The Music of Black San Francisco in the 1960s
By Rickey Vincent


Psychedelic Soul

Black San Francisco in the 1960s tells its own story.  While “The Summer of Love” in 1967 is a celebration of the counter-culture of the times, the undercurrents, radical social change and political activism, were everywhere in the city.  The black population of San Francisco was both a typical African American community  and very unique.  Black San Franciscans were facing the same problems of housing and job discrimination, crushing racism and lack of hope.     At the same time, black San Franciscans made their own counter culture filled with music, style, and opportunities in the entertainment industry.  And when the long arm of “redevelopment” from the city began to displace blacks in the Fillmore, many moved to the Haight-Ashbury district just south of Golden Gate Park, and became part of the emerging alternative lifestyles there.  In later years, the multi-racial band Sly & the Family Stone came to represent the black influence on the Summer of Love in unforgettable ways.  The black arts and black artists were everywhere in the 1960s.

Mass migration during WWII led to an explosion of the black SF population.  In 1940 only 5,000 blacks were counted by the U.S. Census, barely one percent of the population.  The Japanese internment of 1941 and the need for manual labor changed everything, so that by  1950, 43,000 blacks lived in San Francisco, a nine-fold increase.  By 1960 it was 74,000 and it would peak at over 95,000, over 13% of the total population in the 1970s.   (Today the black population has dropped to 1950’s levels).

From left: Charles Sullivan, known as “the mayor of the Fillmore”; Ralph J Gleason, jazz and rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle; Lionel Hampton wearing Wesley Johnson’s 10-gallon Stetson hat; two unknown men at Wesley Johnson’s Texas Playhouse. Photo: Wesley Johnson Jr Collection

Much of the entertainment culture in black San Francisco involved the music scene in the Western Addition, better known as the Fillmore district, which had thrived since WWII.  The Fillmore Auditorium, located at Geary Street and Fillmore avenue was tha central locale of this activity.  In the 60s The Fillmore was owned by entrepreneur Charles Sullivan, one of the most accomplished African Americans in the City.   Sullivan owned restaurants, hotels and music venues and was always a step ahead of the new trends, booking both legendary and cutting edge artists into his venues.

San Francisco’s first ‘rock star” was Bobby Freeman, the Bay Area born entertainer scored a national pop hit in 1958 with “Do You Wanna Dance,” and he combined smooth crooner charm with kinetic moves to sustain a career locally.  In 1963 Freeman scored a hit that sparked a west coast dance trend, “The Swim” a song written and produced by Sylvester Stewart, later to be known as Sly Stone.

Other performers such as Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Rodger Collins and Johnny Talbot contributed to an R&B scene that blended with the music played in the jazz clubs, the emerging Oakland blues sounds, gospel music, the smooth doo wop on the radio, the emerging psychedelic sound, and the Latin flavors heard in the Mission District.

Sugar Pie DeSanto

In 1966 Charles Sullivan was found dead of a gunshot wound on the streets south of Market street in San Francisco.  His control of the Fillmore reverted to his young associate, Bill Graham, who would start to book eclectic pairings of artists, such as Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead together.  The resulting musical experimentation represented the new sounds, and new ways of looking at the world.

The district around the Fillmore Auditorium began to change as “redevelopment” from the city officials began to remove important icons of the black community, and many of the residents were priced out, evicted, or simply moved on.  Many blacks from the Fillmore area moved to the Haight Ashbury district, a region near the panhandle of Golden Gate Park that had a growing reputation for tolerance, and artistic freedom.

“The Haight” became a haven for counter culture runaways, and activists that collectively became known as “Hippies” that saw formal institutions as targets worthy of disrupting and discrediting.  Early in 1965 the “Human Be-in” took place at Golden Gate Park, where thousands of free thinkers got together to take drugs and collectively make a statement that the old ways of thinking were gone.

One influential group was The SF Mime Troupe, founded by Ron “RG” Davis, in 1958.   In 1965, Davis, Saul Landau, and a racially mixed group of actors created controversial play: A Minstrel Show, Or Civil Rights In A Cracker Barrel, dressing in blackface, and dramatically confronting establishment norms and values of race and society.  The Diggers, a band of radical community action activists and performers, opened up a free clinic, free food and clothing banks, performed guerrilla theater, and produced irreverent ceremonies like the “End of Money Parade.”  New ideas for society were being tested and put to use in ways not seen before or since.

San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. Photo by Gene Anthony; Collection of the California Historical Society. To be featured in On the Road to the Summer of Love on view at the California Historical Society beginning May 12, 2017.

The black imagination always found a centerpiece in the jazz music of the time.  The vibrant jazz community enabled artists like Marin County born pianist George Duke, who explored free form fusion sounds in his work (and wound up as bandleader for Frank Zappa in the 1970s), and legendary San Francisco-based saxophonist John Handy, who continues to teach jazz at local universities.  Singer and percussionist Linda Tillery began in the rock band Loading Zone, and now continues to explore rhythms of the world with her group The Cultural Heritage Choir, and percussionist and poet Avotcja Joniro, has traveled the world with her Latin-jazz flavored music and poetry.

A small group of followers of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane believed that Coltrane’s work deserved a stronger grounding of support, and began to create music and spaces for spiritual growth that reflected what they saw as a spiritual calling from the jazz master.  After Coltrane’s death in July of 1967, the followers developed a regular space to explore the music and the transcendent vision of Coltrane, in what continues to this day at the Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

St. John Coltrane Church

A watershed moment of the “Summer of Love” took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, held in June in the rural outdoors of Monterey, 100 miles south of San Francisco.  That festival, which featured legendary European rock & blues acts, The Who and Eric Burdon & the Animals, also featured soul superstar Otis Redding (backed by the Stax touring band Booker T & the MG’s), and an unknown guitarist known as Jimi Hendrix.

The show-stopping set by Hendrix, in which he set his guitar on fire as part of the act, ignited a firestorm of excitement and imagination behind his trailblazing sound and style.  To simply exist in the rock and roll scene as a tall, lanky black man playing lead guitar in a world seemingly made for white guitarists set everything about Jimi Hendrix apart from his peers.  And his utterly fantastic sounds, his use of distortion, noise and chaos to turn the rhythm and the blues inside out in real time was unforgettable for everyone involved.

Jimi Hendrix would instantly become a rock and roll superstar, and would tour almost nonstop until his death in 1970 in London.  His impact however on the people at Monterey, during that “Summer of Love” cannot be understated.

Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival

That same year, a band of unique individuals came together to make a sound unlike anything heard before it.  The sound had a rhythm and blues drive to it, with a gospel sounding vocal appeal to it, with elements of jazz and rock and pop music mixed into something never before heard.  It was “A Whole New Thing” and the band was Sly & the Family Stone.

Their kinetic 1968 hit “Dance to the Music” managed to turn the R&B tradition on its head, by introducing every member of the band within three minutes, and affirming the notion that indeed “Everybody is a Star.”  As the excitement builds around the pulsing drumbeat, the chant “all we need is a drummer, for people who only need a beat” is speaking to the young generation as no one had before.

By the end of the 1960s black San Francisco had become radicalized politically as well.  On Sept 27, 1966:  “The H.P. Riots” took place in Bayview-Hunters Point.  After a white police officer fatally shot a black youth accused of auto theft, and SF Mayor John Shelley declared a state of emergency in the city for six days.

Bayview- Hunters Point, September 1966.

The November, 1968 the Student Strike at San Francisco State brought the University to a halt, while the strike for a “Third World College” spread throughout the region to UC Berkeley and many other schools.  The militant message of radical change was delivered by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which was founded in Oakland by Huey Newton & Bobby Seale in October of 1966, and had its San Francisco office in the home of famous black radical writer Eldridge Cleaver, who lived at the time in the Western Addition in a political / cultural center called the “Black House .”

As the protests grew, and the carnage of the Vietnam War continued, the racial confrontations and the strong counter-culture statements from the SF Black community were heard in every walk of life.  These ideas were crystallized in the 1969 album Stand! by Sly & the Family Stone.  The record had inspiring moments, like “You Can Make it If You Try,” powerful statements of hope and possibility in “Everyday People”, and with “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” a dramatic message of dignity – among equals – across the racial divide.  The  Movement had its multi-racial, multi-cultural messenger in the Family Stone, one that could show the entire world that everyone could get along, as long as we could learn to accept the “different strokes, for different folks.”

Stand! by Sly & the Family Stone

Sly Stone’s message was and continues to be heard around the world, and for generations a half century later.  A voice of hope and unity from black San Francisco that has changed the world.


About the author

Rickey Vincent, is the author of Party Music and lecturer at UC Berkeley and California College of the Arts.

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