Sometimes one story leads to another. Last week I wrote a piece for the Bay Area News Group about drummers who helped define jazz in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, players still performing at a remarkably high level like Roy Haynes, 92, Jimmy Cobb, 88, Tootie Heath, 82, Roy McCurdy, 81, and Andrew Cyrille, 77.
After the story ran I got a note about a local luminary who’s about to join the octogenarian club, Vallejo drummer/vocalist Frank Samuels. A supple accompanist who’s worked with several Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, he’s been a mainstay on the Bay Area music scene since 1960, and he celebrates his 80th birthday Saturday at Britt Marie’s with the Tauber/Browning Band (a soul-steeped organ combo featuring tenor saxophonist Jeff Tauber and Hammond B-3 specialist Craig Browning).
I gave Samuels a call and we sat down together at Peet’s on 4th Street the other day to talk about his career. Born and raised in Dallas, he grew up in a musical family and essentially taught himself the drums by listening to the radio and playing along with the R&B hits of the day. He landed his first major gig in 1953 with Memphis blues pioneer Rosco Gordon, whose 1952 R&B hits “Booted” and “No More Doggin’” introduced a pervasively influential shuffle beat.
“Rosco had a 10-piece band and Big Joe Turner was the second artist on the bill,” Samuels said, referring to the Kansas City blues shouter who played an essential role in the rise of rock with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart in June 1954. By the time the tour hit Little Rock, Samuels was leading Turner’s band, headlining at a major nightspot on the city’s African American mainstem at 9th and State Street.
When the residency finished he headed back to Dallas but it wasn’t long before he was feeling “sick of the South,” Samuels recalled. “I’m tired of these back doors. I want to go in the front. I had the experience of playing with good artists. After a while I decided that I’m going to the West Coast. I had an older brother in Oakland.”
The first place he went was 7th Street in West Oakland, which boasted a night scene as lively as any place in the Bay Area. He landed a gig at the Rumboogie (now the Continental Club) and “just took off in Oakland,” he said with a chuckle. “The word went out, there’s this cat from Dallas who plays this shuffle like you never heard. I turned the house out. A lot of music in the South hadn’t reached the West Coast yet.”
He forged strong ties with leading players like bassist Bobby Reed, saxophonist Curtis Marshall, and guitarist Johnny Talbot, who like Samuels could all deliver excellent vocalists as well. A six-month contract in Hawaii turned into a six-year stint and when he got back to Oakland “we formed four-piece group that scared the 10-piece bands to death. We put out a big sound. Each of us sang lead and the other three harmonized.”
Known as The Right Kind, they cut a single for Fantasy’s Galaxy imprint in 1967, “(Tell Me) Why Do You Have to Lie?” with Reed singing lead, a song that made some national noise. But the East Bay scene was changing, with some musicians turning their attention to street life rather than music. “Everybody was into hos and pimping,” Samuels said. “This music is the eternal love. We were musicians, what are we going to do with hos?”
Samuels was a regular presence at Larry Blake’s in the 1970s and 80s, and spent two years with the great Berkeley blues and jazz singer Faye Carol (who’s back at the Back Room this month, playing early shows every Sunday with pianist Joe Warner). His versatility has served him well, and while he’s not working as much as he used to, he can still lay down a mean shuffle.
“Where I come from you play everything,” he said. “I always knew where that ‘one’ was. I ain’t going to quit until it’s time to shut it down. I started playing with Craig and Jeff just five months ago. Craig is a hell of musician, and Jeff’s got a big sound. We’re having a lot of fun.”
Charimastic Afro-Venezuelan vocalist Betsayda Machado makes her East Bay debut on Saturday at Ashkenaz with the ensemble Parranda El Clavo. Led by Machado’s potent, incantatory vocals, La Parrando El Clavo features dancer-singer Nereida Machado, dancer-percussionist Jo Gomez, singers Adrian Gomez and Oscar Ruiz, and percussionists Youse Cardozo and Blanca Castillo. Folkloric and topical, the group plays music from costal Venezuela Afro-soul genre called tambor, a spirit-shaking percussion and voice fiesta, said to make dancers float. The ensemble also gives a special dance and rhythmic workshop for people living with Parkinson’s Disorder on Saturday afternoon. The engagement is made possible through Southern Exposure: Performing Arts of Latin America, a program of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.