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Out of the Ashes, Into the ’60s

One of many interesting footnotes about the great earthquake and fire that leveled much of San Francisco in 1906 is that the great Italian tenor, Enrico

One of many interesting footnotes about the great earthquake and fire that leveled much of San Francisco in 1906 is that the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, was in the city at the time of the catastrophe. On April 17, he had given a brilliant performance in a production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Mission Opera House. Early the next morning, he was rattled out of bed by the ‘quake, and he and others in the traveling opera company were forced to escape the city as fires consumed building after building — including the Opera House.

The San Francisco that grew up out of the ashes of that fire was a city of contrasts. Wealthy bankers, industrialists and shipping magnates populated the nicer neighborhoods, while most of the city was made up of working-class folks of every stripe and teeming with immigrants: Chinese who’d come over beginning with the Gold Rush, and then waves of Irish, Italian and Spanish. Like any major city, San Francisco was home to many kinds of music. The San Francisco Symphony was established in 1911. The San Francisco Opera was formed in 1923, with its magnificent War Memorial Opera House completed in 1932. Around the rest of the city, the music reflected the times: Ragtime and stride piano could be heard in saloons and brothels. (Jelly Roll Morton played S.F. in the teens.) Jazz bands popped up in the area during the ’30s. Local orchestras (including one fronted by José Garcia, father of future Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia) played at dances around the city.

In the Fillmore and Tenderloin districts, particularly after the Second World War when there was a large influx of African Americans, there was an explosion of jazz and blues clubs: Ella Fitzgerald might be at the Long Bar, while Slim Gaillard held court at the Booker T. Washington Hotel. There was the Dawn Club, Club Alabam, Club Sullivan, The Blue Mirror, The Dragon Lady (in Chinatown) and for those after-midnight jam sessions, Jimbo’s Bop City. There was also a major revival of traditional jazz spurred by some white players: Lu Watters, who led the Yerba Buena Jazz band, and Turk Murphy, who settled into a bar called Earthquake McGoon’s and was a fixture in the city for decades. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the place to hear great jazz was a dive called the Blackhawk. Miles and Monk both released albums recorded there, and West Coast jazz titans such as Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, Art Pepper and Gerry Mulligan were regulars. Bigger shows by the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles would more likely be at the Longshoremen’s Hall. South of San Francisco, the Monterey Jazz Festival started in 1958 and became the biggest annual gathering of its kind on the West Coast.


There wasn’t much of a recording scene in San Francisco until the end of the ’60s. Los Angeles was already well established as the West Coast’s recording center. Most of the work done in San Francisco’s few, mostly small, facilities was radio and television commercials for Bay Area stations and occasional music recording for local record companies. In the early and mid-’60s, much of the business in town went to three studios.

Musicians Lloyd Pratt and Steve Atkins started Commercial Recording in a former firehouse on Natoma Street. “It still had the pole,” recalls Dan Healy, who got his first engineering job there in 1963 and later went on to work with the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver and other top S.F. bands. “The studio was on the second floor and there were live echo chambers in the basement. Virtually all of the commercials made in San Francisco came out of that studio. Later, when the rock scene was happening, I used to sneak in bands after hours and record them there. We’d be up all night with the Dead or Steve Miller, and we’d clean the place up as much as we could so they could do their regular work during the day.”

In the basement of the historic Sentinel Building at the corner of Kearny and Columbus in North Beach was Columbus Recorders, which began its life in the late ’50s as Trident Productions, owned by the manager of the locally based Kingston Trio, Frank Werber. The studio had a Langevin console and later was the first in the city to get a 3M 8-track. Many jazz and folk groups recorded there.

Inside Coast Recording Studios

Photo: Courtesy Universal Audio Archives/David Kulka

Over on Bush Street was Coast Recorders, where engineers Walt Payne, Mel Tanner and others did a wide variety of music and commercial work. Coast was the San Francisco base of audio pioneer Bill Putnam’s United Studio Group, which also included United and Western studios in L.A.

Much funkier, but still historically important, was Golden State Recorders. It was there in 1964 that the Beau Brummels recorded the first rock hit to come out of the Bay Area: “Laugh Laugh” for Autumn Records, a label owned by KYA radio DJs Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell. Always looking for talent, Donahue brought in all sorts of groups to record demos at Golden State, including, in 1965, the Emergency Crew, the nom du jour of the band that was about to become the Grateful Dead. Sylvester Stewart was an engineer there. A few years later as Sly Stone, he would become a superstar.


The San Francisco music explosion of the mid- and late ’60s was caused by a confluence of events: the formation of a zillion bands in the wake of the British Invasion; the arrival of copious amounts of marijuana from Mexico and locally produced LSD (which was legal until October 1966); and the rise of a bohemian counterculture — in part inspired by the Beatniks, who thrived in S.F. in the ’50s — united in its rejection of straight Madison Avenue society, its opposition to the growing War in Vietnam and its embrace of community, expanded consciousness and rock ‘n’ roll.

Haight-Ashbury was Ground Zero for the psychedelic movement, and it wasn’t long before record company scouts were turning up at the various dances where the local bands played — the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom being the most famous — hoping to sign the best of them. It’s interesting to note that the first albums by every major San Francisco group were recorded outside of the Bay Area at studios run by their record labels: Jefferson Airplane made its first four records at RCA Studios in L.A. The Grateful Dead’s first disc was cut at Warner Bros.’ studio in L.A. Quicksilver Messenger Service’s debut came out of Capitol in L.A. Big Brother & The Holding Company and Moby Grape were brought to Columbia Records’ studio in New York. Of the great bands of the first wave, only Country Joe & The Fish stayed local, cutting their fantastic first album at Sierra Sound in their native Berkeley.

Coast and Columbus Recorders both thrived during this period, too, though not because of business with major labels. But where else were lesser bands like the Mojo Men and Sopwith Camel going to record?

Engineer Fred Catero and producer David Rubinson relocated to San Francisco from New York to open Pacific Recording.

Back in New York, producer David Rubinson, who’d worked with Moby Grape, tried to convince his bosses at Columbia to open a studio in S.F., but they weren’t interested. So Rubinson left the label and, with his main engineer Fred Catero in tow, he moved to the Bay Area, initially hooking up with another transplant from New York, Bill Graham, who by the middle of 1967 had become the biggest promoter in San Francisco. “They were two double-‘A’ personalities,” Catero says with a laugh. Though the Graham/Rubinson business partnership did not work out, they remained friends and Rubinson quickly became a major player in the recording scene, setting up shop at Pacific Recording in San Mateo, a little south of San Francisco. Pacific had previously been operated by Jim Curcio and it was the first studio in the area to receive the ground-breaking MM1000 16-track made by the Ampex Corporation, whose headquarters was just down the road a ways. “It was fun and funky,” Catero recalls of Pacific. “There was no glitz at all, but there were some great records made there.” The first two Santana albums came out of Pacific, as did albums by Linda Ronstadt, Taj Mahal and many others.

Meanwhile, Paul Wesson and Sandy Jacobs, who’d run a small studio in the picturesque Marin County town of Sausalito, opened Pacific High Recording in a former plastics factory on Brady Alley in downtown San Francisco in 1969. Wesson designed the studio’s console himself, mostly from Electrodyne parts, and the large 50×60 main room quickly became a magnet for local bands. The Dead finished their third album, Aoxomoxoa, (begun at Pacific) there and in early 1970, cut Workingman’s Dead at Pacific High.

In June of ’69, Coast Recorders moved into expansive new facilities on Folsom at Fourth Street, a sign of United Studio Group’s commitment to San Francisco, which it dubbed “the new Nashville” in its newsletter.

As the ’60s came to a close, however, one of the most famous and influential studios the city would ever know was built by an “invader” from L.A.: Wally Heider Studios was constructed in a building on Hyde Street that once housed screening rooms and a soundstage for 20th Century Fox. Heider’s reputation preceded him from his exceptional facility in L.A., and in no time, the San Francisco studio eclipsed all others to become the bustling nerve center of the local recording scene. The studios — by 1971 there were four — boasted Ampex 16-tracks, the latest consoles (by Frank de Medio) and superb microphones. By year’s end, Jefferson Airplane had recorded their Volunteers album at

Heider’s; Creedence Clearwater Revival had booked the first
of many sessions there; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were busy working on Déjà Vu. That was just the beginning for Heider’s, and as a new decade arrived, there would be many more changes in the Bay Area recording scene.

Click here for more in-studio pics from the 1960s to now.