By Lee Hildebrand
Ten-year-old Ronnie Stewart had an epiphany late one Saturday morning in 1959. His mother had sent him down the block from their Adeline Street home to buy her a pack of Camels at Pearl Harbor Liquors on the corner of Seventh Street and Adeline—the heart of West Oakland’s then-bustling African-American community. She’d given him a quarter—20 cents for the cigarettes and the remaining five for a candy bar.
The boy spotted a handsome, sharply dressed man leave the store and get into a shiny new Cadillac. The man, recalls Stewart, now 63, was surrounded by a bevy of adoring “ladies with these short dresses and big, old butts.”
“He had on a black suit,” Stewart adds. “I’ll never forget all the gold on his fingers.”
“Lowell, you so crazy!” he remembers one of the women playfully calling out to the man.
Later that day, after mowing his family’s lawn, Stewart ripped a cardboard placard off a telephone pole in front of the house to use as a dustpan for the freshly cut grass. On the poster was a photograph of the man he’d seen, with the name “Lowell Fulson” in large letters. Stewart ran into the house to show his mother.
“Mama,” he said excitedly, “this is the man I saw. This is him. This is that man with that funny name.”
According to Stewart, who now lives in Vallejo, his mother was not impressed. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s a musician,’” he recalls. “‘You don’t even wanna look at that. Just go on and get outta here, boy, and put the grass on that.’”
But spotting blues-singing guitarist Fulson that day changed the young man’s life. “That was my first introduction to the music industry, looking at the glamorous life,” says Stewart, who was playing blues guitar himself by the time he was in junior high school. He now serves as executive director of the Bay Area Blues Society, an organization he formed a half century ago with veteran bluesman Haskell “Cool Papa” Sadler.
The society is known for producing annual blues festivals in Hayward and Pittsburg, as well as the blues component of Oakland’s Art & Soul festival. For the past seven years, members have also been working with the city of Oakland to place commemorative plaques along the wide sidewalk in front of the West Oakland BART station in memory of musicians who performed, from the 1940s through the ’60s, at such Seventh Street venues as Slim Jenkins’ Supper Club, Esther’s Orbit Room, and Lincoln Theater.
As currently envisioned, the project involves placement of some 80 brass plaques, each 18 inches by 18 inches. Honorees are to include nationally known Bay Area blues and R&B artists who appeared in West Oakland early in their careers, such as Fulson, Ivory Joe Hunter, Pee Wee Crayton, Jimmy McCracklin, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and Joe Simon. Lesser-known East Bay figures also make the grade—for example, Eddie Foster, Johnny Fuller, L.C. Robinson, and the Green Brothers.
National stars who performed along Seventh Street, such as Charles Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and T-Bone Walker, are also slated to receive plaques. Ditto for songwriter and record producer Bob Geddins—who made Fulson’s debut recording in 1946 at his makeshift studio at the corner of Eighth and Wood—and went on to cut hits by McCracklin, DeSanto, Jimmy Wilson, and others.
Although Stewart told the East Bay Express in 2010 and the Los Angeles Times in 2011 that the society’s “The Music They Played on Seventh Street” markers would be in place “soon,” their manufacture and installation was put on hold when the financially strapped Oakland Redevelopment Agency dissolved in February 2012.
Mohammad Barati, a civil engineer for the city who oversaw the now-largely-completed $1.9 million redevelopment of Seventh Street, including streetscaping, tree planting, and new lighting, says he’s trying to get funding for the blues society’s project from Caltrans.
Stewart has his fingers crossed that funding for his dream project will come through soon. “Me and Cool Papa used to always talk about a hall of fame or walk of fame or some way to honor, like, the Fuller Brothers and people nobody never heard of nationally,” he says. “Oakland had so many local heroes, like Lafayette ‘The Thing’ Thomas.”
African-Americans have lived in West Oakland since the city’s earliest days. A black woman named Jennie Prentiss nursed young Jack London, for instance, and as he was growing up, the future author heard sea stories from William T. Shorey, a black captain who sailed whaling barks out of West Harbor. Shorey Street, which crosses Seventh, the area’s main thoroughfare, was named after the captain.
During the early part of the 20th century, West Oakland was home to Greeks, Slavs, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Irish, and African-Americans. The black population increased dramatically during World War I and mushroomed during World War II.
The first-known venue to feature African-American music on Seventh Street was the Creole Café, where pioneering New Orleans “tailgate” trombonist Kid Ory (then an Oakland resident) appeared regularly in 1921 with his Original Creole Jazz Band. A year later, the group traveled to Los Angeles and became the first black jazz band ever to make a recording.
The Jan. 7, 1922, issue of the California Voice, the oldest black newspaper on the West Coast, contained an editorial titled “Oakland’s Shame.” Bemoaning the recent decline of a number of black-owned businesses in West Oakland, it read in part: “The Creole Café, the finest of its kind west of Chicago, can attribute its failure to lack of patronage by the Race, hence they were forced to ply for patronage to the whites and slowly but surely race prejudice crept in; this was the beginning of the end.”
If racial tension doomed the Creole Café, it apparently had subsided by the time Harold “Slim” Jenkins opened a nightclub and restaurant next door to the cafe’s former site on April 7, 1933—the day that Prohibition ended. Born in Monroe, La., Jenkins came to California right after World War I, worked as a waiter, and saved his money. Slim Jenkins’ Supper Club became one of the most celebrated black nightclubs in the state. It attracted a racially mixed clientele, including several mayors of Oakland and other of Jenkins’s white friends in the city’s Republican establishment. Unlike the Creole Café, it managed to stay in business for 39 years.
Jenkins’s club contained a first-class restaurant with a huge banquet hall, a market, and a liquor store. He presented some of the biggest names in African-American popular music over his four decades of operation, including the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Dinah Washington, Charles Brown, and B.B. King (with a young Aretha Franklin as his opening act), as well as such locals as the Peter Rabbit Trio and Dell Graham. Ivory Joe Hunter, a major R&B star of the 1950s, got his start there in the mid-’40s, when he recorded a number for the Pacific label in Berkeley titled “Seventh Street Boogie.”
My late friend, singer-pianist Dave Alexander, for whom I played drums in the early 1970s, recalled working for Jenkins during the late ’50s and early ’60s. “He [Jenkins] was really proud of his achievements but set in his ways,” Alexander told me in 1979. “He figured that the way he did it would work in any era. He repeatedly talked about how he made Ivory Joe Hunter a star. He was always telling me, ‘I can make you a star the same way.’ I tried to tell him politely that Ivory Joe Hunter’s time was a different time, but he never would hear it. I never would push back. I’d just politely back off and say, ‘Yes, sir.’ He always liked to be referred to as ‘sir.’”
Jenkins moved to Jack London Square in 1972, but the business didn’t last long. “Slim had a talent for everybody,” says his friend Walter Davis, now 87. “He had everybody in there—whites, everything—but after he moved down to Jack London Square, ain’t no blacks going down there. I went down there once, and there wasn’t nobody in there.” Jenkins died in 1967 at age 76.
Esther Mabry kept the Seventh Street club scene jumping for nearly a decade after Jenkins left. She had landed a job as a cook at his supper club after taking the Southern Pacific from Texas to West Oakland in 1942. Eight years later, she opened her own restaurant, Esther’s Breakfast Club, at the corner of Seventh and Wood, diagonally across the street from Jenkins’s place.
In 1961, she opened the adjacent Esther’s Cocktail Lounge and, after Jenkins left the following year, launched Esther’s Orbit Room. During its heyday in the ’60s, the nightclub presented such stars as Fulson, Lou Rawls, Joe Turner, Etta James, and Pee Wee Crayton. Soul singer Al Green made his Bay Area debut at Esther’s.
Lowell Fulson remained an attraction in the black community into the late ’60s, thanks to such then-recent hits as “Black Nights” and “Tramp.” He was one of my heroes, too, and in 1968, while I was working as an unpaid correspondent for Blues Unlimited magazine in England, I decided to try to meet him during an engagement at Esther’s.
I don’t remember much about the encounter, other than that the blues giant was both regal and gracious. But I’ll never forget what his valet said before leading me to the dressing room: “Before I take you upstairs, give me that pistol you have in your pocket.” I obligingly opened my coat to show him the half-pint of whiskey—Cream of Kentucky Straight, if I recall correctly—in my breast pocket.
Four years later, I performed for two nights at Esther’s Orbit Room as the drummer with the Little Frankie Lee Revue. I’d put together a four-piece band that featured soon-to-become-famous guitarist Robben Ford to back the Texas blues and soul singer and his three female vocalists, the Lee-ettes. I was so broke at the time that I had to borrow a few dollars from my stepbrother to buy gas to get to the gig.
The promoter who was sponsoring the show had promised to pay the band $20 per man per night. But few people attended either of the performances, perhaps because Frankie Lee was not yet well known in the Bay Area, and/or because Seventh Street was beginning to show a severe decline in business, a circumstance many attributed to the recent arrivals of BART and the massive post office facility across Wood Street from Esther’s.
As we played to a near-empty house for the second night in a row, I could smell the scent of soul food filtering over from Esther’s Breakfast Club and told myself I’d have an early breakfast there after I got off work. But when the gig was over, the promoter handed me only $120. Once I’d paid my band, there would be nothing left—and no breakfast—for me.
“It should be $160,” I protested. “There are four of us.”
“You can see that I didn’t make any money, Frankie Lee didn’t make any, and the Lee-ettes didn’t make any,” he explained coldly. “You’re part of the organization, so you didn’t make any money either.”
Less than a year later, Mabry sold her property to the post office for an employee’s parking lot and moved her business to a storefront across the street from the complex. For a period, she featured Lafayette Thomas, whose alternately moaning and rhythmically propulsive guitar work on countless Bob Geddins productions helped define the style that has become known as Oakland blues. Thomas played there on Sunday evenings, but by the end of the ’70s, a DJ was spinning disco records. The business remained open, however, until shortly before Mabry’s death at age 90 in 2010.
For the past three decades, there has been little if any live music on Seventh Street. The Bay Area Blues Society plaques honoring many of those who played there are still in limbo. The original Esther’s Orbit Room neon sign is still attached to the front of her now-boarded-up business, though it and the cocktail glass that once flickered atop it no longer shine in the night sky. And the scent of the soul food I never got to sample remains vivid in my memory.
Lee Hildebrand is a freelance writer whose work appears frequently in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, East Bay Express, and Living Blues magazine. He lives in Tracy with his wife and daughter but makes it back to Oakland every chance he gets.
Sharp-dressed man: Ronnie Stewart, director of the Bay Area Blues Society, credits 1960s West Oakland blues musician Lowell Fulson with inspiring his career.
Launch pad: In the 1960s, Esther’s Orbit Room at Seventh and Wood streets drew stars like Etta James, Al Green, and Lou Rawls. Photo by SpiralA Photography.
“Me and Cool Papa used to always talk about a hall of fame or walk of fame or some way to honor, like, the Fuller Brothers and people nobody never heard of nationally.”—Ronnie Stewart, Oakland blues guitarist and bandleader. Photo © 2012 Bob White/CRW Photography.