During World War II, the blues moved up the coast from Los Angeles. By the late 1940s, thriving nightclub districts were established in West Oakland (along 7th Street) and North Richmond (along Grove Street), and a number of influential recording artists helped establish an “Oakland Blues” style. A “Chittlin’ Circuit” of smaller club districts ran up the Coast and the Valley connecting the three major club districts in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. A few of the communities in the Valley, particularly Bakersfield, had substantial African American populations that predated the World Wat II. Even in the Bay Area, rural styles of the blues were a more prominent part of musical life than they were in Los Angeles. This was due to a variety of reasons: the background of the people who migrated there, the less urban nature of the area, the lack of an significant jazz scene, and the single record producer who recorded the blues in the area, Bob Geddins, was a Texan who preferred Texas Country blues.
The “Oakland Blues”
As in L.A., urban Blues styles predominated in Oakland and Richmond nightclubs. North Richmond was homebase to the two most prominent Bay Area blues musicians, Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin. Lowell Fulson was the first Bay Area artist to score national hits and is considered the artist second in importance to T-Bone Walker in setting the style of West Coast blues. Fulson, who significantly influenced the development of the post-World War II Urban blues style of artists such as B.B. King, Little Milton, and others, moved to Northern California from his native Oklahoma in the mid-1940s. . Lowell Fulson’s early recordings made for Geddins exhibited a country sound that his later work for other producers didn’t have. However, in his club work, Fulson played the style heard in his later recordings that reflected the audiences’ desire for danceable music. In 1946, Bob Geddins made his first recordings of Lowell Fulson, who had just been discharged from the Navy. These recordings were in a rural Texas style and featured Fulson backed by his brother Martin on rhythm guitar. These recordings reflected the rural Texas feel of the music Fulson had started performing as a teenager in Oklahoma.
Fulson put together a small combo and started performing in local nightclubs and began to adapt his style to fit what the audience wanted to hear. Referring to the country blues he told ethnomusicologist Willie Collins in 1993:
I couldn’t get no gigs playing that … stuff. They wanted to hear me sing the blues; but at the same time wanted a kind of a band sound with it… they wanted to be able to dance to it. (“California Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1942-1972. A Diversity of Styles.” California Soul. Music of African Americans in the West. Los Angeles: U.C. Press. 1998, p.250).
Fulson began to develop a new sound that was heavily influenced by T-Bone Walker and jump blues. Fulson continued to record for Geddins and had his first national hits but was unhappy with Geddins’ reluctance to put his new sound on record. Fulson later told interviewers that Geddins had said he was “reluctant to break the image” by moving away from the country sound of Fulson’s prior recordings. In 1951, Fulson began recording for a record company in Los Angeles that allowed him to use the style that fit what he was performing live.The example below is an R & B song Fulson recorded in 1955 for Chicago’s Checker Records.
Jimmy McCracklin, a St. Louis native, began his musical career in Los Angeles but soon moved to the Bay Area because he felt the fierce competition made it hard for a newcomer to get a break (Interview of Jimmy McCracklin, 8/25/98). In 1948, McCracklin made his first recordings for Bob Geddins. His repertoire at time featured two types of songs: slow blues that reflected the influence of his boyhood idol, Walter Davis of St. Louis; and faster jump blues and boogie-woogie numbers that foreshadowed the sounds that would a few years later be labeled as rock ‘n’ roll. Two songs that McCracklin recorded for Geddins in 1949 illustrate these two aspects of his repertoire. Some of McCracklin’s recordings for Geddins fit the aesthetic Geddins has said he strove for but others, like “Rock and Rye,” had a very different feel.
McCracklin was performing regularly at clubs in North Richmond, adding musicians as he could afford them. When I interviewed him, McCracklin emphasized the important role the audience has had on shaping his style throughout his career. Throughout the early years of the 1950’s, McCracklin was steadily moving his style toward the R&B sound that would characterize his later work. “Jumpin’ in the Heart of Town” recorded in 1954 features Lafayette “Thing” Thomas on guitar whose playing influenced a generation of Urban Blues guitarists.
A number of Oakland/Richmond artists played a more rural style of blues. L.C. “Good Rockin” Robinson was the Oakland/Richmond artist whose work was most faithful to a rural Texas style of the blues but his repertoire also included Western Swing numbers that featured lap steel guitar, which Robinson had learned to play from country star Bob Wills’ pedal steel guitar player, Leon McAuliffe. Robinson, whose main instrument was an electric guitar, also played fiddle. K.C. Douglas, who moved to the Bay Area from Mississippi during the 1940s, was one of the few California musicians to perform in the Mississippi Delta Blues. Douglas had one of the early hits to come out of the blues scene in the Bay Area with “Mercury Blues.”