"The Two Underdogs", Pt. II


Sylvester Stewart was the major galvanizing force in creating and bringing a San Francisco rock sound & style into national prominence as a cultural export a few years before Bill Graham & Chet Helms dubbed “The San Francisco Sound.” According to Jeffrey Kaliss, San Francisco in 1961 was a “fortuitous time and place for Sly to be launching a career in popular music. He and the baby boomers, just a few years his junior, [6] were listening to the radio, buying what they heard there, and going out to dance to the music....Sly could hardly wait to join this scene where blacks were hardly a minority.” (20, 21)

Kaliss places the radio and records at the center of this scene along with live dancing, and for Sly, it certainly was. In 1961, top 40 radio was increasingly integrated (in part because r&b stations existed aside of pop ones; hence, the modicum of self-determination needed for “crossover”). [7] The radio scene was more hospitable to Sly than what San Francisco would have been without it. In San Francisco proper; re-segregation (under the more ‘benign’ names of “Urban Renewal” and “Redevelopment”) had been under way for over a decade; blacks were becoming increasingly a minority.

In 1954, the same year that Brown V. Board Of Education outlawed segregation in public schools, the term “urban renewal” was introduced, referring both to renovation and slum clearance (demolition). [8] The de jure ending of Jim Crow drove blatant racism underground to some degree, replacing it with the seemingly more benign and ultimately more effective tactic of increased economic segregation. [9] Meanwhile, longtime Western Addition residents, primarily white and Jewish, moved to the suburbs, while maintaining their Fillmore District shops and apartments. By 1960, 90% of Fillmore residents rented from these absentee landlords, whose tax base no longer poured back into the neighborhood. In fact, thanks to the Redevelopment Agency, more incentives were given to these landlords to keep these buildings empty rather than keep their costs affordable.

In 1960, using the power of Eminent Domain, The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency claimed the Federlein home, forcing the family to move out of the house they owned for 90 years. The house was subsequently destroyed and made into a parking lot: 4,000 people were displaced by the Japanese Culture and Trade Center; and 2-lane Geary Street was widened into 4-lane Geary Blvd (effectively destroying many of the black-run businesses, and making Geary the “unwritten” financial dividing line). Even Justin Herman prophetically declares, “Without adequate housing for the poor, critics will rightly condemn urban renewal as a land-grab for the rich and a heartless push-out for the poor and non-whites." [10] Many more buildings are demolished than renovated by urban renewal, displacing thousands of residents.

Despite the urban decay brought on by white flight and redevelopment, the Fillmore neighborhood had had a vital music scene since 1946; most of these clubs (The New Orleans Swing Club, Club Alabam, Jackson's Nook and The California Theater Club, Bop City) specialized in jazz and blues, but by 1960 venues like “The Mayor Of Fillmore Street,” Charles Sullivan’s Fillmore Auditorium had become a western anchor of the chitlin circuit, bringing in everyone from entertainers Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis to r&b luminaries James Brown, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex, the live music most appealing to the young Sylvester Stewart, but Sly was only 17 in 1961, underage for nightclubs. The secular music he loved he primarily got from recorded and broadcast media or from gigging around town with as many bands as possible. The radio was a haven, almost like the church, yet also a door to a wider world of possibility that need not be mere fantasy, but that could change the conditions of those who listened. The live scene is real, but the radio was no less real; at their best, they still could compliment each other, and Sly Stewart found some people who seemed to understand that. 

Sly first became a “player” in this scene when KYA-AM, one of the most popular San Francisco rock stations, played Sly’s then current, small-label limited run “Yellow Moon” single, with his band The Viscaynes, on their drive-time playlists (locally, it peaked at #16 in late 1961). This multi-racial high school band had recently won a contest on The Dick Stewart Dance Party, one of the most integrated local dance shows in the country, winning a management and recording deal; the band never saw a penny from the corrupt management deal, but radio was opening more doors. The KYA DJS who broke Sly’s record locally, Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell, became early converts. They also organized live rock shows at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, hiring Sly to put together the house band.

Sly also took a prime-time gig on local soul & r&b radio station, KSOL after graduating from the Chris Borden School of Broadcasting in 1964. Targeting a primarily black demographic, but with some crossover to pop, KSOL hadn’t been a popular “break station” (in contrast to KYA) until Sly took over the 7PM to Midnight slot. Sly’s very innovative take on the “personality DJ” (he sang the news and weather forecasts, demanded requests and dedications and talked to kids on the phone on air, broke Ray Charles’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in the bay area, and much more) helped the station win over “youth of other ethnicities” not despite of, but rather because of, the fact that, unlike many of the older African American DJs at the time, Sly wasn’t afraid to sound “too black.”

As Greil Marcus puts it, during the heyday of Sly’s career as a DJ, radio “changed every week, just like the world of work and family life, politics and war. As in the world of work, family, politics, and war, certain of the elements of the pop world--disc jockey patter and commercials, the rituals of contests and pranks--barely changed at all, [11] and other elements changed so radically they hijacked memory, to the point that whatever happened the week before could seem to have happened years ago. This was Top 40 radio: city by city, from one end of the country to the other, a true forum, in 1965 more open to anyone, known or unknown, black or white, northerner or southerner. American or foreigner, male of female, than any other culture medium---never mind business, religion, or college. (35)--for Sly it was all three.

While Marcus makes it sound too good to be true, Sly milked those potentials for all they’re worth (which was not insubstantial from 64-67). Radio offered Sly an entry into the San Francisco scene as well as a finger on the pulse of what was going down nationally. Singles were still “king.” Even Dylan was saying “people hang out on the radio” (not that they still didn’t walk down the street, in 65 they did). Being a DJ allowed a more intimate, personal audience interaction and development than being tied to a touring band would, an ability to “be what you play” (as Bowie later put it), or at least provide witty voiceover if somewhat forced to play a hit you don’t like, a place to check out the competition and bring people together; the kind of “eat where you shit” day-job that didn’t have to get in the way of your longer-term night job (today much of what Sly did is “off limits” as ‘conflict of interest,’ even on non-professional community stations like KALX, but frankly anybody interested in revitalizing local music radio would do well to take a lesson from Mr. Stewart).

By 1964, Donahue and Mitchell founded Autumn Records, and hired Sly as the new label’s in-house producer. Since the large California cities were still only really starting to link up to the national mass-culture, at least as producers, [12] there really hadn’t been much of a record label in San Francisco before, at least with national pop hits. In the beginning, it appeared that Donahue and Mitchell’s vision for Autumn Records, like their live package shows at the Cow Palace and the bands they broke as DJs, was both local and integrated. “Bob Mitchell had a heavy penchant for black music, and had a very strong feeling about Sly,” remembers Autumn staffer Carl Scott. [13] They quickly signed SF R&B veteran Bobby “Do You Wanna Dance” Freeman to their label & to perform at their Cow Palace package shows, where Sly’s house band was becoming a San Francisco version of Booker T & The MGs. Since Freeman didn’t write his own songs, and hadn’t had a national hit since 1958, Autumn put Sly in charge of coming up with a hit.

From his vantage point as a R&B DJ who loved The Kinks, Stones & Lord Buckley and had integrated his playlist, luring many young whites away from Donahue’s own radio station, Sly knew what needed to be done to put Autumn on the map, and help give SF a more populist and integrated (and, in retrospect, more revolutionary) cultural export than the “Beat (Poetry) Craze” of the previous decade. [14] Unlike today’s multi-media conglomerates who got rid of their regional offices decades ago and are thus out of touch with what the new breed say, Sly didn’t need a demographic focus group to, within months, come up with a national top ten hit that was also a dance craze.

After one show, Sly engaged Bobby about his onstage movements, likening them to a swimmer’s. Sly, Bobby Freeman and North Beach dancer & businesswoman Carol Doda collaborated on a multi-media event. The Swim. The song, “C’mon & Swim,” which was a #5 pop hit in the summer of 1964, ultimately cannot be separated from the dance-craze it spawned, as the two were conceived simultaneously, in a brilliant example of 360 degree cross-marketing. Legend has it: On June 19, 1964, SF’s Condor Club became the first topless bar in the United States when Carol Doda stepped on stage to show off the new dance and song, the swim, wearing a bottom-only swimsuit designed by Rudi Gernreich: the monokini. Bobby Freeman debuted his dance with clothed dancers; and soon dancers did the swim while backing up The Kinks & other British invasion bands. Sly laid low in the background as “composer, producer, and, conductor,” puckishly tickling the ivories: a brilliant meshing of three distinct sensibilities trying to out-Motown Motown, and during the summer of ’64, pulling it off. [15]

San Francisco had its first real rock/pop cultural export. Although it was Doda and Freeman’s idea & talents that carried it across as much as Sly’s, this collaboration is one of the high-points of San Francisco music--even if the song itself, for many in this ‘auto-tune’ era, doesn’t seem as fresh as the Family Stone does. [16] The fact that the song doesn’t sound particularly original is part of its point. In 1964, pop music was much more communal; much more embracing of what Rene Girard would call the cult of mimesis as opposed to the cult of originality that dominated the more elitist arts since the Enlightenment. [17]

It may not be very original, but “Cmon And Swim” is highly functional. It’s got a back-beat you can’t lose it, a very visceral call and response aspect, and breaks that allow the dancers to mix up their moves--impressive, especially for a 21 year old. It’s fun, easy and has attitude. Doda and Freeman can provide, and transcend, the originality. Nor is the song, as Sly knew, really separate from Freeman performing it, flanked by white and black women dancers very formally dancing until the end where they get down on the floor. It’s funny and harmless, but apparently freaked some folks out.

“The girls are frisky out in old frisco,” from “California Sun,” a garage-rock song from that same year, is clearly a tribute to Carol Doda; and Sly’s fingerprints were all over that. How you like me now, Kirschner! Gordy!  They didn’t just have a hit; they put together things that often aren’t put together-- almost a perfect balance between individual and communal impulses that gave this “underdog” upstart label a fighting chance: that became a win/win situation for everyone, reviving Freeman’s career as a performer, bringing money into Autumn Records as well as into San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast” scene--and with reverberations for the cultural economic health of San Francisco more generally.

After the success of “Cmon & Swim,” Sly’s biggest success as producer was the locally-based white folk-rock pioneers Beau Brummels, whose “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just A Little” were both smashes. Although many of these Sly productions, in the words of Alec Palao, were “more vanilla than you’d expect,” that, too, was part of Sly’s point. Mods loved to dance to them as much as the hard-driving r&b of “Cmon & Swim.” [18]

Amiri Baraka writes:

so-called “pop,” which is a citified version of Rock and Roll also sees to it that those TV jobs, indeed that dollar-popularity, remains white.... [19] White boys, in lieu of the initial passion, will always make it about funny hats...which be their constant minstrel need, the derogation of the real, come out again. Stealing Music...stealing energy (lives)....They steal, minstrelizes (but here a minstrelsy that “hippens” with cats lie Stones and Beatles saying: “Yeh, I got everything I know from Chuck Berry,” is a scream dropping the final...”But I got all the dough...”) named Animals, Zombies, in imitation (minstrel-hip) of a life style as names which go to show just what they think we are...Animals, Zombies, or where they finally be, trying to be that; i.e. Animals, Zombies, Beatles or Stones or Sam the Sham for that matter, and not ever Ravens, Orioles, Spaniels or the contemporary desired excellence of Supremes, Miracles, Impressions, Temptations, etc.,...get to them names....They take from us all the way up the line. Finally, what is the difference between Beatles, Stones, etc.,and Minstrelsy. Minstrels never convinced anybody they were Black either. [20]

Sly’s work with the Beau Brummels may very well invert the relationship. Though he “had been brought in to supervise the company’s early R&B-slanted roster, Stewart’s obvious talents led him to becoming the de facto producer for any act the duo chose;” as Sly put it, “producing the BB was no big thing to me; I just didn’t know that they knew that. I was surprised that they could tell I could do that.”

According to Justin Farrar, “throughout 1965, Donahue and Mitchell’s showbiz chicanery helped sell the Brummels to a frenzied nation of wigged-out teeny-boppers craving the next big thing.” Though they, too, were about ‘funny hats’ on an image-level, the fact that they were “ripping off” the British band brings it back full circle, similar to the more-hyped Columbia Records L.A. band, The Byrds (and less hyped Love). While their name may fall short of the contemporary desired excellence of the Miracles, this young band was capable of more emotional content than many of their white American contemporaries, especially with Sly behind the boards. Nowhere is this more evident than on one of the last tracks they recorded for Autumn; a song which Sly wrote called “Underdog.”

By October 1965, with Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and The Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction” fueling the American white folk-rock and garage-rock crazes, The Beau Brummels were in danger of going the way of Freddie and The Dreamers if they didn’t come up with an edgier song, and, that quickly, Sly was on it. Sly and The Brummels had already made a good chunk of change for the label, but Mitchell had left and Donahue wasn’t reinvesting it in the musicians who had started creating a brand for him as an up-and-coming mod label. It is against this backdrop that Sly and The Beau Brummels recorded “Underdog” as a possible single and/or album track for the third Beau Brummels album in late 1965:

“The Brummels didn’t care about anybody else producing them. They liked me, man. I was running from the control room to the floor, I put all my heart into that. I like the way Sal sings “I’m a man” on “Underdog.” Go on, Sal. I like that groove they got too. Yeah, that’s the Dylan influence. I loved Dylan, man. He can’t sing, but who cares? He’s got a sound, and I love it”----Sly (Listen To The Voices, 7)

What may seem like “nonsense lyrics,” like many Dylan parodies and/or tributes being released that year, gain depth on each listen. The Beau Brummels’ version of “Underdog” is lyrically an answer song to “Like a Rolling Stone.” In Dylan’s song the repeated chorus of “How Does It Feel,” is primarily directed to a sheltered white woman who now is confronted with the difficulties of the real world; but in late 1965, it spawned answer songs like Curtis Knight’s “How Would You Feel,” featuring the guitar work of Jimi Hendrix. Knight’s song took Dylan’s question and threw it back at him and his audience.

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