“I’ve Been There And Done That”
”This is the Fillmore Jazz and Blues Festival,” purrs Bobbie Webb,” but we’re playing Rhythm & Blues for you today.”
The laid back San Francisco crowd cheers as Bobbie counts in a Marvin Gaye tune. With his very own brick on the “Walk of Fame” (the stretch of Fillmore Street sidewalk between Geary & O’Farrell Street), Bobbie Webb is now an official Bay Area Blues Legend, and, with two more gigs lined up later that day, busier than ever. “I’ve done it all, I’ve been there,” he says,” I’ve done it all, what can I say? You name it I claim it. I was here when they tore it out (the tragic gutting of the Fillmore district due to “urban renewal”), and I’m still here. I played every juke joint in the area at one time or another.”
“People think that the Fillmore district was Jazz, but it wasn’t Jazz,” says Bobbie,”We had more rhythm and blues here than you could shake a stick at. In the Tenderloin, that’s where your Jazz was. East of Van Ness and up in North Beach, that’s where your Jazz was. There was no Jazz up here. They had Bop City where musicians would come after the gig, but that was way up on Post Street…not enough to call it a Jazz Preservation District. People that don’t know will accept what they hear—I was here. ”
Bobbie Webb was born in Texas. When he was five years old his grandmother moved his family to San Francisco where they settled in the Fillmore, the largest black neighborhood on the west coast at the time. The youngest of four, Bobbie helped his grandmother by working as a shoe shine boy, and later selling the Sun Reporter, the black newspaper. “I walked these streets every weekend from morning till night” he says ”I went in barbershops, nightclubs, bars, any place that I wasn’t supposed to go, selling my newspaper. I saw musicians like Dizzie Gillespie, Cab Calloway.”
He received his first saxophone from the warden of San Quentin.
“My grandmother worked for the warden of San Quentin.” Bobbie recalls, ”His name was Warden Duffy. He was the warden in the late 30’s, early 40’s. She would cook for him. He lived down on Union Street. He would always ask,’How’re your boys?’ (We were three boys and one girl). And she would always say,’Fine, but my youngest one wants to play the saxophone.’ At that time I was in Marina Junior High School [where he played in the marching band] and I would always use the school horn, sign it out. One day I came home from school, and my grandmother gave me a letter. She said,’Warden Duffy said for you to take this letter to Sherman & Clay (which was down on Kearny Street), take this letter to Sherman & Clay and you can pick yourself up a saxophone. I don’t want you smoking, or drinking or doing no drugs, because it’s known for musicians to do that. You promise me you’ll do that, and I’ll let you go get this horn.’
“So, I carried the letter down there and got the horn. It was a silver horn with a gold bell. I never will forget it, it was a beautiful horn. It was a York. I got that horn, and that’s when I started playing really serious. A gentleman named Roland Mitchell got me started. He was a very well known saxophone player in the area. And I advanced from there. That’s where my first horn came from, from the Warden of San Quentin, Warden Duffy.”
Bobbie attended Washington High where he put together his first R&B band, Bobbie Webb and the Rhythm Rockers. They played parties, dances, night clubs, and places, he says,”I shouldn’t have been early in life”. His schoolmate, the great drummer Eddie Moore, played in his band.
“I was fortunate. The Marina had a great band teacher. Washington had a great band teacher. I had a great saxophonist (teacher) that was already out here playing professinally, showing me the ins and outs, how to and how not too, all the techniques it takes to play your horn. And continuously playing onstage as a youngster, I developed what I got.”
It was during these early experiences that Bobbie saw the road ahead. He realized that if a musician doesn’t make the gig and the band can’t play—no one gets paid. After getting burned a few times he decided to get a regular job and use music as a secondary income source. He says he’s glad he stuck with that because he is retired now and able to piece together a decent living by combining his social security, pension, and live music income.
After graduating high school, Bobbie got married, joined the Service Employees Union, and worked as a mechanic at Downtown Bowl, fixing the bowling machines and lanes. Because Downtown Bowl was right around the corner from the Musicians Union on Jones Street, everyone knew him.
During this time, Bobbie worked a steady gig–Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday–at the Shasta Lodge on McAllister & Divisadero, as well as parties and other gigs. “I would work from 9 until 1, and then shoot down to the bowling alley at 2 in the morning…I’d get off at 10am, and if I had another job to do–it was work, rest, work, rest.”
Bobbie played the Shasta Lodge for ten years, and then the Broadway strip in North Beach with Bobby Freeman for another ten, from 1970 – 1980. “I’m one of the very few brothers that still belong to the union,” says Bobbie.” Back then, everyone joined the union. The union was very strict back in the day, which I’m very glad it was. They had some very strict business agents, and they were on their jobs. They would patrol the SF area, find musicians that were working without a contract, and find musicians that didn’t belong to the union working with a union band. They’d have the band leader come in and go before the board—it was strict, very strict. I was a part of that whole era. I’ve been there, I’ve seen that.”
Bobbie worked at the Downtown Bowl for 22 years, and then transferred to the skyscrapers in the financial district where he eventually moved up to building supervisor. During that time he served for three years as a business agent for Service Employees Union Local 87. Throughout his 43 years with the Service Employees Union, Bobbie always saved vacation time for music activities. In ‘91 and ‘92 he played Blues Cruises, which sailed to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Alaska, among other places.
“I had my job, kids (eight), family,” says Bobbie,”But I was just as busy as anyone else that was here. Playing all around the United States, those long tours in Europe–4 or five months, I was never able to do that. (But) I was fortunate in that I was able to make a living and still stay at home, where most musicians had to hit the road. I’ve been busy working all the different clubs and I’m still busy.
Today he is President of the Blues & R&B Music Foundation, an organization he started in 1985. For the past ten years, he has produced a blues festival in Golden Gate Park and he has his own CD out, “Bobbie Webb & The Smooth Blues”, about which he says,”I can’t make them fast enough”. He is a popular DJ on San Francisco’s KPOO radio with his own blues show and, in 2003, the Bay Area Blues Society voted him Best Blues Saxophonist of the year.
“I played with some of the biggest, some of the best. Albert King, Lowell Fulson, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vincent, T-bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Etta James, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn. I played with The Blue Monday Party under the leadership of Martin Natherlin for the Marin County Blues Festival—they were the house band. Bruce Springsteen, in Colorado Springs at a festival–he came up onstage and played harmonica with us. I even made a commercial for Infinity in 1985. Infinity Car. I been there, I done the whole thing, I done it.”
Bobbie tells musicians to invest their money wisely so they have something for the future. “If you don’t invest your money when you make it, then you lose…you got to have that sense of responsibility. You have to have that sense of success, taking care of your life in case you make it. I always say, ‘In case you make it’, meaning you reach that retirement age and you know you got something. You got to look way down the line in order to survive in this world.”
“I tell everybody, it’s good to have something to do other than work–something you enjoy doing, that you can make a living at. That’s what I tell all these youngsters. Get yourself an instrument. Learn it. Someday it might pay off for you. And it definitely has paid off for me, that’s for sure. So I’m telling you, I paid my dues, man. And like I say, I didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I didn’t burn myself out. I took care of myself, and that’s what it takes, being a musician. I been there and done that. I’m a college graduate from R&B. I’m still here.”