"The Two Underdogs", Pt. IV


When SF Mime Troupe founder, R.G. Davis, was arrested on charges of public obscenity for a performance in Golden Gate Park, self-made millionaire Charles Sullivan allowed Graham to use his dance hall license at his Fillmore Auditorium so that Graham could hold a benefit on December 10, 1965. The benefit was so successful that Graham asked if he could book additional concerts. Sullivan offered Graham his “off” nights.... Graham secured a contract from Sullivan for the open dates at the Fillmore in 1966 and a four-year lease option on the Auditorium if anything unforeseeable happened to Sullivan. Sly was too busy with his radio gig and live engagements to make that scene much, but he promoted The Fillmore shows on KSOL; through Sullivan, Sly helped get R&B/Gospel singer, Gloria Scott, who he had produced at Autumn, a job as an Ikette.

Sullivan, still the largest promoter of African American music west of the Mississippi, continued to book R&B headliners, such as Ike & Tina Turner, on Wednesday February 2, 1966 (featuring Jimi Hendrix on guitar). Later that month, Chet Helms, a white “counterculture” entrepreneur, who had made his initial seed money from the growing marijuana business, formally founded Family Dog Productions to begin promoting concerts at The Fillmore, alternating weekends with Graham.  As the concerts became more popular, inevitable "conflicts" arose between the two promoters, based in part on the notion that intra-hippie public conflict and controversy could generate free publicity. Meanwhile, Sullivan was trying to appease the Redevelopment Authority by working with these white outsiders in hopes of saving the nightclub, as well as the neighborhood for which it was named. The San Francisco black community was torn over whether this was a smart move.

Sly tried to stay out of this debate, especially now that he was scrambling for a new boss who would pay him, or at least not charge him, for regular studio access; neither Sullivan nor Graham were looking to fill the vacuum left by Autumn, much less hire Sly. With no regular studio gig in the Bay Area, in April of 1966, Sly went to LA to record Billy Preston’s Steve Douglas produced Capitol album, The Wildest Organ In Town, and the amazing “Can’t She Tell I Love Her” single. His band, The Stoners, gigged with Freddie’s band, The Stone Souls, at Bo Peep’s in The Mission/Excelsior. Freddie’s career as band-leader and guitar stylist was taking off in its own right. The Stone Souls had formed in September of 65 after Sly used his radio show to say “he starting a band, and he’s looking for musicians.” [31] Freddie reminisces: “we were smoking Sly’s band” when they shared bills at Bo Peeps, and Sly was the second to admit it.

In April 1966, Graham and Sullivan booked The Stone Souls to play at the Fillmore, but Graham and Helms showed little interest in integrating with Sullivan’s existing scene. By the end of 1966, Graham had branched out to promoting, managing and branding a new crop of live bands who he’d help get signed to national labels (not based in the Bay Area). Since Tom Donahue was a radio person first and foremost (having started in 1949), Graham convinced him to take advantage of the newly opened FM band as an outlet for the acts and shows he promoted. By 1967, “Donahue, that savvy, sharp-dressed Top 40 DJ, was sporting gaudy tie-dye fashions, transforming San Francisco’s KMPX and then KSAN into two of America’s earliest underground stations, and declaring in the pages of Rolling Stone that ‘AM radio is dead and its rotting corpse is stinking up the airwaves,” as Sly was still broadcasting on KSOL, [32] Donahue’s now one of the few DJS enshrined in the rock and roll hall of fame.

Sly was writing his best songs ever, but was at an impasse. Once again, Billy Preston tried to send help from LA. In August, Sly recorded a Four Tops song for Freddie’s group as part of a talent cattle call that Capitol A&R man Herb Hendler organized at the tiny Commercial Recorders in SF. On the Stone Souls’ songs Sly produced, you can hear them forging a distinct mid-60s Bay Area soul sound, halfway between Gordy and Toussaint (with a pinch of Stax). But Capitol was on the verge of letting Preston himself go, let alone take on R&B acts from the bay area.

Charles Sullivan was found murdered on August 2, 1966, south of Market Street in San Francisco. To this day, the murder remains unsolved, and “The Fillmore Sound,” which became synonymous with the Summer of Love, was born. With Sullivan out of the way, acts who had headlined for Sullivan such as Howling Wolf or Otis Redding were now relegated, under Graham and/or Helms, to opening for The Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and The Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish. There was no room for white bands like The Beau Brummels here; as Valentino puts it, “I remember going to the Fillmore from time to time. I was envious of it. But it wasn’t us at all.” Nor was it Sly, at least not in 1966/1967. Love fashion is in, but so is clueless paternalism that makes the word “redevelopment” practically a synonym for Jim Crow segregation, or, worse, a “ethnic cleansing.”

Discussing the kind of music Graham and the New Fillmore were promoting, Amiri Baraka, one of the best theorists of the black anger of 1966, writes:

The so-called psychedelic tunes, which may talk about drugs experience, and may also be shaped by so-called Raga Rock (indian influenced) or Folk-Rock... But in awe of the poetic-psychedelic and LSD, the chemical saviour of grays. They hope to evolve (as the rest of us) “thru chemistry,” which sounds like Dupont. The “widening of the consciousness” type action into a higher sense of existent life, and thereafter, maybe stop stealing and killing, etc. etc. etc....But the content...is a generalizing in passionate luxurious ego demonstration to be good anyway though they exist as super-feelers of their evil cement head brothers, and as flexible copout...Yet it still bees white kids playing around. (205) [33]

As predicted in Malcolm X’s “The Ballot Or The Bullet,” The Republicans swept the majority in congress for the first time since 1948, largely in reaction to LBJ’s policies of racial integration. After Malcolm’s murder in 1965, the war against the inner city African American community and culture accelerated. For all the white media’s trying, what was happening in San Francisco and other cities could not be swept under the rug so easily. In 1966 Los Angeles, the Sunset strip live-club scene over which Arthur Lee’s Love presided is under seige. In 1966 San Francisco, There’s a riot going on in Hunter’s Point. The Western Addition Community Organization is formed to fight against the displacement of the Fillmore residents by Redevelopment. Frustrated by the ongoing demolition, WACO takes direct action by picketing and filing a major lawsuit. More “abstractly,” FM dials are placed above AM dials, anticipating the “disco sucks” racism of a decade later, like it was the new dawning of an era of systematic re-segregation (after the briefest whiff of integration: Reconstruction II). [34]

During the three-month fall of 1966, as Huey Newton and Bobby Seal, who had met in a class at Merritt College, were forming The Black Panther Party For Self Defense in Oakland, Sly finally found a band that allowed him to combine the range of his talents that had previously been professionally and institutionally separated. Like The Panthers (with their Maoist rules), Sly and Family Stone were a highly disciplined outfit: “If we rehearse every day, we will be better than everybody else...I think we did it. Sometimes we wouldn’t play as good as I thought we should, so I didn’t care what people said; we had to have a rehearsal after the gig, and that was all there was to it... [35] Maybe you don’t need to work for the man, if you can work with your brother and sister. Much has been said about the fact that they just so happened to be 4 blacks and 2 whites; or two women and four men, flaunting the idea(l) of a youth family band as the hippest thing you could be [36]--but less is said about the musical relationship between Freddie and Sly at the core.

Take your tandems--Reed/Sterling; Lee/Echols; Berman/Mallkmus, and The Kinks’ The Brothers Davies, and put the sonic spotlight on Freddie and Sly. [37] Sly, like the older Ray Davies, was the solitary songwriting and studio workaholic/genius, Freddie, like the younger Davies brother, was more the extrovert rocker, but not the songwriter Sly was. They checked each other; Sly had been such a musical chameleon (the occupational hazard of both studio and DJ) while Freddie was much more at home with straight R&B. Together, Sly’s creative restlessness and Freddie’s need for a band with a constant line-up and pocket rhythm-section solidity were an explosive combination; an elastic, fluid, capacious band.

On December 16, 1966, Sly And The Family Stone played their debut gig at Rich Romanello’s new Winchester Cathedral. The Cathedral “was not a hippie place; if you look at photographs... kids dancing, you can see how appropriately dressed they are for the time.” In contrast to the burgeoning hippie counterculture scene, from the upper-middle class Northern suburbs and, increasingly, the Haight and Fillmore, the scene Sly worked was mostly working class kids from the southern suburbs on the Peninsula; mostly white (mod) kids who dug r&b. Because of Sly’s popularity as a radio disk jockey, the event had to turn people away.

When The Family Stone quickly outgrew The Cathedral, this almost forced them to win over Graham’s scene if they were to have continued success in their home town, but Graham expressed little interest in the band’s dance-inducing appeal (or Sly’s studio prowess and the R&B audience he could lure through his radio show), despite his previous year’s booking of Freddie’s band before Sullivan was murdered. Romanello tried in vain to convince Graham, “Bill, you probably have one of the best dance floors in all of Northern California. But you’ve got all the hippies in their Indian squats, sitting on that floor like a bunch of vegetables. Do you think you ever want to get these people up and dancing?”

When Romanello told Sly about Graham’s rejection, Sly said “I’ll change the music.” Romanello urged him to stick to his guns, “Fuck Graham and his psychedelic heads, we’re on this path and we’re staying on this path.” Sly may not have changed the music for Graham, but shortly after Romanello invited the local promotion manager for Columbia Records, Chuck Gregory to check out the band in March, 1967, the band did change their look: “They came out looking like fucking clowns. Jerry with his polka-dot shirt and Sly with his knickers...but Sly was right, I was wrong. They were gonna be unique, their music was different, they were on their way. (45) Though Romanello stuck by the band, by 1967 as dance-oriented local scene Sly had helped put together had mostly been swallowed up by Graham’s increasing monopoly (by the summer of 1968, Romanello’s club had been burnt down).

Radio was still proving itself more integrated (eclectic) than any real-life scene allowed him to be; so Sly stayed on KSOL. Being that AM-radio was so important to Sly’s entree in the music business, he simply could not follow the reigning ideology of “San Francisco Sound” architects like Graham, and the recently re-invented Donahue, that FM, album tracks, were the new thing (and that horns, dancing, and tightly-structured songs were out, so-called aesthetic standards that may ultimately just express an “anti-black music” ethos, since the vast majority of soul stations remained on the AM-dial). [38]

Since no other local promoter or record label had the industry muscle to provide an alternative to Graham’s empire, New York-based Columbia’s David Kapralik essentially rescued The Family Stone from its very precarious position in the Bay Area scene. By the time Sly and The Family Stone recorded their debut album in June and July at Columbia’s LA studios, the “Summer of Love” was in full swing, and the band recorded their version of “Underdog” as a single and the opening track of their first album. The new version of “Underdog” is like the “After” picture of the radical transformation redevelopment had brought to San Francisco and its music since The Brummels’ “before picture” in October, 1965

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