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Blues for Lee Hildebrand

May 16, 2018

When Cheryl Fabio started doing the initial research for her 2017 documentary Evolutionary Blues: West Oakland’s Music Legacy, “the first thing the librarian said was ‘you have to talk to Lee Hildebrand,’” she recalls. More than an invaluable source of information, Hildebrand has been a singular resource for the Bay Area music scene since the mid-1960s as a drummer, producer, editor, and most importantly, as a journalist committed to covering African-American musical traditions long overlooked by the mainstream press. Those decades of devotion are being repaid Thursday, May 24, at the Oakland nightspot Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, where some of the brightest lights of Bay Area R&B come together to celebrate Hildebrand and raise funds to help him return to Oakland.

Since suffering a stroke last November, Hildebrand has been stranded in Modesto, largely unable to work and cut off from the scene he’s done so much to foster and document. With the help of the Veteran’s Administration and an ongoing GoFundMe campaign he’s hoping to move back to Oakland in the coming months. Among those appearing Thursday at Geoffrey’s are former Tower of Power vocalist Lenny Williams, jazz great John Handy, Tony! Toni! Toné!’s D’Wayne Wiggins, soul queen Sugar Pie DeSanto, and gospel star Dorothy Morrison, whose lead vocals on 1969’s “Oh Happy Day” for the Edwin Hawkins Singers propelled the song to the top of the pop charts.

Hildebrand, 72, started covering blues and R&B in the Bay Area in the years after the British Invasion, when bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, and a cadre of young white musicians from Chicago introduced white baby boomers to sounds that had flourished in black communities for decades. An active drummer on the R&B scene in the mid-1960s, he landed his first writing gig when John Mayall and the Blues Breakers bassist Keith Tillman put him in touch with an editor at the U.K. magazine Blues Unlimited. After Hildebrand caught a Mayall show at The Fillmore, Tillman asked him, “you know all these West Coast guys, why don’t you write about them?” Hildebrand recalls that Tillman “gave me the name of the editor and my first piece ran in June 1968 on a Little Johnny Taylor recording for Fantasy’s Galaxy subsidiary.”

At a time when the Bay Area music scene had seized the national spotlight, Hildebrand kept his ears trained on the seminal players who laid the groundwork for the rising rock and funk acts. While it was unusual for a white writer to be covering contemporary blues and R&B, he notes that “there weren’t many black people my age into Muddy Waters either. My white friends would go see the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and I’d go see Muddy, and I’d sit in. I got it directly from the source. When I did the book Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, they wanted me to base it on the Hot Hundred pop charts. I said, no, if you want me to write a book on R&B, I’m going to use the R&B charts.”

Well-versed in gospel music, Hildebrand brought a depth of knowledge to his coverage that was unmatched. In addition to 1994’s Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, he wrote 1993’s Bay Area Blues (with photographer Michelle Vignes), 1992’s Hammertime, 1998’s Images of the Blues (with photographer Lee Tanner), and he co-wrote 1995’s Colors and Chords: The Art of Johnny Otis. His status as an insider gave him a unique perspective and standing with the artists he covered. He’d witnessed the rise of the pioneering funk and R&B guitarist Johnny Talbot and his band De-Thangs, who designed the East Bay grease sound that fueled Sly and the Family Stone and Tower of Power.

“I hadn’t seen my name in the paper before Lee wrote about us,” Talbot says. “He was right on the ground when we got started. Lee was a musician before he started writing, and he always had a great musical perspective about Oakland.”

While Hildebrand was drafted in 1968 and served two years as a medic, including an eight-month stint in Vietnam in which he didn’t see any combat, he plunged back into the scene in 1970. He had brief runs as a columnist for Rolling Stone and Cream, then started contributing regularly to Berkeley underground weekly The Night Times, writing for Joel Selvin. After a two-year run at City Magazine, journalism work slowed down considerably, and he spent the late 1970s doing publicity work for leading R&B nightspots like West Oakland’s Continental Club, Ruthie’s in Berkeley, and Mr. Major’s in East Oakland. He landed his longest-running and most consequential gig in 1978, when John and Nancy Banks hired him as editor for their new weekly, the East Bay Express. “Lee’s influence on this paper in its original development was inestimable,” Raeside told Derk Richardson in a recent Express piece. “For more than two decades, as an editor, listings annotator, critic, and feature writer, Lee was one of this paper’s core editorial architects.”

Hildebrand gave me my first assignment for a Bay Area publication shortly after I moved to Berkeley in the summer of 1996 (a review of saxophonist Harvey Wainapel at Yoshi’s), and I was thrilled to join the roster of freelancers contributing to the Express. I already owned dozens of albums with liner notes by Hildebrand, Richardson, Larry Kelp, Dan Ouellette, j. poet, and other Express regulars. While the front section of the paper delivered in depth articles by a succession of inordinately talented young writers, the music-dominated culture section offered granular coverage of everything from gamelan and hip hop to bluegrass and Balkan brass bands.

When veteran jazz drummer and songwriter Paul Tillman Smith helped launch the long-running Berkeley Juneteenth Festival in 1987, Hildebrand was there to cover the new event. Last year Smith decided to create the Bay Area Jazz Society as a vehicle to celebrate the region’s luminaries and raise funds for musicians facing hard times. “Lee was one of the first people I called to join the board,” Smith says. “When I heard that he’d had a stroke, it was a no-brainer to turn our first event into a benefit for Lee.”

Guitar great Calvin Keys and trumpeter David Hardiman, Bay Area Jazz Society board members, direct the jazz stage at Thursday’s event, while guitarist Levi Seacer Jr., best known as a founding member of Prince’s New Power Generation Band, directs the R&B stage. Among the many artists participating at Geoffrey’s are Johnny Talbot, Mark Hummel, Lady Bianca, Fred Ross, Pamela Rose, Denise Perrier, Faye Carol, Mitch Woods, Terrie Odabi, Rhonda Benin, and Paula Harris.

Born in Williamsport, a small city in central Pennsylvania, Hildebrand was five when his family relocated to San Carlos. His father, an engineer, landed a job with the pioneering Silicon Valley firm Varian Associates, and the family ended up in Mountain View. Drawn to the drums, he played in school marching bands and caught the music bug in 1956 when Elvis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino dominated the airwaves (“I liked Pat Boone, too, I admit it,” he says). At Los Altos High, he became friends with a gifted young trumpeter a class ahead of him named Tom Harrell. “He was awesome,” Hildebrand says of the future jazz legend. “Even when we weren’t going to school anymore I’d go to his house once a week to play.”

Another precociously talented master put the kibosh on his jazz ambitions. “Tony Williams joined Miles; he was 17 and I was 17,” Hildebrand says. “I realized I couldn’t play that fast and I never would. The next year at Foothill College I got hired by Wilfred Bocage, who was related to the New Orleans R&B singer Eddie Bo, and we formed a band that did Eddie Bo songs.”

He was already well-versed in the music’s roots. An avid listener to KDIA, he soaked up Roland Porter’s Saturday afternoon broadcast tracing the roots of contemporary R&B. “I’d go to gospel concerts at Oakland Auditorium, and saw all the major performers of the day, Shirley Caesar, the Blind Boys of Alabama, James Cleveland. Ray Charles was the hottest, and Ray listened to gospel and Charles Brown, so I was buying Charles Brown 78s in junior high school.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.