Sunday, February 14, 2016

March 11, 1967: Whisky A Go Go, San Francisco: Grateful Dead (Photo Lost And Found)



Jerry Garcia, rockin' a Guild, in a long-unseen photo from the long lost San Francisco Whisky-A-Go-Go on March 11, 1967, photographed by Rita Chesterton (photo courtesy of and (c) Rita Chesterton), 
In early 1967, the Grateful Dead were finally seeing a form of success. The San Francisco underground scene at the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms was increasingly hip and popular, and the Dead had recorded and would soon release their first album on Warner Brothers. For all those indications of success, however, the band had hardly played outside the Bay Area and were scrambling for any paying booking that they could find. While shows at the Fillmore, Avalon and a few other places in 1967 are well documented, many more events are only known from the faintest traces of evidence. In many cases, it has been hard to determine whether some "known" shows from 1967 even took place.

One such show was the Grateful Dead's booking at the San Francisco branch of the famed Whisky A-Go-Go, for six nights from March 10-16, 1967. Like many bookings at the SF Whisky, the band was scheduled to play from Friday (Mar 10) through Thursday (Mar 16), skipping Monday night (Mar 13). The SF Whisky is so obscure, that sources such as Deadlists used to list the dates at the far more famous West Hollywood Whisky-A-Go-Go. However, I am the only person to research the SF Whisky and identified for certain that the band had been booked there. On my initial foray into this arcane subject, I came to the conclusion that the Dead were not likely to have played the club, since it was in its final days.

A poster for the presentation of the Grateful Dead at the San Francisco Whisky-A-Go-Go, booked for March 10-16, 1967, presented by the Love Conspiracy Commune (the band may not have played March 16)
Happily, I was completely incorrect. The internet is a wonderful place. Someone who attended the show not only recalls the event, she took a photo of Jerry Garcia at the club, which can be seen above. As if that weren't enough, her late husband is now a somewhat well-known artist. And to top it off, he kept a diary--making him beloved of all Rock Prosopographers--and the date of the photo can be definitely identified as Saturday, March 11, 1967.

So--
  • Thank you Rita Chesterton for contacting me after all these years and sharing your photo with us (and thanks to Volkmar for facilitating some details). 
  • thank you Andy Jurinko, RIP and fare thee well, for dating it precisely with the diary entry.
  • Finally, after 48 years, we have some solid information about the Grateful Dead's performance at the mysterious San Francisco Whisky-A-Go-Go. This post will unravel the SF Whisky story, and show how the Grateful Dead's performances fit into the strange, backwards picture of that long-gone venue.

The Whisky A-Go-Go, 8901 Sunset Boulevard (at Clark), West Hollywood, CA
The Whisky-A-Go-Go, 8901 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA
"Whisky-A-Go-Go" connotes the legendary nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, at 8901 Sunset Boulevard (at Clark). The first well-known rock discoteque was the Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan, where "The Twist" introduced rock and roll to the high fashion Jet Set. Los Angeles club owner Elmer Valentine, an expatriate Chicagoan who was unable to return there for murky reasons, opened the Whisky A-Go-Go in West Hollywood on January 11, 1964. For many months, the only act, seven nights a week, was guitarist Johnny Rivers.

The Whisky had announced it's grand opening before all the furniture arrived. One of the hired dancers had some experience, so she agreed to be dj for the night, between sets. During Rivers' performance, she was up on an elevated platform and danced along to the show. This immediately caught on. The formula for the Whiskey was born: live music to dance to, and mini-skirted go-go dancers up above the crowd to lead the dancing. Celebrities showed up, Johnny Rivers got a contract and had a big hit with Chuck Berry's "Memphis," and many, many drinks were sold to thirsty patrons at the Whisky. Valentine claimed that he had gotten the name of the club from a 1963 trip to Paris, where there was a bar called "Whisky-Au-Go-Go."

"Go-Go Dancing" has passed into the vernacular, and it's all because of the Whisky. Within a year, Smokey Robinson had a hit single memorializing the club, "Going To A Go-Go." The Whisky played a seminal part in the history of rock music. Since it was in unincorporated West Hollywood, it was freer from some of the constraints that the conservative Los Angeles Police would have imposed on it. The Strip itself became a huge draw for Southern California teenagers (you recall Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," about the november 1966 "Teen Riots" on the Strip). Even just the musical history of the West Hollywood Whisky is too much to even summarize, but fortunately we have already completed the best Whisky performance list, which can be seen here.
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The Leaves at the opening of the Sunnyvale Whisky, August 1965. Note the signature Go-Go dancers in mini-skirts elevated above the band
Whiskey A-Go-Go Franchises
Whisky founder Elmer Valentine was a critical figure in the history of Los Angeles music. Starting not only the Whisky but also the Roxy Theater and The Rainbow Room, all venerable Hollywood music nightspots. Valentine (1923-2008) was a true character and a great interview, and even casual googling will find numerous fascinating interviews with Valentine about the Whisky and the LA rock scene in general.

However, Valentine is an entertainment exemplar for Winston Churchill's assertion that "history will exonerate me," for decisions made in World War 2, because "I will write that history." Valentine has been interviewed many times about the Whisky, and to my knowledge he never materially lied. However, he did tell the story how he wanted it told, and certain subjects never came up. Of course, part of the reason they never came up was because Valentine's interviews were so good that there was no need for further interrogation.

However, a close look at the history of the Whisky-A-Go-Go shows a dramatic change of strategy between 1965 and 1966. No one asked Valentine about that, and he never mentioned it. The fact is, following the huge success of the Whisky in Hollywood, Valentine seems to have at least informally "franchised" the club all around the country. In 1965 and '66, Whisky-A-Go-Go clubs opened in Denver, Georgetown (outside of Washington, DC), Atlanta, San Francisco and Sunnyvale, a suburb of San Jose. There may have been more (and I am not even counting existing Whisky-A-Go-Go clubs in Minneapolis and Chicago, another cryptic story).

All of the Whisky clubs outside of Hollywood went bust pretty quickly. Very little is known about them. Valentine had always been cagey about his relationship to organized crime. He claimed that he "ran clubs for the mob" in Chicago, whatever that meant, and acknowledged knowing famous mobsters, but denied any direct connections to their organizations. His unconvincing denials added to his aura, and probably made him hard to push around. Still, the utter disappearance of some of the Whisky franchises from history, particularly in Denver, Atlanta and San Francisco, suggest that some of Valentine's "franchisees" did not have a formal agreement and did not want to attract press attention.

The one  Whisky club I have been able to find out about in some detail was the one in Sunnyvale, a suburb between San Jose and Palo Alto. A converted bank (on the corner of Washington and Murphy Streets), the club was run by experienced club operator Joe Lewis. The Sunnyvale Whiskey opened in late 1965, but the moment had already passed for the Hollywood Whisky model. After an opening night with The Leaves (see the photo above), Lewis closed the club. Taking an idea from his then 11-year old son Garth, he built the club around a Batman theme. This led to the thoroughly fascinating Wayne Manor, the remarkable story of which can be read here. In fact, the Los Angeles club had already taken its own turn in 1966, because Valentine himself realized the model on which his franchises had been built was no longer going to work.

The Trip, 8572 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA
The initial model for The Whisky was that Johnny Rivers would play every night, or almost every night. When he became famous enough to go on tour, another artist would take the gig. Today, the most famous substitute was JJ Cale, then a struggling musician and engineer. It was still the same idea--Cale (or whoever was booked) would play every night, mostly or entirely covers of current rock hits. People were expected to show up, "catch the scene," dance and buy drinks.

However, rock music was changing quickly, and nowhere was more sensitive to that than Los Angeles. Hip people wanted to hear original rock music, and they wanted new things. Valentine had another club, The Trip, further down the strip at 8572 Sunset (at Londonderry Place). At The Trip, rock bands with new albums would play a week or two of gigs and move on. This was a much better model for Hollywood, with a growing record industry eager to support new venues. For various reasons that are murky--because no one ever asked Valentine--he changed the booking strategy of The Whisky in January 1966, and he had closed The Trip by June 1966.

The Whisky was in a unique position. It was at a fulcrum of the rock recording industry, it was in a busy nightlife district with a lot of foot traffic, and Southern California car culture encouraged people to come to West Hollywood 12 months a year, since the weather was always good. The Whisky generally booked three bands. Two would be bands with records, and they would generally play a week or sometimes two. There was also always a local band booked for several weeks that always played. Since bands, even famous ones, were only paid union scale, if one of the acts had a gig elsewhere in Southern California, they just played it. They either skipped their first set at the Whisky, or skipped the night altogether. Enough bands were booked that there was always original live music played at The Whisky, a nice guarantee for walk-ins.

Since Whisky gigs didn't really pay well, bands often canceled or changed around their dates, and other bands took their place. It being Hollywood and all, sometimes bands that filled in were more famous than the bands they replaced. Groups like The Byrds would use The Whisky the way San Francisco bands would use The Matrix (or later Keystone Berkeley) to jam with their friends, or try out new material or band members. The Hollywood Whisky formula worked until 1975, but none of that would or could be translated to any of the franchises.


The San Francisco branch of the Whisky-A-Go-Go, at 568 Sacramento Street, had it's grand opening on April 18, 1965 (this ad is from the SF Chronicle of April 18 '65). Johnny Rivers, the anchor act of the West Hollywood Whisky, was the headliner. He did not return to perform at the SF Whisky.
The Whisky A-Go-Go, 568 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA
The San Francisco branch of the Whisky-A-Go-Go opened in April 1965. The grand opening was on April 18, and it featured Johnny Rivers, who was the star attraction at the West Hollywood Whisky. Original partners Elmer Valentine and Phil Tarzini were announced as partners in the San Francisco operation. In one way, the opening was prescient: the rock market was exploding, and San Francisco was about to become the hottest city in rock music for the balance of the decade. Yet the SF Whisky had no impact on the City music scene, and it was only open for two years. No fans recall it, no bands recall playing there, and until I started researching it the club's history was a blank. To this day, Rita Chesterton is the only person I have ever been in contact with or read about who recalls going there.

A number of things stood in the way of the success of the SF Whisky:
  • The location was terrible for a rock club. 568 Sacramento, between Sansome and Montgomery, was right downtown. It was in the financial district, near the stock exchange, which was hardly a hotbed of rock and rollers (not until the Options Floor opened 11 years later, at least).
  • The West Hollywood Whisky was on the Sunset Strip, a nightlife district full of bars and clubs, many with music. Sacramento Street was a long way from North Beach or Broadway, SF's nighttime district. Add to this that San Francisco, unlike Los Angeles, was hilly and windy, unlike flat and warm Southern California. After several drinks, no man would want to make his date or wife walk several blocks in high heels at night in San Francisco to or from Broadway. So there was little chance of walk-in traffic.
  • The Whisky made its money at the bar. The rock audience in San Francisco, however, was mostly under drinking age. And even the older hippies had other preferences for getting a buzz on, even if they didn't necessarily object to having a drink. So the bar at the Whisky was as more of a hindrance than an attraction.
  • San Francisco is very insular, particularly with respect to music. San Franciscans will see a lousy band if they are seen as unique or cutting edge, and that applies double for local bands, since SF sees itself as the center of the universe. Important bands from out-of-town are often looked down upon in San Francisco, because The City sees other places as culturally inferior. For its first year, through early 1966, The SF Whisky mostly booked lesser acts that played at the bottom of the bill in West Hollywood. Whisky regulars Cory Wells and The Enemies, for example, were probably a pretty good club band--Wells had a few singles and ended up as one of the singers in Three Dog Night--but that would have attracted no interest in San Francisco. SF would support its own second tier bands, but not ones from Los Angeles.
  • The Fillmore and Avalon made each weekend booking a special event. The Whisky had the old cabaret model, where the same band would play several sets for a week or two, and tried to sell familiarity over specialness. That was the complete opposite of the interests of San Francisco rock fans at the time.



An ad for the SF Whisky-A-Go-Go, from the SF Chronicle of February 4, 1967. The Aliens were a pretty hip band from the Mission, who played proto-Latin Rock, but they were just a cover band. The Fencing Exhibitions were apparently topless, a subject that invites speculation.
Near the end of its existence, in later 1966 and early 1967, the SF Whisky booked more local groups, and some of them were pretty good. A group called The Aliens played there regularly. The Aliens were the children of Hispanic immigrants (and in some cases, immigrants themselves) and played an early iteration of "Latin Rock." They were all friends with Carlos Santana, whom they knew from Mission High, so they played an early part in the Santana story (timbalero Chepito Areas was a member of The Aliens around 1967-68). But until its final month, the SF Whisky never had any of the hip underground bands that played the other SF ballrooms. The Haight Street longhairs were looking at posters in shop windows, not reading the SF Chronicle entertainment pages, so they probably had no knowledge that the SF Whisky was even open. Around February 1967, it is clear that the SF Whisky changed management, in a last-ditch effort to capture some of the happening ballroom scene. Elmer Valentine, becoming ever more famous after 1965, never seem to have mentioned the SF Whisky again, nor any of the other branches.

The only color poster for a show at the SF Whisky, a two week booking for The Doors and The Peanut Conspiracy starting on February 14. The Doors only played the first weekend, and persuaded The Wildflower to play the balance of the dates.
A newspaper ad for the Doors at the SF Whisky
The Love Conspiracy Commune
In the final months of the SF Whisky, at least some of the bookings seem to have been turned over to a peculiar group called The Love Conspiracy Commune. According to Haight-Ashbury historian and Rolling Stone writer Charles Perry, they were pot dealers from Chapel Hill, NC. Some other accounts suggest even shadier connections (specifically a Michael Lydon article in Rolling Stone from February 10, 1968). Because of the history of poster collecting, the Love Conspiracy's poster for a two-week booking of The Doors and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy at the SF Whisky in February 1967 is generally the only trace of the club.

In fact, according to the best accounts of The Doors concert chronology, the Doors only played the first weekend (February 14-15). It's not clear whether the topless fashion and fencing displays were active at night, or only at the Businessman's Lunch, but the Doors definitely did not like the vibe. Only a few dozen people showed up, even though the Doors' debut album had just been released. The Doors persuaded a San Francisco band, The Wildflower, to take over the balance of the dates. The Peanut Butter Conspiracy were a sort of Los Angeles version of the Jefferson Airplane, not a bad band actually, but exactly the sort of LA group that would be dismissed with a sneer by the hip City underground.

The Love Conspiracy Commune promoted a concert with the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape and The Loading Zone on March 3, 1967 at Winterland.
The Love Conspiracy Commune, whoever exactly they were, promoted a concert at Winterland on Friday, March 3, 1967, with the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Loading Zone and Blue Crumb Truck Factory. It is worth noting that in the 60s, promoting rock concerts was a common way to launder money for pot dealers who mostly dealt in cash. The Love Conspiracy seems to have had enough cash to book The Doors at the Whisky and four bands at Winterland, not a common resource for hippie communes.



An SF Chronicle ad from March 15, 1967 for the end of the March booking at The Whisky-A-Go-Go, San Francisco, for the Grateful Dead. The wording suggests that Wednesday March 15 was the last date, even though they were originally scheduled through March 16.
March 10-12, 14-15, 1967 The Whisky-A-Go-Go, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead
This strange, forgotten history of the San Francisco Whisky, lost in the shadow of its famous West Hollywood forebear, had always thrown the Dead's booking into the shadows. No one recalled the show, no one taped it, no one reviewed it, and there were no eyewitness accounts. However, the poster at the top of the post, which must hardly have circulated, indicates that the Love Conspiracy Commune also booked the Dead at the SF Whisky. In any case, the original booking (see the ad above) was from Friday March 10 through Thursday March 16, skipping just Monday (where Pete and Coke Escovedo's band filled in, possibly including then 7-year-old Sheila E). The wording of the ad however, suggests that Wednesday March 15 was the last night for the Dead. The ad says "opening Tuesday! The Coasters." The Coasters had headlined over the Warlocks at the In Room just 18 months earlier. They would hardly excite the San Francisco underground.

Artist Andy Jurinko's diary entry for March 11, 1967, confirming his trip to see the Grateful Dead that night at the San Francisco Whisky A-Go-Go with his wife, Rita Chesterton.
March 11, 1967
Given that the SF Whisky stopped advertising after April 9, and may have closed before then, I had always assumed that the Dead had not actually played there in March. But I am happy to report that I was wrong, as Rita Chesterton has confirmed the event with the photo up above. As if that wasn't enough, she scanned the page of her husband's diary for March 11, 1967 (above), where Jurinko wrote:
Rain stopped, had breakfast and took Rita to S.F. for hair dressing appt. Stopped in Bally's afterwards. Rita spilled coffee. Bought nice pair of shoes. Started to rain. Went to S.F. again in P.M to see Grateful Dead at Whisky A-Go-Go. Dead crowd. Left early.
According to Rita's admittedly vague recollection, there were less than 100 people at the Whisky to see the show, and this was on a Saturday night. The crowd was subdued, which suggests they were not particularly Dead fans, but perhaps just club regulars. Jurinko's comment that it was a "Dead crowd" seems to refer to the indifference of the audience, rather than any reference to Deadheads. Rita did recall that there was a stripper pole and waitresses danced on stage, although she doesn't recall if they were topless.

The quasi-stripper dancers were a weird throwback--the Warlocks had backed a topless dancer at the In Room, and played a topless joint in North Beach (Pierre's), but the Grateful Dead seemed to have graduated from that. In the future, of course, women would regularly dance on stage with the band, as late as 1974, and sometimes they would not wear that much. But these were generally friends of the band, very different than being paid staff hired to encourage drinkers to get all hot and sweaty. The San Francisco Whisky was like a time portal, parked in hip San Francisco on the verge of the Summer Of Love, but looking backwards to the early 60s record industry, where selling drinks were the order of the day.


Coda

In 2011, 568 Sacramento Street, the former site of the San Francisco Whisky-A-Go-Go, was a sandwich shop in the financial district, near the Options Floor (Sacramento between Sansome and Montgomery). It is now Leo's Oyster Bar.

The SF Whiskey only advertised in the SF Chronicle for the next few weekends. For most of the next few weeks, the house band seemed to be a local band called Terry And The Pirates (starting March 17 or before). The Coasters played the week following the Grateful Dead (March 21-26). Bill Haley was scheduled for a weekend (March 31)--not exactly a happening act--but he canceled, replaced by Jackie "The Duck" Lee. The final advertised weekend was April 6-9, with Chris Montez and Terry And The Pirates, who had apparently played all the other dates as well. The San Francisco Whisky disappeared without a trace. When I went looking for the SF Whisky-A-Go-Go in 2011, it was a sandwich shop. Now it appears to be a tony oyster bar, a far more appropriate use for a Financial District building than a rock and roll club. The Options Floor is still open, but all the traders are now too old to rock and roll.

But it happened. The Grateful Dead played at the San Francisco Whisky-A-Go-Go, to no more than 100 people on Saturday, March 11, 1967. Thanks to the late Andy Jurinko and his wife Rita Chesterton, we have a photo and a contemporary diary entry to confirm it. It was a strange gig, a look into a prior world that had already disappeared by 1967, with paid dancing girls and topless fencing on site, the very world that the Grateful Dead were so instrumental in dismantling.


5 comments:

  1. Fascinating to read about the SF Whiskey-a-Go-Go and the reasons it failed. Considering it opened up months before the more famous rock ballrooms in SF, you'd think it would have had an advantage, but the owners seem to have really miscalculated.
    I think you're right to compare it to the kind of bars the Warlocks had played back in '65. The Dead seem quite different than the usual fare there. The Doors couldn't even draw a crowd there, so that place must have been on the ropes.

    A small "dead crowd" to see the Dead on a Saturday night in SF...(and the only couple we know who went left early). What went amiss? The Dead's shows there had newspaper ads and a poster, so the location may have been a factor, along with the generally uncool vibe of the club. And the age barrier would have been an issue for younger fans. Plus the Dead were regularly playing the Fillmore, Avalon, and even Winterland - it may be that even the fans who wanted to see the band repeatedly knew they'd soon get other chances, at places they'd rather go to.

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  2. Georgetown is a neighborhood within Washington DC, not a separate municipality outside of it.

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  5. Thanks Corry for all the great reading -- a great accompaniment to the 2017 GD/KPFA Marathon

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