The Sixties in Folk Music / 20. Tony Townsend Pt II.

Harvest Time

Tony Townsend

In the autumn of 1962, Lili Schuler in Santa Barbara asked me to play at the Rondo again. Business had gone downhill. Close to bankruptcy, Lili got the landlord to agree to weekend entertainment. This time I played in the art gallery corner room where the sounds were less likely to disturb the tenants upstairs.

Then, out of the blue, Lili offered the Rondo to Caroline and me. Nothing down, we would be buying the place on time. I didn’t really want to get tangled up in a business, but was just not making enough at music to support my family. I had to do something to bring in steady income, so accepted. Caroline was both enthused and frightened. She wanted someone to go in with us. We thought of Gary Sorenson, and he agreed. Before we could catch our breath, Gary organized a painting party and started redecorating. When he began painting the outside of the building, Lusink came down on us again. Somehow Caroline and Lili resolved that crisis.

The Rondo, 1962

The Rondo, 1962

Meanwhile, I was in Los Angeles recording The Townsend Boys album. My youngest brother Tom, on leave from the army, sang high harmony. My middle brother Tim sang low harmony. I sang lead and played guitar. Don Ralke’s band provided the instrumental backup. My brothers and I sang well and the musicians were great. The first single, “Coming Home,” was suddenly on the air in Santa Barbara and elsewhere around the country in January 1963, shortly after we took over the Rondo. You couldn’t have asked for better timing.

Carrillo Street, the principal access to Highway 101, was closed for reconstruction. Traffic was rerouted along Canon Perdido Street, right past the Rondo. So we put up a lighted sign at the corner advertising thirteen-cent beer during happy hour. Gary charged ahead and I tried to keep up. With no credit, we paid cash for everything. We built a stage in the former art gallery, moved in furniture from the back—and had a showroom. We were open from 4 p.m. till 2 a.m. nightly. And I did four or five sets a night. Plus everything else, it was exhausting but exciting. Soon the Rondo was busy again, not only from our hard work and fortuitous events, but unexpected free publicity.

The DJs at Radio-KIST took a liking to us and played “Coming Home” and the flip-side, “Ocean Breezes,” as often as possible. Hal Bates plugged the Rondo and me, “the hometown boy,” in the morning. Ed Foley did the same at night. Both Hal and Ed came in after work and were staunch supporters.  Then Dick Johnston, owner of classical music station KRCW-FM, started a nightly live broadcast from the Rondo with me as the sole performer. From 11:30 p.m. to midnight I could sing and play whatever I pleased, and even advertise the Rondo. The first broadcast was on February 7, 1963. Dick introduced me from the studio and played our record, “Coming Home.” Live from the Rondo I did a set of eight songs, including a few plugs. Dick recorded the program. It came off well. He was pleased and so was I.

Clean-cut collegiate customers at the Rondo, 1962.

Clean-cut collegiate customers at the Rondo, 1962

Several KEYT Television appearances also took place. I was on Gene Forrsell’s show the day after my banjo was stolen. I performed, we talked, and my stolen banjo was discussed. Gene appealed to viewers who had any knowledge of this to call me. Soon a resident close to the Rondo called. She had found my banjo in her front yard. And it was returned—along with a lot of public interest in the Rondo and me.  KEYT-TV picked the Rondo for their special, “The 10 Top Night Spots in Santa Barbara.” I was interviewed at the Rondo about our business and my music, and may have done some songs. They also took shots of the place. After that, even more people came. Word was spreading far and wide.

Then a big problem occurred. Because the beer license could not be transferred to us unless we leased the premises, and the landlord would not lease to us, we were phantom owners. The Schulers were still responsible. Discrepancies were discovered in Gary’s monthly accounting that accompanied our payment to them. The Schulers wanted Gary out. The lot fell to me to tell him. It was not a happy occasion. He was hurt, but had brought it on himself. We paid him his share and more. And we remained friends.

My brother Tim came to help, replacing Gary behind the bar. Caroline did the bookkeeping and I did the entertaining. Actually, we did whatever was needed. And there was no rest for the weary, because the Rondo took off. According to Dominic Borgialli, the Budweiser-Busch salesman-driver, we were selling more beer than any place in town. At thirty-five cents a glass our price was high, but people didn’t mind. We sold snacks and sandwiches and had a jukebox, too, that included The Townsend Boys. Tim would play our records (three by summer’s end) and sing his part from behind the bar. People were impressed. On a good night we took in a hundred dollars or more.

Tim Townsend and Dee White behind the bar.

I was learning that you can have a business with lots of customers, sell lots of beer, have a record out, have a radio program, be on TV, be thought of as a success, and still not make any money. Caroline and I paid Tim and a waitress, bought supplies, paid the Schulers, the rent, the taxes, the regular expenses, the unexpected expenses, and had just enough left over for basic needs at home. We worked twelve or more hours every day but Tuesday, which I took off, and just barely got by. Plus, we had a kid. When I had time to think about it, I could better understand why the Noctambulist coffee house went under.

Folksingers and musicians descended upon the Rondo. So many played there, in fact, I can’t remember them all. At first we had hoots on Sunday afternoons in the showroom, charging fifty cents for spaghetti and garlic bread. I did several sets and introduced the performers. Soon the best of them began performing on regular nights.

*) The Channel Singers with John Thomas on guitar, Howard Pelky on five-string banjo, and Ernie Brooks on bass, did a wide range of folk standards. They put on enthusiastic, vibrant shows with lots of audience participation, and took a load of pressure off me.
*) Don Robertson’s silvery, agile voice often filled the Rondo showroom with dramatic songs. He helped in other ways as well, including bar tending when Tim was overwhelmed.
*) 
Peter Feldmann did authentic, old-time songs with banjo and guitar (later mandolin and fiddle) better than anyone around. He often assisted as MC of the Rondo hoots.
*) The Terrytown Trio consisted of Todd Grant on guitar, Phil Pritchard on bass, and Bud Boyd on guitar. Their vigorous sound featured tight harmonies and vocal solos by Todd and Bud on folk standards and humorous songs.
*)  The Juniper Hill Trio, soft and sweet singers of folk songs, was composed of Ray Finch on guitar, Susie Hardie as lead vocalist, and her husband George Hardie on banjo. With a bunch of kids, the Hardies couldn’t get away to perform much, but The Juniper Hill Trio left an impression, nevertheless.
*) 
Kajsa Ohman was nervous and bold at the same time. She was pretty and plain, sensual and austere, serious and facetious together. Her singing was both sensitive and harsh. Her songs were traditional and also strikingly original. Using her right index finger as a flat pick, Kajsa played a nylon-string guitar. She also played the autoharp, inspiring me to take it up. I thought she was terrific.
*) 
Campbell Nelson got out of the air force a dedicated flamenco guitarist. A thin, intense advocate of flamenco, he tended to teach during his performances. He played so well, even the bar crowd applauded his talent and skill.
*) 
The Headliners were Doug O’Brien on plectrum banjo, Al Brackett on steel-string guitar, Rod Hillman on classical guitar, and Mike Walsh as lead singer. Their shows combined Rod’s musicianship with the group’s up-tempo songs, ballads, and humorous patter.

Agents from L.A. tried to get bookings for their clients at the Rondo. But we couldn’t sell enough beer in the small showroom to pay what they asked. We considered charging admission, but were dubious. Tim and I sat in the bar till dawn and decided in a non-rational manner to experiment with The Wayfarers, a nationally known group with several albums and a new single out. We called our brother Tom in the army, who loaned us the money to pay their up-front fee. We advertised widely. The posters were designed by our artist-waitress, Barbro Carlsen. Admission was about $2.00.

I first heard The Wayfarers at the Ice House in Pasadena, when Mason Williams was in the group, and thought they were one of the best folk groups I’d heard. Then they disbanded. Re-formed in 1963 with the original bass and banjo players, plus two new guitar players, their music filled the Rondo during Easter week. They were great and everyone had a good time. Listening to them inspired me to take up the twelve-string guitar. Admission charges did not cover expenses, however, so we went on as usual, eventually repaying our brother Tom.

We were lucky not to start formal entertainment, because Lusink was gunning for us. One busy night, at closing time people didn’t leave, continuing the party. Fortunately, we had collected all the glasses, pitchers, and bottles and were cleaning up when a pounding shook the locked door and imperious voices demanded entrance. Lusink and the cops charged in. Checking the now-quiet crowd, the barroom, the showroom, the back room, and the bathrooms, they found no one with alcohol and were obliged to leave empty-handed. Lusink looked angry. We advised everyone to evacuate. To be on the safe side, thereafter we closed at 1:30 a.m.

So many people came to the Rondo, and I was so busy, I can’t remember but a few. Mostly faces remain; only a few names. They were: Pancho the tree man who drank all night and worked all day; Charlie who was so obstinate it took three of us to throw him out; tall, grey-haired Slim who drank, smoked and coughed; Dan the promoter; Bob who didn’t pay his tab; Bob the dreamer; Bob the conga drummer; Steve who stared at his dwindling glass; Jerry the business guy who came across the street; Hal and Ed the DJs who were promoter friends extraordinaire; Bill the DJ who brought his tape deck; and Steve the college student who also brought his tape deck.

They were: Brad the exuberant crusader for justice; the short guy who eighty-sixed himself when the waitress wouldn’t accept a tab; Tom the generous actor; Gloria the Vermeer beauty; Rod the guitarist who requested “Rugged Reuben Rondo”; Dennis who didn’t need to request Tom Lehrer; Frank the businessman; the Swede who sat in the corner; Ed the smoking photographer; the tall, elegant couple from over the hill; the guy who chewed glass; Cathy and Sherri the two sisters who gave me a new banjo case for my twenty-ninth birthday; the short, dark-haired gal with glasses; Edmund who got married and liked “La Malaguena”; Joe the pleasant Latino on his way up; the mariachi Myers brothers; Ray the crazy, sticky, problem drunk; and Bobby the kid of Manson fame.

They were: Ed who played trombone and dogged his wandering wife; Dick and his wispy wife and a car full of kids outside; Hervie who dreamed of flying; his friend who ran the gas station; Chris the driven, pretty girl and her string of pretty girlfriends; Sunny the aggressive gal and a little crazy; the guy with pale blue eyes and twirling mustache who took up with Kajsa; Jan the pretty, dark-haired fan who took up with Campbell; exotic-looking Karin who became Oscar’s second wife, and her friend from Germany; Rick the adaptable bass player who sang great harmony on ”The Bells of Rhymney,” and Michigan wife Cheryl; Dave the harmony singer who passed the stage of sitting in with me; Randy the Minstrel who stayed for all my sets and saw “a new side of Tony Townsend.”

They were: Gordon the stand-up poet disguised as an engineer; Winnie the teacher who tended bar in the beginning; Theo who relished my mocking the old-time religion; Bill the jazz guitarist extraordinaire who died too young; Stan the smoldering volcano of creativity; Mel the lonely fraternity brother and another, Tim who brought his wife; Monty with wounded carpenter hands who trained them to play guitar; Bud the ardent artist lost in a day job; alcoholic Johnny who came lately to my mother-in-law; Elmer the long-lost father of Jamie; Blue Onion Bud who replaced him; Judy and Jim the Brooks photographers; Paula who I scared without intent; the summer Christmas tree couple who introduced me to Leadbelly; Ann and Ed the siblings with perfect bodies; Bill the TV journalist; Bill the fraternity brother and TV writer; Howard who made me a redwood guitar; my relatives; my friends; the formal few; the rag-tag bunch; and God knows all the rest who came to see, to hear, to drink, to socialize and sing, who found in our place a meeting spot, a sanctuary of sorts, a second home, and even a hideout.

I must say, after a life of shyness and anonymity, it was a lot of fun to be a “celebrity” for a while. For the first time I actually enjoyed talking with all kinds of people, and discovered that most of them were basically nice. I had a marvelous time.

Then came the release of The Townsend Boys’ second single, “Hangin’ On,” during the promotion of which I found out that I was expected to commit a crime—and refused. It was a dark day, an experience that revealed in a threatening, personal way the basic corruption of the music industry. Deeply disturbed and disillusioned, I wanted no part of it. That event and that decision sealed my fate, for I never approached the music business again with the same zest.  But there was one more half-hearted try with the third single, “Passing Through.” I took a week off and went up and down California promoting it, at my own expense. And the expense was high because the trip was plagued by car troubles and staying extra nights. In spite of the interviews and hitting all the stations, I was “only passing through this land of sorrow,” as the song said. The best part of the trip was a Mideastern band and belly dancer in San Francisco who inspired me to arrange “Hava Nagila” on the mandolin.

Back in Santa Barbara, Tim had closed the Rondo early. It was Fiesta time and the crowds were crazy. They’d had a fight, somebody had broken a window, all kinds of problems, and it wasn’t worth staying open. It was OK by me; I was exhausted.

Caroline Denny, later to become Caroline Townsend.

Caroline Denny, later to become Caroline Townsend.

Even before Fiesta arrived that August, we were often overwhelmed by the crowds and had to hire more help. Barbro Carlsen could charm the male barroom into submission with her very presence; but too soon, she left. Caroline could escort them out by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants, but she couldn’t be there much. We hired Carola, who sweet-talked and cajoled the customers to keep them in line. We also hired Bill Thomas to tend bar. Bill was an off-season lumberjack who looked like a miniature Paul Bunyan. Not very tall, but broad-shouldered and muscular, Bill could literally throw people out the door. Tim was happy to have his support and Bill was happy to have the job. Then we hired Dee White, who could tend bar and wait tables. Trim and tough, but good-hearted, Dee was a fortunate find.

All of us were working that Sunday afternoon when the hoot turned into “the black hole of Calcutta.” Our plan to limit the number of people in the showroom failed dismally; people just pushed their way in. We had to open up the corner door to the street for air, and they came in that way, too. The noise, the smoke, the heat, the smell, were intense. You couldn’t hear what anyone said. You could hardly hear the music. Guys took off their shirts and the girls didn’t mind. People sat and lay back on the floor. Pitchers spilled; glasses broke. We couldn’t even get to the customers to serve them or clean up. But they were having a jolly good time anyway, laughing, drinking, smoking, making out. And through it all the musicians played their music on the stage in whatever space they could find, because the stage was lined with people and drinks. I got to the stage from the back room and shouted some idealistic plea. But no one paid attention. Peter Feldmann tried to calm the crowd too. John Thomas and The Channel Singers diverted them by playing music in the back room. We may have locked the front door. But nothing worked. We were overrun and out of control. I didn’t understand what was going on or why. How we got through that day without a tragedy or the police descending upon us, I’ll never know. And we didn’t even take in that much money! It was one of those times that strengthened my growing decision to get out of the bar business.

Once in awhile, as on the night when Tim and I gambled on the Wayfarers, we were the ones who overindulged. On one such night, Tim and I were both way over. When the radio program finally came on, it sounded something like this: Following a stately classical selection, the announcer Jim’s mellifluous voice intoned a dignified introduction: “With studios in the world- famous El Paseo, this is KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine classical music. (Pause.) And now we take you live and direct to the Rondo and music by Mr. Tony Townsend.” Suddenly erupted a din and my hollering: “Hello out there in radio land. How the hell are you?” Off into a raucous rendition of “To M’ Ri-de-o” and God knows what else went Tim and I like a couple of alley cats, wobbling around, knocking into things, and laughing out of context. At the end of the program, Jim’s dignified voice came back on: “That concludes the broadcast day for KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine music. (Pause) KRCW-FM is owned and operated by Richard Johnston under license from the Federal Communications Commission…,” etc, etc. Dick Johnston, good soul that he was, smiled but said not to let it happen again.

Naïve? I’m afraid so. Take Steve Smith. On the radio one night in the middle of a song, I became aware of people looking at something. Shuffling along doubled over, clutching his midsection and groaning like he would vomit or collapse right there—on the air—in front of the stage, was Steve Smith. But he kept on going and I kept on singing—somehow. After the program they told me that Steve had refused help and gone home. We got through the night and were starting to close when Steve returned, pale but recovered.

Steve Smith was a silent bar person. Night after night he looked at his glass and rarely spoke. Tonight he wanted to talk. We sat down. He told a disturbing story. He had problems before he started coming to the Rondo, he said, but they were nothing compared to the problems he had now. He had gotten hooked on drugs right here at the Rondo. We didn’t know it, but we owned the biggest drug den in town. The Swede, a blond guy with a jaunty cap who sat in a dark corner with friends, got him hooked—for free—then made him pay heavily. “You don’t know what’s going on,” said Steve, “right under your nose!”

We consulted an attorney and were advised that, unless we caught someone in the act and could prove it in court, there was nothing we could do—without asking for trouble. I was very discouraged. We just let it go. Steve stayed away. And so did the Swede. We kept our eyes open. Then Steve came back again, resumed sitting quietly by himself at the bar or coming into the showroom when there was music.

I finished my last set and went to wash glasses. I heard a crash from the showroom and saw Steve Smith come out and leave. Carolyn went to clean up. Suddenly, she returned looking ill and said, “Tony, call an ambulance quick!”

I used to sing a song called “Blood on the Saddle” that ended with the phrase—which I exaggerated for effect—“and a grrr…eeaat…biig…pudd…ddlle of bll… llood on the ground.” Precipitated on our showroom floor was that “great big puddle of blood” with some fellow in the middle of it. He looked dead. The ambulance and the police arrived within minutes. The corner door to the street was opened for the gurney. Ambulance lights flashed eerily on the ghastly scene of blood, body, broken glass, tipped tables, and chairs askew. The fellow was taken to the hospital. The police interviewed everyone. No one knew what had happened. No one saw anybody jam a glass in his face, around an eye. We cleaned up the spilled violence. We all thought Steve Smith was the culprit. We saw him in the showroom and we saw him leave in a hurry. No one told the police. I thought we should, but no one did. Steve was a regular; no one recognized the other guy. No one knew why.

That was it! I’d had enough! No more Rondo for me! We may have closed for a day, but we couldn’t just walk away. We owed the Schulers. We owed others. So, I went back and we kept on. I followed the news. The fellow recovered, did not lose his eye, but did lose his lawsuit against Steve Smith. A few employees and customers were called to testify, but no one saw it happen and nothing could be proved. Drugs were said to be involved. Steve Smith was a free man.

Hootenany Flyer

Hootenany Flyer

Life at the Rondo turned more pleasant—until another night after the music was done. Two fellows entered and went directly into the showroom. I waited, then followed. One was standing on the stage looking at the KRCW microphone and the other was looking at one of Joan Priolo’s paintings on the wall. “How’re you doing?” I said. “No more music tonight.” “OK.” Colorless, self-enclosed, poker-faced guys, they wandered around. I returned to the bar, expecting them to leave. Some time passed and I went to check. They brushed by me and left. Then I discovered what they had done: destroyed Joan’s painting by cutting it into pieces and stashing them on a shelf in the men’s room; destroyed Dick’s microphone by unscrewing the front piece, pulling the insides out, and depositing them on the floor. I was just numb. None of us knew them. None of us could understand why. It was just a random, brazen, ugly, evil act. We paid Joan Priolo for her painting. Caroline salvaged the largest piece to decorate our wall at home. We paid Dick Johnston for his microphone, or at least made the offer, and he brought in another to replace it. We carried on. We took pains to make sure there were no unattended customers in the showroom.

But it didn’t matter. The Schulers’ lease expired at the end of August. Mert Lusink—reneging on his promise—refused to renew it. He refused to lease the place to us. We looked frantically for a suitable location. Some of our customers looked, too. Several spots might have worked, but nothing had the good feel of the Rondo or the right location.

Suddenly, it was over! We had to vacate the premises by Labor Day. We rented a garage, and friends and customers helped us move. We had a lot of friends, a lot of goodwill toward us. There was much dismay over the closing of the Rondo. It was a happy gathering place for so many people. We kept on looking, but it was like the Indians’ ghost dance at the end of the trail. It was over. Caroline was full of regret. I was miserable but deeply relieved; I just didn’t have the stomach to continue.

We had a few days off. Then Dick Johnston continued my broadcast from the studio. I started performing, as did Don Robertson, at Gatsby’s, a Roaring Twenties restaurant on East Cota owned by former New York lawyer Tom Sammon. Dick moved the live radio show to Gatsby’s. Then came an additional gig with Denis Hazelwood at Chico’s, a Mexican restaurant in Santa Maria. In a short and final burst of popularity, hootenannies were exploding all over and I was often hired as MC or performer. A Rondo reunion took place in Goleta at the Nexus, the new hub of folk music in the Santa Barbara area, with John Thomas and The Channel Singers, Don Robertson, Todd Grant and Phil Pritchard of The Terrytown Trio, Hal Bates, Caroline and I, and others I can’t recall.

Cracks had opened in society’s walls and a new light was shining in. A new urgency, a militancy had come into folk music. Performers divided along lines of entertainment versus message, commercialism versus reality. Pete Seeger was performing his social commentary. Bob Dylan was storming onto the scene with biting songs about injustice and wrong living. Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were singing of freedom and justice. My music was taking a new direction as well. With a Martin D-28 from Bonnie Langley to add to my array of instruments, I was learning new techniques and songs. Playing three guitars, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and harmonicas, I was embarking on a new phase of my career.  One cold autumn day, I bought a Lightning Hopkins record at the Bonnie Langley Music Company. The clerk said Bonnie was next door at Johnnie’s bar. I was sorry to have missed her, because I liked talking with Bonnie, that gruff woman with the puffy red face and tight curly hair with a bald spot showing through, who sold instruments, gave lessons, and had a marching band and a propensity for drink. I was starting to leave when Bonnie Langley came in the front door like a stranger in her own store. “Some son-of-a-bitch just shot the President!” she said.

The short, nationwide flowering of folk music approximated JFK’s term in office. To my mind, the music and the man represented the best of America: our inclusiveness, generosity, and idealism. The feeling of that time was one of freshness, of innocence. JFK inspired many people. Democracy became real—to be lived. Life was to enjoy. The degradation of fellow human beings was inimical to life. People talked, acted, and sang about it. Folk music was the natural music. It was simple and innocent. It was free. It was democratic. It was traditional and it was new. Anyone could do it. You could see the performers, good, bad and indifferent, transformed by the music. But the innocence died that day with JFK. The music went on, but the simple innocence vanished in the crush of a commercial world, a military world that tumbled on, twisting and turning, crashing and burning, too cruel and hard to withstand.

A few short years it lasted, that time when folk music enthralled the land. In spite of the struggles, those years were the best of my life.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 19. Russ Johnson

The Big Debut. . .

Russ Johnson

In the summer of ’62, Peter Feldmann was performing at Mephisto’s, which was a restaurant in the basement of the building that had previously housed the YMCA. The owner, Dave Bernheimer, wanted it to be an upscale eatery, which couldn’t have been easy given the location.

Peter asked me to fill in for him one Friday night, and because I had zero experience performing, I tried to turn him down. Peter persisted, and I gave in.

My other friend, Bill Thrasher, conspired with the owner to provide some publicity for my debut. Bill was a great guitar player with a talent for drawing. He concocted an ad for me and, unbeknownst to me, had it printed in the News-Press.

That evening when I got home from work, Bill’s wife Maggie asked me if I had seen the newspaper. I looked and was shocked. Bill had drawn a cartoon of me singing and playing the guitar and, though mortifying, it was so funny I could only laugh.

At least the customers couldn’t say they weren’t warned. Since no one asked me back, that was my one and only performance in a very short career as a folk singer.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 18. Sheri Geiger-Odenwald

From Blue Onion Carhop to Folk Singer

Sheri Geiger-Odenwald

I was on stage for the first time in 1960 at the Noctambulist in Santa Barbara at the age of 14. I was married and already pregnant with my first child, Theresa. I had known from the age of four that I was going to sing or dance. I didn’t play an instrument, but folks were glad to back me on songs like “Summertime” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

By 16, I was divorced (my husband had run off with a woman who owned a Jaguar) and I had a two-year-old and a nine-month-old child. I was singing at the Nexus, putting my kids to sleep on the pizza table in the kitchen so I could sit on the stage and sing with all of the best of the best in Santa Barbara.

I had so many heroes then: The Floyd County Boys, The Channel Singers, and Don Robertson, who gave me my first guitar. I was working as a carhop at the Blue Onion. After work, a bunch of the local musicians would gather in the parking lot, sitting on cars, and have jam sessions. It was then that I finally felt I was really going to be a singer.

I took my two young children to Hawaii to stay with my mother, who was then married to her fourth and last husband. She gave me a place to get my new life together, a job, a place to live, and a babysitter. I joined a band called The Elites. We did more practice than anything else, but we did play some of the service clubs on the Islands. I also worked at the Geedunk, the eatery at Pearl Harbor for enlisted men. “Sherry Baby” was a hit at the time, so all the guys would come in singing to me as they ordered their lunch. It was a very special time in my life. All the band members were in the service and they often went out to sea. Eventually, the band just disappeared.

I was “discovered” on the beach at Waikiki by my future managers, Hank Bryan and Al Cohen. They put me together with a paramarine named Tom (Pussycat) Taylor, and we were now known as “Tom and Sheri.” Hank and Al also handled another duo named Forrest and Randy. We all played the big clubs around the Islands. We became quite well known. When Tom was out on maneuvers, I performed by myself. I had three gown changes a night and jewelry that had to be locked up at the end of the night. I signed autographs and even met the astronauts.

I returned to Santa Barbara, and my manager, Hank, moved to LA. Shortly thereafter, Forrest moved to Santa Barbara and Hank put us together. We played at the new Nexus, as the old one had burned down. I was so proud to do lead-ins for the likes of Joe & Eddie, Travis Edmonson (of Bud & Travis fame), and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary even sat in on one of my sets. Forrest and I often traveled to LA to push our original songs. We were almost picked up by a couple of major labels, but it never quite happened. We married and continued to sing together in Ventura. When the twins were born, he got a real job and I continued on by myself. I performed in Ventura at John’s at the Beach for a few years.

Forrest was a great father, but we were now living more as brother and sister than husband and wife. We divorced when the twins were three years old. I left him the house and furniture, took the kids to the Santa Ynez Valley, and began my life there as Sheri Geiger, performing at Mattei’s Tavern, which had started out as a stagecoach stop. I let my hair grow long and I watched as my four kids thrived. I sang there until it was sold to the Chart House. I also sang at the Mollekron in Solvang and at the Union Hotel in Los Alamos. Then I got a gig at Cold Spring Tavern. I lived on the river by day and sang at the “Tav” by night. I also went into Santa Barbara and sang at Ace Diamond’s Teaser. I moved around a lot in those days until I actually lived in the cabin across the street from Cold Spring Tavern. Four kids in two rooms!  Those were some of my best years, both musically and in time spent with my kids. I learned a lot about building my own fires. Chopping the wood and building the fires from scratch—the only heat we had. It is a good memory, but I’m happy to have a thermostat these days. When I went to the mountains, I left the TV behind. In our house we played music, backgammon and chess, and had great conversation.

After Cold Spring, we moved to Cambria. I had been under some major stress, raising my kids by myself. No child support and singing five and six nights a week to make ends meet. I moved to Cambria with a friend and severed my ties with the Santa Barbara area. I told no one that I was a singer. I took my first real job at the desk of the Cambria Pines Lodge. The wonderful man who played piano and sang there, Howard Davis, became very ill, and the manager found out that I sang. She asked me to fill in till he got better. Well, that never happened. So I began singing again. I also tended bar and did the front desk as well. Good years. New and wonderful friends. I sang at the Lodge, as well as Corfino’s at the Holiday Inn in San Simeon, just north of Cambria. What fun those days were. I held a Talent Night every Wednesday and got the good, bad, and the ugly. It was especially fun when Highway 1 closed down, which happened more often than not in those days. Also, power outages were fun—sitting in the dark with friends and strangers singing and trading stories.

I met the Love of my Life in Cambria and married him. My wonderful Lee. He built me a home and we are living happily ever after. My kids are now grown and we have three grandsons: Tyler 12, Cameron 7, and Lil Eli 4. They are the light of my life. I am still singing and have written many songs along the way, to document the story I have told.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 17. Jim Greenwell

The Nexus

Jim Greenwell

I arrived in California in September 1961, courtesy of the United States Air Force. I had been sent to Vandenberg Air Force Base at Lompoc after three months of training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I was born and raised in a small town in Kentucky, in a home without electricity or running water. We did, however, have a console radio powered by a maze of batteries. I grew up listening to the likes of Jimmy Rodgers, The Carter Family, Lester Flatt and Earle Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and a whole bunch of other “country” pickers and singers. The Grand Old Opry was a weekly event. During my teenage years, I was listening to a lot of balladeers that had been influenced by these same folks. The Everly Brothers were from my “neck of the woods.” Artists like Johnny Horton, Jimmy Dean (yes, the sausage king), Hank Williams, and even George Jones, were influencing the admittedly regional music scene. Then, the United States Air Force brought me to California.

At Vandenberg, I was assigned a roommate who actually owned a phonograph, and a rather extensive collection of “folk” music. His rather eclectic and somewhat non-discriminating tastes ran from Billie Holiday to Joan Baez to The Chad Mitchell Trio to Oscar Brand. From these and other influences, I developed a great love for this type of music.

While still in the Air Force in February or March of 1963, a friend of mine, Dave Deras, and I were bar-hopping in Santa Barbara and stumbled across a place called The Spigot, on De La Vina Street, that had live jazz and blues entertainment. From there, we heard about Tony Townsend’s folk club toward downtown, called the Rondo. Our first night there, they had a “Hootenanny,” the first time I had ever heard the term. As I recall, Tony’s club was previously a private residence and still had different rooms. We heard in that single night The Channel Singers, Tony himself, and Don Robertson. One of the patrons told us then about a club in Goleta, the Nexus, that had a group playing called The Terrytown Trio. The next evening, we went to the Nexus for the first time.

The Nexus had been created out of space in an old wooden building at the corner of Fairview and Hollister avenues that also housed a machine shop that manufactured walnut hullers. That side of the building had the most amazing series of wooden pulleys, wide leather belts, and machinery that I had ever seen. The operator powered 14 or 15 different pieces of machinery with one electric motor by smacking these belts from one pulley to another with wooden handles suspended from the ceiling. His product itself was exotic and unique…it would remove the kernel from a walnut half without breaking it. Needless to say, it had a very limited market.

Dave and I were absolutely entranced by the atmosphere at the Nexus. It had originally opened about 1958 as a beatnik coffee house called Contempus. It was carpeted both on the floor and also on slanted seating around the walls. The tables were Formica sink cutouts suspended on 16-inch wrought iron legs, and patrons sat on plastic TV cushions (remember those?). About 1961, a fellow whose name I remember only as “Dave” bought the place and added a beer license. He also installed what at the time was a state-of-the-art sound system, with a turntable and a 100-watt amplifier driving the most advanced speaker system I had ever seen. The entire back bar was monopolized by speaker cases that had to have measured eight feet square. Inside were tweeters, woofers, and God only knows what else. Instead of a jukebox, a turntable behind the bar played folk, jazz, and R & B music according to the mood of the bartender or the loudest patron at a given time.

As we learned from frequent visits from Vandenberg, the Nexus was different things at different times. On a Saturday afternoon, one could find professors from the University arguing with “rednecks” over topics as diverse as politics and poetry; at other times, liars’ poker games and “braceros” drinking Lucky Lager. As day became night, the crowd changed to regulars—school teachers, white collar guys, techies from General Motors, Raytheon, and other companies, as well as construction workers, students, and military people like us. The atmosphere was nearly always electric, or so it seemed to a Kentucky boy who had never experienced anything like it.

After many visits, we had come to know the owner, Fred Foth, who was in real life a union carpenter. Fred worked in his trade every day, but had a lady, Dee White (Blanco), who would open the bar at 4:00 p.m. each day (noon on Saturday and Sunday) and would work until closing at 2:00 a.m. Fred would come in on an irregular schedule, but he would schedule help for her on Friday and Saturday evenings when entertainment was on stage and the crowds were much larger.

Throughout the summer of 1963, Dave and I became such regulars that Fred asked us if were interested in buying the place. He was going through a divorce, had a new love interest, and had lost interest in managing the place. As military personnel, we were making such handsome wages that an investment seemed prudent. As an E-3, I was making $183 per month, and Dave as an E-5 was earning about $300 per month. The sale price of $9,000 didn’t sound unmanageable, and as we joked at the time, we’d get our drinks wholesale. We bought the place and took possession in September 1963. Only Dave’s name appeared on the license because I wouldn’t turn 21 until December 1963. (Did I fail to mention that?)

When we bought the Nexus, it was a paradox from a marketing perspective. It was so wildly successful during the Friday-Saturday period, and so devoid of activity during the rest of the week that it had never generated significant profit. Dave and I devised a two-pronged approach. The walnut huller had given up his space, so we were able to expand into his part of the building, giving us 50 more seats for the peak periods. We embarked on a plan to book entertainment (albeit inexpensive entertainment) during several mid-week evenings. We kept Dee to run the place during the week when we were busy keeping Russia and Red China at bay, then ran it ourselves Saturday and Sunday.

We were successful in our approach to the business, to the point that in November 1963, we were the second largest retailer of beer in the state of California, behind only Mickey Finn’s Dixieland Jazz bar in San Diego. Of course, at the time, a glass of beer was $.25 during regular hours and $.35 with entertainment. A six-glass pitcher was $1.25 or $1.75 during entertainment hours. Of course, happy hour was a buck a pitcher! With these inflated prices, we were now so profitable that we agreed to pay ourselves $100 per month each!

We hired significant folk musicians to play the Nexus. “Joe & Eddie” was the first “big name” that we brought to Santa Barbara. They were not unique, however, as Fred Foth had hired them once before. As I recall, we paid them $800 for a two-night gig. When we could wrangle a night off during the week, we would drive to the Ice House in Pasadena, or even to the Hungry i in San Francisco, to preview acts. We found Phil Campos working as a solo act in a little place in Santa Monica after the breakup of the New Folk Trio. We brought an old fellow named Fred Thompson to Santa Barbara from a little club in Canoga Park. Fred played the most fantastic Martin ukulele that I had ever heard. All the time, we still hired the local acts, as they had great followings and many times would sell more beer than the “stars.” I remember one evening very early in our tenure that Howard Pelky was performing with two other performers. He had already left John Thomas and “The Channel Singers,” and we had hired his new group. The occasion was before the expansion, and we had to set up a portable stage in front of the bar for the entertainers. It was a very poor arrangement, as it cost us several seats at the bar, and also blocked people from buying beer! The group did a rendition of the old Kinky Freeman tune, “Jesus Was a Teenager Too.” One member of the “Religious Right” was in attendance and took great umbrage at the blasphemy. As the altercation developed in the audience, one of the musicians carefully put his ax in the stand and then launched himself horizontally into the melee. Fortunately, I don’t remember anyone being seriously injured or incarcerated.

We had a performing group that appeared at our place one Sunday afternoon. There was no “hoot” going on that day, but they wanted to audition, so we told them to have at it. I cannot remember what they called themselves, but the lead singer was named Ken, his wife was Jody, and the banjo player was Dave. They were quite good and we were very interested in hiring them. As we talked after their audition, we asked where they were from. “Up north” was the response. After quite a lot of digging, we discovered they were both G.I.’s stationed at Vandenberg, the same place Dave and I were from. They worked for us quite frequently after that. They had a style that was not unique, often covering songs that had become popular from The Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, Peter, Paul & Mary, and other big acts of the times. Their real talent was in demanding audience participation, which created a thirst for more beer!

One Saturday night, while Howard’s group was playing, The Kingston Trio came through the front door. They had performed at the Santa Barbara fairgrounds and had found out about the Nexus from someone. Howard was gracious enough (or scared enough) to relinquish the stage to them, and they did better than two hours of music absolutely gratis. At 2:00 a.m., when the authorities said all fun must end, we locked the doors and continued until 3:30 or so. Then, we took two cases of beer and went to one of the customers’ houses up San Marcos Pass, where we continued the party until God knows when. My older sister, Jan, from Long Beach, happened to be visiting this particular weekend, and wound up dating Bob Shane for some time after this weekend.

Sometime in the summer of 1964, a small traveling carnival passed through Goleta, setting up shop, as I recall, in the lot on Fairview west of Hollister that would eventually become the Crown Discount Store. There was a fellow who called himself “Johnny Ringo” who was traveling with the “carny” and came into the bar two or three nights in a row. One night, he brought an old six-string and played and sang from his bar seat. He was interesting and entertaining, and we appreciated him. Lo and behold, Friday came, and our scheduled (and advertised) entertainment called to cancel at 5:30 p.m. Since Johnny was in the place at the time, we offered him $25 to play that night. We figured we would make a decision regarding Saturday after evaluating that evening. Johnny did well in his first set but became very agitated as the crowd grew in numbers and in volume. Midway through the second set, he walked off the stage, disgusted that the crowd was not enraptured by his music. When he voiced this to Dave Deras, Dave said, “I’ll give you $15 more, but if the building burns, you still have to play.” How prophetic. Johnny worked again on Saturday evening, but we also had Sheri Geiger and John Thomas as solo acts in case of another eruption. Johnny delivered a memorable line while Sheri was on stage. His words were something akin to, “She has a beautiful voice, but you can tell she’s never jumped a train.”

One Saturday night/Sunday morning in October 1963, I closed the Nexus alone while Dave went to “breakfast” with a very nice young lady. I cleaned the place and locked up at approximately 2:20 a.m. At 2:43, the fire department cut the lock off the front door and found the place in a total conflagration. We always knew the structure was susceptible to fire. The timbers of the building were soaked in petroleum lubricant from the old machine shop. There was no sprinkler system. The multicolored burlap suspended from the ceiling, while originally treated with fire retardant, had long oxidized to tinder. However, I have long suspected that our dear landlord, who was in the process of divorce, found a convenient method of “liquidating” assets.

The fire occurred the night before we had planned a party to celebrate Dave’s discharge from the Air Force (after 14 years). While I was still in the military, we went to work trying to find a suitable location for the new club. It took a year and many failures before we were able to re-open across Hollister from the old location. However, a year is a long time. I had also been discharged from the military…Dave had married a local girl…I had taken a management position with J.C. Penney on State Street, and the folk scene had begun to disappear. While we enjoyed a modicum of success at the new location, it quickly became apparent that “The Times They Were A’Changing.”

We had booked Hoyt Axton to play the opening weekend of the new location, but Hoyt had a lot of demons at the time that could only be assuaged with alcohol. Repeatedly, he would disappear, only to wind up back in his hometown of Broken Bow, Oklahoma. His agent, whose name now escapes me, would dry him out and the process would repeat every four or five months. Hoyt was on one of these hiatuses at the time, so unfortunately, he never played for us.

Our biggest and most significant act at the new club was to engage Travis Edmonson for a 10-night gig. Travis was arguably the most versatile and accomplished musician Santa Barbara had ever seen. He had grown up in Tucson, and had learned guitar and other stringed instruments working with mariachi bands along the border. He had been classically trained in voice. He also had an advanced degree in Sociology, had written the only existing dictionary of the Yaqui Indian language, and had been the only Caucasian accepted as “blood brother.” Other than that, he possessed the clearest alto voice that I had ever heard. I don’t know if they ever sang together, but I have fantasized a duet of “Amazing Grace” with Joan Baez and Travis.

Because of the monstrous expense, we installed a cover charge for the first time, $1.00 as I recall. Fortunately, we were able to recoup the cost of Travis’ visit at the door, because we sold very little beer. When he began to sing, it was hard to drink with one’s mouth opened wide in awe!

The stage at the new club was across the room from the Dressing Room. Because the seating was on the floor, the crowd really controlled the entertainer’s exit from the stage. After several attempts to leave for breaks, Travis discovered that the most efficient method was to shed whatever instrument he happened to be playing (anything with strings) and wander through the crowd singing a cappella. He would time the end of the song with his exit into the dressing room!

The last significant act that appeared at the club was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Dave had decided that we could follow the changing tastes of our clientele, and still survive. While I thought of myself as more of a “purist,” we still had to meet the monthly bills. I thoroughly enjoyed the group and Linda’s status as a “community project.” If we are to believe her biography today, she was 17 at the time. She did have convincing I.D.

During the six months I was involved with the new club, I continued to also hold my “day job” at J.C. Penney. It paid almost as well as the military, and I had also married in February 1965. Seeing the crowds diminish (and possibly attaining a more mature outlook), I decided to sell my interest in the place to Dave and to focus on a “real” job. I never, however, lost my love for the music. I often have thought that the biggest loss from the fire was the collection of recordings that burned. I have spent many Saturdays at garage sales and second- hand stores replacing many of them. Thanks to the old Napster and Kazaa, I have captured a lot of other recordings that were near and dear.

Penneys transferred me from Santa Barbara to Fresno in 1971, to Hawaii in 1974, and to Portland in 1976. I left their employ in 1980, and have worked in the interior design field and in commercial flooring for the last 25 years. I currently reside in San Carlos, California (Bay Area) with my second wife of 23 years. I am employed as a commercial flooring estimator and my wife is an Episcopal priest (how times change!). We have two daughters, one a senior at Columbia University in New York, and the other a sophomore at Emerson College in Boston.

I have always wondered “why the music died.” My belief is that, being rooted in tradition, the supply of new material simply ran out. Despite the magnificence of Bob Dylan’s new material, and the abundant supply of Woody Guthrie, there simply was not enough available material to interest the casual fan. Peter, Paul & Mary brought a lot of people to the genre with crossover hits such as “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog,” but when they went their separate ways, a lot of enthusiasts moved on. Chad Mitchell’s group was so cutting that they were never commercially viable. (But they were great!) I remember the exact moment that I thought it was over…I heard The Byrds’ recording of “The Eve of Destruction.” The amplification had drowned out the story. To my mind, that’s when “the music died.”

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 16. Don Robertson

Folk Scene: The 1960s in Santa Barbara

Don Robertson

 In 1960 I attended Defiance College in Ohio. There was a beatnik fellow named “Doc” there. Both of us lived in WWII Quonset huts over that summer. Doc taught me to appreciate the arts: poetry, writing, music, painting, and from a culinary standpoint, “Upside-Down Pudding Cake in a coffee mug.” He sure gave me the right outlook for life! What I wanted to do began to take shape as a result of Doc’s gentle teachings.

Folk music was gaining in popularity and I loved the songs of Joan Baez and The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger on the radio, and record albums…better known today as CDs. I also had an up-close encounter with folk singer Guy Carawan, who came to Defiance to do a concert that fall. It was on that evening I met someone who would be a lifelong friend, a hound dog by the name of “Ole Blue.” We wound up doing a lot of gigs together, and every now and then, when things are jest right, I can still hear him paddin’ alongside-a-me, lookin’ up, smilin’ and droolin’!

In the fall of 1960 I went back to the East Coast and took a four-month course in Commercial Photography at New York Institute of Photography, on 34th Street in New York. I met a young man by the name of Hayes, who one evening said, “I’d like you to come to dinner in Brooklyn and meet my uncle.” We took the subway there, and that’s how I met Lee Hayes, the large man with a deep bass voice; the anchor for The Weavers. I’ll never forget that night. Also there was Cisco Houston with raw tape of his upcoming album devoted to Woody Guthrie. From that point on, I was hooked on folk music.

The younger Hayes was also responsible for introducing me to Greenwich Village, and especially Gerde’s Folk City. We went there every Monday night for the Hoot. The house act was a black blues singer known as Brother John Sellers. He was backed by a guitar and harmonica player who later became singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. I never heard him sing, or talk at all, at those Monday performances. He sure made up for that later, and still continues to.

A Chronicle of History

What made folk music, to me, was that people listened to the songs, even if they were very long, as were many of the English, Scottish, Irish, and French ballads. They were stories of events that happened; bore repeating to others not yet informed; a river of music that flowed from country to country, continent to continent. Folk music was the email of the Middle Ages:

What news, what news my bully boy; what news you bring to me?

My castle burned, my tenants robbed, my lady with baby, my lady with baby?

(Matte Groves: Child # 81)

Many of those old songs went through transformations, depending on when and where they were being sung. Foreign songs migrated to the United States along with the people of many countries, and were popular throughout our history. They took on the local color of that particular location. Most of them were passed down from generation to generation; even to these, our autumn years. From California to the New York Island, backwards.

In January of 1961, I drove the old Route 66 west to California, to work for American Machine and Foundry Company at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was a trip that brought the words of Woody Guthrie to life, for I’d never experienced the physical wonders of the United States.

The Iopan—Santa Barbara, 1961

Throughout it all, I’d never been to a “coffee house.” I’d heard about a place called the “Iopan.” It was located in a beautiful white Victorian house on the corner of Chapala and Micheltorena streets. I walked into a large room warmly lit by candles in red glass holders on each table. There was a low, well-lit stage on the street side of the room. Someone was singing, and the customers were paying rapt attention.

Iopan co-proprietor Marilyn Berner brought me coffee and chatted. Later I met her husband Bill Berner and third partner Dan Barrows. Marilyn and Bill went from table to table, chatting with customers.

Dan eyed the instrument lying on the table in front of me. “Just what is that?” he asked. “It’s a uke with a hormone problem,” I chuckled, “a baritone uke.” “Do you play it, sing?” he asked. “A little,” I said, and meant it. Dan shook his head, smiled, and walked off. Soon he was back and asked, “What’s your name?” “Don Robertson,” I said, “I really like your place!”

People came and went, and the entertainer was in the middle of the second set. Dan sat down. After a while, he casually asked, “Would ya like to sing the break? Do maybe two or three songs?”

Folks chuckled as I walked up to the stage. I made a strange sight: a fat guy clutching the neck of a smallish baritone uke! I opened with an upbeat version of “Pretty Polly,” followed by a slower song, and finally said, “Ladies and gents, I’d like you to meet my dog…and sang my version of “Ole Blue.” At the end, there was silence…and then the crowd broke into applause. I think we stunned each other. It was my first gig in a coffee house; my first in Santa Barbara, California.

The Berners and Dan Barrows were the people who started me on a folk-singing career. They were not only starting a lot of local talent out, but brought in some great acts as well.

Johnny Swingle was one of my favorites. He was the only entertainer I knew that played the zither. It looked like an Autoharp but had no buttons. It was played by laying one’s hand on certain sections of the strings. Johnny also played the Autoharp, and knew a lot of old Mountain and Child ballads, singing them with a rich baritone voice. Johnny was tall and lanky; looked a bit like Abe Lincoln.

Phil Campos was a hard-singing-and-guitar-playing entertainer who could really hold an audience. His renditions were full of emotion and heartfelt soul. He also had a group called “The New Folk Trio,” which sang in Santa Barbara as well.

Joe & Eddie came up from LA and put their wonderful sounds and arrangements together, trying them out on a very willing Iopan crowd. Bill and Dan had found them at the Troubadour in Santa Monica. They established a large group of fans, many of whom went to see them when they returned to the LA-area folk clubs. They started recording and became a very well-known act. Joe & Eddie contrived some of the best folk arrangements I’d ever heard!

Local acts included Tony Townsend, Todd Grant’s Terrytown Trio, with Phil Pritchard and Bud Boyd; and flamenco guitarist Chuck Kaiser, a great talent.

I’m sure there were many more, and hopefully other contributors will be able to identify them. There was René Leyva, who had a quick wit and could sing anything, and Bill Thompson, whose renditions of “A Cockney Funeral Dirge” and “When You’ve Got a Viper” knocked the crowds out.

There was one other aspect of the Iopan’s history that certainly bears noting. One night, while singing the last set there, I noticed a group of men come in, all carrying instruments—jazz instruments. They sat down quietly while I finished several songs.

Coming off stage, one man came up to me and said, “Man you are great! I’ve never heard anyone sing with as much ‘soul’ as you do!” The man’s name was Chico Williams, a stand-up jazz bassist. He and the other musicians were in the Air Force, based at Vandenberg Air Force Base. They asked if they could “play a few,” and the owners agreed. Oh man, did these guys play jazz!

They were so good they played many times at the Iopan. Chico Williams became a good friend, teaching me whatever I still retain about soul and jazz. He took me down to LA one night to some jazz clubs and gave me an introduction to what it is, that I have never forgotten. He also introduced me to LA’s best fried chicken at The Golden Bird. Chico’s definition of jazz was pretty simple: “It’s the changes, man! Ya got to know the changes! That’s all.” After-hours jazz became popular at the Iopan; musicians dropping in after playing their own gigs.

Early Folk Clubs in Santa Barbara

There was a pizza bar up on the Mesa called “Bud’s Place.” The Terrytown Trio sang there a lot. And I think it was the place that saw the birth of The Mountain Dew Boys, along with the inception of the popular soft drink. The group featured Todd Grant on guitar, Chuck Flannery on five-string banjo, Phil Pritchard (The Kid) on bass, and Doug Sherwood on fiddle. They would set up on an old flatbed truck sporting hay bales and sing in shopping malls all over town. Naturally, their theme song was “That Good Old Mountain Dew.”

Either Todd or Chuck wrote this novel verse (I think!):

Why the science guys got hot,
they sent up an Astronaut,
he must’ve gone a mile or maybe two!
And if you wondered what propelled it,
all you had to do was smell it!
It was that good old Mountain Dew!

This group evolved into The Floyd County Boys, who are still bringing good bluegrass and country music to audiences today; over 40 years later. Now that’s a long gig! It was my pleasure over the years to share the stage with these good friends on rides in Orange County and with the Rancheros Vistadores in Santa Ynez, where we made many good friends and had some of the best times of our lives! We also sang together at Santa Barbara’s famous Fiesta celebration.

I became a member of a folk trio called “he Freeway Singers. The customers at Bud’s Other Place gave us the name by voting on it one night. The place was located on the corner of Milpas and Carpinteria streets. The group was made up of Riley Jackson on bass, Bob Hoffman on five-string banjo, and Robertson on guitar. We held forth there many a weekend and had a lot of fun imitating The Kingston Trio. Folks loved us so much they’d shout, “Go out and play on the freeway!” It was close by.

The folk evolution went from coffee house to beer bar as time went on. One of the great folk bars downtown was the Rondo. It was opened by a German couple and was then bought by Tony and Tim Townsend (The Townsend Brothers). I became a regular there.

Don Robvertson with Tony Townsend

Don Robertson with Tony Townsend

The Rondo was unique in several ways. You had to sit on the floor (pillows provided), and no clapping was allowed. Instead, customers were told to snap their fingers. If someone was really good, it sounded like a giant rattlesnake was loose in the place. There was a beer bar in front and a showroom in back with a stage. Behind that was a room for entertainers. In those days I was not a lightweight. I was rotund, corpulent, downright fat. Tim used to take great joy in yelling up at me on stage, “Why don’t ya paint USN on your sides and go hunt submarines!” He was always quick with a quip, but in reality he was a salesman…and beertender.

Audiences never tired of hearing Tony Townsend perform. Many of the songs he sang were ones he’d written, about all kinds of life situations, accompanied by his excellent guitar, banjo, and mandolin work. He was a number-one song weaver that led the audience on wonderful journeys into the fanciful and the real. He is an artist to this day.

The Earth was located off Milpas Street, down a long alley. One evening I opened for Hoyt Axton there. By chance, my parents, Don and Gertrude Robertson, had come into town. They had never heard me sing professionally. After I got off the stage, I sat down with them. My mother said, “I always knew we should have given him musical training….” My dad said, “You did very well, and the people seemed to like you.” Dad had been the leader of a small band when he was in college; played the violin. They didn’t say much more about it.

Gatsby’s—Santa Barbara lawyer Tom Salmon opened a Roaring Twenties theme club on Cota Street. It was the only bar in town that had a drum-fed .45 Thompson submachine gun on the wall behind the bar–1920s style. Salmon loved all kinds of music, including folk and Dixieland jazz. It was pretty noisy, but a fun place. After Gatsby’s, Tom opened John’s at the Beach in Ventura.

Don & Tina

I had met a talented woman named Tina Fletcher, and we decided to put a duo together. We worked long hours and learned a lot of good folk songs that featured some very tight harmonies. I had learned about different mountain harmonies from Peter Feldmann, and we worked toward a “sawmill” harmony in our arrangements. We also wrote some songs together. Several of them were about young kids, with us portraying six- and seven-year-olds. In another song they were eight and ten. Tina was raising two girls by herself. I loved that family with all my heart.

Late in our relationship we were invited to join a folk tour and drove to Kentucky to sing at Kentucky Wesleyan University in Owensboro. Some other acts had left before us on a bus. We were to meet them there. The others never showed up! KWU had no knowledge of any of us singing there! My parents wired some gas money, and I drove from Owensboro to Santa Barbara in a little over 48 hours in a VW bug against a stiff headwind all the way!

The last job we played was at The Commercial Hotel in Elko, Nevada, for two weeks, on a stage built behind the bar. After that, we parted company on returning to Santa Barbara. Tina traded singing for a paintbrush and proved that she was a fine artist as well.

Pure vs. Commercial

There were several big rivalries that were part of the folk scene. One of the largest was the hassle between entertainers that sang “pure” folk and “commercial” folk. Seemed to me it was a tempest in a teapot! There were a lot of purists that lived up on Mountain Drive in Santa Barbara. It was a very arty community known for its “Pot Wars” and “Grape Stompings.” They also turned out a group of incredible musicians.

A lot of musical talent from the Drive became known when Peter Feldmann bought The Bluebird Café. Peter was a self-taught ethnomusicologist who played everything with strings draped off of it, well. He also sang well. He not only knew about some of the best-known mountain instrumentalists and singers, but blues singers of all ilks. He featured many of them at The Bluebird. He taught Santa Barbara what purist folk music was all about. He also featured locals from the Drive. Big Jim Griffith offered a variety of cowboy and old-time mountain music. Kajsa Ohman sang alone or teamed up with Gene McGeorge and Peter as The Scragg Family. They were one of my favorite acts. Kajsa had one of the fastest picking hands going.

Don Robertson, bartender at the Bluebird Café, along with Misha and Peter Feldmann, 1972

Don Robertson, bartender at the Bluebird, along with Misha and Peter Feldmann

The Scraggs presented their audience with a great time; a combo of good clean comedy and wonderful pickin’ and song.  Peter also introduced me to Mance Lipscomb, Bill Monroe, Mike Seeger and his sister Peggy, and many other famous artists.

In 1963 I started a folk radio show, “Folk Sounds,” on KGUD FM One day Peter Feldmann dropped in, and became my permanent co-host. He educated Santa Barbara on how folk music evolved through the ages. We made several trips to the Monterey Folk Festival, meeting and interviewing some of the biggest folk acts of the 1960s there. Tony Townsend and I met Bud & Travis there at Denny’s late one night and had a good talk. The funny thing about that is, neither Tony nor I knew either one of them! I saw Bud come through the door, stood up and yelled, “Hey Bud! C’mon over and sit with us!” He did, andTravis was not far behind. Nothing like a little friendly assertiveness!

Some years after that I got to know Trav better than Bud. They parted company. But every now and then Travis came to play in Santa Barbara, and I’d always go see him. He played the Yankee Clipper on upper State Street one night. Two gals sat at the bar talking. Trav ended a song and one of them turned and asked him to play a song he was well known for. He agreed and went right into the song. The woman turned back to her companion and started talking again.  Travis got past the halfway mark of the song and just stopped playing, staring at the woman. She turned around with a stunned look on her face and asked heatedly, “Well aren’t you going to finish it?” Trav stared at her, shaking his head back and forth.  “Lady,” said Travis, “why don’t ya stick your thumb in your ear and go bowling!” The whole place roared with laughter and applause. The woman and friend stalked out. If you request a song from someone, you should have the common courtesy to clam up and listen to it! Just plain old common sense, wasn’t it?  Another night at the same place, the bartender managed to bug Travis. In turn, Trav locked the bartender in the club, somehow! The cops had to come and set him free.

Tina and I went to the El Paseo when we heard Travis would be performing there. We walked in with our guitars, having sung earlier for some kids. Travis waved us over to his booth. “Sit and have a drink,” he said amiably. “You two can do me a big favor, if you would. I just drove in from Colorado and I’m dead tired. Would you two do my show for me tonight? I’ll get up and introduce you, myself.”  We did three sets that night and at the end of it got a standing ovation! I couldn’t believe it! Tina and I went to see Trav work the following night. They stood and clapped for him too! Oh boy, did they!

Isla Vista

During the folk infusion, little clubs sprang up all over Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Isla Vista, the University of California’s bedroom-mate-community. I used to sing at a coffee house sponsored by Saint Mark’s Catholic Church there. I also recall Linda’s place, Borsodi’s, where most of us sang. At various times there were three or four coffee houses tucked away in IV: the Fishbowl, the Limbo, and Omtae, were a few (thanks Tony!).

Goleta

In Goleta, there was a very popular beer bar called the Nexus. It was a great place to sing. One night after it closed, it burned down! I recall doing an obit via telephone the next day from a booth across Hollister Avenue from the site for KIST radio.  But happily, the Nexus rose from the ashes, directly across the street from the old site, under new owners Jim Greenwell and Dave Daris. It was my favorite folk bar in Goleta at the time and also the place where I met Bob Lentz, who played jazz. We put some tunes together and enjoyed delivering them as The Bob Lentz Trio. It was a lot of fun; a lot of straight-out wingin’ it! Much beer flowed there; a lot of laughs, and good music. I think most of the Santa Barbara entertainers sang there.

Louie Velliotes had a place called The Timbers on the outskirts of Goleta. It was a very good restaurant that had a wonderful bar in the back. Outside of the great food, it was also known for its collection of newspaper articles and artifacts from the Ellwood Oil Field shelling by a Japanese sub in World War II. That site was located right across the 101 Freeway from The Timbers, fronting the Pacific Ocean. The Timbers opened in 1963, but folk music didn’t start there until 1966 or ’67 and flowed into the 1970s.

Louie was Greek, loved people, a good joke, good times, and good food always! One evening I popped in there and we talked. I asked if he’d like some music in his bar. He creased up his head and thought about it but never said yes or no. But Louie was a good businessman. I offered to come in and give a little show one night. Right away he said, “You betcha!”  When I came in, I unlimbered my 12-string and sat at the end of the bar. I asked the barmaid to tell Louie I was there. “Just start playing and he’ll be in,” she said with an impish smile. Her name was Karen. I broke into an opener, singing out in full voice.  Karen’s jaw dropped. Folks started drifting in from the dining room and ordered drinks. The growing audience gave me a nice hand.  Louie came and sat down the bar looking at the people who continued to come in, listen, order drinks, and applaud. He was now grinning. “You’re great, man! I love it!” he said, his head nodding up and down, “when can you start?” “I think I just did!” I quipped.

I don’t know how many years I worked for Louie. I got some other acts to come out and sing, and The Floyd County Boys were very popular there on the weekends. During the week you got Robertson. Eventually The Timbers closed. The CHP picked up more and more drivers leaving by hiding in the Union Oil station on the corner. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, with hand grenades! But Louie opened another bar on Hollister in Goleta called (strangely enough) “Louie’s.” I not only sang there but tended bar and made meatloaf sandwiches and high-powered chili at Lou’s famous barbecues. Between the two places, I came to know and love many of the steady customers and staff. Louie would throw a “Que” for any birthday, anniversary, or anything else that came to mind, at one of Goleta’s wonderful parks. A jam session was always part of those affairs, featuring musicians from all over Santa Barbara just having a good time together, and with everyone else.  Louie is still having “Ques” once a month just off the beach in Santa Barbara. He and his dad, Sam, taught me how to play pool. He taught his son and me how to tend bar…and a whole lot of people how to drink, and eat, and most importantly–laugh!

Cold Spring Tavern was the most picturesque folk venue in the county. The facility was a stagecoach stop and jail a long time ago. Audrey Ovington was the owner in the ’60s. She was a one-of-a-kind woman with a sharp mind and keen business sense. Her dad Earle was the first man to fly airmail. I sang there a lot in the middle to late 1960s.

The regular customers were a colorful lot: cattle ranchers, pig farmers, cowboys, and Indians. I learned to drink whiskey there. A fellow by the name of Gunner Johanson saw to that. He liked to buy the boys a drink, and if you didn’t join him in knocking one back, it was said he’d turn you into raw hamburger and roll you to the bottom of the ravine the creek had carved out. It was a long way down! Everybody drank with Gunner!  I was working up there one Sunday when the peaceful silence was shattered by the roar of motorcycles, a whole lot of them, snaking down Cold Springs Road from the top of San Marcos Pass. One by one they pulled in and parked; a rough-looking motorcycle gang. They wore colors and some had German helmets, others just bandannas tied around their heads. It was like something in a movie.  I’d never seen anything like it and wasn’t sure how to handle it! I walked out the door and started playing “This Land Is Your Land.” They all stared at me, even when I finished. Then one guy started to clap and they all clapped and whistled. Their leader liked it, so they all did too! Yep, it was right out of a script. They hung about for the whole set, then “Brando” got up and they all mounted up and roared away down the mountain. Bill the bartender came out, looked at me incredulously and said, “I can’t believe you did that! Come on in. I’ll buy you a shot!”

When The Floyd County Boys played outside there in the afternoon, people would get the word and flock to the place from both Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. Cars and pickups would be parked up around the curves of the road and there would be a huge crowd jammed into very little space. The CHP became very upset with all that. Bill got hammered one day and kicked us all, crowd and performers, out. So FCB packed up, and there was a huge caravan on the 154 headed for Santa Ynez, where we unloaded, set up, and played until the place closed! Not one bar customer had stayed at Cold Spring! You never knew what would happen next up there. But it was always a good time.

1969

The Great Oil Spill took place in Santa Barbara on January 28, 1969. It killed off a lot of wildlife and made a mess of the beaches from Pismo Beach to Oxnard on the Pacific Coast. An anti-oil group called GOO (Get Oil Out!) sprang up, and Todd wrote a song that would become the unofficial anthem of that movement: “The Union Oil Song.” One of my greatest memories of that time was singing at a “Hoot” at Earl Warren Showgrounds. Someone passed a note up to us late in the show. It said: “See the guys in white shirts and ties in the front row? They’re from Union Oil. Sing it!” Todd and the group did just that, after dedicating it to those gentlemen, who became livid by song’s end, crying out, “Lies!” The crowd drowned them out with cheers for the song and well-directed “BOOs!” as the Union Oil contingent stalked out.

The 1970s

Rex Johnson is a fellow that liked to see different places and meet people he didn’t know. He always had a guitar on his back or by his side and wore a white porkpie hat. Rex could play it, blow harp, and could sing well too. We met each other at East Beach leaning against the wall jamming. It wasn’t long before we were working a various bars and the pier. Rex didn’t really make the scene until the 70s. But he was there for The Floyd County Boys 25th Anniversary! Everyone liked him.  One day we were playing out there and I saw a guy tie up a pair of dogs outside one of the restaurants. “Look at that will ya?” I said, “I bet those dogs can sing! Let’s see.” I started playing chords and yowling like a dog, quickly joined by Rex. The dogs leapt up from a prone position, immediately lifted their heads, and joined in. It sure was pretty. Their owner came smoking out of the eatery, yelled some things, shaking his fist, and rudely dragged the animals away! People all around us were really laughing hard. I turned casually to them and said, “Gee! I thought they were great, didn’t you?” Last time I heard from Rex, he was singing in Czechoslovakia. I really miss him.

Radio

Outside of “Folk Sounds,” Tina and I were invited to do a late morning show called “The Brunch Bunch,” geared toward women at home. The show was hosted by Anne Lincoln, a witty, well-educated woman who appreciated our music and shared it with her live and listening audience.

There was a wonderful Santa Barbara poet; an Irishman named Tom McGann. He already had a growing family, and his wife Diane informed him he would soon be a father again. Eight months into the pregnancy, Anne Lincoln decided to have a surprise baby shower On the Air. I wrote a song as my present: “Lullaby for Diane McGann.” Tina and I sang it in public for the first time on that occasion. It was also included on my record album. The baby girl that joined us all a month later has grown into a beautiful young lady, making her parents very proud.

Hal Bates, a popular disk jockey at KIST, loved music of every kind and was very well known in Santa Barbara. He enjoyed his life and mixed well with everyone he came across. He also helped a lot of local musicians, including me. Somehow my song, “Yesterday’s Rain,” magically made it to the top of the KIST charts…and stayed there for several weeks! I sure didn’t understand it, but later found out the old axiom “Money talks and BS walks!” was absolutely true. I honestly don’t know if Bates had anything to do with that. He was a friend. When I found out he had died, I cried. Indeed, he was everyone’s friend!

In Closing:

I know there are people I have skipped or forgotten here. Kenny Maytag comes to mind. He helped me to write songs and just plain live. There are entertainers that I have skipped over mainly because I don’t know enough about them, or they too will be contributing to this book. One of the groups was the Finch Family—George, Ray, and Rosemary Finch—who sang at a beer bar known as “30 West.” Their sound was pure and natural. I really enjoyed them a lot. Zarita also sang there. She had an operatic voice. Here was a woman with an operatic voice singing folk music into a mike taped to a broomstick! What an image! Is that class, or what? The owner’s name was Frank Heinz.

As far as I’m concerned, the 1960s were the best years of my life. It was the only time I was happy, the only time I ever did something I was any good at; the only job I ever loved!  People were more concerned with one another back then. It is the kind of thing we are witnessing today in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Folks concerned for those in need; wanting to help any way they can. But we really need to ask what is going to happen to all those who lost their homes, jobs; their ability to exist.

Over time, New Orleans will probably be rebuilt. Developers will buy up land destroyed or abandoned and build hotels, casinos, and business sites. A lot of money will be made. Those displaced will have little desire to return to The Big Easy. It doesn’t seem like things have changed much at all, does it?  As Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin! You better believe it! Look what has happened to our globe since the 1960s. A whole lot of Bad, and not a lot of Good. We should try to change that!

Yesterday’s grey clouds have scattered and gone. The sun rose this morning, a rosy pink dawn.

We met and we loved, but we’ll not meet again; except for the mem’ry of Yesterday’s Rain. ©DSR

Hope we can get together again. Many thanks to you all!

God Bless!

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