The Legends of Bay Area Music

by Ben Fong-Torres

I have been invited to do the impossible: to name and explain my choices of Bay Area rock and pop artists who had the most impact on music. Yikes. Time and space are a-wastin’, so here we go:

San Francisco artists began impacting the music industry early on. There was Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” in 1957, Bobby Freeman’s 1958 hit, “Do You Want to Dance,” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” in 1963. But it was in the mid-Sixties, on the eve of the Summer of Love, when local musicians and bands emerged and evolved. Most of them were folk singers, jazzers, R&B and blues aficionados; fans of country and classical music who were intrigued by rock, but didn’t dive in until the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan showed the way. Rock music could say something substantial, as well as be fun, and these Bay Area bands had a lot to say. In speaking — and rocking — out, they rocked the world.

The Charlatans

They kicked off the San Francisco scene in 1965 — in a saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, where they dressed up like cowboys and played old-timey music – often on acid. They were more about image than music, and never had a hit record. In their midst, though, was Dan Hicks, who’d amble on to front the inimitable Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, doing originals like “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”

Jefferson Airplane

A blend of talent, attitude and glamour, provided by former model Grace Slick, the Airplane was the banner-bearer of the Summer of Love, although Slick was never into love songs. They were the first band to sign with a major label (RCA) with a decent contract, but always posited themselves against authority, with Paul Kantner lyrics like “Up against the wall, motherfuckers!”

Bay Area Rock and Roll albums

Grateful Dead

The Dead, whose members included a bluegrass wizard (Jerry Garcia), high society’s child and guitarist (Bob Weir), and a keyboardist known as “Pigpen,” didn’t care about making records. It was 20 years after they signed a recording deal that they had a hit, “Touch of Grey.” But they became masters of concerts and touring, drawing legions of “Deadheads” around the world. Even offshoots were influential: New Riders of the Purple Sage merrily mixed redneck country with hippie rock.

Big Brother and the Holding Company

Dominated by their female lead singer, the band never got due credit as a rock ensemble. But it was Janis Joplin, from Port Arthur, Texas, who caught everyone’s attention — including Clive Davis of Columbia Records and Albert Grossman, manager to the stars. Soon, Janis was one, and left Big Brother behind. But they were her launchpad.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Before John Fogerty, what did anybody know about music from Bayou country? Maybe that Fats Domino, or “Mother in Law,” came out of N’awlins. Along came CCR, evoking the Deep South, riverboat queens and chooglin’ on down to New Orleans. And these guys came out of El Cerrito.

Sly & the Family Stone

Sylvester Stewart, out of Vallejo, left multiple imprints on the music scene, not only as a songwriter, bandleader and performer, but, before all of that, as a record producer, working with The Beau Brummels, a Beatles-inspired combo and the first Bay Area rock band to hit the charts. As Joel Selvin wrote, “He transformed the first-generation soul of Ray Charles and James Brown into a new sound that came to be called funk. His music and stage act inspired Motown acts like the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, as well as the Ohio Players, Earth Wind and Fire, jazz adventurist Herbie Hancock, Prince and all the acts that they in turn inspired.

Bay Area Rock and Roll singerSantana

A native of Mexico, Carlos Santana came to town and triggered what would become a Latin rock scene. It was a multi-racial ensemble that soon fell apart, but Santana kept his band together, in one form or another. Two of the first departures, Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie, went on to form Journey, now best known for the use of their song “Don’t Stop Believin’” as a rallying cry for the Giants in 2014 and, five years before, as the last tune heard on The Sopranos. Bada-bing!

Country Joe & the Fish

They are forever known for one of the most popular anti-Vietnam war tunes (“The ‘Fish’ Cheer / I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag”), with Joe imploring the audience to spell out another four-letter word starting with an “F.” And, balancing the political darts, they delved into psychedelic sounds and onstage fun. Unlike most bands, whose members stood stiffly and played their instruments, the Fish brought whimsy to the stage, sometimes performing a pantomimed game of baseball, swinging their guitar necks at imagined balls.

Steve Miller

Let me count the ways Miller, born in Milwaukee and schooled in the blues in Chicago, impacted the music scene. How about 25,000? Approached by record labels, he was one of the first to demand what he felt he deserved: an unprecedented $25K up front and creative freedom. He paved the way for Quicksilver Messenger Service and others, even as he often derided them as mediocrities. Miller did have an ear for talent, including band mate Boz Scaggs and harmonica wizard Norton Buffalo.


Blue Cheer was one of the first heavy-metal bands out of the Bay Area, formed in 1967 and on radio with their crash-bang version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” the following year. But they didn’t survive. Metallica, formed in 1981, did, and, along the way, stood out by taking a stand against the .mp3 revolution, which changed the way artists got paid — or not. Metallica continues to get paid.

Bay Area Rock DrummerDead Kennedys

They punked punk rock with their name, whose purpose, leader Jello Biafra said, wasn’t to offend, but “to bring attention to the end of the American dream.” Their music was equally abrasive, and, from 1976 into the mid-’80s, they turned the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant, into a punk hotspot, whose visitors included Romeo Void with Debora Iyall. Punk lives on, thanks to the likes of Green Day, who would bring the music, for the first time, to Broadway, by way of “American Idiot.”

MC Hammer

Oakland’s gift to hip-hop and worldwide pants, Stanley Burrell was a freestyle pioneer and the first rap artist to earn a diamond record — meaning he sold more than 10 million copies of an album (Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, 1990). “As far as rap, the Bay helped to write the indie-rap book,” says music writer Eric Arnold, who names Too $hort, E-40, Hieroglyphics, Quannum, Mac Dre and Mistah Fab as pioneers, alongside Hammer.

Honorable Mentions

More: The Ace of Cups was the first all-female rock band. Dino Valenti of Quicksilver wrote “Get Together,” which became an anthem of the times.  The Edwin Hawkins Singers put gospel on the charts with “Oh Happy Day.” Sylvester took his glittery dance music from gay clubs to the Opera House. And numerous women, younger and older sisters of Grace and Janis, continue to be strong voices: Joan Baez, Sheila E., Lydia Pense, Tracy Nelson, Annie Sampson, Maria Muldaur, Penelope Houston, Linda Ronstadt, Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt, and many, many more. As I said: impossible.

Ben Fong-Torres

The Oakland native was portrayed in Almost Famous as what he was: an editor and writer at Rolling Stone, where he wrote more than 30 cover stories. He’s also a broadcaster, from KSAN in the ’70s to Moonalice Radio today, and currently writing the book for a musical set around the Summer of Love. Check out our exclusive 2017 interview with Torres for a deep dive on the rock and roll legend’s life and times.

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