Earl Watkins (1920 – 2007)
by Alex Walsh
Earl Watkins is a jazz drummer who continues to make music well into his 80s. I was privileged to interview Earl for this article on May 6, 2003.
Earl Watkins is a native San Franciscan. He was born in 1920 and grew up in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco. His early exposure to music is mind-boggling. At that time live music was everywhere.
Earl’s parents moved to San Francisco after WWI because the racial climate, though not the greatest, was better than in Alabama. They were very musical. His father played the ukulele and sang, and his mother played the piano. “Pianos were everywhere,” recalls Earl, “in every house, hotel, dance hall, and theater.” The Watkins household also had a radio and a wind-up phonograph with records. In the neighborhood, Earl used to sneak into the Ambassador (now the Fillmore Auditorium) to watch the bands rehearse. In those days, San Francisco theaters were filled with live music and vaudeville. Every theater had a pit band. On Saturdays there were special programs for kids.
“The Horace Heidt Band on Saturdays, that was the big thing for kids. You’d go down to the Golden Gate Theater and you’d see cartoons, you’d see a movie, you’d hear the band, and you’d see a stage show. We could sit in the box seats and watch the different guys – the trumpet players and the drummers and the bass players, and it was just fascinating to watch them…so there was all this constant exposure to music. As kids, we’d bang the piano, we’d play chopsticks — a whole lot of two-fingered stuff, and then some of the kids that were lucky, they took music lessons. My mother wanted to teach me piano, but I wanted to go out and play. I have kicked myself a thousand times.”
Earl’s first experience playing the drum set occurred at the Booker T. Washington Community Center on Divisadero Street during a WPA sponsored dance. Eddie Alley and Wesley Peoples were scheduled to play that evening, but for some reason Eddie couldn’t make it. Earl jumped on the drum set and started playing Eddie’s beats. At another dance, he met a local drummer named John Randolph, who later became his teacher.
“He (John Randolph) had one foot on the bass drum pedal playing the bass drum, he had one on the hi hat playing the hi hat, and each appendage doing something (different)… and I was just fascinated. How in the world do you do four different things at the same time and keep the rhythm going? So he said to me, `Would you like to learn?’ So I said, `Sure.’” So Earl began taking lessons. Soon after, the neighborhood barber, who had served as a musician in the United States Cavalry during WWI, decided he was going to put together a teenage band. Earl was recruited and gained much needed practical experience. At 17, Earl was recommended to a local bass player, named Jimmy Brown, who was forming a band. Jimmy said Earl had to join the union, so Earl joined Local 6 Subsidiary (the segregated black Local 6 that was controlled by the white Local 6).
The Jimmy Brown Band began playing dances in San Francisco and in Stockton, where Jimmy’s mother-in-law was a local promoter. In order to perform the popular dance tunes of the day, Earl needed to read charts, so Jimmy brought him to Gus Mortenson’s drum shop in the Tenderloin where he took lessons from Jack Downey, a local vaudeville drummer. Soon, Earl was playing regularly with the Jimmy Brown Band and with a pianist named Pat Patterson while subbing for other groups.
Earl was classified 1-A. While waiting to be called up, he worked in the navy shipyards during the day and in clubs at night. On one memorable evening, he played an impromptu jam session at the Elks Club in Oakland with Billie Holiday and musicians from Jimmy Lunceford’s band. “That was a very, very pleasant experience,” says Earl.
During a union meeting, he was recruited into the Navy as a musician along with Jerome Richardson, Curtis Lowe, Vernon Alley, Wilbert Baranco, Buddy Collette, Jack Kelson, and Marshall and Eric Royal. They were sent to the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois (near Chicago) for boot camp. After two months, they were stationed at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, which had been turned into a pre-flight school. The musicians lived off base. Earl lived in Berkeley and carpooled to work with the guys in the band.
“That’s all we did — rehearse all day, and then we’d play. We’d play for bonds shows. We’d play for regimental reviews. In the morning we’d play the colors to raise the flag, and at noon we’d play a concert for the cadets…every Sunday we would play a dance.”
They also performed as a marching band throughout the Bay Area and during Navy football games. The full band was a forty-five piece big band. From that, two smaller dance bands were formed. “Our musical director, Marshall Rowan, really whipped us into shape,” recalls Earl. “We became the hottest dance band around.”
One day a week, they would make a recording that was broadcast throughout the 12th Navy District (the West Coast and Pacific region).
When the war ended, many of the musicians settled in the Bay Area. Earl stayed in Berkeley. By this time, he was married and had a child. He began playing in a quartet in Menlo Park with Buddy Collette, Ernie Royal and Jimmy Shorter. After a year, Buddy went back to Los Angeles, Curtis Lowe took his place, and the group began playing at Slim Jenkins, one of the best cabaret clubs in Oakland. They also played the Swing Club, a large club in Oakland that brought in national acts, where they backed up
T-Bone Walker (blues guitar), and many others.
Eventually the group disbanded, and Earl went to work with Johnny Cooper in San Francisco at the California Theater Club in Japantown. From there, Johnny Cooper (piano), Curtis Lowe (saxophone), and Earl formed a trio and worked at a place called “Gay & Friskie” in the International Settlement (Pacific & Montgomery). In 1948, they got a job in the pit of the Tivoli Theater for a stage show. After the eight-week run, they went to the Story Club in the Tenderloin, which later became the Blackhawk, and then to the Cotton Club (now the Great American Music Hall).
Eventually, the trio broke up, and Earl went to play with the Five Knights of Rhythm at the Say When Club, a very happening night club on Bush Street. They did swing and novelty music. “You never knew who you would see in there,” recalls Earl. “Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Harry the Hipster, Slim Galliard, Armando Peraza (just in from Cuba), Hoagie Carmichael, `Dagwood’ Arthur Lake, Ray Brown, and Flip Philips all showed up at one time or another.” In 1950, Earl was the house drummer for the first week at the famous after-hours club, Bop City.
Earl played with the Five Knights of Rhythm throughout 1950 in various clubs until he got the call from Vernon Alley to play at the Blackhawk. They played bebop there until the mid-fifties. By this time, the clubs were on a downslide because of rock `n’ roll and rhythm & blues, and Earl worked less and less with Vernon. He began working with Jerome Richardson, who eventually left to work with “Fatha” Hines.
In 1955, Earl got a call from Bob Scobey to play Dixieland music at the Tin Angel on the waterfront near Pier 23. There was a San Francisco Dixieland revival at the time marketed as `Frisco Jazz’. The band became very busy playing their regular gig, casuals, and a TV show on Channel 5. They were hired to play at the Blue Note in Chicago and had a very successful run. They also played the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles and recorded for the Good Time Jazz label. The band traveled back to Milwaukee, Chicago, and then New York. Earl returned to San Francisco when Bob Scobey’s original drummer returned to the band.
Back in San Francisco in 1956, “Fatha” Hines was playing at the Hangover Club. Earl was a fan; so he went to see the show. The club owner, Doc Dougherty, asked him what he was doing there, and Earl explained that Scobey’s drummer had returned. Doc had put together a band for “Fatha” Hines and asked Earl if he wanted to play in it. He said, “Sure.” Earl spent seven years with “Fatha” Hines, five of them at the Hangover, where they also did a radio show every Saturday. The group then traveled to Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo, New York, and Toronto, among many places.
Earl had served on the Board of Directors for Local 6 Subsidiary, and then later for Local 669, the black local that was chartered in 1946. In 1960, under court order, the two locals were merged. In 1963, after completing his touring stint with “Fatha” Hines, Earl returned to the Bay Area, where he resumed playing club dates and casuals. Two years later, he was recruited to work in the Oakland office of Local 6. He worked five days a week in the office and continued to play evenings and weekends.
By this time, the music scene had changed. “It was no longer improvisation, running the chord changes, and beautiful ballads,” says Earl. “It was all noise – louder and louder, three chords, and a lot of noise.” Clubs were hiring bands for much shorter amounts of time, not the five-year or two-year runs like before. Jazz clubs were either going out of business or switching formats. Earl recalls hearing of gigs at places like the Teamsters Hall near Fisherman’s Wharf. They would have a thousand kids and two garage bands, paying them $75 per band (not much has changed in 40 years). But despite all of this, Earl kept a full calendar.
In 1972, the Oakland office was shut down, and Earl came to work in the San Francisco office. In 1973, Curtis Lowe and Tom Donato recruited Earl to play with them after their drummer, Tiny Magardo, passed away. They worked together for many years, with Al King as the booking agent. Page Milliken filled in when Curtis Lowe began sub-contracting in the theaters. In 1994, Local 6 reduced its staff again, and Earl ran for the Board of Directors, where he continues to serve to this day (2003).
Looking back on his life as a musician, Earl says, “I’ve been blessed. I’ve been lucky.”