Earl WEARL WATKINS: Born in the Fillmore on January 29, 1920, in a rooming house that still exists on Sutter Street, between Broderick and Baker. The family moved often, each location closer to Fillmore Street. His father, who was a singer, and his mother, a classical pianist, filled the family home with music. As a teenager, Earl became a regular on drums at local Fillmore clubs and turned professional at the age of 17. Later, Watkins was a member of the Five Knights of Rhythm and played and made recordings with Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as backing blues musician T-Bone Walker. Watkins also served on the board of directors of the local segregated Musicians’ Union, and took a job with the union after the white and non-white Unions merged in 1963. Watkins continued to play jazz in clubs and for social occasions until his death in 2007.
Harlem of the West SF Project
Interview: Earl Watkins
Interviewer: Elizabeth Pepin Silva
Copyright 2017, Elizabeth Pepin Silva/ Harlem of the West SF Project
Please contact the Harlem of the West SF Project if you would like to use any part of the interview. Use is free, but the Harlem of the West SF Project must be credited. The entire interview may not be reproduced.
Copyright 2017, Elizabeth Pepin Silva/ Harlem of the West SF Project Please contact the Harlem of the West SF Project if you would like to use any part of the interview. Use is free, but the Harlem of the West SF Project must be credited. The entire interview may not be reproduced.
INTERVIEW BEGINS AT ELIZABETH’S HOME IN SAN FRANCISCO, CA. THE INTERVIEW STARTS BY ELIZABETH AND EARL LOOKING AT PHOTOGRAPHS.
ELIZABETH PEPIN SILVA: So this first photo, do you know who any of these people are? This is photo number one.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. Wes, this is Wesley Johnson (Sr.) and he, he was the proprietor uh, uh, the owner of this club called The Flamingo. And it was better-known as the Texas Playhouse. And this is Wesley Johnson (Jr.)
EPS: on the left?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. Before the war, he lived in Western Edition. He lived on Post Street, between Baker and Lyon. And in that block, Vernon Alley and his family, Vernon Alley and Eddie Alley and uh, sister Winifred and their family, they lived uh, and also before the war, the, now this is taken during World War II, but before the war, and Wesley (Jr.), he was, he was a uh, student at Commerce High School, and he was in the ROTC. And he was an officer, one of the, I guess the only black uh, ROTC officers, I’m not sure what his rank was. And when the ROTC when you’d have the regimental review, then all of the different companies would line up and the regimental commander and then I guess the adjacent or with the sword he would march and call the all the units to attention. That was Wesley. And he pranced. He had a walk. I mean, he, he actually had a bearing, a very regal bearing. It was, it would be like you would be watching maybe in Europe in the, when they would…
EPS: Like the queen reviews?
EARL WATKINS: yeah, and you’d see the person that called everyone to attention. That was Wesley Johnson.
EPS: Where did you grow up? In San Francisco?
EARL WATKINS: Western Edition. I was born and raised out there.
EPS: Which street did you grow up on?
EARL WATKINS: First house I remember, well, I was born in a house that was a rooming house and it was located on Sutter Street, between Broderick and Baker. The house is still there, the building’s still there. I didn't realize it until years later when I was a grown man. I went down to get my birth certificate, and saw the address. But the first house I remember was 1420 Geary Street. Now that was located on Geary between Laguna and Octavia. And it is now the site of this high-rise senior resident called the Sequoias. And there’s a fire plug in front of the Sequoias and that fire plug, when I was a little kid, that was everything. That was my fire engine, that was my stage coach (LAUGHS) I’d ride that thing like you (LAUGHS) yeah.
And then of course from there we moved to 2309 Bush Street, Bush and Sterner, right across the street from St. Dominique’s. Then from there we moved to 1692 Gerry Street, Geary and Webster. That’s Japantown. That’s the Kabuki Theater is on Post Street. So I was on the Fillmore Street.
EPS: Across from the Fillmore Auditorium?
EARL WATKINS: No, one block east, Geary and Webster, 1692, right across the street from the AME Zion Church. And that’s where my mother passed away in 1934. Yeah, I was 14 years old (LAUGHS)
EPS: Oh my gosh. That must have been hard.
EARL WATKINS: It was, yeah. And then my father broke up the house and the next house was 2509 Bush street, I was boarded out as a lady, she rented rooms to, she and her husband. And so I was boarded out there. Then the next house was 1365 Eddie Street. That’s when, no I beg your pardon. No. It was either 1412 or 1214 Baker Street, and it was between Post and Sutter. It’s no longer there. And on the corner of Sutter and Baker was Riggens’ Drug Store. That was the first black pharmacy we had in San Francisco. And that goes way back, let’s see, was I in, I guess I was in junior high in John Sweat at the time.
EPS: Which high school did you go to?
EARL WATKINS: I went to Galileo High School.
EPS: Did you go to school with Vernon?
EARL WATKINS: No, Vernon was ahead of me. He was at Congress High School. He was all-city fullback. Yes, I mean, he was the man.
But yeah, Did I mention 2509 Bush Street, Bush and Scott? Then from there Mrs. McFarland, she bought a house, it was 1412 or 1214 Baker. Then I left there and went to 1365 Eddy Street, and they were old friends of mine, my mother and father. Two ladies, Sally Ashford and Aunt Willie. They were elderly ladies who had known one another from childhood. From the South, from one of the Southern states, one was, they might have both been from Tennessee. I think one was from Tennessee, the other’s from Alabama. My parents were from Alabama.
EPS: Why did they come to San Francisco?
EARL WATKINS: Well, my father was a veteran and he was, he served in World War I, and so that would have put him out here maybe in 1917, 1916, somewhere around there. And when he got out of service, why having lived in California the climate here, the racial climate was much better, even though it wasn’t the best, but it was much better than Alabama. They had a lot of freedom and especially the Barbary Coast. The Barbary Coast was going full blast, and the Barbary Coast you had black ownerships of many of the clubs there. And it was just that you had more freedom.
EPS: Is your dad a musician?
EARL WATKINS: No, my father, he had gone to a vocational school in I think in Tennessee. My grandparents on my father’s side, they owned land, farm land, maybe 6 or 8 acres. And they farmed the land uh, and supplied seed and fertilizer, and then all the neighbors, the black neighbors, they all worked and they, my dad they sharecropped. And my parents would split after selling all the produce, they would split the profits.
And evidently my dad, he was the first one in the family to go to what then was the equivalent of a higher form of education, vocational school that I was told that that later became part of the black college network down there in that part of the state of Tennessee. And my dad said that he went to Nashville, and he went to the music store of Handy, JC Handy, the composer of the “St. Louis Blues,” and who later went to New York and was called Father of the Blues. He composed “Weary Blues” and oh, any number of blues tunes. So anyhow, again, back to California. My father came out here as a soldier. Member of the military. (Interview pauses while Elizabeth puts a cat outside)
EARL WATKINS: Anyhow, my dad, the climate was so much better because my parents grew up in Cortland, Alabama, that was just outside of Birmingham. As you know from the civil rights history, our civil rights history in the 60’s and before. Birmingham was bad news. That’s where they bombed the church that killed those innocent little girls and the Ku Klux Klan of course was active and they were, you know, lynching people you know, like there was no tomorrow. But anyhow, my dad went back to Alabama and married my mother and brought her back out to California. And he never went back. And my mother, she never went back, either. But my uncle who later followed my father out here, he was back and forth between the two. He was a dining car waiter on the trains and then later he was a waiter on the HF Lines, that’s HF Alexander. They were coastal boats lines that ran up and down the coast. And they hired domestic help, you know, to serve the passengers. And my uncle, they served on that for a while, plus other things. Anyhow with my father…
EPS: So you were in the Fillmore… there wasn’t a huge influx of African Americans until after…’til the War. So what was it like… I mean, was it a good racial climate? Was it mixed? Can you describe the Fillmore neighborhood?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, the Fillmore, it was a bustling because you see, after the earthquake, the 1906 earthquake, Fillmore Street was the main business thoroughfare. You were Ginanini formed the Bank of Italy there on Post and Fillmore. It later became the Bank of America and it’s now the Goodwill, right around Post. And uh, of course, he was responsible for really, largely responsible for helping the city to recover, because the loans he made. You had, I’d say, from oh, Sacramento Street, Clay Street, all the way down to McAlister. And even later even Haight Street but namely between I’d say Clay and McAlister was bustling. You had on upper Fillmore, you had oh, what’s that electrical shops? Hardware stores. Then as you came down, you had restaurants and you had the bars and you had the like, as now, small shops, dress shops, beauty parlors.
EPS: And were these owned by African-Americans?
EARL WATKINS: No, no, they were white owned.
EPS: Were you welcome in them?
EARL WATKINS: Well, not really. No. The restaurants and the grocery stores, naturally, they all those welcomed you. But the other places, the bars and restaurants and everything, there you weren’t. The Japanese, they welcomed you, more than welcome. And not only their restaurants but also their hotels and rooming houses.
EPS: They allowed African-Americans?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, sure. The other restaurants and rooming houses. And housing, there is a selective discrimination. Out on the Avenues, very few, we had maybe one or two, maybe three families in the avenues. The rest of it, they had discrimination in housing. And the so-called ghetto, which was the Western Edition then you had the, they rented to you. Absentee owners of course. We had flats, see? And.
EPS: What year were you born?
EARL WATKINS: I was born 1920.
EPS: What was the date?
EARL WATKINS: January 29th, 1920. And now going down Fillmore, once again, the Fillmore Auditorium. Now there was another era, see when you’re starting at Sutter Street, then that’s when their business community, the stores were, you know, store to store, bumper to bumper so to speak. You had the, there was a Foster’s Restaurant on the corner of Sutter and Fillmore. And they were more or less open to you, and especially during the war and after the war. Then you had, that’s where this Flamingo Club was located.
EPS: Do you remember when it opened?
EARL WATKINS: It opened during the War. During the War, it opened to black people. Wesley (Sr.), his first business venture in respect to a night club was a club called the Subway Club. And that was located in North Beach, just off of Pacific Avenue. It was either Pacific and I think it was Pacific and Kearney. I think it was Pacific and Kearney. It was in the basement. These, I think this building, the site is still there. It was in the basement. And just this, just below street level. Not really gloomy basement, but just the, you know, I guess similar to the clubs in New York and Chicago, slightly below street level. And it was called the Subway Club. And he brought in during the War, I went there.
'Cos when I came back from Great Lakes, we were only gone, we were gone about 8 weeks. And during that period that 1940, early ’42 period, the Fillmore exploded. I’d say well, from Pearl Harbor, it exploded, because then you, the war industry started. Kaiser, he establishes his shipyards and then you had all different munitions, plants and then both sides of the Bay you see the Bay Area at one time, we had a lot of small shops. Machine shops, shops that did all sorts of work, that automobile parts and all sorts of things. And many of those they converted to war. They would make fuses for the shells, casings for the shell casings and all sorts of different things that went into the building of the ships and making of the tanks and the different vehicles that they used in the war. So it all exploded. And so plus entertainment. Clubs, see?
And when they started hiring the Black people coming from the South, especially see when Pearl Harbor, when you had the Japanese, they bombed Pearl Harbor and then they were like they found maybe some of these small submarines that were beached on our coast in various places, and they would, they were sending balloons over with explosive following the currents. So a lot of the people, Caucasians, they were frightened, many of them deserted. They split. Some of them were enlisted in the Armed Forces, others became frightened, and they would just move and so…
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. so the area, the Black population came out. And naturally they came where we were. We were all colored folks, we all lived in the Western Edition. And that’s when it exploded, and since when wherever they came from, they had their own restaurants, their own nightclubs, their own funeral service, they had everything their own in the South, you know? So the Black business community exploded. So Wesley (Sr.) then, he moved to Fillmore Street, and opened up the Flamingo. That was the Texas Playhouse.
Also during the War, you had a, this fellow named, there was a fellow named Julius DeLifus. He came over from the islands. And he opened up a club on Fillmore Street, between Sutter and Post called the Havana Club. That was on that side of the street right next to what is now the Goodwill.
Then across the street there was a club called the Favorite. Then down the block between Fillmore between Post and Geary, was a storefront that they turned into a club. They called that the Long Bar. And they attracted, oh they attracted names. Dina Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Brown when they were married, of course. That was many of the, that was after the War. But during the War, they were packed.
Then of course the Fillmore Auditorium was right on the corner. Well that was, when I was growing up, that was called The Ambassador Ballroom. And they had, they did, there was a lot of social dancing that went on in the, San Francisco. You had the ballrooms down on the Van Ness and Market and then you had on Sutter and Van Ness, the Avalon Ballroom. You had then you had, you had different ballrooms scattered over in North Beach, you had ballrooms. Out in the Mission District you had ballrooms. And people would go out. They’d go out, the ladies would be dressed, and they’d ride public transportation. Of course you had streetcars that went everywhere. And they ran all night.
Out at the beach, you had Topsy’s Roost, which was a place they featured oh, fried chicken, plus the other items on the menu. And they had colored waiters, colored busboys. I was a busboy out there. That was before the war, yeah. And they had band. Ellis Kimball’s band. That was a white band. They played for dancing. And they broadcast. They used to broadcast. It was a good band.
Then on the intermissions, they had a colored piano player, Eddie Liggins. And then Eddie Alley who played drums. They’d play on the intermission. And people would throw money, see, 'cos Topsy’s had your main floor and then you had the balcony, and they had slides.
EPS: Yeah, I’ve seen the pictures. It looked amazing.
EARL WATKINS: And they’d slide down. And so the, Eddie, they would play the intermission and people would throw money. So just before the intermission was over, Eddie or Percy Boost, he was another fellow that played the drums, they’d get this huge push broom and they’d push all the money (LAUGHS) into the corner. And then the band would start playing. Of course they’d scoop up the money.
But there was social dancing, so the Ambassador, although they didn't cater to minorities. Asian or colored uh, African-American. They didn't cater. But the, during the War, then Charles Sullivan. Now Charles Sullivan, he had a little club. It was a little, you could get food and beer and wine. He had a little club down in San Mateo, 'cos there was a small black community down there. And so during the War, he came up here, and he had a liquor store there on Post Street, and that was the block on Post Street between Laguna, Buchanan, and Laguna. And at the bottom is Bop City. They opened up in 1950, but before then you had the California Theater Club. That was across the street from Sullivan’s Place. And that had been called CherryLand during the war. And the Japanese had it. And before, then when they took the Japanese to the relocation camp, why then this fellow that had the Havana, he and a fellow named Fleming, they went into partnership and opened, they took over CherryLand and turned it into the California Theater Club. It was first class, food, dancing, floor show. They brought acts from back East. George Dewey Washington, who was a very fine singer, he was from the good old time Vaudeville days, he was a mainstay there. Then they brought out one, they had bands playing, and there was a period in the ‘40’s, ’46, early ’47, and through mid’’47, maybe up into early ’48 where I played there with Johnny Cooper. Johnny Cooper and Curtis Lowe and the bass player. Anyhow, his name will come to me. We played there, and we would play for all the acts and we would play for dancing
And one real notable occasion, Paul Robeson, he came to town to do a concert. At that time, they were opening up the Waterfront. They, the Longshoremen, well. The, see, the Waterfront, the American Federation of Labor had it locked up. They had it locked up, and of course there was, there were no minorities. Well, the ILWU…CIO came along and so they were integrated, see, throughout the country, and so you had jurisdictional battles and eventually they merged.
So in the meantime, you and so naturally the AF of L started to open, especially in the automobile industry and some of the other industries. But our waterfront, like I said, was, it was segregated. Of course Roosevelt had said none of the war industries, were gonna be segregated. He wanted them integrated. And I guess that might have had something to do with the Waterfront opening up. But the ILWU, International Longshoremen and Warehouse Unions and then they, they came along, see, because the Teamsters, I think the Teamsters they more or less had control of the waterfront. So anyhow, they had I guess after a long negotiations, Harry Bridges was involved.
EPS: Who ran the California?
EARL WATKINS: One of the partners. He was involved with ILWU.
EPS: What was his first name?
EARL WATKINS: You know, I can’t remember. Fleming. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming, you know, I can’t remember his first name, and her, I think her first name was Bertha. They were wonderful people. She was from either Mississippi or Louisiana. And their family came out here and of course I got to know all of them, because when, as I say, originally our Black population here was very small. So automatically you knew everybody, either by name or by sight. 'Cos you’d meet them and pass and with the kids you run to school and you would know them all.
EPS: Was Jack’s of Sutter the first African-American club in the Fillmore? It opened in 1933?
EARL WATKINS: Yes, oh, yeah, Jack’s Tavern then around the corner was the Club Alabam. The two of them I would say simultaneously opened.
EPS: In the mid-‘30’s?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, yeah they were both in business.
EPS: How did that come about? Do you remember them opening up?
EARL WATKINS: Well, no, I was, see I was just a kid.
EPS: You were just 13.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. And so I was going to Sunday school, you know, and we knew see the, Mrs. Love. That was the organist, our church organist, and her husband was involved in Jack’s. and I think there was another fellow called Specs Wright, I think. And then around the corner was Lester Mapp. And oh, that was at the Club Alabam. So we see the two clubs, now Mapp. He had been involved in Barbary Coast. And the clubs down there, see, but…
EPS: He opened the Club Alabam?
EARL WATKINS: No, Mapp was the oh, yeah, excuse me, Club Alabam, Yes. He and his partner. And it’ll come to me 'cos their names, they were really big. And…
EPS: In the Barbary Coast?
EARL WATKINS: Yes and also and the Western Edition out in the Fillmore, because no nightclub owners and your, there’s a certain amount of notoriety naturally, and so the Jack’s and these, these were the two clubs.
EPS: Where was Club Alabam? What street?
EARL WATKINS: On Post Street, between Fillmore and Webster. And Jack’s was on Sutter between Fillmore and Webster. Then later, there was a club that opened practically next door to Jack’s called the Town Club. If you look it up, you’ll see The Town Club. So there was a period where we had the big three. Then of course later the other clubs I was telling you about, they started to open.
EPS: But that was World War II. So you had three pre-World War II and then World War II is when everything…
EARL WATKINS: You had, during World War II, as I said, the Havana, the Favorite, the Long bar. Then as you went down Fillmore where the Sullivan, I was telling you the Sullivan story. He got the control of the Ambassador Ballroom.
EPS: It was a roller rink for a while?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, but he got control of it, and then he was bringing in I guess it was after the war, he was bringing in the lot of the do-op groups, the singing groups. There were, became very, very popular. And so he had it, and then he was mysteriously, he was shot to death, mysteriously, on the street. And they don’t know what it was, because he had about $4,000 on him, and the money wasn’t touched. But immediately afterwards, Bill Graham got control. Of course, they renamed it The Fillmore. So there was some question as to whether the killing was gangster-related or but anyhow.
EPS: Lets go back to pre-World War II. Can you describe the Jack’s Sutter what it was like?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, yeah, it was a very nice club. And yeah, they ran a very nice club.
EPS: Do you remember hearing music out of there as a kid? EARL WATKINS: They had music. They see, I starting around about 1939, Saunders King, he went in there with his small group. And then about that time, Herb Caen came to town, and Vernon Alley who had gone to Sacramento as a college in Sacramento, with Herb Caen. When Herb Caen came here, Vernon Alley then he was still, he was making his mark. He played at the Club Alabam with Wilbert Buranco. And Bob Barfield. These, when you mention Bob Barfield, he was the saxophone player of note before Paul Desmond. Paul Desmond, I think, all those guys used to go listen to Barfield. And Wilbert Baranco was one of our excellent pianists. He played in the Art Tatum vein. And during the Depression when they had the WPA, Baranco was the head arranger for the music project for the WPA. And at one time, he had also played in one of the hotels as a featured pianist with, I think with the Anson Weeks Band. I think that’s the band. He had a spot where he would, they would feature him because he was such a marvelous jazz pianist.
But now Jacks, that was considered to be a, more of an elite establishment, and the Club Alabam was a little more down-to-earth (LAUGHS). And it was smaller and just more earthy. And Jack’s when, as I said uh, Saunders King started playing there, and then Herb Caen who came down to San Francisco as a reporter why, nationally he looked up Vernon, and so Vernon took him around to the colored clubs, and Vernon having been the all-city fullback and having gone to school at Commerce High with you know, we had the mix schools. We didn't have any discrimination to education. Many of the fellows that Vernon had gone to school with and who had played against at the various schools, they went on to go to work at the police department, the fire department, city hall. So Vernon had all these contacts. So Vernon took Herb Caen around and Herb Caen of course plugged Jack’s and plugged Alabam. And so you ended up with a mixed clientele. And that put Jack’s on the map and put the Fillmore district on the map. And during the war when the club scene exploded, why, we were, we had all the jazz going. We had as I mentioned, the Long Bar, I mentioned the up on Post Street where we had…
EPS: Primalon Ballroom…
EARL WATKINS: We had, well, that was Lower Fillmore, that was going down toward the American Theater and the that was going, that was near, yes, near Eddy and Turk. But I’m (STUTTER) not quite there yet. I’m going by here on Post Street, at Fillmore between Post and Geary but he had the Long Bar, and the Fillmore. Going back to Post Street, going up Post Street. You had the club, now these are clubs that are opened up after the war, when the war started in various areas of the ‘40’s, early ‘40’s, late ‘40’s, early ‘50’s, etc. Alabam was here. Across the street, Louis Landry took this lot and built a club he called it the New Orleans Swing Club. He was from New Orleans, and he built this himself. He was the, he had that skill. And he got all the licenses, and he opened it up and he opened up, he had Kid Ory in there. And there was a period even when he had Louis Armstrong and his band. And when at that time, that was in the very late ‘40’s or 1949. and in that band he had Father Heinz, Cozy Cole, Jack I’m not sure whether Jack Teagarden was with him at that time, but Louis, of course, the clarinet is, could have been. Well, anyhow… The now the reason I know that the members of the band 'cos at that time I was working on Bush Street near Powell at the Say When club. And these two gorgeous girls came in, colored girls. I mean, gorgeous, dressed to the nine’s, you know, with the hairstyles, I mean, dressed to the nine’s. they sat at the bar, so we’re on the bandstand playing, so naturally at intermission we sort of sidled up to them. And they introduced themselves. Well, I’m Mrs. Heinz and this is Mrs. Cole. Our husbands are playing with Louis, and of course the names didn't matter. So naturally we afforded them every courtesy. So that they were protected.
EPS: Was that downtown by Union Square?
EARL WATKINS: Well, yeah, above Union Square.
EPS: Lower Nobb Hill?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. The Club Hangover was, see that was your 900 block, and the Club Hangover where I later played with Father Heinz for 5 years, that was on Bush Street and 700 block, and that was a strictly Dixieland house. The Say When club, it was a mixed house. You had Harry the Hipster there, you had Slim Gailliard to appear there, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday. Connie Jordan and the Five Knights of Rhythm, that’s the group I played with. And Chet Baker. Oh it was, it was a real cross section. And there was this postage stamp sized place that was just jammed. And everybody would come there.
One night we looked up and here’s the whole jazz at the Philharmonics standing at the doorway. And then another time, we were playing away and we looked in the audience. There was Dagwood (LAUGHS) Arthur Lake. And he got up and did a little comedy, a little short, brief little skit. We introduced him. Another time we’re playing away and we looked down at the front table. It was Hoagie Carmichael. And he sat in with us, and he did a couple of his tunes, you know? And then another time oh, who the heck else? Well, it was that kind of a spot. But that was white-owned, but they had colored entertainment. They brought Edgar Hayes was the featured there, the Tranier Twins, Gordon and Cliff Tranier. They brought one night I was playing there and they brought in a group from Chicago. It turned out to be Nat King Cole’s older brother, Eddie Cole, you see? And now the, there’s one Cole brother left. As a matter of fact he appeared at Yoshi’s --Freddie Cole. And when he appeared at Yoshi’s, I mentioned to him that I had played on the same bandstand opposite his brother. And oh, he was just enthralled to know that someone you know, at this state because that’s in 1950. and here we are, 50 years later (LAUGHS). But earlier.
EPS: How did you get involved in music? How did you start your musical career?
EARL WATKINS: Well, my mother played piano. She was a classically trained. And she in those days every household had a piano. You know, big upright against the wall. It was just a, it was a part of the furniture. And she had, she played you know, read the music and then played by ear. And then when the family would entertain, why, my mother would play. My dad played the ukulele and he sang. He would sing, “I’m waiting for ships that never come in…” and then in those days, then you’d sing the first chorus, then you’d do the recitation. And then you’d say, “and my ship, what is that on the horizon? Is that my ship? That looks like my ship. And then the ship would go by.” And then he’d say, “my ship, it, it didn't stop,” you know, I’m paraphrasing. And he’d go back into the last 8 bars. “I’m waiting for ships.”
That was, you see, that is what they would do in my homes. And everybody had their little shtick that they did, and that was my father’s. he had a couple of tunes that he would do. He would do the recitation and my mother would play. But anyhow, she, and then we kids, all the kids growing up, we’d all bang Chopsticks and we’d play. And then we would pick up things by ear. And then my mother wanted to teach me piano, but I sort of halfheartedly started and then I was, I didn't want to practice, I wanted to go out and play. And I kicked myself a thousand times for having missed that opportunity. 'Cos she was, she was a very fine pianist. We had a piano bench full of music. You’d have the old sheet music with the waterfall. You know? And the Windmill and then the different flappers, you know, and the guys with the top hats, you know, the illustrated front page of the sheet music.
Oh, and we’d go downtown when my mother’d go downtown, why, we’d go to the, 'cos that’s what the ladies, the ladies would go downtown (~EP~) You’d dress you up, put you in the bathtub. (EPS: Right, and put on their gloves) Dress you up and you sit there and don't you move, and they would proceed. They’d have her put on the hat and the gloves and downtown we’d go. So we’d go to Woolworth’s and, or we’d go to the Emporium. And they had sheet music departments. And they’d have a pianist there.
EPS: So if you didn’t do piano, how did you get on the drums?
EARL WATKINS: Well, during the Depression, during the WPA era, they would, they had the programs, the music program. And in it not only did they have program for musical crews, but they also had for dancers and singers, and actors. And they would since vaudeville was big and musical programs were big and the theaters were big here, so you had people that did their theatrical bit. So they would send out people. As a kid, we’d go, there was a house on Sacramento Street with large living room and we would, we’d go there a couple of times a week, and the WPA would send out people and they would teach us some routines. At a school they routine. We had another routine. And then the, at our community center they would have teenage dancers, and the WPA would send out groups.
Our union does that today. Under the Music Performers’ Trust Fund, we sent out groups that play for teenagers and senior citizens, Opera in the Park is partly funded by that. The Park Band, they have a certain number of weeks that the Music Performers’ Trust Fund… funds. But the WPA would do that.
So one time I was at this teenage dance and the drummer was setting up his drums, and the band was playing and he was fiddling… had the two feet going while he was pulling the rest of the stuff out. And I was just fascinated, because he had different thing each foot was doing something different. Then when he got the hat, the other stuff up, each appendage. And I was said, how can you do that? How can you play the different rhythm and each foot doing something different? It’s as you’re thinking would you like to learn? And I said well, yes. He said, now I don't, see he lived in the neighborhood, I didn't know him at the time. But he lived in the neighborhood. He said now, I don’t want you to do like some of these other kids that I’ve tried to help. You know.
Now he said he worked as a doorman on Pacific Avenue. He had a split shift, and between his shift he would come home. He said, now I have this split. Now you come to my house, gave me his address, which was just a couple of blocks from where I lived. He said, you come by and let’s see if you have the talent.
So I went by his house, and he had the electric phonograph and the Benny Goodman records with the Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton. And he put a record on. And he played and then he said ok, let’s see if you can follow this record. So I listened to the record. And at that time, we had Station KRE in Berkeley, and that was the KCSM of the day. And the KJazz of the day. See, and they used to play all the Benny Goodman and then the Count, when Count Basie came on the scene, Count Basie before Count Basie, Jimmy Lundsford, Andy Kirk and Tommy Dorsey, and they had then they’d play the traditional stuff, too. The Moldy Pig Stuff, but anyhow. So we knew all this songs, heck. So anyhow, I sat down and I could keep time, I could stay with the record. So that’s, that was my start. I’d go to see him every, once a week. And I’d give him what he just gave me free lessons.
EPS: What was his name?
EARL WATKINS: John Randolph. And so then…
EPS: Was he a white guy? African American guy?
EARL WATKINS: Yes, African American. He was a doorman on Pacific Avenue. And so he could always, his band was called Randy’s Rhythm Ramblers. (LAUGHS) And at that time, of course, Vernon Alley was, he was on the upswing. He had Vernon and (?) oh, yeah, and his friend, his brother, Eddie Alley had taken him into the band business. And Vernon, of course, was talented and a quick learner. And so uh, he was the first call, anytime any bass job came up, why Vernon had them. Vernon at the time, as I said, was playing at the Club Alabam. And from the Club Alabam, when Lionel Hampton left Benny Goodman and formed his band, why he recruited Vernon. And Barfield. Baranco didn't want to leave. So they… but anyhow.
EPS: Where is the first Fillmore club where you played?
EARL WATKINS: The first club I played, I played with Pat Patterson, I played at a club on Fillmore, between Bush and Pine. In that little alleyway, it was called Minnie’s Can Do. And Pat Patterson was playing the piano, and I was playing drums. And we were playing after hours, for two (LAUGHS) dollars a night. And we were just, they were bootlegging. (LAUGHS) And that was in the Fillmore. That was my first job in the Fillmore.
EPS: When was that?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, my, that had to be oh, around 1938, ’39 (LAUGHS). I joined the union in 1937.
Lets see, what happened, a fellow named Jimmy Brown, a bass player who had been taking lessons with Vernon, he formed a band, and he needed a drummer. Well, at that time, I had been just beating on pots and pans and then I’d bought a bass drum and I bought a snare drum at a pawn shop, and then down at the drum shop I bought a cymbal. And I had a cymbal, a little tiny drum set. And then Mr. Thompson, who was the barber, he had been a bandsman in the military, in World War I. Back in the cavalry, back in Kansas. And so he had a basement full of instruments and music. So he’d put, he started a teenage band. And so he recruited me for drums. I knew Clifton was playing clarinet. And Wilbert Canal was playing piano. And I don't know where he got some other people. Mr. Thompson was playing saxophone, and he’d get out the music and we’d be playing away and I didn't know what I was doing, but I just tried to keep time.
And so when Jimmy Brown was forming this band, why he needed a drummer, so he recruited me. And so he was union, so he said I had to join the union. So we looked up Alex Forbes, who was secretary treasure business agent of our segregated local then. We were a subsidiary of Local 6. So we went by his house, and I gave him $5 down. And every time I would see him on the street, 'cos he would, you know, he worked down in the financial district, but he would go to the pool halls and shoot pool. And he was a person, you know, we’d just see one another. Every time he’d see you, he’d, I’d give him $2 or whatever I had in my pocket. So eventually he told me, well, you got enough, here’s your card. I had enough money to pay my joining fee. So that was 1937. And (STOPS)
EPS: Sounds like everywhere there were amazing young kids playing around the Fillmore?’ EARL WATKINS: Oh, heck, yeah. I, Bob Barfield, he was outstanding. You see, and you had bands. You had the, Ben Watkins had a big band across the Bay. Wilburt Borranco, he would put a band together. Eddie Alley, he had a band that he put of various sizes, he and Wesley Peoples. They had a band. Then you had the fellows who had played down there in the Barbary Coast before they shut it down, they were around. And we had, let’s see, we had the down on Market Street, the different places down there, they had the Walkathon, and they were, they used colored musicians. And there was a, seemed to be quite a bit of employment. Oakland, down in Oakland they hired a colored musicians.
If you look in some of the older books, what, there’s one book out about Barbary Coast…
EPS: Right, I’ve seen it.
EARL WATKINS: And then the book with his name’s right on the tip of my tongue.
EARL WATKINS: Not, no, no, that’s that’s…Broussard, he’s modern day. No, I’m going way back, Sid LeProtti. Now Sid played the Barbary Coast, and in later years they, somebody wrote the book and the wife had all of these old photos with all these different bands. And Lepratte played here and he played down in Los Angeles, and he played down the peninsula. But there was a lot of employment, and the fellows, many of them, they worked days and they played at night. And we had so, there were quite a few musicians. As a matter of fact, during the War, our Black membership, see they, when they abolished the subsidiaries and they rechartered the Black local why, we had 400 members in our union. But during the War, they had different fellows, and you had people that came from different parts of the country. Buck Campbell was from Seattle, he was an excellent musician. He had studied in the university up there. Then in Los Angeles was loaded with musicians. They would come from the southern section, from New Orleans and different parts of Midwest and the South. And there was a lot of work in Los Angeles. Fellows, they would do bit parts in the movies, some of the older movies you’d see the Black bands. And then they worked on Central Avenue. That was the, like our (EPS: I’ve seen that book) like our Fillmore Street. So that was Central Avenue south. Yeah, wasn’t that excellent?
EPS: Was the Fillmore like that? They’d describe it that you just walked around and hear music?
EARL WATKINS: Exactly, you know, and I was describing all these clubs? You remember I got to the Long Bar, then I went up Post Street. You had the New Orleans swing club. The Alabam, which later became the Sullivan. The Plantation was up there on Post Street. And then practically next door was the California Theater Club, then down from that was Bop City and then around the corner from Bop City was Jackson’s Nook. See Bop City and Jackson’s, they ran after hours, the others were regular hours.
Then when you go back to Fillmore you go down Fillmore, you know, you had the Fillmore Auditorium, naturally well, you go down to which was, it was either Eddy or Ellis, and you went in, there you had the Booker T. Washington Hotel. It was the Edison Hotel right before War. During the war it became, after the War it became the Booker T. You had entertainment in there.
Back to Fillmore. You went down to the Primalon, the Brown Bomber, it had several different names. But that’s where they had, I saw Dizzy’s big band there at one time. And they had, we brought in our union during the late ‘40’s. they were booking, and we brought in Charlie Ventura’s band, they played there. Then down from the Premalon, you had the Blue Mirror.
EPS: Leola King.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, Leola King’s place across the street was, I think it was the Ebony Plaza, that hotel they had down in the basement. (ED: He means the Manor Plaza Hotel). They had a club.
Then your, if you went back up Fillmore, at one time after hours clubs were everywhere. There was a little club down on McAllister, just off of Fillmore. A friend of mine opened it. It was a little small storefront place. I went in there one night and Wes Montgomery and the Wes Montgomery Trio was playing in there. And then you, you just, there was, but the Fillmore is where all the jazz was. See here, Harold Blackshears, he had opened a place up there across from the Havana and up close to the Sutter Street down in the basement. They, it had been Elsie’s Breakfast Club before then. She was one of the first people to go after hours. And that place, man, it would be packed. That was around 1946, 1947. And one night I went in there, and who should be in there? Robert Mitchum. When he took that bus, you remember, he took that bus? He was in there (LAUGHS) he was a guest, a celebrity, 'cos everybody you know, they just mobbed him. Then Elsie and I don't know why she left it, but Harold Blankshear, the prizefighter took it over and it became a café, it was a café, the Society. And they had everybody, Dorothy Dandridge’s sister and now they had everybody in there.
Did you want to get around to the photographs? (Elizabeth & Earl begin to look at photographs from the Fillmore jazz era.
Now here’s Bop City again (LAUGHS). You know who that is. (LAUGHS)
EPS: Right, Johnny Mathis on the right.
EARL WATKINS: And that’s me.
EPS: No? That’s you?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah.
EPS: That’s you?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah.
EPS: Have you seen this before?
EARL WATKINS: Sure. It’s in the Bop City video.
EPS: That’s you. you’re sitting there on the drums, that’s amazing. You remember that night??
EARL WATKINS: Yeah.
EPS: Can you describe… I mean, did you know Johnny?
EARL WATKINS: Of course. Yeah, he went to, I think it was Polytechnic High. He was a track star, and he was just trying to get started. Uh, Helen Noga had taken him under her wing. But he was a rank amateur. He didn't know his keys and he would jump the meter, you know? But he had a beautiful voice, and he was such a nice young man. And the last time I saw him in Chicago, same thing, just a sweetheart, he was on his way up then. He was playing at the Medinah Temple, and I mean, he had a show. And first class show.
EPS: Oh, my mother was in love with him.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah…19, 1960, I was back there with, was it 1960 when I was back there with? No, I was back there with Fatha’ Heinz. Yes, 1960, I was back there with Fatha’ Heinz, and I was staying at the Maryland Hotel, and it was a night off and I had to on to the restaurant to eat, and I was on my way back and I passed them at Medinah Temple, and up on the marquis was the name Johnny Mathis. And uh, the Medinah Temple, that was a large Masonic temple and they had, they would give their affairs there. So I went back the alley and went around to the stage door, and there was John Noga. Standing there. He says, “Earl, what are you doing here?” I said, “well, I’m here with Fatha’ Heinz. We’re playing at the Café Continental. We’ve been there for 3 months.” He said, “well man come on in.” I said “Ok.” He said, “what are you doing?” I said, “well it’s my night off.” He said, “well, come on in, and he put me up in a box. And I saw the whole show. Then I went down in the dressing room and talked to Johnny. And this…
EPS: Who is playing bass there? EARL WATKINS: That looks like Johnnie Ingram’s brother. Uh, Johnnie Ingram’s brother, I think his name was Bill. That sure looks like him.
EPS: What about piano?
EARL WATKINS: And the pianist…
EPS: Is that Federico Cervantes?
EARL WATKINS: No, no, that’s not Federico, that’s the Traveler. That might have been, it could have been, there was a fellow named Ray Bryant, and he was here with somebody. I don't know whether he was here with, they had, it looks like him, but I’m not sure.
EPS: Were you just up there jamming? Or were you part of the house band.
EARL WATKINS: Just sitting in. Yeah, sitting in.
EPS: Do you know when was that might have been taken?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, that was sometime after 1950. 'Cos see, the place opened in mid-1950. And I was, for a week I was a house drummer. And then after that I would just sit in. That was, oh, my goodness, 'cos for a while I was out of town for a while.
EPS: Playing with? EARL WATKINS: Fatha’ Heinz, Bob Scobby, and then I was up in Sacramento with the Five Knights of Rhythm. Now that’s Dexter Gordon. See, and this is Bop City.
EPS: What was it like to go there and see…I mean, these were like the most famous jazz people of all time?
EARL WATKINS: You just go in and you know, you go in the front door and it was a long room and the bandstand was here. And you’d go in. Well, the first thing you had to get past everybody because you knew everybody, and every Thursday night was Celebrity Night, so we’d set up a big table. And that, the celebrities whoever happened to be in town, you’d have a party for them. Duke, Heinz, Bassie, Dinah, Billie Holliday. Uh, whoever happened to be in town. Sammy Davis, Jr.
EPS: And would everyone just talk to them, just like regular people?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, oh, yeah, they were very open.
EPS: This is a crowd scene, do you recognize it?
EARL WATKINS: No, no, I don't recognize it, but that’s Pat Patterson.
EPS: On the right hand side next to the guy with his mouth open?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, that’s Pat. Pianist, he was a guy I played with at the Minnie’s Can Do.
EPS: Oh that’s right! Your first gig in the Fillmore.
EARL WATKINS: And this fellow I don’t know his name.
EPS: He’s on the very left, dark African-American guy, white shirt, dark jacket, tie .
EARL WATKINS: I don’t know his name. See… her… I know their faces, but I can’t call up the names. This fellow could be Stuffy Bryant. This was a little tap dancer.
EPS: The guy with his mouth open, you think Stuffy Brant?
EARL WATKINS: Bryant. B.R.Y. He was a tap dancer, he ended up in New York. This is another tap dancer, he was (EPS: The guy who has his hands on his head) worked at the California Theater Club. I can’t remember his name.
Oh, yeah, that could, I don't know where that is. 'Cos see we had, there’s Jerome Richardson, and there’s Pony Poindexter.
EPS: This is the photo with two sax players.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, he became one of our nationally known outstanding studio players. He was, he left here with Lionel Hampton, both of them left here with Lionel Hampton. Pony, he came back. Jerome came back. And then eventually he stayed with them for a couple of years and then he came back. And then Jerome had a band around here for awhile. I worked with him. Then Jerome, we were playing at the California Theater Club in 1950… I mean uh, the Champagne Supper Club, which was a New Orleans swing club. And first weekend we played there, four nights a week. The second weekend I went back, Jerome was gone. He had left here with Fatha’ Heinz, and went to Los Angeles. And then from Los Angeles, he and the lady he was with, they drove back to New York.
But prior to that, prior to that, Jerome was with, he was with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. He and Curtis Lowe, uh, they left here with Lionel Hampton, and at the time, when Jerome was with him, Quincy Jones was with him. He was just a kid, just a teenager. And so when Jerome went back to New York, why, he reconnected with Quincy Jones, and he went over in 1960 uh, in early ’60 over to Europe with Quincy Jones with a show, the show, the promoter, he sort of deserted him. And Quincy Jones spent ten months barnstorming in Europe. Jerome was with him.
So when Quincy got back to New York, Jerome was doing studio in New York, so Quincy came out to California and then started working in Hollywood, so then Jerome came back here to work the Carol Burnett Show and also he, then he worked with Quincy Jones for years. And eventually he ended up back in New York, and he passed away in New York.
EPS: Yeah, I talked to him a couple of times. Really nice man.
EARL WATKINS: Excellent player. Studio player, outstanding flute player. He played, in fact he played the bassoon, the English horn, he went to San Francisco State. He was there at the same time with Rudy Salbinini, Paul Desmond, all those guys. They all used to sit in at Jack’s and the Alabam. Jerome and Paul Desmond and Dave Crete. EPS: (Pointing to a photo) This of course is Louis Armstrong, and I was told that’s his second wife?
EARL WATKINS: Yes. What was her name? Was it Lucille? I can’t remember her name. Yeah, this is, this is Bop City. (EPS: Right) See, Louis was working, he was working at the New Orleans Swing Club. See, here we are again. There’s Jimbo. There’s I guess the waitresses. Either that or customers. Now this was taken in the little coffee shop that was right in the front section.
EPS: So you’d go through the coffee shop and then in the back was the stage?
EARL WATKINS: Well, it was just to the side, yeah, and the two doors in the beginning and went right in. And this is Bop City again. That’s Walter Sanford again.
EPS: Walter Sanford’s on the bass over in the corner. Did people dance or they just sit there and listen to the music?
EARL WATKINS: No, no dancing. Just strictly listening.
EARL WATKINS: (points to a new photo) Yeah, this, I don't know where in the world this was, but see, look at what the carpeting and the drapes.
EPS: We have other photos taken in that place. Because that carpet, we see that carpet again.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, but that’s Ella and Robert Lee, and this guy, he’s an entertainer. (EPS: The guy next to Robert Lee?) Yeah, but I can’t remember his name.
(Looking at a new photo) And this is… This is the Primalon Ballroom. That was also called the Brown Bomber. And before World War II, it was a German beer garden. And then in the interim period it was…the communist party took it over, Young Communist League took it over, and it was like a recreation center and like a social center. And they opened it up. See that was before when it was the beer garden, it was segregated. Then the Young Communist League took it over, and so they welcomed us, and we’d go up there as teenagers. They had a pool table and they would have oh, you know, there’d be a lot of young girls, and just social activity. \They opened it up, and they also had a place on Hade Street, the first block of Haight Street off of Market, on that side of the street, and that was also like a community center. And of course at the time I didn't know it at the time, the FBI probably it was on their case you know, J. Edgar Hoover, he was a racist. And he hated any kind of integration or mixed company.
EARL WATKINS: Now this is, this is the Havana Club. See, this is Bill Hathaway. (EPS: The guy sitting down?) He’s still alive, you know, I just talked to him, he lives in Riverside. We worked together as Slim Jenkins in Oakland, Bill Hathaway and I. I hired him when I had the band over there. Walter Oaks and I grew up together. Bass player. We just lost him about 2 years ago. He was, he lived in Riverside. He and Oaks played together. And that’s Pat Patterson, from Louisiana.
See, Julius was working there, but Julius, he wasn’t there at the time. That’s, that was, he might have passed away. That was, Illinois Jacquet’s brother. And I got back from a tour with, who was I with? I got back with, from one of my tours with Heinz just in time to attend his funeral services in Oakland. Yeah, that’s Pat Patterson, excellent piano. And they were at the….
EPS: The guy playing the horn?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, yeah. And later, Cal Tjader joined him. So there was a quartet. But that was at Havana Club I was telling you about, that Julius Delifus, opened -- the fellow from Hawaii.
Oaks and I grew up together. Oaks lived on Sutter there between Baker and Lyon. His father was from Kansas City and he knew Bennie Moton and all the guys, and he and Oaks’ father used to drive Oaks and I with our instruments over to Oakland, so that we could play with Red Kyu. Yeah, this, and, and Red Kyu’s son, Billy Kyu, he was playing at Solomon Grundy’s at one time.
EPS: Was Havana a big club? Small club?
EARL WATKINS: It was a small club, yeah, but it was you know, narrow, but it was packed. Oh, yeah, they had, 'cos you had people war workers, they worked around the clock, so you had people on the street around the clock with money in their pocket and wanting to socialize, you know?
EPS: So it was quite a scene?
EARL WATKINS: Yes. Now that’s Robert Lee (points to a new photo)
EPS: Sitting with the big wide hat. Do you know where this is?
EARL WATKINS: No, I don't. There’s that bartender again. Robert Lee and this, these two fellows. By sight I know them. Yeah, he was another guy. He would court widows.
EPS: Robert Lee?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. Anytime a wealthy, any one of the black fellows who had made his mark and accumulated something, when they, if he passed away, Robert Lee would court the widow (LAUGHS). Clean her out. That’s Rudy. Rudy was he was the clerk at the liquor store on Sutter and Fillmore. But he was a ladies’ man. As a matter of fact, Helen Noga’s daughter and they were an item at one time. Uh, you know, Helen and John, they were partners at the Blackhawk. And Helen and John, they even… they were patrons for Johnny Mathis, put him on the map, see? And so Rudy, Rudy would hang in all the joints. In the daytime, he would be uh, he was clerk down at the liquor store. And he was a ladies’ man.
EPS: That’s pretty amazing, he was dating a white woman there, and that’s the early ‘50’s.
EARL WATKINS: Well, that was the thing. See, the Fillmore, it became integrated. Girls would come from out of town, come from the Midwest, they’d come to San Francisco. And naturally they’d want to hear jazz, and they’d come down to Bop City and there and then the next thing you know, they’d meet some nice colored fellows, well-dressed, and even at some of the downtown clubs when they started to open up. You just meet a girl and just take them down. I took many a girl down to Bop City just to show them the town. And then take them back to their hotel.
EPS: Were there any problems? If you did that in the south, you’d be in trouble.
EARL WATKINS: I know it, but no. No, we were integrated. Now this is, this is Addison Farmer. That’s Art Farmer’s twin brother.
EPS: He’s playing the bass there.
EARL WATKINS: Yes, and he’s deceased. Unfortunately. And this fellow, I recognize him, but can’t call the name.
EPS: Guy holding the cards?
EARL WATKINS: Yes. And the tromboners I don't know their name.
EPS: What about the guy standing with the white hat?
EARL WATKINS: No. I don't. that could be Tommy Smith.
EPS: Was he a singer?
EARL WATKINS: No, Tommy played piano. And he sang, played piano and sang. He was very short. That could be him, but I’m not sure. But that’s Addison Farmer. Yeah. He was around here, he played at Bop City and he was around here for awhile, both he and Addison. Now this fellow, Tiny, he was an entertainer, and he entertained at, Tiny we called him, and I can’t remember his last name. And this fellow, of course, is one of our DJ’s.
EPS: The white guy?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah. Maybe if you check KSAN you might get a photo.
EPS: (looking at another photograph) That’s the Fillmore, David Johnson photo. You’ve seen that before in the display up the street.
EARL WATKINS: That’s Post Street, Post and Fillmore. Twenty-two car. And before the war, on the holiday seasons they’d have the arches. And they’d, oh, the lights! They had the arches and, but they dismantled them and for scrap. But they would have lights, all the arches would have lights and all down the street, all from McAllister up to California. That’s the 22-car. I rode that many a day. And I walked up these streets many a day. And of course the Bank of Italy was right there.
EPS: It’s looks so bustling?
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, there’s the, that’s the church and there’s the Fillmore uh, Ambassador Ballroom. And that’s Jim Jones, that’s the church there.
EARL WATKINS: Now, this is the Champagne Supper Club. See, that’s the New Orleans Swing club.
EPS: Before the Champagne Club or after the Champagne? EARL WATKINS: Afterwards. When, originally it was, when Louis Landry opened it, it was the New Orleans Swing Club. Then Curtis Mosby came up from Los Angeles, Louis Landry got busted.
EARL WATKINS: Dope, he was dealing dope. And then when Mosby took it up, he renamed it the Champagne Supper Club, and then Barksdale, Don Barksdale came up and he became a partner with him. And they had floor show and everything. I played there. That’s where I was playing with Jerome when he disappeared.
EPS: Jerome Richardson?
EARL WATKINS: Yes. And then Saunders King followed us in there. Now the... See, there’s a sailor, so that had to be, that could have been during the Korean War. See he opened this around 1947, or ’48. And the Landry.
EPS: There is an amazing amount of people in front there.
EARL WATKINS: Oh, yeah, they ran after hours. And man, let me tell you, they did business. Now this is Bernard Peters.
EPS: What is he playing? EARL WATKINS: Drums. Bernard Peters.
EPS: He is in the photo that says “ Ruth Brown” behind the band. And that’s Bernard Peters.
EPS: Do you recognize the woman at all?
EARL WATKINS: No, I don't.
EPS: It’s not Ruth Brown?
EARL WATKINS: No. Now this might be the Blue Mirror, I don't know. They had entertainment in there, but that’s Bernard Peters. Fine drummer. He was with Saunders King, and then later he ended up over in Europe.
EPS: We’re getting down to photo number 2 of Wesley’s. EARL WATKINS: See how packed it is? (EPS: Yeah, its absolutely amazing.) See it’s absolutely packed. See, and this is, during the war and even after the war, 'cos see, people were, had money and they were around the clock. And they were looking, there’s Wesley again. There’s T-Bone again. And I don't recognize the bass, but see they’re dressed? Hair style. No, I don't recognize those servicemen. It was a hangout for servicemen, too. And see, people, they had the money, so all that, and so, and accommodations it was difficult you know, even as now. See, the, and so people, they wanted to get out, you know? They (LAUGHS) there was, you know, there’s the Flamingo again. I don't recognize any of the people. See, there was such a tremendous influx of people that came from down in the South. And naturally there’s Wesley again. And I don’t know who this girl is. Uh, and then (EPS: Photo number 7, or 8). And then once again I was stationed at St. Mary’s College, and so and we went to work just like we were, lived off the base and we went to work. And I think that’s Wesley pouring. Yes, that’s Wesley pouring.
EPS: That’s photo number 9.
EARL WATKINS: See, there’s a serviceman there with the stripes. Now.
EPS: This is photo number 10. But yeah, it looks jam packed. People having a good time.
EARL WATKINS: See, there, the guys, processed hair. They have, you recall they would gas their hair. They would process their hair, see, so like the entertainers used to do.
EPS: This is photo 11.
EARL WATKINS: Yeah, I don't recognize any of these fellows. But see, as I said, a lot of the fellows came up from the South during the War. There’s Eddie Alley. There is Eddie (behind his drums –EP) And Vernon’s brother. That was his drum set was the first set I played on. This is Eddie Alley’s band. The call them, I think Gentlemen of Swing. Uh, that’s Eddie Walker (EPS: on the right?). Yeah, Eddie Walker was, he later, he played with Saunders King, see, before he joined Eddie. He played with Saunders King. He was from Chicago. Excellent player, yeah, excellent band musician. It’s Peewee Claybrook. Peewee was from St. Louis. He was played on the riverboats with Fate Maribol. (EPS: going right to left) and he was in our Navy band. Yeah, he, they sent him out here to complete our complement. Eddie was at Treasure Island in the Navy. Eddie, of course, he didn't go to service. There’s Sweetie Mitchell. She’s and there’s Sam Allen, and Doug Kinnard, K-I-N-N-A-R-D. Now Sam was in the Navy also. Doug didn't go to service. Now get this. Deceased. He and Sweetie married eventually, and she woke up on morning and he didn't. Side by side.
EPS: Oh my gosh! When was this?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, this is several, any number of years ago. And then of course she’s passed away. She was a diabetic, and eventually she passed. Peewee, he had lung cancer. Didn't smoke, didn't drink. Ended up with lung cancer. Sweetie, she passed, diabetic. Sam, he passed and Doug, he passed in Sacramento. (EPS: Oh my gosh.) He had really deteriorated his health.
EPS: What did he play?
EARL WATKINS: Bass. Yeah, we worked together. We worked together with, we backed T-Bone at the Swing Club in Oakland. And I, Doug and I worked with Johnny Cooper at the Top of the Mark, in 1972.
EPS: (pointing to a new photo of the Texas Playhouse) Looks like they had just had a lot of fun in there?
EARL WATKINS: Oh, they did. But see, and he would get on the mike. And play records, and do the emcee work. This is a duplicate. See, there he is doing his act. And you can see how dapper, but he always was. When he was, when he got out of high school, he worked downtown somewhere. And when he’d walk up the street, he had, it was a strut. It wasn’t, not an arrogance but just kind of a dignified strut. And you can’t call it anymore than that. And he was well respected, always had a smile on his face. And of course, as I said, we all knew one another, all the families knew one another. Yeah, I used to see him. I used to see him when he’d parade in front of the ROTC. And then uh, when he was married with the kids before he went into the nightclub business. And then I’d see him at the club. I didn't go there that frequently. So (LAUGHS) What else?
EPS: I have one more question. What was it like when the clubs closed?
EARL WATKINS: Well, it was really very traumatic to see what we did. We all made a living playing music, that’s all we did was play our music. And you know, you kind of I don’t know why you think it’s gonna be just go on forever. But what happened, Ok, the war ended, the defense industry started to shut down. The money, defense money started to dry up, and then the jobs started to dry up.
Now they other, then the civilian jobs started to open up. The civil service, they started to open up for minorities. And then other civilian jobs, of course a lot of civilian jobs were still closed. See, before the war, PG&E, water company, you name it, everything was closed. When I got out of high school, Galileo High, a lot of my friends, they went down to the telephone company, all those, putting in applications. I went down there, but they all ended up in the wastebaskets. See, they’d smile in your face. And even the insurance companies, the white insurance companies, they’d have, you’d pay more, your premium would be higher and your coverage would be less. Oh, yeah.
## END OF INTERVIEW ##