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History of the Blues in Silicon Valley

  T h r o u g h   t h e   E y e s   o f   J C   S m i t h

Silicon Valley has a rich history in all types of music, especially the Blues.  I feel that in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Blues music probably saved the live music scene in this area and has been a mainstay ever since.  I was first introduced to the local Blues scene in 1983.  I met a man by the name of Guitar Mac who migrated from Arkansas to San Jose, California.  He was a Delta Blues player who was just recorded and returned from the San Francisco Blues Festival European Tour. As we talked, I realized that I had not much exposure to the Blues except for my father who played country blues guitar.  But as a youth and being frustrated, I dove into Punk music because it was live and free and I was shut down to everything else.  During that time of Disco, DJs and dance clubs were killing the live music scene and therefore killing my soul.  Guitar Mac invited me over and we drank and played records and I found a new energy in music.  Although it was not like I hadn’t heard B. B. King or Bobby Bland, who I saw at Winterland, the reality was “that was about all I knew.”  

At that time, there was a radio announcer from a college station SFJC named Al Monday.  He would host a Monday night Blues show at the Tower Saloon in San Jose called Blue Monday.  He would bring musicians from all over to perform on Monday nights at this venue and you would see the likes of Mississippi Johnny Waters, a young Chris Cain, Troyce Keys, J. J. Malone, Roy Rogers, Ron Thompson, Dave Alexander, Cool Papa, and many more.  This opened my eyes and ears to seek more of the Blues music.  I started as a radio announcer in 1980 at KKUP FM playing a variety of music.  But after the summer of 1983, I was hooked on the Blues and that is my main focus today.

Around the same time, a small club called JJ’s Blues Club opened up and history was made with Gary Smith, Sammy Varela, Ron Thompson, Harold Banks, and many more.  Also, there was a club, at that time, called Joshua’s where there was a Blues Jam Session run by John Garcia and this 11 year old kid named Little John Chrisley.  These places gave the musicians an outlet and they came back out of the woodwork. People like the great Paul Ducett, Tommy Castro, Rene Solis, Andy Just, and Deacon Jones.  More musicians started moving into the area like John Lee Hooker. When he moved into Morgan Hill, you could see him pop up at any time. As JJ’s Blues Club ​started to thrive, they would bring in touring acts from all over the country such as Albert Collins, Albert King, Anson Funderburg, Sammy Mayers, Robert Cray, and anybody and everybody on record and they would come through our area and would stop at JJ’s.  As JJ’s grew in popularity, more clubs started having more Blues acts in addition to the other music they were promoting.  So up sprang the Chicago Club and Lord John’s started playing more Blues than Jazz, and Number 1 Broadway did the same which in turn started a major live music scene where other types of live music were brought to other types of venues from the Keystone Palo Alto doing 2/3’s Blues music and the other third Rock to the Saddle Rack who brought in James Brown. 

In 1981, the Fountain Blues Festival made its debut with the associated students of San Jose State University and at the helm then and now is Ted Gehrke.  Ted brought the best Blues had to offer from Coco Taylor, Son Seals, Johnnie Shines, Eddie “Clean Head” Vincent, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and the list goes on, sprinkled in with local artists. The festival is still going strong today after 32 years…unfortunately a lot of the artists are no longer with us.  Ted brought them to the festival so we could at least see them one time.

In the late 1980’s, June and Max Stanley organized their first Blues Festival in the Silicon Valley, the JJ’s Blues Festival.  This festival ran 9 years and featured artists ranging from Arkansas Larry Davis to Eric Burton and all points in between.  With all this music going on it spawned a host of many young Blues players who grew up in the Club like Andy Mazzelli, Lara Price, Shane Dwight, Laura Chavez, Jake Mackey, John Wedemeyer, Mikey Day, John Chrisley, Max Cabello. New Blues bands sprung up everywhere like Jim Curry, Al Draper, Nite Cry, Little B. B. King, the Tough City Band, Back-to-Back Blues Band, Bow and the Arrows, Deacon Jones Bucket of Blues, The Boulevard Blues Band, Strangers with Candy, A. J. and the Shapes.

In the 90’s, there were three JJ’s Blues Clubs opened in San Jose, Santa Clara, and Mountain View where you could hear Blues 7 nights a week. Blues Radio became super hot during this time. Gary Smith had been the first Blues dj on KKUP in the 70s. During the past 33 years, since I have been on the air playing Blues as “Johnnie Cozmik” on KKUP, I’ve seen more and more Blues added to college stations like KCSU, KZSU, KFJC, and KSJS with KKUP being the leader with 9 weekly Blues programs.  These radio programmers are all non-paid staff doing it for the love of the Blues and to help insure that Blues continually stay at the forefront of all popular American music.

As live Blues venues closed, other venues opened and added more of a Blues format to their entertainment lineup because of the strong support of the blues community and rich history rooted in Silicon Valley Blues.  Also, more music festivals, such as the San Jose Jazz Summer Festival, dedicate a Blues Stage during their festivals.  There are still a lot of old timers around but a lot of people have left us such as Paulette Michel, who would rally the troops to go out to the shows and promote JJ’s Blues Festival.   In my opinion, Paulette was “JJ’s”.  Great guitar players brought us Blues who are no longer here, Andy Mazelli, Smith Dobson, a jazz musician who brought Blues to the Casinos, Rene Solis, guitarist, Valla Cup and the list goes on.  But there are plenty of us still around…

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