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|San Francisco Sound|
San Francisco pictured in 2009.
|Cultural origins||Mid 1960s, San Francisco, California, U.S.|
The San Francisco Sound refers to rock music performed live and recorded by San Francisco-based rock groups of the mid-1960s to early 1970s. It was associated with the counterculture community in San Francisco during these years. San Francisco is a westward-looking port city, a city that at the time was 'big enough' but not manic like New York City or spread out like Los Angeles. Hence, it could support a 'scene'. According to journalist Ed Vulliamy, "A core of Haight Ashbury bands played with each other, for each other, for free and at Chet Helms's Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham's Fillmore."
The Bay-Area-based jazz critic and columnist Ralph J. Gleason had established the first journal (Jazz Information) devoted to jazz, in 1939. Gleason was open to new pathways. He admired San Francisco's new music scene in the mid-1960s, and wanted to draw attention to it. According to an announcer for a TV show that Gleason hosted: "In his syndicated newspaper column, Mr. Gleason has been the foremost interpreter of the sounds coming out of what he calls 'the Liverpool of the United States.' Mr. Gleason believes the San Francisco rock groups are making a serious contribution to musical history." The first serious journal of rock music, Crawdaddy, had been founded in the eastern U.S. in 1966 by Paul Williams. However, Ralph Gleason, shortly after the Monterey Pop Festival, became one of the founders of what would become the nation's dominant rock-scene fan journal, Rolling Stone.
The new sound, which melded many musical influences, was perhaps heralded in the live performances of the Jefferson Airplane (from 1965 on), who put out an LP record earlier than nearly all the other new bands (September 1966). According to writer Douglas Brinkley, celebrated author Hunter S. Thompson, one of the Bay Area cultural-scene boosters, was a big early fan of the group: "Thompson extolled the sonic energy of the Jefferson Airplane as it pulsed around the California locales that nursed the psychedelic era..."
The bohemian predecessor of the hippie culture in San Francisco was the "Beat Generation" style of coffee houses and bars, whose clientele appreciated literature, a game of chess, music (in the forms of jazz and folk style), modern dance, and traditional crafts and arts like pottery and painting. Acoustic music had had an avid following far and wide, but it was "a fading world of traditional folk and Brechtian art songs."  The entire tone of the new subculture was different. According to biography author Robert Greenfield, "Jon McIntire [manager of the Grateful Dead from the late sixties to the mid-eighties] points out that the great contribution of the hippie culture was this projection of joy. The beatnik thing was black, cynical, and cold." The new music was loud and community-connected: bands sometimes presented free concerts in Golden Gate Park and "happenings" at the city's several psychedelic clubs and ballrooms. The many bands that formed signalled a shift from one subculture to the next.
Monterey, California is about 120 road miles south of San Francisco. At the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Bay Area groups (Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and The Holding Company) performed from the same stage as established and fast-rising musical groups and well-known individual artists from the U.S., England, and even India. Soon after, Ralph J. Gleason and Jann Wenner, based in San Francisco, established Rolling Stone magazine (first issue's date: November 1967).
Each San Francisco band had its characteristic sound, but enough commonalities existed that there was a regional identity. By 1967, fresh and adventurous improvisation during live performance (which many heard as being epitomized by the Grateful Dead and by the "cross-talk" guitar work of Moby Grape) was one characteristic of the San Francisco Sound. A louder, more prominent role for the electric bass—typically with a melodic or semi-melodic approach, and using a plush, pervasive tone—was another feature. This questing bass quality has been wryly characterized as a "roving" (rather than the conventional "stay-at-home") style. In jazz it had been exuberantly pioneered by numerous musicians—and such bassists as Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, and Steve Swallow had taken it into very exploratory places. A musician who was a leading example of this, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane (and the offshoot Hot Tuna) pioneered the approach, perhaps best represented on the album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. Phil Lesh, bassist with the Grateful Dead, furthered this sound. Lesh had developed his style on the foundation of having studied classical, brass-band, jazz, and modernist music on the violin and later the trumpet.
Exploration of chordal progressions previously uncommon in rock & roll, and a freer and more powerful use of all instruments (drums and other percussion, electric guitars, keyboards, as well as the bass) went along with this "psychedelic-era" music. Brasses and reeds, such as trumpets and saxophones were rarely used, unlike in contemporary R&B and soul bands and some of the white bands from the U.S. East Coast (e.g., Blood, Sweat & Tears or Chicago). Sly & the Family Stone, a San Francisco-based group that got its start in the late 1960s, was an exception, being a racially integrated hippie band with a hefty influence from soul music, hence making use of brass instrumentation.
"Rock & roll" was the point of departure for the new music. But well known stars of rock & roll "were being called fifties primitives" by this time. This was the period when "rock" was differentiating itself from rock & roll, partly due to the upshot of the British Invasion. In San Francisco, musical influences came in from not only London, Liverpool, and Manchester, but also included the bi-coastal American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, the Chicago electric blues scene, the soul music scenes in Detroit, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, jazz styles of various eras and regions. A number of key San Francisco rock musicians of the era cited John Coltrane and his circle of leading-edge jazz musicians as important influences.
The journalist Ed Vulliamy wrote: "The Summer of Love had an empress, and her name was Janis Joplin." Women, in a few cases, enjoyed an equal status with men as stars in the San Francisco rock scene—but these few instances signaled a shift that has continued in the U.S. music scene. Both Grace Slick (singing with Jefferson Airplane) and Joplin (singing initially with Big Brother & the Holding Company) gained a substantial following locally and, before long, across the country.
Another woman singer (and songwriter), Stevie Nicks, as a child had recurrently moved in the U.S. with her family. Coming of age in the San Francisco Bay Area, she gained her first performing experience there in the '60s with Lindsey Buckingham's rock band. Eventually both Nicks and Buckingham achieved international exposure and acclaim once their California talents were absorbed into the established British rock band Fleetwood Mac in 1975.
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Performances of an international super group like the Beatles were hosted in a huge venue like the Cow Palace. At first, the local Bay Area bands played in smaller ones. The early band venues, while the new SF scene was emerging from folk and folk-rock beginnings, were often places like the Matrix nightclub. As audiences grew, and audience dancing became customary, performances moved into venues with more floor space, such as the Longshoreman's Hall, the Fillmore Auditorium, the Avalon Ballroom, Winterland, and the Carousel Ballroom (which was later renamed Fillmore West). Outdoor performances, often organized by the band members themselves and their friends, also played their part.
Because San Francisco had an especially vibrant and attractive countercultural scene in the latter half of the 1960s, musicians from elsewhere (along with the famous hip multitude) came there. Some stayed and became part of the scene. Examples include the Sir Douglas Quintet, whose music took on more of the character of the San Francisco Sound, while yet retaining some of its original Texas flavor, Mother Earth, fronted by female lead singer Tracy Nelson, who relocated to the Bay Area from Nashville, and the Electric Flag, bringing Chicago blues to the Bay Area care of former Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Steve Miller (who formed the Steve Miller Band) was from Wisconsin, by way of Chicago and New York City while bandmate Boz Scaggs originally called Texas home.
The San Francisco bands' music was everything that AM-radio pop music wasn't. Their performances contrasted with the "standard three-minute track" that had become a cliché of the pop-music industry, due to the requirements of AM radio, to the sound capacity of the 45 RPM record, and to the limited potentials of many pop songs and song treatments. It is true that many of the San Francisco bands did record "three-minute" tracks when they desired pop-music station airplay for a song. But in live performance, the bands would often share their improvisatory zest by playing a given song or sequence for as long as five or six minutes, and occasionally for as long as half an hour. In early 1967, Tom Donahue–a veteran disc jockey, rock concert producer, songwriter, and music-act manager–was inspired to revive a moribund radio station, KMPX, and inaugurate the first FM-radio rock station, in San Francisco, in order to showcase this type of music. Donahue was uniquely qualified, being savvy and enthusiastic about jazz, R&B, Soul, and ethnic music, besides the then-current rock music. An important departure in this new era of "album oriented radio" (AOR) was that show hosts felt free to play lengthy tracks or two or more tracks at a time from a good record album.
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