L_R. John Handy, Pony Poindexter, John Coltrane and Frank Fisher jamming at Jimbo’s Bop City Circa 1950s Photo by Steve Jackson Jr.


Before the hippies swarmed in to reshape America’s counterculture—and before the city embarked on a disastrous urban renewal (or ‘redevelopment’) plan—the Fillmore District in San Francisco was a primarily Black cultural bastion on par with New York’s Harlem, teeming with jazz, rhythm & blues, and soul from the 1940s to the 1960s. A new revised edition of the book Harlem of the West documents this thriving scene. Richie Unterberger interviews the authors and chronicles the Fillmore District’s vibrant pre-psychedelia cultural epoch for PKM.

Mention “the Fillmore” to music fans around the world, and they’ll almost certainly assume you’re talking about the most famous music venue in San Francisco. But the Fillmore doesn’t only stand for the Fillmore Auditorium, legendary for the psychedelic rock shows it staged in the late 1960s, and still among the city’s foremost concert halls today. The Fillmore Auditorium is in the Fillmore District, and was around long before Bill Graham started promoting acid rock there in 1966. And the Fillmore District was home to a jumping music scene long before 1966, as the neighborhood was teeming with jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul for a good couple decades starting around World War II.

Harlem of the West. Published by Heyday Books of Berkeley 2020. Earl Grant on the organ, Julius Simmons on the guitar. At the Blue Mirror 1956, Dr. Wesley F Johnson Jr. Collection

That vibrant scene is documented and celebrated in the new edition of Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era (Heyday), co-authored by Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts. The pair uncovered more than 200 photos from the era, capturing such local and visiting stars as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Johnny Mathis, and Chet Baker performing and hanging out in the neighborhood’s numerous clubs. Extracts from oral histories with notable musicians like Johnny Otis, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and John Handy—as well as club owners, residents, and just plain fans—fill in the background of the Fillmore’s rise to one of the most vital centers of African-American life and entertainment.

Bird’s-eye view of Fillmore Street, looking south towards Post Street and Geary Street, late 1940s. The Fillmore Auditorium is on the right in the distance, with Temple Beth Israel next to it on the right. photo: David Johnson

There’s another, more troubling dimension to the Fillmore mid-20th century experience the book takes care to convey. Even as the area was in many respects thriving, plans were underway to redevelop the district. Many residents were displaced, as were businesses, plenty of which had to close for good. Soon after the mid-‘60s, much of the neighborhood was literally gone. Much of its history would remain erased if not for the efforts of Pepin Silva and Watts.

“One of the amazing things about the Fillmore neighborhood, and its transition during World War II and afterwards, is that it was for the people who lived there, made by the people who lived there,” stresses Pepin Silva. “The residents and business owners created their own city within a city and made it all their own. Musicians locked out of the white musicians’ union and playing [in] downtown created their own scene that was so cool that white musicians wanted to be a part of it. And for the most part, from what those who lived during the time say, everyone got along. A mix of all ethnicities in a thriving neighborhood.

“It wasn’t until the government decided to meddle in the neighborhood that the neighborhood began to have major issues. It’s not that the neighborhood was all roses and never had any problems or crime; it did. Certainly, as the years went on, and musical tastes changed, the nightclubs and music scene would have changed. But it would have been an organic change, not a drastic and slice-through-the-heart situation that was caused by redevelopment.”

The residents and business owners created their own city within a city and made it all their own. Musicians locked out of the white musicians’ union and playing [in] downtown created their own scene that was so cool that white musicians wanted to be a part of it.

Adds Watts, “I think it tells a story that has some universality. A very good friend in L.A. was writing about a couple of clubs on Central Avenue, with pictures in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The photographs looked exactly like the photographs in [our] book, and they look exactly like the photographs I see in the Starbucks on Jackson Street in Seattle,” which also had a small but lively African-American music scene at the time. “Because that was a sort of similar population. A sort of scenario unfolded that was very similar in all those places.”

The Birth of the Harlem of the West

 Before World War II, San Francisco’s Black population was small, numbering only around 6,000. “This is not to say there wasn’t a vibrant jazz scene,” said Silva. “Very early on, in the Barbary Coast [near the city’s waterfront], there were several clubs, many owned by African-Americans. The first [printed] use of the word ‘jazz’ in the early 1900s was in [a 1913] article in San Francisco.” But there was a larger concentration of African-Americans across the bay in Oakland, in part since Blacks could take jobs with railroad lines terminating there.

J.B. Coleman, a local Fillmore Photographer with his Speed Graphic at the Booker T. Washington Hotel,
Courtesy of the Red Powell/Reggie Pettus Collection

That changed with the onset of World War II, which found many Blacks moving to California to both take jobs in the defense industry and escape the more severe racial discrimination of the South. By 1950, more than 40,000 African-Americans were living in San Francisco. Many settled in the Fillmore, in part because it was one of the few areas in the city where residences weren’t restricted by racial covenants. Another harsh reality played a part when the neighborhood’s Japanese-American community was sent to detention centers, leaving plenty of vacant buildings available.

Shortly after the war started, according to Pepin Silva, “it became a predominantly African-American neighborhood in less than a year.” With jobs at the shipyards in particular, “people were wealthy for the first time in their lives. It allowed them to buy homes, and open businesses”—including bars, clubs, and other niteries in need of live entertainment.

“During the war, until the sort of recession in the ‘50s, there was full employment,” says Watts. “A very good friend of my father’s, Dan Collins, who was a dentist, said in the ‘40s you could walk down the middle of Fillmore with money coming out of your pocket and no one would even look. Because that neighborhood had been a kind of entertainment center, immediately all these jazz clubs sprang up, because there was infrastructure.”

Duke Ellington and friends in the Manor Plaza Hotel, late February 1952 when Duke was playing a concert at the War Memorial Opera House. Photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

More was at work in making the Fillmore not just a center for the Black community, but also a hotbed of jazz. “One of the reasons places like Jimbo’s Bop City thrived was a lot of musicians, even if they were playing other parts of the city, could not stay there,” observes Watts. “So they would stay in the Fillmore. And when they were finished, they were looking for a place to sort of mingle. These after-hour places kind of were a place to do that. A whole scene generated out of that. I think that was out of both necessity, and the fact that was the only place people could find to stay, in some of the black hotels.”

Some of them naturally took the opportunities to perform in the Fillmore too, whether they were scheduled or not. Some of the pictures in Harlem of the West feature legends in such informal moments, like the shot of a jam-packed 1951 jam session at Bop City. Dizzy Gillespie (on piano) and Miles Davis are next to each other, but just two in a crowd also including such top jazzmen as Milt Jackson, Kenny Dorham, and Jimmy Heath.

Another picture finds a young John Coltrane sharing the Bop City stage with local star John Handy and a couple other horn players. White musicians and fans also dropped into joints like Bop City, a photo of Chet Baker (who was stationed in San Francisco while he was in the military) at Bop City serving as just one example, though the relatively easy mixing of white and Black might have complicated the Fillmore’s future.

Charlie Parker at Jimbo’s Bop City, early 1950s. Photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

White jazz fans were also making their way into Fillmore audiences, whether as part of their profession, simple enthusiasm for the music, or both. “Even pre-World War II, there was these jazz societies in San Francisco,” Pepin Silva explains. “Very ethnically diverse group of people—anyone from musicians like Vernon Alley to [longtime San Francisco Chronicle rock critic and author] Joel Selvin’s father. They’d meet both at clubs downtown, and then also at Jack’s [in the Fillmore]. They would have a band play, talk about the music, or sometimes they would just get together and play 78s.”

Intriguingly, it was recently discovered that some of the jazz fanatics didn’t just play 78s, but also made 78s. Don and Chester Wonderley dragged in a record cutter to actually make unofficial privately-manufactured 78 RPM discs of live performances at Jack’s in the Fillmore. While some of them might be forever lost, a few do survive; one of an unidentified performer was posted this summer on the Harlem of the West Facebook page.

Official white entrepreneurs made some incursions into the jazz scene too. David Rosenbaum operated neighborhood record stores Rhythm Records and Melrose Records, as well as starting a local label. Rhythm issued discs by local jazz star Vernon Alley and early R&B singer-guitarist Saunders King, who had perhaps the first notable national San Francisco-generated hit in 1942 with the Rhythm 45 “S.K. Blues.”


One of Harlem of the West’s most memorable images has young, sharply dressed men from the neighborhood hanging out in front of the Rhythm Records store. A window sign hawks Andrew Tibbs’s controversial 1947 single “Bilbo Is Dead,” inspired by the death of bigoted Mississippi governor Theodore Bilbo. It’s a reminder that prejudice was very much on African-Americans’ minds almost 75 years ago, even in areas where discrimination wasn’t quite as blatant.

Fillmore Photography

The Rhythm Records shot was taken by David Johnson, perhaps the most notable photographer whose work is represented in Harlem of the West. The first African-American student of renowned photographer Ansel Adams (at the California School of Fine Arts, later the San Francisco Art Institute), Johnson took pictures of all aspects of Fillmore life from the mid-‘40s to the mid-‘50s. The music scene was just one of his subjects, but supplied some of his best material. Besides the one he took at the storefront of Rhythm Records, his image of David Robinson (as part of R&B star Roy Milton’s band) at the Primalon Ballroom circa the early 1950s is a particular standout, Robinson playing his huge standup bass flat on his back as an integrated audience looks on in approval.

Rhythm Records, 1947 Photo by David Johnson

“He did shoot in the clubs and he shot entertainment, but he also documented,” emphasizes Watts. “I really loved the pictures he shot on the street. He had a studio in the Fillmore. Unlike like some of the club photographers, he went to art school. So he had more of a journalistic inclination.”

Whether by Johnson or others, some of the highlights of Harlem of the West are the more unusual scenes of musicians who are not just obscure, but sometimes unidentified. There’s the slightly stunned-looking youthful saxophonist at a Bop City jam who, states the caption, “according to the musicians present that night, had just been shut down”—an uncommon glimpse of the underbelly of the freewheeling sessions, where failure was a part of the ritual along with success.

“I’ve heard stories that in those jam sessions, if you were not cutting it, sometimes the drummer would take his cymbal and throw it in front of you, as like a way to let you know that you need to stop,” says Watts. “I think there were a variety of ways to do that. I’ve heard that Charlie Parker, when he was coming up, had to go through that rite of fire. That was because you couldn’t go to a conservatory, so you sort of had to learn on the job.”

“People know who Coltrane is now. But he was just some guy that was really talented. He wasn’t JOHN COLTRANE in all capital letters like we think of him now.”

There are also women instrumentalists, more of a rarity in jazz then than today, including Lennie Tristano’s ex-wife Judy playing sax at a mix-raced Bop City jam session. And there’s an even rarer instance of a nearly all-women band at the Primalon Ballroom. While Pepin Silva’s “asked tons of people, no one has ever been able to ID the band or any of the members in the band.

“I found it deeply satisfying to have the photos in the book that not only celebrated the famous people that came through the Fillmore, but also the everyday musicians,” she adds. “Guys that you would see playing down at your local bar to get a drink on a Wednesday night, stuff like that. That shows just how pervasive music was during that time period in the Fillmore neighborhood. That there was that many local musicians playing in these clubs, even when there weren’t famous guys around. The people in the audience, there was quite a few people there. They’re not just showing up if Coltrane happened to show up.

“Although that photo, it’s funny, because the guys in the photo that were still alive that we talked to, Frank [Fisher] and John [Handy]—both say, you know people know who Coltrane is now. But he was just some guy that was really talented. He wasn’t JOHN COLTRANE in all capital letters like we think of him now. He was just a really talented young dude that had come through San Francisco [as] part of another band.”

Fillmore Rhythm and Blues

 Although Harlem of the West is subtitled The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, the Fillmore was home to some R&B performers and staged its share of R&B concerts. Soul singers Sugar Pie DeSanto and Etta James got their start in the Fillmore, though both were often out of the San Francisco Bay Area after Johnny Otis discovered them in the mid-1950s.

“I used to come up to the Fillmore from Los Angeles, looking for talent,” Otis remembers in one of the book’s most amusing oral histories. “I found a lot of musicians and singers that way. It was fertile ground. Before I discovered Sugar Pie DeSanto, I discovered her cousin, Etta James. Or rather, she discovered me. Etta came up to the (Booker T. Washington) hotel in the Fillmore where I staying. She was 16, arrogant yet shy. She just barged into my room turned toward the bathroom and started singing at the tile for better acoustics.

Before the Fillmore Auditorium started its famous psychedelic rock shows in 1966, it had put on R&B and rock’n’roll concerts over the previous decade that were patronized by an almost exclusively African-American audience.

“I was impressed and offered her a singing job on the spot. She said she had to call her mom, so I handed her the phone. She had a conversation, told me her mom said yes and she came with my band that night to Los Angeles. I later found out there was no one on the phone, and her mother didn’t know where she was for a few days!”

It’s not widely known that before the Fillmore Auditorium started its famous psychedelic rock shows in 1966, it had put on R&B and rock’n’roll concerts over the previous decade that were patronized by an almost exclusively African-American audience. One young white man who did venture into those events was John Goddard, later to run one of the country’s most revered record stores, Marin County’s Village Music, for decades. Goddard contributed several memories to the book’s oral histories, as well as a rare color snapshot of Jimi Hendrix playing as a sideman to Little Richard, who played the Fillmore in October 1964.

A press picture of a Fillmore audience from the May 11, 1957 edition of local African-American paper the Sun Reporter is also in the book. “Unfortunately, the quality’s not that great,” acknowledges Pepin Silva. “But it’s absolutely packed, you couldn’t move an inch, [in the] crowd at the Fillmore Auditorium. It’s unreal. That’s what I was told by many people that went to see shows there, that it was like that for all the shows that [Black promoter] Charles Sullivan put on. People would just be dancing with joy.”

It’s one of the few pictures of the Fillmore during its R&B heyday, which leads to the question of why it and many other aspects of the district weren’t more fully documented. “A camera was expensive,” she notes. “Then you had to buy film, then you had to pay for developing. That was part of it.” In addition, there are hardly any film clips of musical performances from the era. Pepin Silva’s only aware of a couple: Lowell Fulson playing at the Blue Mirror in 1963 (as can be seen on the Arhoolie DVD Down Home Music: A Journey Through the Heartland 1963), and another of Charles Brown that was on youtube for a while, but “seems to have disappeared.”

Clip of Lowell Fulson, at the Blue Mirror, 1963:


Even some of the ones that do survive were initially sold as souvenirs. “Guys that were taking these photos, for example Steve Jackson Jr., would roam the clubs at night, take a bunch of photos, go home, develop them, and bring prints back to sell to the patrons of the club. That’s why he has all those photos of people holding the Bop City placard or sitting in a group. Since no one had portable cameras at that time, or very few people did, they would make money commemorating your visit to Bop City or Texas Playhouse or wherever by quickly developing and printing these photos, and coming back before you left for the night and selling them to you.”

For all the liveliness of the scene and indeed everyday Fillmore life, it wasn’t fostered by civic racial tolerance. The Fillmore Auditorium itself was segregated until the 1950s; while black performers had been allowed before that, people of color were not permitted in the audience. The local musicians’ union was segregated as well, the white and non-white divisions not merging until 1963.

“San Francisco has a reputation as being this liberal, accepting, multicultural city, which is true,” says Pepin Silva. “But things tend to get glossed over. The longer time happens, the more it’s easy to romanticize history. While it’s much more liberal and accepting than other places, it was not without its racial inequities and problems.” Which would play a big part in ending the golden age of Fillmore’s jazz and R&B.

Redevelopment and the End of An Era

While the Fillmore remained an African-American musical and cultural center into the 1960s, plans to redevelop the area had actually been underway as far back as World War II. I ask the authors whether the main motivations were twofold: money to be made by local political and economic powers, and prejudice against African-Americans, whose residents and businesses weren’t as highly valued as those in San Francisco’s white neighborhoods. They agree, with qualifications.

“The police chief was horrified that African-Americans and whites were hanging out together, playing in bands on the jam sessions together, and dating each other,” says Pepin Silva. “He did everything in his power to try and shut that down. That’s of course nothing I’ve been able to confirm with any kind of report or smoking gun letter, or anything like that. But certainly the musicians I interviewed all felt that way.”

Affirms Watts, “We found some headlines in the Chronicle and the Examiner, and also the Sun Reporter, about raids on especially Jimbo’s. That the police really did not like the fact that there were Blacks and whites commingling. You see it in the book.”

Redevelopment destruction looking down Fillmore Street, Mid 1960s. San Francisco Redevelopment Agency Archives

Pepin Silva also feels biased media coverage played a role. “You definitely read over and over in the newspapers these reports of raids, crackdowns, and police presence. Also the way when they start writing about redevelopment, and why they were doing it, the words ‘slum’ and ‘blight’ and ‘crime’ [appear]—these very loaded words that I certainly don’t think the neighborhood itself would have used. Or if they did, in quite the same way.” Along the same lines, adds Watts, “Some people actually call redevelopment Negro removal. Because at least some people did not like the fact that a prime area right in the middle of San Francisco was an African- American community.”

Adds Pepin Silva, “To have the redevelopment agency come in after you worked your ass off to get out of the South and buy yourself a house, and your family’s finally doing okay…Maybe you have a jazz club, or you have a restaurant, or you’re a dentist, or something else. And all that’s taken away. You’re told to leave and you have no choice, and you’re given very little economic compensation for that. That’s a massive blow to a community. I think most of the people in that community never recovered financially.”

The transformation—some would term it evisceration—was certainly quick. “My family moved to San Francisco right as I graduated from high school,” Watts recalls. “So I spent a summer here in ’64, and someone said, ‘Do you want to go to the Black area?’ And I, not knowing anything about it, went to the Fillmore on a Friday night when it was jumping. It was really amazing. Then in ’68 I couldn’t find the neighborhood, ‘cause it had disappeared.”

Billie Holiday in San Francisco, Photo by Jerry Stoll

The Fillmore’s legacy was in danger of disappearing too, in part because—for all its beehive of jazz and R&B activity—the area didn’t develop as distinct a musical style as other centers of African-American sounds in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, and Philadelphia. In part that was because of the relatively small size of San Francisco’s black population, and the relatively small size of the city overall.

It was also due to the lack of a powerful independent local record label, as Detroit had with Motown, Memphis with Stax, and Chicago with Chess and Vee-Jay. Los Angeles isn’t as noted a hothouse of jazz and R&B as those towns, but even it had much more prominent R&B and early rock’n’roll labels like Modern and Aladdin. Even when San Francisco did develop a stylistically identifiable, and internationally popular and influential, largely white rock sound in the psychedelic era, the city never did have a record label on par with those companies. Most of the major San Francisco Sound acts would sign with majors and indies from L.A. and New York, and do much of their recording there for that matter.

“Some people actually call redevelopment Negro removal. Because at least some people did not like the fact that a prime area right in the middle of San Francisco was an African- American community.”

And the best of San Francisco’s black musicians often went elsewhere to advance their career. A few years after linking up with Johnny Otis, Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto recorded the bulk of their best and most popular soul for the Chicago-based Chess label in the 1960s (though DeSanto did put out some singles on the local Rhythm imprint in the late ‘50s). Although he grew up in the city, Johnny Mathis isn’t usually identified with San Francisco, moving to Los Angeles shortly after his first hits.

As for jazz, states John Handy in the book’s oral history, “there wasn’t a Fillmore sound per se, but Dexter Gordon lived here for a while, Charles Mingus lived here. Jerome Richardson and Teddy Edwards lived here. Vernon and Eddie Alley and Pony Poindexter were from here. Chet Baker…We didn’t do too badly, but some of us felt we had to leave San Francisco and go to New York to help make their music scene great.”

As Watts remarks, “A lot of people, if they were good enough, would be taken up by traveling bands and have to sort of make their way elsewhere. I think the same thing is actually true of art. A lot of African-American artists even now have to leave here make a reputation. Although this is a great sort of incubator in a lot of ways, because of the atmosphere and the fact that it’s sort of creative. But it really in some ways is just a small town, for the most part not a place where people could kind of sustain. They had to go somewhere else to sort of make their reputation and support themselves.”

States Pepin Silva, “Cities like New Orleans, Chicago, they had very large and long-standing African-American communities that had been there for decades, if not centuries. That allowed for the creation and fostering of a musical style that continues from generation to generation and built upon itself.” By contrast, San Francisco, which had few blacks before World War II, didn’t “have a tradition that builds upon itself, like you would in Chicago, New Orleans, or New York. And John Handy’s absolutely right. All of the guys that had dreams of only being a musician, and not having to have day jobs, they had to go somewhere else.

“In the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, bands and musicians in primarily Black Fillmore had to go somewhere else to even make a living. It wasn’t even like to become Ray Charles famous; it was simply to put food on the table by being a musician. There was no infrastructure in mainstream white Bay Area that wanted to see the success of African-American music in the Bay Area.

“They didn’t even write about it in the [two major dailies] Chronicle and Examiner. There’s barely mention of any clubs, any music that was going on in the Fillmore until basically the Bill Graham era.

“The San Francisco jazz scene, while it attracted a lot of very famous musicians, and some lived there for months at a time, it wasn’t a place where you could really make it easily as your only source of income of your career. John Handy was an exception, Vernon Alley was an exception, but most of them had other jobs. They would play in the clubs at night.” And “there wasn’t a San Francisco sound per se. There were very, very few record labels. I can’t really think of any label that was specifically a jazz label. Rhythm Records was probably the most well known and successful of the tiny labels that came out of the Fillmore area, but that was R&B, the blues.”

It didn’t help that the Fillmore’s music scene wasn’t even well publicized within city limits. “They didn’t even write about it in the [two major dailies] Chronicle and Examiner. There’s barely mention of any clubs, any music that was going on in the Fillmore until basically the Bill Graham era. The only time they bothered writing about the Fillmore was something bad.”

Reviving the Fillmore Legacy

Elizabeth Pepin Silva’s interest in documenting the Fillmore’s mid-century scene originated more than thirty years ago, shortly after she started working for Bill Graham, who “asked me to write [a] booklet about the Fillmore neighborhood. I was shocked at how little there was about the neighborhood in the archives and historical societies throughout the Bay Area. There was a bit of information about the [earlier] Jewish era of the Fillmore, but almost nothing about the African-American part of the Fillmore. When I discovered this larger history of the neighborhood, and in particular the Harlem of the West period that I got so intrigued by, I would do [research] after work on my day off here and there.”

Julie Tristano (tenor sax player and ex-wife of jazz pianist Lennie Tristano) jamming at Jimbo’s Bop City. Photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

By 1990 Watts, by this time a photographer, was starting to do his own research. When they met in 1998 and found they were immersing themselves in the same territory, Lewis and Elizabeth joined forces, Pepin Silva focusing on the interviewing and writing, and Watts on organizing photo collections and restoring pictures. In some ways the research is ongoing even after several editions, with new information and resources continuing to surface even as those who were there pass on. Some of the material they’ve archived was used in the PBS documentary The Fillmore, on which Pepin Silva served as associate producer.

There is so much musical history out there that we don’t even know about. My only hope is that it doesn’t get destroyed. That’s my big concern about all this Fillmore archive that are in private collections.

Simply finding photos from the era presented its own challenges, especially when, as Pepin Silva notes, “you have to move and you’re told you have only a couple of months to get the hell out of your house by the redevelopment agency. The people I interviewed told me that. There’d be dumpsters lining the streets, and people were just tossing stuff right left and center, because they had to get the heck out of there as quick as possible. So I bet you there’s a lot of things that were lost because of that. If redevelopment had not happened, we’d have a much deeper archive pool from which to pull from. Yet another aspect of why redevelopment was so tragic, is that the history was lost.”

Even when photos were readily accessible, it took some effort on the part of Watts to restore them to look good in print. “Some of them were framed, and some of them were just stuffed in Safeway bag under a leaky…,” he trails off. “It was important to me to restore the photographs to the way they looked when they were first made.”

In the process of collecting and restoring the pictures, some discoveries were made about their origin that couldn’t have been planned. Watts, for instance, has “a very good friend, Jules Allen, who grew up in the Fillmore, who’s a photographer, who lives in New York. I knew he’d be interested in it. I think I showed him an early version of the book. We were sitting in a cafe in the Lower East Side, and he’s thumbing through and said, ‘Oh yeah, I knew that.’ And then he stopped dead. That picture I restored [of Jimbo’s Waffle House] had a picture of his father. They look exactly like each other. That kind of story, and people saying ‘oh that’s my auntie, oh you know, I can tell you who that is,’ happens every time we show the work.”

Images of some of the more celebrated Fillmore musicians, however, proved elusive. “Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto, I couldn’t find any photos of them playing [in the Fillmore], even though I know for sure that they did,” are a couple examples Pepin Silva cites. “But they were both young, and they primarily sang at the talent shows at that time, in their teens. When they were discovered by Johnny Otis, they left the Fillmore and flew down to L.A., ‘cause that’s where Otis was headquartered at the time. But Sugar Pie recorded for Rhythm Records, so it was clear that she still had ties to the Fillmore. So I was surprised about that.

“I was surprised that there’s not more photographs of Rhythm and Melrose record shops. I was surprised that there wasn’t more of Johnny Mathis, although when he got a manager early on, she was connected to the Black Hawk,” a club near downtown. “So perhaps that’s why he mainly played down at the Black Hawk after that. I’m really surprised there’s not photos of Vernon Alley playing at the clubs. Very few of John Handy.”

Johnny Mathis singing at Jimbo’s Bop City, taken early in his career, late 1950s. Ed Kelly on the piano, Earl Watkins on the drums. Photo by Steve Jackson Jr.

She’s also disappointed she couldn’t get interviews, or as thorough interviews as she liked, with some of the figures who were or are still around, like Johnny Otis and Etta James. “Maya Angelou is another one that I tried and tried. She denied my interview request, for reasons I don’t really know. She certainly writes about the Fillmore in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But she just didn’t want to talk about that part of her life, I guess.”

And while many who were there were willing to open their archives, some weren’t. Watts found out Red Powell’s shoeshine parlor “had pictures of people from the Fillmore, but also a lot of musicians that had passed through. I got really excited. I said, ‘Wow, this is great, can I photograph?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not.’ He threw me out. Elizabeth, when she was doing research for Bill Graham, had gone to see him; he did the same thing.

“Then [artist friend Mildred Howard’s] brother Billy said, ‘Just mention me, because we were running buddies.’ I’d like to think I went back a month later, but I think it was longer than that. When I went back, the walls were bare and nobody was there. Somebody on the street said they thought someone had rescued them. I went across to Reggie Pettus, [at] the New Chicago barbershop; he’s [former San Francisco mayor] Willie Brown’s barber. Reggie said, ‘Oh, they’re in my back room.’

“It turns out not long after I met Red, he had a stroke. I think his son tried to take over for a while, but it didn’t work. So Reggie saw the landlord taking pictures off the wall and about to throw them in the dump. In the Black community, barbershops, mortuaries, and beauty parlors are recently the archivists. He knew there was something valuable. So he was able to rescue the photographs, and how that’s how I found them, in his back room. He was real excited that I got excited.”

They ran up against roadblocks with another prominent figure in the community, but those were removed after she had a look at the first edition. Leola King, who owned the Blue Mirror club, was initially uninterested in participating. “I went to see her at her last bar, she said, ‘Oh, they were all lost in a fire,’” says Watts. “She’s saying thank you, she’s not interested. But she saw the book.” Photos from her collection, such as one of Lena Horne at the Blue Mirror, grace the new edition, along with some of her comments in the oral histories.

Ella Fitzgerald and other luminaries (Robert Lee, Don Newcombe, Joe Perry) and others inside the Booker T. Washington Hotel, early 1950s. Red Powell/Reggie Pettus Collection

“It sort of worked both ways,” Lewis continues. “She ended up deciding she liked us a lot, and we were able to help her.” When a restaurant/lounge in the area wanted to use the Blue Mirror name, “she did not want that to happen. I was able to get a friend of mine, who became really good friends with her—she was a lawyer, and pro bono sort of helped her to fight that happening. And also helped her to try to get some recompense from the redevelopment agency.

“Her son is actually working on a screenplay for a film about her life. He says that she was the richest woman in San Francisco. She had like a mansion on Scott Street, had property all over, and did very well. But it was completely wiped out by the redevelopment agency.”

Much of the research, however, didn’t involve such drawn-out roads to photos or first-hand accounts. As Pepin Silva puts it, an “amazing thing about the Fillmore was the description from the musicians I interviewed about the musical inspiration they got from simply living where they lived. They recall how much music permeated the neighborhood. And older musicians seemed to mentor the younger ones. As a kid coming up, it must have been intoxicating. It was definitely a creative and entrepreneurial neighborhood.

“I think that there is so much musical history out there that we don’t even know about. My only hope is that it doesn’t get destroyed. That’s my big concern about all this Fillmore archive that are in private collections. Because one family member might be really excited about it. Once they pass away, maybe the next family member, [it’s] just more boxes of crap that they have to deal with. So I’ve been encouraging the family members that I interact with who are getting up in years to consider trying to get their archives in a formal location. Or at least making sure that a family member who’s younger than them will take over the legacy of this amazing family history that they have.”

Although Pepin Silva and Watts are busy with other work and creative projects, they can’t rule out future editions. “We’re still finding material, and finding people, even in this version of the book,” according to Watts. “We keep thinking this is the last version. But who knows?”


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