Paul Tillman Smith plays drums while wearing a wide-brimmed hat and looking at the camera
Oakland drummer, songwriter and producer Paul Tillman Smith. Courtesy: Paul Tillman Smith

With the California Hotel’s neon-lit marquee illuminating a downtown nightscape, the cover art for the new album “The Sounds of Oakland” could serve as a movie poster for an early ‘70s urban romance or neo-noir thriller. The giveaway, aside from the tagline “music from the streets,” is a long list detailing the killer cast of R&B talent — credits that promise a generous helping of East Bay grease delivered by many of the artists who formulated the world-renowned recipe. 

Presented by Oakland drummer, songwriter and producer Paul Tillman Smith’s Chump Change Records, “The Sounds of Oakland” isn’t a soundtrack, but it was initially inspired by a film. Smith set out to gather as many foundational East Bay R&B, soul and funk players as he could after seeing Cheryl Fabio’s 2017 documentary Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy

Tillman appears in the film along with many of the “Sounds of Oakland” players, and like the doc, his intention was to document and showcase artists whose work changed the course of American (thus international) music. Noting the close-knit nature of the Oakland music scene, Tillman Smith said, “it’s like a family album. Actually, I thought of it as a documentary more than an album.” Working closely with arranger and bassist Nelson Braxton, Smith recruited a bevy of vocalists who render his original songs with soulful authority, capturing singers such as Niecey Robinson, Lenny Williams, Freddie Hughes, Lady Bianca, Martin Luther, Fred Ross, and Derik Hughes.

A celebration of the project’s release takes place Sunday Oct. 8, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Black Repertory Group Theater, with KPFA’s Afrikahn Jamal Davis serving as emcee. Presented by the Bay Area Jazz Society, the event is part concert, part listening party and part hang and is intended to raise funds “to help aging artists who don’t have a pension and, in many cases, no social security,” Tillman Smith said. 

“We’re going to have a 40-minute performance in the theater with a five-piece band featuring some of the best musicians. We’ll break for food and beverages, listen to several tracks from the record, and then play another set. The first 20 people buying tickets for the Black Rep show receive a free copy of the CD, and 30 percent of the CD sales will go into the fund.”

Among the artists featured on “Sounds of Oakland” who are slated to perform are Larriah Jackson, Niecy Robinson, Rhonda Benin and Derick Hughes, whose long tenure touring with Roberta Flack concluded with her retirement due to ALS. Time has taken its toll on the album’s cast, with the passing of artists like Marvin Holmes and Freddie Hughes (the father of Derick Hughes). But many of the album’s players are shining brightly, like vocalist Lenny Williams, pianist/vocalist Lady Bianca, drummer Larry Vann and guitarist Johnny Talbot, whose seminal funk band De Thangs connected West Oakland’s Seventh Street scene with Bill Graham’s Fillmore empire. 

Smith got his start on Seventh Street, and his contributions to the East Bay’s musical legacy extend far beyond the studio. He’s mentored some of the most phenomenal young artists to emerge from the region, like H.E.R. (aka Gabriella Wilson), and was the founding music director of the Berkeley Juneteenth celebration, a position he held more than two decades. 

He’s spent almost his entire career here, except for a brief stint in New York City in the late 1960s when he was part of the roiling avant-garde jazz scene (“and starving,” he said). It wasn’t long before he was back in Oakland, though he’d made a lifelong friend of his roommate, the prolific drummer and composer Norman Connors. 

“Norman produced the Lenny Williams tune, ‘Invisible Man,’” Tillman Smith said. “This project was all about trying to do something special for Oakland. We’ve never had the producers or labels here to promote these fantastic artists, but I’m doing the best I can.” 

Sunday Oct. 8, 5-9 p.m. Black Repertory Group Theater. $25 (tickets only sold at the door)

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....