Eighty Years in the Trenches: A Conversation with Sam Stern (1901 – 1999)

by John Tenney

Sam Stern is a survivor and an important link to the rich heritage of San Francisco’s musical past. I sat down with him in late 1995, and with a twinkle in his eye, he talked about his eighty-plus years in the music business.

He was born in Russia in 1901 and came to San Francisco shortly after the earthquake. He began playing the violin, and by 1910 he was making the rounds of San Francisco’s raucous bars and nightclubs, playing for tips on his three-quarter-size fiddle. His first teacher was a gypsy violinist who played on the boats and who charged his parents a dollar a lesson. His second teacher made sure that he heard the great violinists who played San Francisco, including Eugene Ysaye in 1915 and Mischa Elman in 1918. As Sam put it, “A young boy is a sponge, and I get that tone in my head and that’s what I strive to do. I never was a technician, but I had a big full tone.”

By the mid-teens he had a stage act, playing classical pieces like “Traumerei” and “Humoresque,” as well as popular tunes like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He played on amateur nights, which every theater had, and was a “fill-in” performer on a local vaudeville circuit. He was earning fifteen dollars a week, which was more than his father was making.

In 1917, Sam joined the Musician’s Union, not the easiest thing for a teenager to do. All applicants under 21 were required to have two sponsors to ensure adherence to the union rules. He became a staunch union man, closely associated with like-minded players like Charles “Pop” Kennedy, later a prominent president of Local 6, who was Sam’s drummer for many years.

Also in 1917, he played at the Fairmont Hotel the night before Prohibition went into effect. As he recalled, he played from table to table as people drank like there was no tomorrow — which, in a sense, there wasn’t. It was a heavy night for Irish songs, “East Side, West Side,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet,” and the like. The following year he went to Los Angeles and got work as soon as he hit town, playing in a downtown cafe. The band would play for lunch and a short dance, then come back and work from six until midnight. The pay was phenomenal for the time, forty dollars a week. Soon he was working mornings as well, moonlighting in a violin-accordion-guitar trio that played “mood music” on silent movie sets. Later, he played in a forty-piece orchestra at Sid Grauman’s movie theater.

In 1921, he joined the orchestra backing Harry Lauder, the great Scots comedian, and played a string of one-nighters which brought him back to San Francisco. By this time, he was twenty years old and hadn’t saved a dime. “I decided, this is not a future. Suppose I bust my finger. I’d better do something else,” he told me. He went to business school and trained to become a private secretary. “I got out when I was 21, and I got my first office job. Then I made more money with the fiddle than I ever did before.” He remained skeptical about full-time music, however, and became a civil servant for the city of San Francisco. He kept the job for twenty years while he married and raised two children.

Once settled back in town, he began specializing in Jewish music. By the late Twenties, he was still the only bandleader in town to do so. “Sometimes when I go down the street, some guy accosts me and says, `Hey, Sam, aren’t you dead yet? You played for my bar mitzvah.’ I said, `How old are you?’ `Well, I’ll be sixty-five…’ And I find that every place I go. Anybody could play [Jewish music] if they had the beat. Catalano had the beat, and Kennedy had the beat.”

Although he avoided playing the speakeasies — which were disreputable for a married man — he did the occasional strip show, once with disastrous results, at the Dawn Club of the Palace Hotel. “[It was] supposed to be a strip show, full of men. And the minute the first girl came out, the police whistles started to blow, the lights went on, and nobody could leave. I sat on the piano stool with the piano player, didn’t even have a chance to open my fiddle [case]. And I told the cop, ‘I had nothing to do with this, I’m just a musi—‘ `Get in the damn wagon!” The booking agent bailed him out, but there was more hell to pay. “My wife said, `Is this the way to act? Trying to raise two kids, and arrested down there?’ And I said, well, it was part of the business.”

Sam was the epitome of the working musician. He never refused a job, or held out for a “better” one. At one point, he had a band called “Side-Saddle Sam and His Hoosiers,” all dressed in jeans and old shirts playing square dances and other “western” jobs. In fact, he once played a hoedown with the San Francisco Symphony. As he observed wryly, “I got paid for it.”

In the Twenties, he frequently played in the orchestras that accompanied silent films at San Francisco’s theaters. Toward the end of the decade, he was working at the Imperial Theatre downtown when the first sound film — Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer — was released. The entire orchestra was given notice. “They were going to strike anyway, but it didn’t do them any good. [The theater] was going to put in canned music before the picture. Many of the musicians got in trouble because they wanted to play anyway; one of them was Yehudi Menuhin’s first teacher.”

The “talkies” dried up a big source of employment, and soon the Depression began, a difficult time for musicians

and most everyone else. During those years, Sam led a twenty-piece WPA band that paid its players $90 a month. They gave free concerts in schools and parks, and sometimes would head for the Sierras to play for young workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps. At the end of the Thirties, he played in a WPA theatrical version of Hansel and Gretel, which appeared at the Treasure Island World’s Fair. Throughout the decade, he also did strolling and nightclub work when he could find it. It was not always easy. “Imagine a violin player, no amplification. You learned how to get a tone. You played hard, and wore out your bow hair very quickly.” Sam claims to have been the first violinist to mount an electric pickup on his violin, as soon as portable amplifiers came out in the late Thirties. Veteran sax player Stan Shouman used to sit in front of Sam’s speaker, and frequently complained that it drove him crazy.

Sam spent the early Forties working in the San Francisco shipyards, with a desk job that enabled him to play music jobs at night. After the War he continued his career, always the realist: “When I joined the union, the Symphony didn’t work as long as they work now, just a few weeks a year, and the guys couldn’t get by, and I didn’t want to follow in their tracks, and I know that the dance business, as soon as you get gray hair or no hair you’re finished, so that’s why I went into another business. Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have a nickel.”

No matter what the status of his hair, Sam persisted and succeeded. He worked frequently until relatively recently, and still plays his violin. He has retained his lifelong attitude toward his profession, epitomizing the “working stiff” musician: “I never wanted to classify myself as a musician, particularly. I made just as much as the average guy, and worked in the daytime besides, and I have something to show for it.”

Indeed he does: a long life, the respect of his peers, and a razor-sharp mind that conjures up a wealth of memories. Sam is a local treasure. He has survived this long; we can only hope that he will survive for many years to come.

Ed. note: Sam Stern passed away on December 19, 1999, at the age of 98-1/2.