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Nine Bay area bands and albums that rocked my world then – and still keep doing so today…

June 11, 2018
I grew up in a dusty little farm town in northern California.  By the time I was in 4th grade I knew I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life there.  The town’s greatest asset for a kid like me was that it was less than a two-hour drive from San Francisco – the hub of the counterculture and a fertile breeding ground for some of the best music ever created. My initial exposure to rock music came from the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan albums of my older sisters.  I got my driver’s license in 1973 which opened up the world of AM Top 40 radio.  Shortly thereafter, I got my first “stereo,” which featured an FM antenna – basically a long wire that you ran along your wall and out the window.  On clear nights you could pull in Richard Gossett on KSAN from San Francisco (I still remember the jingle).  Bonnie Raitt’s cover of “Angel from Montgomery” was the first song that I heard on that old stereo, and I realized that there was more to life than three-minute pop tunes.  I went to my first concert later that year – Buddy Miles was the opening act and Rare Earth the headliner.  Stood right in front and my ears were ringing from the volume on the ride home.  I was hooked.  Here’s a look at nine Bay area bands and their signature albums that formed the soundtrack of my life from 1973-81:
  1. Doobie Brothers – Perhaps the greatest “chunka chunka” guitar band ever.  Their signature album: Toulouse Street.  The band went to hell in a handbasket when Michael McDonald joined the band, but at least the group that’s doing 401(k) tours now reconstitutes many of the original members and the three-chord change rhythms that made them a staple of eight track tape collections everywhere.
  1. Creedence Clearwater Revival – The original four-piece band from Berkeley could really play, forming the foundation of blues-infused country rock.  “Lodi” will always be my favorite CCR tune.  Their signature album: Cosmo’s Factory.
  1. Sons of Champlin – I must have seen these guys 20 times or more, as they were always the opening act for someone.  A truly terrific “horn band” led by the king of blue-eyed soul, Billy Champlin.  They never made it big outside the Bay, but it’s worth downloading their live album From the Marin Civic Center.
  1. Elvin Bishop Band – There were many versions of Elvin’s band, but the one I loved best played between 1974-78 and featured the dueling guitars of Elvin and Johnny “V” Vernazza, as well as the incredible honky tonk piano of Phil Aaberg.  The addition of vocalist Mickey Thomas in the late 1970s ruined the band forever (see Jefferson Airplane below).  Best places to see the group were night clubs and small town civic centers, although they could rock the house at Winterland at their peak.  Signature album: Let It Flow.
  1. Greg Kihn Band – Another band that never developed a national audience (although they may have had one hit record somewhere along the line), this “Beserkley” group were just a ton of fun to see in person.  They played clubs from Clear Lake to San Jose and always packed a punch.  Signature album: Next of Kihn.
  1. Tower of Power – The greatest band to ever come out of Oakland, they defined what a brass section could and should be with their signature album: East Bay Grease.  They went through many band members (drugs and violence seemed to follow the group wherever they went), and I am guessing some version of the band is still playing casinos in Reno and Winnemucca.
  1. Jefferson Airplane – Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, along with other assorted bandmates, WERE the sound of San Francisco rock.  I missed them while at the pinnacle of talent, but managed to catch a few shows before they added the band-killing vocalist Mickey Thomas and changed their name to Jefferson Starship.  For me, albums don’t get much better than: Surrealistic Pillow.
  1. Santana – Quick, name three guitarists that you can instantly recognize by listening to them play one note…  I can only think of one and that is Carlos Santana.  No matter what version of the band he assembled (many of the original members left to create Journey in the late 1970s) you were always treated to an incredible and original performance.  Signature album: Abraxas.  Oh, by the way, Journey is forever banned from this list because they added another band-killing vocalist – Steve Perry.
  1. Grateful Dead – C’mon, you already knew these guys would top my list.  I admit I never listened to a Dead album or saw them perform until I went to college in 1975.  But it’s been a love affair ever since (except for the post-Jerry tour that featured John Mayer; I don’t care what you say, he’s a putz that had no business on the same stage with Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kruetzman).  Impossible to pick a signature album, but if forced I’d go with Skull and Roses simply for the fact that it features the most beautiful cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” ever recorded.
There you have it.  If there are any other Northern Californians out there who want to comment on my choices or add to this list, please do so.  Or maybe share memories of bands and albums that had an impact on you.  However, any positive references to Mickey Thomas or Steve Perry will be deleted and your name will be eliminated from our distribution list!