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Hambone Kelly's Narrative
by Jon Bashor
Editor’s note: Despite living in El Cerrito since 1989, I had never heard of Hambone Kelley’s nor Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band until I came across some LPs at the Albany Goodwill store on Jan. 4, 2017. Intrigued by the covers, I picked out the albums and was surprised to see the references to the nightclub in El Cerrito. That discovery led me down a rabbit hole of internet searches which yielded many bits and pieces. I combined this information with the sleeve notes on the albums to produce this narrative.
For nearly four years after World War II, El Cerrito was home to an eight-man jazz band credited by many with helping drive the revival of traditional New Orleans-style jazz on the West Coast. From 1947 until the dawning of Jan. 1, 1950, Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, or YBJB, held sway in Hambone Kelly’s, a nightclub that was often packed to its 400-plus capacity.
Formed in 1939, the YBJB originally played in the Dawn Club at 20 Annie Street, just south of Market Street, in San Francisco. Watters was drafted into the U.S. Navy during the war, leading a big band in the Navy. While the YBJB carried on without him in San Francisco, Watters’ leadership was missed, and the Dawn Club was closed when he returned from the war and discovered that no one had been paying taxes for the club or the band, according to the Cryptically Speaking blog.
Setting the scene
“San Pablo Avenue, a wide, well-traveled thoroughfare running from downtown Oakland to San Pablo, once accommodated the Lincoln Highway and later US 40. Between these two points and in the vicinity of El Cerrito, travelers passed through an unincorporated area featuring nightlife activities, both legal and illegal. A Reno/Las Vegas atmosphere prevailed, offering gambling, off-track betting, slots, prostitution, bars, dinner clubs, dancing and western music.
“Perhaps the most recognized name to appear in neon lights along San Pablo Avenue was Sally Rand's Hollywood Club. Following a most successful two-year appearance of her “Nude Ranch” at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, she moved her club and the girls to 204 San Pablo Avenue, and featured nude girls dancing behind balloons and fans. This club lent a higher degree of class and glamour to this unincorporated area. Sally's club apartment featured simulated leopard-skin carpeting which covered both the floor and the walls. Her venture only lasted through the war years.”
Next door to Hambone Kelly’s stood the Castro Adobe, former home of Victor Castro who had the Mexican land grant for the area. The adobe had been converted into an elegant nightclub and gambling casino. Other establishments in the area included the It Club, the Hotsy Totsy Bar, the Kona Club, Six Bells (or Belles, according to one source), the 7 Mile House and the Wagon Wheel -- perhaps the wildest of them all. Other clubs along San Pablo Avenue shown in a late 1940s phone book include Alvarado Garden, Backstage, Club Pablo, Club Thunderbird, Jungle Inn, Kountry Inn, Todds Club and the Miami Club.
YBJB’s clarinettist Bob Helm describes the Wagon Wheel in notes on the back of Vol. 4 of the YBGB’s album on Homespun Records: “The non-stop, twenty-four hour Wagon Wheel had just about everything in gambling and entertainment -- cards, dice, roulette and off-track betting with an all-track wire service. Race results were chalked on the manned blackboards. The building’s back lot was enclosed by a high board fence, with benches around the inside, accommodating perhaps four hundred handicappers. These were filled by noon of every race day.
“While Hambone’s never had gambling, there was a complete set-up for it in the two-story house on the back part of the parking lot. The craps table was in the main room, and there were some suspiciously cribby-looking cubicles upstairs. Several neighbors admitted there had been lots of action in the establishment during the previous ownerships.”
According to the unattributed sleeve notes on Vol. 2 of YBGB’s music on Homespun Records, the Hollywood Club was the perfect place for the band to settle in. “The huge restaurant and night club, seating 400 in the main dining room, had belonged to Sally Rand during World War II. The former Chicago World’s Fair fan dancer and her two business partners came to a parting of the ways in 1945. The decision must have been sudden, for clarinettist Bob Helm recalls that when he and Lu looked at the establishment in the spring of 1947, tablecloths were still on the tables, silverware and plates still in place, food on the plates, half-finished drinks on the bar.”
The YBGB opened Hambone Kelly’s on Friday the 13th, in June 1947.
“It was a lucky Friday, heralding the beginning of a successful three-and-a-half-year engagement, music five nights a week to an enthusiastic, packed house for most of the period. The main key to this accomplishment was the type of music, riding a crest then, and the great YBJB,” the Vol. 2 sleeve notes continue. “There were other contributing factors. Hambone’s was located on the Alameda-Contra Costa county line. San Pablo Avenue, in this part of the city, resembled a Vegas Strip -- seven big clubs featuring name acts. In the nearby unincorporated sections, gambling was permitted. Horse parlors and slot machines did a booming business. People from the Bay area and tourists visiting San Francisco came over to El Cerrito for a little fun gambling, and, as it turned out, a lot of jazz.”
“The odds are that there will never be another jazz night club like Hambone Kelly's. With today's cost-effective approach to everything, it just would not ‘pencil out.’ For one thing, the place was really big. Even the parking lot was much larger than any jazz club I can recall. Maybe that's why Hambone's was torn down and became part of what is now a shopping center.
“I recall that upon entering Hambone's you were greeted by Pat Watters (Lu's wife), and nearby was a policeman. Being underage at the time, this made me apprehensive. But after becoming a ‘regular’ by going there two to three times a week, my confidence level increased. Later I found the policeman was there only to prevent trouble, so I sweated for nothing.
“Once past that duo, you walked into a large, tiered dining area and what was called the front bar with jazz tune titles printed in white letters on a red background behind the bar. That idea came from the Dawn Club days when the Yerba Buena Jazz Band had table mats with printed tune titles. Hanging in the bar was a print of a happy man with a black top hat, string tie and red jacket who was called Hambone Kelly. Actually it was "The Gay Philosopher," which at the time was a very popular painting [or a character created] by Henry Major (gay had an entirely different meaning in the '40s).
“At the other end of the room was a large bandstand, but Hambone's didn't end there. For one thing, there were living accommodations upstairs, which made one wonder what they originally were used for. There was a good-sized kitchen and the place many of us went during breaks--the back bar, which was where Willie the bartender held court. This was also where the musicians went between sets, that is, all except leader/trumpeter/chef Lu Watters, who probably still holds the speed record for getting to the kitchen after a set.”
And a busy kitchen it was. An online poster notes that dinners were served six nights a week from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and that ala carte items were available until 1 a.m. The menu also said “We specialize in banquets and can seat up to 500 people. And for those who wanted food to go, barbecued chicken, spare ribs, beef tips and lamb were available from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. “These dishes are put up in special heat-retaining packages and are always a treat for parties and picnics.”
And a little more info from the Vol. 2 sleeve notes: “A long bar extended across the front of Hambone Kelly’s. Instead of mirrors behind the bar, the titles of all the songs in the band’s repertoire were painted on the wall. When you turned around, you faced the band, which played on a stage at the end of the room. Between the bar and the band were two or three levels filled with tables and chairs, leading down to the dance floor in front of the stage. It was always jammed with dancers. Behind this main room was a barroom which could accommodate a couple of hundred people. The music was piped in from the stage. At the height of the band’s popularity, there were often 800 to 1,000 customers on a weekend night.”
Helm adds some other memories in the Vol. 4 notes: “Hambone Kelly’s was owned and operated by the band, which was a cooperative venture in itself. The members, as a result, were assigned double or triple duty. Lu Watters, head chef, became so involved in his menus that often when band time came around, he would race from kitchen to bandstand still in his chef’s cap and apron, just in time to grab his trumpet. Lu’s wife, Pat, lined up the waitresses, rang up the registers, and served drinks at the bar. I was a bartender myself, until the first set. During intermissions, Dick Lammi (tuba) showed old-time movies. When the doors closed at 2:00 A.M., after a rousing night of jazz, club business still had to be taken care of. At the same time, let’s face it, we did enjoy a few drinks recalling the high spots of the evening. Sometimes those few drinks stretched until dawn. But that was Hambone Kelly’s.
“Like the time a robber locked up our chef Lu Watters in the walk-in meat freezer. And the time Lammi tried to argue with Lu’s parrot. When parrots bite they don’t easily let go. It’s a little painful playing the tuba with a sore finger.”
About the YBJB
By the time YBJB settled into Hambone’s, it was an eight-piece band. In addition to Watters on trumpet, Helm on clarinet and Lammi on tuba, the lineup was Don Noakes on trombone (followed by Warren Smith), Wally Rose on piano, Pat Patton on banjo, Clancy Hayes on banjo and vocals and Bill Dart on drums. Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey had already left the band to form their own groups.
“Watters did not add a second trumpet after Scobey’s departure,” according to sleeve notes on Vol. 2, which was recorded at Hambone Kelly’s between December 1949 and February 1950 . “As a result, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band sounds quite different from the old two-trumpet outfit, so reminiscent of Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band from the early Twenties. The band has the same punch and drive, but with a looser, freewheeling style.”
“Watters believes the most important requirements for jazz are taste and recklessness. The words may at first appear to be contradictory, but perhaps it is a combination of the two qualities that led to the wonderful balance achieved on these tunes. Recklessness -- the ability to take chances during the performances, even at the expense of flaws and imperfections, which doesn’t matter in the long run, if spirited improvisation is captured. Taste -- playing musically, keeping within the framework of the jazz idiom. The Yerba Buena Jazz Band has it. Listen to Shake that Thing. Compare this to some of the wild, tasteless New York “dixieland” jazz bands of the Forties and Fifties. Jazz standards, such as St. James Infirmary, When the Saints Go Marching In, and Tin Roof Blues, beaten to a thousand deaths by these Eastern bands, acquire a fresh, new life in the hands of the YBJB. Some of the lesser-known numbers -- Roll, Jordan Roll, My Little Bimbo, and Peoria, gain a distinctive luster through the vocals of Clancy Hayes. Emperor Norton’s Hunch and Doin’ the Hambone, both instrumentals, are Lu’s own compositions. The dancers used to take the breaks on the latter tune, Lu remembers.”
For Vol. 4, “The tunes on this record album come from a wide variety of sources. The mating dance of the sage grouse -- a western bird, inspired the title of Lu Watters’ original Sage Hen Strut. Ostrich Walk, named after a dance invented by Irene and Vernon Castle, was popularized by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz group ever to record. Clancy Hayes sings Silver Dollar, a favorite of the San Francisco rounders, gamblers and high-rollers, as well as his personal choice, the old minstrel tune, Oh By Jingo. Incidentally, Lu Watters was out of commission on trumpet for seven months in 1949, because of an operation, so switched to washboard. He plays washboard on Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, the famous Bert Williams minstrel number. Beale Street Blues, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me, all hardy perennials, have been done by everybody in music since the 20’s. Collectors of Bix Beiderbecke will recognize Copenhagen -- a noteworthy song, and not bad for breaks, either.
“Sailing Down Chesapeake Bay, with Clancy doing the vocal, and Lu on washboard, was one of the riverboat, excursion-motivated songs that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the early 1900s. Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner, a pre-Colonel Sanders cakewalk extolling the virtues of “southern fried” chicken, was exhumed and introduced at one of the sessions at the Big Bear Tavern in Oakland in ‘38-’39 -- the beginning of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band.”
The end of an era
Bob Helm wrote in the Vol. 4 notes that “From its grand opening on Friday the 13th, June, 1947, the club went over in a big way. For a couple of years the crowds rolled in and business boomed. Then our luck changed. As parts of the area became more respectable, it lost its attraction as the East Bays’ “strip.” Many of the full-time night clubs featuring name entertainment were forced to close or cut their overhead. The Kona, across San Pablo Avenue from Hambone’s, folded. Next door, the elegant Rancho San Pablo, with high-stakes gambling, went “belly up.” The Six Bells and the It Club still held on. The Wheel hung on, but its various fun and games were cut out.
“By December of 1950, Hambone’s was reduced to two nights of music per week. Had it been packed on those nights, we could have continued a little longer. But it wasn’t in the cards and the overhead did the place in. New Year’s Eve of ‘51 wound up Hambone Kelly’s and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band.”
Today, the site of Hambone Kelly’s and the Castro Adobe (which was torched by an arsonist in 1956 during a debate over preserving it or demolishing it) is occupied by the El Cerrito Plaza shopping center. The Wagon Wheel is home to the Eagles lodge (which offers bingo games) and the 7 Mile House corner is home to Mechanics Bank. The IT Club moved to Berkeley in the 1980s as a last gasp, its location taken by a dental practice.
The building that housed Hambone Kelly’s has long ceased to exist,” concludes the anonymous author of the sleeve notes on Vol. 2. “The driving, exuberant jazz of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which played and recorded in Hambone Kelly’s, lives.”
“Looking back, twenty-four years later, I can say I really got my kicks playing clarinet in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band,” concluded Bob Helm.
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