Highway Nostalgia: San Pablo Avenue -- Music Row
By Wes Hammond
With the completion in 1927 of the Carquinez Bridge between Vallejo and Crockett, the Lincoln Highway routing was changed between Sacramento and Oakland. It was moved to a more northerly route via Dixon, Vacaville, Cordelia, Vallejo and Berkeley. At Berkeley, travelers used a ferry between the foot of University Avenue and the Hyde Street terminal in San Francisco. The twelve-mile section between San Pablo and Oakland was a combination of city streets and rural roads. It has been known as San Pablo Avenue since the early 1900s. It received the designation of Lincoln Highway, and then within a year, the name was changed to the number US 40.
The ferry portion between Berkeley and San Francisco was eliminated in 1939 with the completion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. At this same time, a new four-lane highway was built about 5/8 of a mile west of San Pablo Avenue. The new highway left San Pablo Avenue at Cutting Boulevard in Richmond and connected directly to the bridge. This new road was given the designation of US 40 and also called the Eastshore Highway. The six-mile section of San Pablo Avenue, no longer US 40 due to the new highway, was designated as Business US 40. The Bay Bridge was numbered both US 40 and US 50. US 50 travelled along the original southern routing of the Lincoln Highway. In 1962, US 40 was changed to I-80, and US 50 in the East Bay became I-580.
Our musical journey will be along San Pablo Avenue and adjacent areas between Oakland and San Pablo. The peak of the music scene along this area was from the mid-'30s to the mid-'50s, so let's begin our trip in an imaginary automobile of the time period. My favorite is a 1936 Ford convertible, but bring along a cap and jacket -- the wind coming from the bay can be chilly.
We will start with the dial of the Philco radio, or maybe a Motorola, set at 910 to pick up Radio KLX from Oakland. In the '30s, listeners wanting to hear western/swing could find it on several stations. In most cases, the bands broadcast live from the studio, and KLX used this concept for two hours a day. The stations featured two bands led by Dude Martin and Stuart Hamblin. As we will see, Dude Martin was a very popular performer.
Radio station KLX broadcast from the Oakland Tribune Tower, and very close to the Tribune building were Oakland's two large dance ballrooms: Sweets Ballroom and the Ali Baba Ballroom. Virginia McGill, daughter of William "Bill" Sweets, told me that in the early 1920s, her dad owned a ballroom named Garden of Persia. He later sold it and it was later renamed Ali Baba.
In the early 1930s, he opened Sweets Ballroom. It soon became the most popular dance location in the area and was billed as "The East Bay's Home of the Big Bands." The list of bands who made appearances there reads like a who's-who of the big-band era: Harry James, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Freddy Martin. Singers included Frank Sinatra and Merv Griffin.
The average crowd for a big-name band was 3,000 to 4,000 people. When Frank Sinatra was singing, the crowd would swell to 5,000, in which case there would be no room to dance -- just swinging and swaying in place as the crowd listened. Even the local country star Dude Martin played Sweets on one or more occasions. Sweets must have been a large venue for country music at the time. A friend, Lynn Grant, remembers attending concerts in the '50s at Sweets or Ali Baba to listen to music by contemporary jazz greats Cal Jader and Dave Brubeck. Sweets Ballroom remained in business until 1965.
In the Oakland Hills just east of downtown was the luxury resort hotel known as The Claremont. Their large dance floor normally had a house band, but big bands such as a Russ Morgan and his Music in the Morgan Manner also played there. His theme was "Does Your Heart Beat for Me."
San Pablo Avenue is in the foreground of this photo of El Cerrito's business district from the mid- to late 1920s. The businesses are, from left to right, The Mechanics Bank, a soda fountain, and an unknown business (possibly a shoe repair shop and beauty salon). Photo courtesy of the Contra Costa County History Center. [Click to enlarge]
This 1927 photo of the Peekaboo Club in El Cerrito indicates that the music scene along San Pablo Avenue got its start early. Notice signs that advertise "Dancing" and "Orchestra." The business in the background to the right is a facility for auto travelers. The signs reads "Auto Camp-Service Station." Photo courtesy of the Contra Costa County History Center. [Click to enlarge]
In the late 1940s, Dude Martin and his Roundup Gang had a live broadcast daily from KYA Radio in San Francisco. (In the late 1930s, he had a band called the Nevada Night Herders.) As indicated by the upper left-hand corner of the photo, Dude had a recording contract with RCA Victor Recording. Photo from The Great Jazz Revival: A Pictorial Celebration of Traditional Jazz, by Jim Goggin and Peter Clute. [Click to enlarge]
Golden Gate International Exposition
With the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, a celebration was held in the form of a world's fair. This event, the Golden Gate International Exposition, ran from 1939 to 1940. It was held on a man-made island built in San Francisco Bay -- Treasure Island. This event added a large amount of musical activity to the local scene, and the music of big bands was a large part of this activity. An entertainment area known as "The Gayway" had a very popular act for adults, called Sally Rand's Nude Ranch, where pretty young women cavorted around a make-believe ranch playing ping-pong and volleyball. They were nude except for red bandanas to cover the vital locations and wore western-style hats. I mention this here because as we will see, Sally would later be a part of the San Pablo Avenue scene.
San Pablo Avenue and World War II
Now that we have visited the central Oakland area, we will head the '36 Ford north along San Pablo Avenue to the heart of the music scene, which was more diversified. Just over one year after the close of the fair on Treasure Island, the bombing of Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II. This act would forever change the life of the San Francisco Bay Area and would have a definite effect on San Pablo Avenue. Immediately military bases in the area expanded, new bases were built, and shipyards arose almost overnight. All these locations needed workers to man these facilities. Men and women by the thousands engulfed the area, and a large percentage were from the deep southern and mid-southern states such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
These new arrivals brought along their love of country music with them. They had money to spend and they wanted to hear "their" music. San Pablo Avenue cooperated with many new honky-tonks and large dance halls added to the scene. The large dance halls were Redmond Hall in Richmond and Maple Hall in San Pablo. Some of the smaller clubs catering to western music were Johns Half Barrel, Crazy Joes and McFaddens. Dude Martin, the western singer we heard on KLX Radio in the late 1930's, became very popular at the large dance halls playing to big crowds. At the end of the war, he could be heard on KYA Radio broadcasting from San Francisco. He also had a RCA recording contract.
After the War
When the war ended in 1945, there were changes in the scene, but all in all, the music and entertainment continued for another eight to ten years. Chapter member George Clark has firsthand knowledge of the scene along San Pablo Avenue in the late 1940s. He was musician and played drums for several jazz bands and his favorite was Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Let's have George tell
San Pablo Avenue, a wide, well-traveled thoroughfare running from downtown Oaldand to San Pablo, once accommodated the Lincoln Highway and later US 40. Between these two points and in the vicinity of El Cerrito, travelers passed through an unincorporated area featuring nightlife activities, both legal and illegal. A Reno/Las Vegas atmosphere prevailed, offering gambling, off-track betting, slots, prostitution, bars, dinner clubs, dancing and western music.
Perhaps the most recognized name to appear in neon lights along San Pablo Avenue was Sally Rand's Hollywood Club. Following a most successful two year appearance at the Golden Gate International Exposition, she moved her club and the girls to 204 San Pablo Avenue, and featured nude girls dancing behind balloons and fans. This club lent a higher degree of class and glamour to this unincorporated area. Sally's club apartment featured simulated leopard-skin carpeting which covered both the floor and the walls. Her venture only lasted through the war years.
The building remained vacant until 1947, at which time the popular Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band proclaimed it their home. Named Hambone Kelly's, this club became the mecca for jazz enthusiasts and often attracted nationally-acclaimed musicians from New Orleans, Chicago and New York. Turk Murphy, trombonist with Lu Watters, later became famous in his own right. He formed his own band, Turk Murphy and his San Francisco Jazz Band. While he was playing at Hambone Kelly's, he used Sally Rand's former apartment.
I played drums with many bands and I played with Lu Watters on one occasion. He was my favorite, mainly because he played traditional New Orleans jazz. This music had its own distinctive sound that originated in that city, then spread north along the Mississippi and became popular in Chicago and New York. There were changes in the beat and rhythm, and eventually it became commonly known as Dixieland Jazz.
There is one incident that stands out in my mind with Lu's band, and it involves a one-night stand he had at the Maple Hall in San Pablo. This large dance hall normally had a western band and this is what the crowd expected. They did not like the idea of a jazz band and were a little upset and unruly. Lu opened the set with a blues rendition of Dippermouth Blues, and this calmed the crowd down and all went well for the evening.
[Ed.: It's understandable that the country/western crowd would enjoy a blues song. Many very popular country/western musicians have recorded blues. The great Hank Williams, Sr. learned the blues from a black street musician named Tee-Tot in his home state of Alabama. Two of his more famous blues songs were Honkey-Tonk Blues and Lovesick Blues.]
In addition to the Hollywood Club/Hambone Kelly's, there was the It Club, Hotsy Totsy Bar, Kona Club, and Six Belles and the Wagon Wheel - perhaps the wildest of them all. A few miles east along San Pablo Avenue was the home of Don Churchill's western band that vied with the popular Dude Martin.
[Ed.: Other clubs along San Pablo Avenue shown in a late 1940s phone book include Alvarado Garden, Backstage, Club Pablo, Club Thunderbird, Jungle Inn, Kountry Inn, Todds Club, and Miami Club.]
I can only guess what brought an end to the night life along San Pablo Ave. The City of El Cerrito annexed this area of nocturnal activity sometime in the early '50s and by that time most of the clubs had disappeared. The last club to close was the It Club and that was some time in the '80s.
The best jazz music in the late 1940s and early 1950s could be found at Hambone Kelly's, which featured Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band. Lu, who owned the club, spent much of his time in the kitchen. Between 1940 and 1946, this location was home to the Hollywood Club and Sally Rand's nude girlie show. (With close inspection of the front awning, you can still read "Hollywood Club.") Photo from The Great Jazz Revival: A Pictorial Celebration of Traditional Jazz, by Jim Goggin and Peter Clute. [Click to enlarge]
An larger version of this cartoon, in the form of a painting, hung in the front bar of Hambone Kelly's. It depicts Ly Watters serving up a ham bone.[Click to enlarge]
The Miami Club appears to have used a converted house built in the early 1940s. This building was "upscale" and was probably known as a dinner club. It advertised "Dine-Dance/Good Food." Photo courtesy of the Contra Costa County History Center. [Click to enlarge]
As you have read, George gives some authenticity to this story. The San Pablo Avenue /Lincoln Highway/US 40/Business US 40 scene had a "wild and woolly" ride with a peak of approximately twenty to twenty-five years. The highway US 66 had its own song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," but music fans were getting their "kicks" along San Pablo Avenue long before that song became popular!
- In the early '50s, both Dude Martin and Stuart Hamblin moved to the Los Angeles area. Dude became very popular on television, and Stuart had a very successful career with Gospel music.
- Merv Griffin is a native of San Mateo, 35 miles south of San Francisco, and sang for many years with the Freddy Martin band. (Coincidentally, I knew Merv Griffin around 1936 to 1940. He lived directly across the street from a cousin who lived in San Mateo.) He later appeared on a number of television programs and became a multimillionaire with his expertise in television game shows.
- Turk Murphy and his San Francisco Jazz Band remained popular for many years and played all over the United States.
- Bob Scoby, Lu Watters' second trumpet player, formed a band and played in California for many years.
- The daughter of Virginia McGill is writing a book about her grandfather and his ownership of Sweets Ballroom.
- In the country/western song "A Boy Named Sue," the lyrics read in part, "I searched the honkey-tonks and bars looking for the awful man that gave me the name Sue." The man that made that song popular was Johnny Cash. There are people that claim Johnny Cash played the "honkey-tonks and bars" along San Pablo Avenue in the late '40s as he was getting his start up the celebrity ladder.
If you are interested in traditional jazz music, it is possible to purchase cassette tapes of music by both Lu Watters and Turk Murphy. If you cannot obtain copies locally, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to:
Lincoln Highway Association
P.O. Box 492
Foresthill, CA 95631
and I will give you the names of two stores to contact.
- Illustrated History of Country Music, edited by Patrick Carr
- The West Coast Goes to War: 1941-1942, by Donald De Nevi
- The Great Jazz Revival: A Pictorial Celebration of Traditional Jazz, by Jim Goggin and Peter Clute
- Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California, by Gerald W. Haslam
- The Big Bands by George T. Simon