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  • Tommy Thompson

7th Movement: "Keystone Korner"

Updated: Jul 8

"If I had to live my life over, I’d live over a saloon.”

-- W.C. Fields

You might wonder just about now, dear reader, how a band in which the average age was near ‘pert ‘bout 18 years old, could even think that they could get away with performing in licensed bars and nightclubs that only served booze to folks who were over 21. Hmm. Good point. Well, once again, a different era meant that there were now different rules to bend.

Or break.

Truth be told, most of these joints would never ever even consider allowing an underage audience member inside their doors. Uhn-uh. They’d lose their liquor license for that kinda crap.

But hey, that’s why God created door men. BIG door men.

But, when it came to the bands playing inside those walls? Hah! The owners really didn’t give a good hoot in hell about how old the musicians were. Nope. They just only wanted to know that you could do three things, and do them well:

Numero Uno: Bring a boatload of folks into the club.

Numero Dos: Keep ‘em there for the entire night.

And finally...and this was the big one.

Numero Tres: Show ‘em a good enough time to give ‘em all a good enough reason

to forget about how they were ever gonna get their drunken asses home.

As long as the band could manage to somehow get the crowd to throw caution to the wind and keep poundin’ down the booze? All night long? That was it. Nothing more, nothing less, needed to be done.

And that, guys n’ gals, is your “1970 Professional Show Biz 101” lesson for the day.

Now before I bring y’all into Cookin’ Mama’s first nightclub experience - and at the risk of sounding redundant - I still needs to set the scene justa wee bit more for ya, k? You have to remember our ages at the time. 18 years old on the average. Give or take a few months. Paul & Steve were the “old men” of the band. And they were only 19. I was only 18. Vince n’ Lou were only 17. And, Pat was the “Baby Mama” at the ripe young age of 16.

Oh yeah, sure we’d all played at military bases and such where there was so much booze

it was coming out of the bathroom faucets & pissers.

But, this was different.

There were adults in these joints. Lots of adults. Of all ages. All over 21, at least. Some much, much older than that. And, as such, some of these old barflies looked like they needed a steel gurney to get ‘em thru the club’s front door. A hoist to get 'em vertical.

And then some species of beast to lift ‘em up and clamp their asses onto a damn barstool.

And I’m talkin' men AND women.

So now that we’ve got the stage all set n’ tidied up n’ properly arranged in your brains...’s what happened.

The original Keystone Korner in SF as it looked circa 1970

“Welcome to North Beach, Ladies n’ Gentlemen, where every night is like New Years Eve.

Folks, we want you drinkin’ triples, ‘til you’re seein’ double,

actin’ single, and gettin’ in trouble.”

-- Johnny Nitro aka "The King of North Beach"

Our first nightclub gig was over in San Francisco’s North Beach area at a well-known and respected Jazz, Blues and R&B venue called “Keystone Korner.” This was at the time when the North Beach and Broadway area of town was home to a variety of very – how shall I say this - interesting establishments. Not to mention, the various types of creatures n’ critters who haunted these streets and alleyways from dusk to dawn.

It was Ground Zero for Carol Doda’s “Condor,” “Big Al’s,” and a host of other sleazy strip clubs, massage parlors, after-hour speakeasys, and out-n’-out cathouse brothels. Clubs n’ bars were all packed with rowdy crowds of drinkers. Sidewalks and even the streets themselves were not immune to this all-night-long blitzkrieg of human bodies. And their assorted perfumes. And colognes. And, sometimes, even just good ol’-fashioned “BO.”

Not to mention all the puke and sidewalk urinating.

I'm a'tellin' ya, dear reader, we had been thrown right into the eye of the hurricane. And so, once again, we were gonna have a wee bit of a learning curve to tackle here in order to get thru this all in one piece.

The format for these shows was this: There were two bands booked for each night. A headliner. And an opening act. Both bands were widely advertised in the local papers like the SF Chronicle and Oakland Tribune. Plus, there were tons of different smaller news rags around at that time.

The Berkeley Barb being one of the most famous.

Doors were opened to the public at 8pm. Attendees each paid a door charge when they entered. The amount varied depending on how famous the headliner was. In addition to that expense, there was also a drink “minimum.” Which meant that each person inside the club had to imbibe at least 1 adult beverage per set. If you ordered a glass of water or a soda? You still paid the same price as an alcoholic drink.

And if any audience member didn’t abide by this rule? Then, the club manager would send "Bluto" the door man over to have a word with the offending party. And if that li’l chat didn’t work out so well? Then the last thing that customer would see was a large arm wrapped around his or her waist and/or neck on his or her way out the door to the curb.

Both bands played 2 sets of music apiece between the hours of 9pm – 1:30am. The opening act (called the “opener”…duh) would play their first set right at 9pm sharp. Each set was about 45 minutes long with about a 15 minute break in-between acts to re-arrange the amps & drums & microphones onstage to accommodate the next act.

But, if the crowd dug ya and ended up shoutin’ and stompin’ for more after the last song of your set? Then, you could do one more "encore" tune to keep ‘em all happy.

But mostly, to keep ‘em all drinkin.’

“I’d watch myself out there if I were you, Hoss, cuz earlier on I saw a gal in the audience with a face that was uglier than a pair of home-made pants,

and she had a gap ‘tween her front teeth you could toss a cat through.”

-- Gregg Allman

The big night to play our first nightclub gig finally arrived. Who was the headliner? Elvin Bishop. At Keystone Korner. Woo Hoo! Before this night we’d only heard Elvin play on albums with Paul Butterfield. He was one of our musical heroes. And here we were getting’ ready to share the stage with him.

Man, us Mamas were pumped up enough to go out n’ slay dragons, if need be.

Which was actually a good way to feel cuz - if not on this night – then there were sure as hell a’gonna be other nights somewhere down the road where that kind of attitude would come in mighty handy. Due to some of the rather ragtag n' tough neighborhoods which generally surrounded these kinda joints.

So, we moved our gear inside. Found parking for our cars - which was then, just as it is now – no small feat. Got our asses back to the club. Helped Terry set up our gear in front of and around Elvin's equipment (Pres at 13 years old was still a wee bit too young-looking to have been able to get past Bluto). And did a very quick sound check before the doors opened at 8pm.

So now we had an hour to burn and get ready before our first set @ 9pm. Hmm. There was an offstage door to the right of the stage which had a sign on it which said: “Band Room.” Cool. We’re in the band. Guess we’ll just go in there n’ hang out with Elvin and get ready for our first set.

We had brought a couple of our girlfriends with us to the gig. Underage girls. And who, for some reason or another, had managed to get past Bluto the door man. Pro’bly cuz he was too busy checkin’ out their stuff, rather than their ID’s. So we decided: “Hey, let’s bring the girls down into the band room with us.” Right? I mean, isn’t that what real musicians do?

So, we’d just put our hand on the door knob to the band room when the club owner himself, Freddy Herrera, blitzed over to us and yelled: “Heyyyy. Can’t any of you read?” Huh? “Read the sign on the damn door,” he ordered. We said we thought it said this was the band room. “Yeah….that's right. But, what’s the other sign say?” Looked back at the door again and read back to him these words:


I, being a naïve and not very street-smart teenager, replied:

“What’s a broad?”

Ohhh…man. Freddy about had a conniption over that one. He couldn’t believe his ears. So, he replied back in a very firm and sarcastic voice - slowly dragging out each word::

“A." "Broad." "Is." "A." "Woman.”

Great. My very first nightclub gig. My very first encounter with a nightclub owner. And I’m already sounding like “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Arrghh! Needless to say, we all kissed our gals “adieu,” grabbed Terry, marched thru the band room door…and closed it firmly behind us. Our girls, on the other hand, all immediately retreated to a table where Kathy had set up camp, so that she could play den mother and self-appointed protector for our ladies.

Guess we all expected to see some kind of fabulous scene

right out of “Backstage At The Met.”

Or sumtin’ like that. Hmm?


“This is the kind of club where if you spit on the floor it doesn’t matter.”

-- Gary Bell

There was this creaking wooden staircase that led down into a subterranean lair beneath the club. Only a few weak light bulbs lit the enclosure. There was one small table. One lone filthy mirror. A couple of thoroughly ratted out sofas and chairs scattered around the room. A small porcelain sink with multiple cracks displaying a smorgasbord of disgusting dark brown, grey, and black stains. And a toilet that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the 1906 earthquake.

A real “Rat Hole Hotel Number 1” kinda couture.

“Welcome to the Big Time, boys.”

Hey, it didn’t matter to us. If this was going to be our first introduction into the world of professional night clubs? Then we were going to make the best of it and embrace it all the way - for what it was, and for all that it was worth. We talked over our first set. Freshened up a li’l bit using the rust-colored water that gurgled out thru the faucet in the sink. Tuned up our guitars and horns. And got ourselves ready to go out onstage.

And kill the crowd.

“Everything looks nicer when you win.”

- Billy Martin

No point in giviin’ you a blow-by-blow description of the night, dear reader, cuz I believe it’s safe to say that we got over like Big Dawgs. Truly. First set and second set. One song encore per set. This well-informed crowd of Jazz, Blues and R&B aficionados dug us. Yay! Kathy came downstairs after our 2nd set to let us know how Freddy liked it.

Kathy? A “broad” down in the band room?

Well, this is one of those times where you’d just have to know a bit more about whom I’m talkin.' Kathy, in her usual manner, had absolutely charmed the pants off of Freddy throughout the night. And so he had said that she – and she alone – could go down there.

I mean, she was our manager and, as such, part of the band.

Plus, the fact that she was a stone-cold fox didn't do anything to hurt

her bargaining position with Freddy one li'l bit.

We were pert near ‘bout peein’ our pants to hear the reviews from the club High Command. So, Kathy told us that – even though our monetary compensation wasn’t huge – Freddy really liked the band. The crowd liked the band. The bartenders and waitresses all liked the band.

And even Bluto had nodded his assent – due to Bluto not having a very large selection of adjectives from which to choose based on his rather limited vocabulary.

Neanderthals tend to be like that.

But, the best part? (..drum roll...)

Freddy not only wanted us back at his club, but Kathy had already booked the next gig with him. Alrighty, then! But, there was more. Freddy had dug our show so much that he wanted to buy the entire band a round of drinks. Oh, man! The nightclub version of “The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” Hard liquor. Top-shelf shots. This'll be great!

I was feelin’ frisky so I said: “I’ll take a Southern Comfort on the rocks.” That brought on a quick moment of silence before Kathy informed us: “No. He doesn’t mean hard liquor. What he has offered is to buy the band a pitcher of beer. Draft beer." A pitcher of freakin’ draft beer? Are ya kiddin’ me? A pitcher of draft beer back then prob’ly cost Freddy about $.17 cents to pour.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t the quality or the quantity of our liquid reward. It was the fact that he even offered it. The extra gig that he had already booked us on? Now that made his pitcher of draft beer taste just as good as any amount of Southern Comfort ever would.

Well, maybe not ever.

Right now, dear reader, I just wanna take another quick li'l detour and whiz you all away on another ride in our “Time Machine.” For one final Freddy story.

The dial is set for the year 2008.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

- Billy Martin

Kevin "Charles" Smith (he of “Rags” and the Cookin' Mama '72 “New Day” album fame) had an original band at this time called “Metrovox.” Their keyboard player’s name was David Kaffinetti. David was and is a great keyboardist and an even better human being. He also was and still is a good friend of mine. He grew up over in London where, among his other musical accomplishments, he had recorded piano tracks in the early ‘70’s with Chuck Berry on Chuck’s “London Sessions” album for Chess Records.

But, David’s main claim to fame was when he appeared in the cult-classic movie,

“Spinal Tap,” as that band’s keyboardist: “Viv Savage.”

Kevin called me up one day and informed me that David had to go to L.A. for some recording sessions. He would be gone for 2 weeks. “Metrovox” had 3 gigs during that time period and Kevin wanted to know if I could fill in for Kaff. My band happened to be off on the dates Kevin mentioned, so I told him it sounded like fun and that I’d love to do the gigs. Since it was summertime, the first two gigs were outdoor pool parties for some friends of ours. Pool parties usually pay well and are always fun to play. 100% of the time. Both gigs went swimmingly well (no pun intended).

The 3rd gig was different.

“Behind every successful man is a woman…and behind her is his wife”

- Groucho Marx

Freddy Herrera had a wife named Sandy and she was about to turn 50 years old. Freddy wanted to throw a big party for her, and so he rented the entire “Washington Bar & Grill” for the occasion. This establishment was located in San Francisco, right across the street from famed Washington Park. It was also smack dab in the middle of North Beach where Freddy had once reigned as one of the main club owners back in the day.

Hence, he knew everybody in the music scene:

Musicians. Band managers. Club owners. Drug dealers. Record industry heavies.

DJ's. Hookers. Booking agents. Gangsters. Tour managers. Pimps. Roadies. Bartenders n’ waitresses.

And, of course, Door Men...such as Bluto.

The “Grill” had been around pretty much since the first pizza had ever been baked in North Beach. It was one of “The Places to Be,” and to be seen. Do y'all have the backdrop to this particular li'l tale all fixed n' set up in your minds? Yeah? Cool.

And since Freddy had known Kevin since back in the “Rags” era,

he booked “Metrovox” to do the party.

On the night of the gig the joint was packed with party goers. One of Freddy’s good friends who was there that night was also a good friend of mine. His name was Jim Anderson. But, everyone including me knew Jim by his nickname: “Dancer.”

(And - as a side note - “Dancer” was also the guy who had first introduced me and "The Alameda All Stars" to Gregg Allman later on in 1990. Which had resulted in our 10-year run as Gregg’s backup band in “Gregg Allman & Friends").

“Death is like an old whore in a bar – I’ll buy her a drink but I won’t go upstairs with her.”

- Ernest Hemingway

So, us guys in “Metrovox” had already played our first set. Which went great. People dancin’ and screamin’ and drinkin’ and howlin’ at the moon. Couldn’t have gone better. We were about 2/3 of the way thru our second set and in-between songs. And it was at this point that Dancer strolled up to my and Kevin’s side of the stage and yelled out to me and the rest of the band:

“Hey, bro’…Freddy wants to buy the band a round of drinks.”

He then turned and started to walk away, so I yelled back to him: “Dancer! Kevin and I will each have a double Crown Royal on the rocks, and then I’ll get the other drink orders from the rest of the guys and send our roadie over to let you and Freddy know, k?”

Dancer waited a moment, and then turned back around and said:

“No, bro’…Freddy’s gonna buy the band a pitcher of draft beer.”

I looked at Kevin. Kevin looked back at me. And then we both just started laughing our asses off. We were crackin’ up so hard that we were almost crying. Couldn't even count off the next song for about 30 seconds or so. The rest of our band mates looked at us like we'd both lost our damn minds. Hey, none of the other guys in the band had ever worked for Freddy back in the day. And so they had no way in hell of knowing why Kevin and I were such a mess over what Dancer had said. We had to explain it all to 'em on our next break.

Oh, me oh my. Hmm. Ya know, dear reader, I guess it’s just sorta like that old saying goes:

“Sometimes, the more things change….the more they stay the same."

Even after 38 years.

Ad from SF Chronicle's "Pink Section"

advertising our first nightclub gig - 1970

Gotta love the spelling: not "Cookin'"...but "Cooking" Mama.

This kinda thing happened to us more than once in newspaper ads.

©2024 Cookin' Mama


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