1920 – 2007
By Michael Slaughter
From Musical News, July/August 2007
Saturday night, June 23, 2007. Earl Watkins decided to go out. He went out often — to hear music, to do favors for people, to take care of union business. Tonight it would be Francisco’s Restaurant to catch the music.
Sunday. Out again. Earl drove to Scott’s Restaurant, to hear the trio he used to play with there — for 18 years. But this day he didn’t stay long. “I’m feeling a little weak,” he told the group, “I think I better go home.”
Earl was a few months from being 88 years old and he was tired. But the big problem was the chemotherapy. Or maybe it was the cancer.
Monday. Ambulance waiting. Earl walked down the familiar twenty steps, slowly. His systems were beginning to fail…
Born in San Francisco, Earl Thomas Watkins, Jr., lived his entire life in the Bay Area. The first drum set he played belonged to Eddie Alley.
Earl performed regularly into his 80s and was an AFM member for 69 years. He is best known for his seven years with Earl “Fatha” Hines. He said it was easy work, “All you had to do was keep time and occasionally take a solo.”
It is less well known that Earl had jammed with Billie Holiday in her heyday and once backed the magnificent Paul Robeson.
Ralph Gleason: “Earl Watkins, a young San Francisco drummer…has just joined Bob Scobey’s band…[Scobey] was impressed by his tremendous beat and the wonderful happy way in which he swung.”
(S.F. Chronicle, July 27, 1954)
Earl worked for Local 669 and then joined the staff of Local 6 in 1965. In 1994 he was elected to the executive board.
Melinda Wagner (past president) notes, “He was an enormously important person for Local 6. One of the most valuable services he performed for us was to be our link to the past. He had an infallible memory.” He was thus a gold mine for researchers. Not long ago, Prof. Leta Miller (UCSC Music Dept.) interviewed him. “Earl was fabulous: a fund of knowledge, highly articulate, extremely cooperative, and more helpful than you can imagine.”
Maria Kozak (long-time Local 6 staff member) recalls, “He was a wonderful, caring man. He would go out of his way to do things for people. We had a very good rapport.” Melinda Wagner adds, “He had a nice, even-tempered way of looking at things. He was an easy person to work with and be with.”
And he was considerate even as a young man. John Fisher (Local 6 drummer) recalls, “Earl, who attended Galileo High with my father, worked my dad’s job at Shumate’s Pharmacy in 1937 so my dad and mom could go out on their first date together.” A 35-year member, John also notes, “Earl was always eager to provide guidance with contracts, pension payments, and even strike benefits.”
For a number of years, Earl was also the Local 6 representative to the California Labor Federation. David Schoenbrun (Local 6 president) states, “Earl was a gentleman and a consummate unionist.” Gretchen Elliott (secretary-treasurer) observes, “Earl evolved. And he grew old with grace. Earl became the elder statesman of San Francisco music.”
On Sunday, July 1, Earl passed away at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. Our historian is now a part of history.
by Michael Slaughter
Local 6 Board of Directors