7th Street Blues
An amazing music scene once thrived in West Oakland
The names zip from Ronnie Stewart’s lips like licks from his electric guitar: Ray Charles. Aretha Franklin. Charles Brown. Lafayette “The Thing” Thomas. Big Joe Turner. Bobby “Blue” Bland. Teddy “Blues Master” Watson. Ike and Tina Turner. Some of these musicians achieved worldwide celebrity; some never found the fame they deserved. But they all had one thing in common: They played the blues on West Oakland’s Seventh Street.
“We call it the Harlem of the West Coast,” says Stewart, the executive director of the Bay Area Blues Society. “A lot of artists hold Seventh Street dearly to the development of their careers. This was a proving ground for the greats.”
Oakland became a blues mecca during the 1940s. The city’s shipbuilding industry boomed in support of World War II, and the consequent profusion of manufacturing jobs and military bases brought a huge influx of African Americans to the Bay Area. These workers, many who had been sharecroppers or laborers making as little as 75 cents an hour in the South, were able to make three or four dollars an hour on the West Coast. Many settled near the shipyards in West Oakland, and a vibrant entertainment district sprang up on Seventh Street, where the blocks were crowded with pool halls, card rooms, and as many as 40 blues clubs, including the Lincoln Theater, Esther’s Orbit Room, and Slim Jenkins’ Place.
Stewart was born in 1949 and grew up in the neighborhood. His childhood memories include listening to Ray Charles play at a club called the Barn and seeing Lowell Fulson, looking “like he was 10 feet tall, dressed all in white,” as he hopped into a Lincoln in front of the corner liquor store.
“In every black person in the community, there’s some kind of musical connection,” says Stewart, who became a guitarist and went on to cofound the Bay Area Blues Society in 1985. “A lot of the songs were about the struggle, the down lifestyle they had in the South. And music meant so much because it’s a form of escape. As a kid, you hear this stuff so much [that] when you pick up your instrument, all you have to learn is the technique to play it, because you already know the syncopation, you know the timing, you know how the notes should go. That’s why I played music. It’s in my blood.”
As the scene in Oakland prospered, the music took on a unique, local character. The Bay Area was already a haven for jazz musicians, and blues and jazz artists began to collaborate, creating a new style of blues. West Coast blues, as it came to be known, was more heavily arranged than Delta or Chicago blues and featured more complex chords, faster beats, and bigger bands that often used horn players.
“They use three or four pieces [in Chicago blues bands],” Stewart says. “We use five, six, seven, eight, nine pieces out here. Ray Charles was starving, and Slim Jenkins would let him play [at his club]. Ray had seven, eight horns because people wanted horn bands—the clubs wanted that thick sound.”
Oakland’s creative hotbed also gave birth to many famous songs. In a recording studio at the corner of Seventh and Center streets, Bob Geddins, Roy Hawkins, and Jimmy McCracklin combined to write “The Thrill Is Gone,” the song that propelled B. B. King to superstardom. Geddins also wrote the James Brown hit “Why Does Everything Have to Happen to Me” and combined with Jimmy Wilson to write “Tin Pan Alley,” which has been recorded by more than 200 musicians, including Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Seventh Street continued to blossom throughout the ’40s and ’50s. However, a series of urban development projects would combine to bring about the demise of the music scene. In the late ’50s, the Cypress Street Viaduct (the section of I-880 that collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake) was erected, cutting West Oakland off from the rest of the city. Then, in 1960, the U.S. Postal Service demolished 12 blocks of Seventh Street to clear the way for a state-of-the-art post office, in the process displacing 400 homes and businesses.
The death knell came in the form of the clacking and whooshing of speeding BART trains. In order to save money, the West Oakland BART station was built aboveground, with elevated train tracks running right over Seventh Street.
Now the street is lined with empty lots and boarded-up storefronts. The neighborhood is best known for crime statistics. Esther’s Orbit Room is the lone club that remains from the glory years, and throughout the day it shakes with the roar of trains passing overhead.
Yet a great deal of work is being done to ensure that West Oakland’s best days are not forgotten. The Bay Area Blues Society has garnered more than $2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the City of Oakland, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to set up The Music They Played on 7th Street Walk of Fame. Stewart hopes to break ground later this year on the walk, which will feature a series of four-by-four-foot bronze and silver sidewalk panels commemorating the artists who lived and performed on Seventh Street. The walk of fame and the planned historic district will accompany a larger development—including a transit village similar to the one that surrounds the Fruitvale BART station—aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood.
In addition, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Graduate School of Architecture are producing a video game, Remembering 7th Street, that simulates life in West Oakland during its heyday. The game will include replications of clubs, such as Slim Jenkins’ and Esther’s, and a soundtrack composed of that era’s music.
“The game is for old-timers [who lived there] and for kids in Oakland who have no knowledge of what that amazing scene was all about,” says professor Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program at Berkeley. “And, of course, jazz and blues lovers.”
The video game, which Grabowicz hopes will be ready for release in about a year, and all of Stewart’s efforts (which include a CD and a forthcoming book, both titled The Music They Played on 7th Street) are ensuring that Oakland will always have the blues. As Stewart says, “Blues has never died. The history here had to be preserved so another generation can see how important these linkages are.”
GET THE BLUES
Many great blues festivals take place throughout the East Bay this summer, starting June 2–3 with the Black Diamond Blues Festival at Black Diamond and Fifth Streets in Old Town Pittsburg. Saturday, June 2, is themed Ladies Sing the Blues and is headlined by Sista Monica. On Sunday, June 3, Johnny Rawls is the main attraction of Men of the Blues. www.bayareabluessociety.net.
The Hayward Russell City Blues Festival, which salutes Hayward’s rich blues tradition (Russell City, an unincorporated part of Hayward where the Southland Mall now stands, was home to several notable blues clubs), takes place the weekend of July 6–8. This year’s festival highlights Chicago blues and celebrates the 94th birthday of legendary blues piano player Pinetop Perkins. Hayward City Hall Plaza, 777 B St., Hayward, (510) 836-2227, www.bayareabluessociety.net.
Starting July 11, the Bay Area Blues Society puts on an eight-week free concert series, Home Grown Blues, at the corner of Ninth and Broadway in Oakland every Wednesday evening through August 29. www.bayareabluessociety.net.
The Art and Soul Festival (September 1–3) in Downtown Oakland features a blues stage. Highlights include a day of New Orleans blues on Saturday, September 1, and a day dedicated to the greats of Oakland blues on Monday, September 3. www.artandsouloakland.com.
Antioch hosts the alcohol-free, family-oriented Delta Blues Festival on Saturday, September 15. Waldie Plaza, between G and I streets, Antioch, www.deltabluesfestival.net.
Click here to listen to "Tin Pan Alley" performed by the Bay Area Blues Society Caravan of All Stars.
Click here for weekly blues events and venues.