California Rhythm and Blues Music: 1945-1955
This oral history collection documents the emergence and development of Rhythm and Blues, the new and dynamic African-American musical art form that blazed across America's urban landscape from 1945-1955. During this period, the music’s songwriters and performers shook the music world and helped to reshape American popular music as we knew it.
Although Rhythm and Blues was heard throughout America's major urban centers, this project focused on the music coming primarily from the west coast cities of Oakland and Los Angeles. Included in this documentation are the personal histories of performers and songwriters from the period, many of whom moved to California from the South, primarily Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, along with thousands of other African-Americans lured by the promise of employment opportunities from the defense industry demands of World War II.
While the established marquee stars of the time, both black and white, were under contract with major record labels such as Decca and RCA, many of the new artists were signing with the rapidly expanding independents such as Atlantic, Swing Time, Imperial and Modern, all of which were chasing the enormous dollar potential of making it in the record business. Los Angeles especially was fast becoming a mecca for R&B performers and the new record companies angling to get into the game. In the heart of the Los Angeles African-American community, the legendary Central Avenue strip became the vibrant nucleus for live Rhythm and Blues venues of the day, fueled in large part by the fact that between 1945 and 1952, nine of the thirty significant independent nationwide R&B labels were Los Angeles-based. The rapid proliferation of performing and recording laid the foundation for this new music form to burst forth full bloom into the popular music consciousness. Two prominent figures in the independent arm of the recording industry, producers Jerry Wexler (Atlantic Records) and Milt Gabler (Commodore Records and Decca Records), are included in the collection, as their influence was monumentally important in generating the new sounds then being heard over the airwaves by an eagerly awaiting public.
In northern California, across the San Francisco Bay in the city of Oakland, Rhythm and Blues music was storming full swing into the musical lexicon of the local population there as well. As in Los Angeles, the regional shipyards and ancillary war related industries lured legions of African-Americans into the area, and with them, the rich musical cultural traditions of the southern states from which they came. Pioneering local recording industry entrepreneurs such as Bob Geddins (Big Town Recordings) who featured many of the area’s top performing artists such as Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, and Sugar Pie DeSanto, made it possible for residents of Oakland and its surrounds to embrace the music scene’s exciting new grooves. As local performance venues and recording opportunities grew, Rhythm and Blues took root and became firmly established as an integral part of the west coast music culture.
In making this work possible, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Johnny Otis, the legendary Rhythm and Blues composer, arranger, producer and performer, who enthusiastically embraced this idea and offered his personal guidance and generosity of time from the beginning of the project through to its end. His assistance was invaluable in not only providing me with access to his enormous depth of knowledge and experience, but also in helping me to connect with many of the artists included in this documentary history. Among those featured are Johnny Otis himself, Earl ‘Good Rockin’ Brown, Hadda Brooks, Bill Doggett, Jerry Wexler, and Milt Gabler.
The following samples from the project will hopefully provide you with a feel for the wonderful music that was being created at the time and also the essential insight into the personal journeys of the people who made it possible.