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.”