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This article is dedicated to the memory of mighty blues belter Big Joe Turner, who passed on last week.

In San Jose, we been down so long we didn’t realize we had the blues


John Garcí in 1985

John García in 1985

by Sammy Cohen

Rock & roll is an industry; jazz is an art form, but, more than anything else, the blues is a spiritual community. The mid ’60s revelation that the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al. drew their musical inspiration from listening to recordings by old bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters is now common currency. It is, however, a myth that the urban blues was spawned on the South Side of Chicago by Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and performers like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Magic Sam and “Mighty Joe” Young.

The Chautauqua circuit that crisscrossed Texas and the Great Plains, and the “fatback” circuit of black clubs and dance halls stretching from New Orleans and Tupelo on up the Mississippi River to St. Louis has produced a constant stream of musical talent since the last century. Towns like East St. Louis and Murphysboro, Illinois and Evansvillc, Indiana provided a grass roots audience on which artists like Al Hibbler, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder could cut their musical teeth. The South Side of Chicago was one more stop on the circuit.

But there is no denying that the blues harp (harmonica), electric guitar, bass and drumset sound that developed in the Midwest after WWII typifies what is called “Chicago style” blues. That era generated brilliant bluesmen like B.B. King, Elmore James and T-Bone Walker, but the rhythm sections (bass and drums) of the seminal bands of the ’50s and early ’60s were, as a rule, mediocre.

Blues harp players weren’t saying a whole lot either. While young white East Coast musicians like guitarist Dave Van Ronk grew attached to the old recordings of blues singers Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt and Josh White, young white players like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite and the late Michael Bloomfield injected new life into the Chicago blues scene of the mid ’60s.

The blues groove suddenly sat up straight. The Butterfield Blues Band became the first commercially successful blues group with both black and white musicians, and soon white blues groups like the Bloomfield Blues Band with Musselwhite on harp, and singer Nick     es (a Gravenites (a band I drummed with) were gigging on the bubbling Old Town jazz and blues club scene.

About two years later an inevitable meltdown occurred. The club scene evaporated and most members of Chicago’s new blues generation headed west, where other white bluesmen like Gary Smith and Steve Miller were doing their thing in the East Bay and the Haight. Bloomfield teamed up with Buddy Miles and Gravenites to record with the all-star Electric Flag and, for a hot minute in the late ’60s, it appeared the blues would carve itself a piece of the big bucks rock scene. But it never came to pass.

Like jazz, blues again became esotericized— Corky Siegal and Jim SchwalPs Blues Band recorded with the Chicago Symphony while rock & roll went on to deify Indian gurus, Anton De LaVey and heavy metal. Paul Butterfield moved his blues entourage to upstate New York.

In the San Jose area, the bedrock blues tradition stayed alive, championed by a not-so-old guard of bluesmen like Gary Smith, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, “Gilroy John” Garcia, Mark Naftalin and “Guitar Mac,” as well as newer bluesmasters like guitarist Chris Cain and harpist Andy Just.

Some astonishing young blues talent thrives here today—prodigious 15-year-old harpist “Little John” Chrisley and sparkling 19-year-old guitarist John Wedemeyer are but two among the South Bay’s new wave of blues artists that gig at local blues emporiums like JJ’s Lounge, Joshuas and the Cabaret, as well as the Catalyst in Santa Cruz and SF’s Full Moon Saloon.

When Gary Smith graduated from Fremont High in the late ’60s, the blues harpist’s budding group contained local drummer John Anning, jazz pianist Paul Nagel and new age guitarist Tom Taylor…

“Smith had already graduated, but we would set up and play the blues after the basketball and football games,” Taylor reflects. “Most of the student body didn’t get it. They wanted to hear the Beatles and Paul Revere and the Raiders. But we musicians were aware of the urban blues explosion and were really digging groups like Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band.”

By the ’70s, Smith was producing blues concerts in the South Bay. He says it was tough at first—San Jose’s music scene was basically cowboy and Mexican with a smattering of Dixie, practically no mainstream jazz and a proliferation of aspiringgarage rock bands. Any kind of ‘black’ music was an anathema. An “If it ain’t country, it ain’t shit!” mentality prevailed, but Smith slowly cultivated a local blues audience at clubs like the Red Ram near San Jose State.

Bluesman “Bar B.Q.” Barnes recalls, “Gary is the guy who helped me when I first started playing the harp. A lot of players won’t tell you anything. But, Gary, he’d sit down with you and teach.”

In 1976, Smith produced the album “Blue Bay” on Messaround Records, a compilation disc that brought together veterans like Charlie Musselwhite, Luther Tucker and newcomers like Ron Thompson and Andy Just, committing to vinyl a classic encapsulation of Bay Area blues.

To many, Smith’s “Old Blues Hotel,” a blues commune that nurtured the development of local performers, stands as the high water mark of his career. Others consider it a blues version of “Animal House.” Residents there were known to celebrate occasionally by spraying machine gun bullets across a nearby construction site.

Local blues fan Sid Morris tells of a legendary drinking contest between Smith’s band and a well-known rock & roll outfit. “The contest went well into the night,” remembers Morris. “The progress was announced over KKUP-FM. In the end Gary’s band had to submit.”

“Later we discovered the other band had dropped speed to increase their drinking capacity.”

Smith went into retirement in the late ’70s. “I was burned out tin the music and needed to take a rest,” he confesses. Smith has since ended his retirement, fronting a band with Nick Gravenites at JJ’s Lounge last month.

If Smith is the most important local white bluesman from the South Bay, then “Guitar Mac” and “Broadway,” leader of the Santa Cruz-based Broadway Blues Band, are the foremost black bluesmen in the area.

Although not an urban bluesmaster, Harvey MacNalley, a.k.a. “Guitar Mac,” is a moving force in the South Bay. The Taj Mahal-influenced steel and Dobro strummer hosts a Sunday midnight blues program on KKLIP and owns his own production company, Mac Sounds. The prospects of rural life holds no appeal to the Arkansas-born MacNalley.

“I came to California because of my desire to become a musician,” he says. “It’s hard to work in some field and try to play music. I eventually got a job as a cab driver—I’d sit in the back and play to people during my lunch hour.” In 1980, the Mercury-News ran a feature on the bluesplaying taximan. The black-and-white photo that accompanied the article became Mac’s trademark.

Mac’s 45, “Built for Comfort “/”Jelly Roll” received substantial airplay—one copy found its way to promoter and deejay Tom Mazzolini, creator of the SF Blues Festival. Mazzolini booked MacNalley as part of the 1982 “San Francisco Blues Festival Tour of Europe.” Suddenly Mac was appearing on TV, radio and magazine covers. Winding up the tour by recording a double album on Paris Records, Mac returned to the South Bay, Mac Sounds and his radio show.

As is often the case, many better musicians avoid self-promotion and its ensuing hype. Such is the case with the Gilroy born-and-bred guitarist John Garcia, at 37 the elder statesman of South Bay blues. “I started playing guitar pretty late—I was about 17. There wasn’t much inspiration nearby when I graduated from Gilroy High. Books, records and, of course, going up to hear the music in the City was what turned me on.”

“It was the late ’60s, the end of the surfer period,” Garcia recollects, “and the blues explosion was happening, due to people like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Freddie King, Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield.”

In the early ’70s, Garcia replaced Robben Ford (who had joined Musselwhite’s group) in the Gary Smith Blues Band. “It was a great band, you know, with horns—a bit like Butterfield’s group. We had Stan Poplin on bass and Ken Baker on sax and Tim Cox on trumpet. Along with some originals we covered Butterfield, Albert King and the Les McCann ‘Swiss Movement.'”It seems as if Mussel-white’s move here more than a decade ago trig­gered off a movement. Now a chain of world class blues harpists are native to the South Bay.

Garcia later left but played again with a new version of the group on Messaround Records’ 1975 EP, The Gary Smith Blues Band. In 1976, John Lee Hooker moved from Oakland to Gilroy and soon hooked up with Garcia, who joined Hooker’s tour band.

“Yes indeed, I played the ‘chitlin’ circuit’ with John Lee for four-and-a-half years. Economically it was the pits,” Garcia says, “but it was probably the greatest all around musical experience of my life. We backed people like Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Albert King and Johnny Winters.”

In 1979, after a Carnegie Hall concert in which Hooker’s band played with Clifton Chenier and Lightning’ Hawkins, Paul Simon came backstage and gave Garcia his business card. Garcia eventually recorded with Simon, including guitar work on Simon’s hit, “One Trick Pony.”

Nowadays Garcia, a Hollister resident, maintains his own blues band with Deacon Jones on organ, Don Welty on drums and Elmo Lierly on electric bass. After having worked intermittently with Bo Diddley over the past few years, Garcia is determined to produce his own record early next year. “I’ve never had my own record,” he says. “I’m planning to record some blues tracks and some jazz and pop tracks.. .maybe even some fusion. But it’s all in . the beginning stages.”

The John Garcia Blues Band can be heard each week at JJ’s Lounge (they’ll be there this Saturday, Nov. 30) and at the Old Gilroy Hotel. He plays solo dates at the Red Baron in South San Jose on Tuesday nights.

Perhaps the most magical performer to surface on the South Bay music scene is Andy Just. The harp player/guitarist/vocalist was born in Valdosta, Georgia and grew up in Cupertino. As a teenager he tired of the cloned rock guitar scene, picked up the harmonica and took to hanging out at the Cellar at DeAnza College, where guitarist Robben Ford’s blues band jammed.

“Robben really opened up my head to new harmonies and textures,” says Just, “He turned me on to Coltrane. Trying to cop Trane’s lines and sound on the harmonica is a bitch, but it really gave me a focus. That’s why I strive to get the big full tone that I do.

“About this time I discovered that Gary Smith was living around the corner from me in Campbell at his “Old Blues House” near Highway 9. Gary exposed me to the hard Chicago-style blues, but it was Charlie Musselwhite’s harp-playing that really inspired me t6 pursue the instrument.”

Just is a bit reminiscent of Musselwhite—lean and lanky with mobile, almost amorphous facial expressions. On records, Just’s patient, structured solos reveal the warmth of a seasoned bluesman; influences like Butterfield, James Cotton and Musselwhite are apparent.

In live performances, however, Just is high energy—his gesturing, posturing and flashy persona are more akin to the work of Texas harpist Kim Wilson of the Thunderbirds. “I’ve allowed myself to develop along the lines of Wilson—we even have that same, smooth singing style,” he admits.

In 1974 Just joined the Walter Fields Band, which included the 21-year-old East San Jose guitarist Chris Cain. The chemistry between Just and Cain, who has recently come into his own as a master blues picker, was instantaneous.

Just reminisces, “The Walter Fields Band, named for Chris’s daddy, Walter Fields, was an inspired group. For a long time, Chris Cain was my best friend and collaborator. I hope we can play together again sometime.”

In 1978, Just left the Fields band. Says Just, “I was looking for something different, and the new wave energy was attractive, so I decided to push the blues up a step.” Just changed his hairstyle and hit the scene with his new wave blues group, Andy Just and the Defenders.

Blues traditionalists were shocked at his transition. In 1981, as if to assuage blues purists, Just recorded the rootsy Rockinitis album on the Blue Rocket label with Chris Cain on guitar, Pat Ford on drums and Bob Ortiz on electric bass. The album sold a quick 2,000 copies.

The following year, Just and the new wave/blues Defenders released their “White Album” on S&M Records, but the wedding of old and new genres failed to impress the major record labels.

In 1983, Hohner, the German harmonica manufacturer, included Just’s biography in its 1983 Hohner Harmonica Calendar. Other profiled musicians included “Toots” Theilemanns, Jerry Murad of Harmonicats fame and classical virtuoso Larry Adler. Just and the Defenders also contributed a track, “Got Me Crazy” on Hohner’s harmonica anthology, “Heavy Duty Harpin’.”

Earlier this year, Just put together his current group, “Andy Just and Shapes of Things,” with drummer Steve Sauvin, bass player “Fingers” and the remarkable young guitarist John Wedemeyer. The band has been playing at JJ’s, the Keystone Palo Alto, the Cabaret and the Catalyst. Perhaps this is the group that will hit it big for Andy. Just is a seasoned pro—easily the equal of Paul Butterfieldand certainly Huey Lewis at similar stages in their careers.

It is probably more than mere coincidence that guitarist Chris Cain’s first gig was with the selfsame 1974 Walter Fields Band from which Andy Just emerged. They have both been influences on the South Bay blues scene in the past decade. Talking to Cain is a kick. The words ‘modest’ and ‘self-effacing’ come to mind. The impression is bolstered by the sad actuality that, with the exception of his appearance on Just’s Rockinitis album, Cain remains unrecorded. Cain seems unfazed by his legend—most musicians (blues, jazz, rock or otherwise) recognize Cain as one of the hottest guitarists around, along with Ron Thompson, Jeff Buenz and the aforementioned new age composer Tom Taylor.

Born in San Jose, Cain’s Beale Street-bred father filled the house with recordings of old blues masters. “My mom, she’s Greek, and my dad, who’s black, were solid music fans. On my fourth birthday they took me to a B.B. King concert, brought me up to the stage and let B.B. hold me above his head to have the audience wish me a happy birthday—that was heavy. My dad used to hang out at W.C. Handy Park in Memphis and listen to all the greats. I messed around with the drumset, but we couldn’t afford to buy one, so I took to playing an old guitar and amp my dad had laying around. It was ’69, and I was a freshman at Silver Creek High.. .and Mike Bloomfield was my man! He was like God to me. My folks would make me listen to Albert King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Sonny Boy Williamson, and I dug them. But to me Bloomfield was a compilation of those dudes. He’s still number one to me.”

Cain’s musical co-conspirators at that time were bassist Bob Ortiz (also on the Rockinitis album) and another talented newcomer, drummer Dave Serrano. “Sometimes it seems like I’m still playing the same couple of licks, only better. I really feel grateful and surprised that people dig my playing so much. When the Fields band had that weekly gig back in the mid ’70s over at Mesa’s in Los Gatos, the people really came in to listen. And play the blues is what me and A.J. [Andy Just] and the guys did. . .blues in 12/8, slow blues, blues shuffle, but they really didn’t dance much. Now when I look down from the stage, everybody’s dancing.”

In 1979, Cain took some music classes at SJ City College, connecting with multi-saxophonist Noel Catura. “Noel is like my other half—we met at an improv class at SJCC along with a great guitar player by the name of George Cantu. We worked on a lot of Jeff Lorber-type fusion stuff, mostly without a drummer.”

Along with Catura, the current edition of the Chris Cain Blues Band includes Aptos-based Liz Fisher at the keys, Ron Torbenson on electric bass and the rock-solid Robert Higgins at the drumset.

This summer Cain cut three original tunes and sent them off to some major labels. While Plaza Records seems interested in the band, Cain is considering producing his own first album. Cain’s band has opened for major acts at the Cabaret and the Catalyst; in December the band will open for Hiroshima. “Sometimes it scares me to think that I have to get on stage before world-famous musicians but then I think, ‘well, it would be great to travel around and play for hundreds of thousands of people and, if I’m up there, they must be digging me.'”

The blues tradition is passed from player to player (on stage more than anywhere else) with a panache and devotion that stirs the soul. Work song, field song, chain-gang song, church song, whorehouse song—the blues is for the masses (even if they are from Cupertino.) Just. Cain. Garcia and Smith have had ample opportunity to play at a new blues establishment on Stevens Creek, JJ’s Lounge. The club showcases local blues acts nightly on a rotating basis—some bands play every week.

The crowd at JJ’s is as devoted a batch of blues groupies as one could hope to find, whether in Memphis, Chicago or elsewhere in Northern California. Dancing in the aisles or singmg along, shouting encouragement to the soloists or

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(Note: we do not have the conclusion of the article)

Al Handa contributed to this article.