Thorogood, Los Lobos, Canned Heat, Charlie Musselwhite and Robert Cray.

Out of print for the past decade, the album not only earned the 73-year-old guitarist, vocalist and songwriter his first Grammy Award (for the Bonnie Raitt duet “I’m in the Mood”), it put Hooker at the center of the scene when the blues still occupied a significant swath of the cultural terrain.

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Hooker went on to make several more popular albums also produced by slide guitarist Roy Rogers, while various labels excavated his vast discography, which got off to a brilliant start with his chart-topping 1948 single “Boogie Chillen.” His iconic status continued to grow over the next decade with his 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

National icon, local legend

Locally, Hooker’s star hung over the Fillmore, where Alexander Andreas rechristened a nightspot long known as Jack’s Tavern as the Boom Boom Room, in honor of Hooker’s signature 1962 hit, “Boom Boom.” Contrary to the widespread belief that Hooker owned a piece of the club, Andreas made him an honorary partner, and many a night he could be found behind a red velvet rope in his reserved booth, surrounded by a bevy of ladies and a coterie of musicians. Occasionally a brave fan might approach to pay homage.

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Robert Cray, who toured widely with Hooker as an opening act and appeared on The Healer’s funky third track “Baby Lee,” recalled the scene on the Boom Boom Room’s opening night, when the club was packed with dozens of other musicians, television crews and Mayor Willie Brown.

“The impact of The Healer was huge, and then when the Boom Boom Room opened it meant people knew where to find him,” Cray said. “John always seemed to me to have this great attitude about everything. He always had people around who adored him. It was a really exciting time. Carlos and Bonnie Raitt would pop in. We played the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Sacramento Blues Festival and all the clubs in San Francisco and the South Bay. It was pretty live.”

As late as the 1990s, the blues scene was still inextricably linked to the frisson around the Fillmore Auditorium in the 1960s — when  a rising generation of white Chicago transplants (including Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield) all prevailed upon Bill Graham to present the Black masters who’d mentored them on the Southside (particularly Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King). It’s a story well-told in filmmaker Bob Sarles’ 2021 documentary Born in Chicago.

The 1960s also saw Hooker connecting with the blues-besotted cohort of young British musicians on the swinging London scene, and it’s no coincidence that the Yardbirds, the Spencer Davis Group and the Animals all recorded his songs. He moved to Oakland late in the decade and worked steadily, with a particularly fruitful collaboration with Canned Heat. When The Healer put him back on top, he took it all in stride.

Bassist Ruth Davies, who recorded with Hooker on several albums following The Healer, remembers one celebratory night at the Boom Boom Room after he’d won two Grammys for his 1997 album Don’t Look Back, which was co-produced by Van Morrison. He spotted her in the club and motioned for her to join him.

“I felt so privileged,” said Davies (who performs Nov. 19 at Freight & Salvage backing Pamela Rose’s Blues Is a Woman). Before Davies started working with Hooker, she gained prominence during her long tenure with West Coast blues legend Charles Brown, and went on to tour and record with guitarist Elvin Bishop’s band.

“A lot of the blues legends were living here around that time,” Davies said. “Etta James, Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop were here. Bonnie Raitt was in Marin, and she did so much to help revive Charles Brown’s career.

an older Black man in a hat and sungalsses next to a white woman with bangs in a dark suit in a club
John Lee Hooker and Ruth Davies in Hooker’s booth at the Boom Boom Room. (Courtesy of Ruth Davies)

“But it wasn’t just the scene here. Traveling was easier. When I started touring with Charles, we did a lot of concerts and festivals, and it seemed like there were three tiers. There were the stars who got paid the most. The middle tier — Charles was in that group. And the local artists. That middle tier is gone,” she said, along with the post-World War II generation of innovators. (Now 86, guitar legend Buddy Guy recently announced a farewell tour in 2023.)

A shifting center of gravity

The infrastructure that sustained the scene has also all but disappeared, with nothing arising to fill the void left by the end of the San Francisco Blues Festival, a major annual event that ran from 1973-2008. The city’s dwindling Black population is another challenge, but the story is similar all over the region. Oakland long boasted a more vital and influential blues scene than San Francisco, anchoring an East Bay soul archipelago that stretched from Richmond and Berkeley out to Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, and almost all of the clubs and joints that once hosted the blues are gone.

Still, the music’s inextricable roots in Black culture continue to manifest in various guises. The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol provides an essential link to the glory days of the East Bay scenes wherever she performs (like her Black Women’s Roots Festival, Nov. 27 at Freight & Salvage). Oakland blues vocalist Terrie Odabi has carved out an international career over the past decade, and some of the Bay Area’s best jazz vocalists, like Kim Nalley and Tiffany Austin, make a point of including blues as an essential thread in jazz’s elastic fabric. The Little Village Foundation label, created by veteran blues keyboardist and John Lee Hooker sideman Jim Pugh, has boosted the careers of several Bay Area blues artists, like Mumbai-born harmonica player Aki Kumar.

Meanwhile, the music’s center of gravity continues to shift away from San Francisco. Yoshi’s keeps blues in the musical mix, with shows like the Nov. 21 Bay Area Harmonica Convergence. Norwegian-born San Jose guitarist and recording engineer Kid Andersen has turned his Greaseland Studios into the top spot for Bay Area blues acts to document their music (while working hand-in-hand with Little Village). San Jose’s Poor House Bistro just relocated — literally the entire building — to Little Italy, to make way for Google’s massive new downtown development. Blues great Angela Strehli’s Rancho Nicasio is an important outpost in the North Bay, while the biggest blues bills tend to take place at Vallejo’s Empress Theatre.

“It’s the same thing in Seattle,” Cray said. “There used to be a bunch of clubs in town. Now we always hit the outskirts, where there might be the theaters and some of the clubs. We’re not downtown in places where it used it happen.”

In San Francisco, Myron Mu has kept The Saloon in North Beach, the city’s oldest venue, in business presenting blues seven nights a week. The city’s premiere club, Biscuits & Blues, still hasn’t reopened since it was forced to shutter in 2019 by a persistent plumbing problem and an ensuing legal struggle with the neighboring Jack In the Box — but that might finally be coming to an end, said owner Steven Suen said. More than optimistic, he sounded downright philosophic about a musical tradition born out of a need to find solace and communal release in hard times.

“The blues as a form of music will never die,” said Suen, who was born in Hong Kong and ended up buying the club after he started managing the venue in 2006. “People keep going back to the roots, figuring out how that music comes about. It will always have a place. It’s not a popular thing, but once people experience it they’ll find something special.”

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