I started playing saxophone at 11 years old. I was fortunate to be in public school when you had music classes five days a week. I played in big bands through high school and college and joined my first rock and roll garage band (The Saints) at 16 and I was hooked! I knew what I wanted to do with my life! The Beatles and Stones had just hit the States and we immediately started learning their music (as well as writing some of our own) and playing at the local teen club and any Battle of the Bands… Show more we could find. After high school I started playing in folk clubs (The Drinking Gourd, Cedar Alley Coffee House, The Motherlode, The Orion, The Blue Unicorn) and on strategic street corners in San Francisco.
From 1966 to 1970 we somehow found our way to the original Fantasy Records on Treat Street in San Francisco. Max Weiss, the owner and recording engineer, would sign you to Galaxy Records, take over your publishing, and let you record for free. He was always looking for that big pop single hit record. While recording and hanging out we met The Golliwogs (later to become Creedence Clearwater Revival), Rodger Collins (She's Lookin Good) and pianist Vince Guaraldi. Max even arranged an opportunity for me to sit in with Vince one night at a club called The Matrix on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
In the early '70s, I joined a band named Shadowfax and moved north just across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. At the time there was a great music scene there. In a rehearsal space called The Heliport in Sausalito about 15 bands had one room studios. A lot of broke musicians that moved there from other parts of the country lived in them as well. There was an early Pablo Cruise and we shared our space with Marty Balin and his band, Bodacious. Lots of illegal substances. It was insane.
In 1977 I got my first job with a national touring and recording act, Lenny Williams, who had just come from a successful stint with Tower of Power (singing What is Hip?, So Very Hard to Go, Don't Change Horses). He landed his own recording contract with ABC Records and needed a touring band. I auditioned, got the gig, and hopped on a jet the next day. From 1977-1980 we toured constantly with acts like Natalie Cole, Pattie Labelle, and Teddy Pendergrass. Also during this period, we did one-nighters with Richard Pryor, Grover Washington, The Crusaders, and a lot of other great artists. I got to play in most of the big venues around the country and lived in hotels and tour buses.
In 1980 the band split up and I went back to a thriving music scene in Marin county. Between working with many local bands, sessions at The Record Plant in Sausalito, and a short, but exciting and lucrative tour with Tommy Johnston from the Doobie Brothers, I was able to make a living. One of the highlights of this period was playing a club named The Sweetwater in Mill Valley, CA every Sunday for three years. Lead by a great guitarist and showman, Peter Walsh, this band backed up guests like Clarence Clemens, Doc Kupka, Elvis Costello, and Huey Lewis. Even Herb Caen came and played drums one night. I owe a lot to Jeannie Patterson, owner of the Sweetwater club from the 1970s to the 1990s, for many excellent musical experiences at her nightclub. Twice I was invited to sit-in at John Lee Hooker's birthday parties he held there every year (once playing an opening set with Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Austin deLone). She also was one of the first people to hire The Tommy Castro Band outside of the North Beach neighborhood.
Sometime around 1984 I auditioned for and got the gig with the Marty Balin Band. I spent a lot of time at The Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms in the mid to late '60s seeing an incredible variety of musical acts thanks to Bill Graham and Chet Helms. One any given night you could catch a bill like Cream, Charles Lloyd and Richie Havens. If you've seen any of those old posters you know the diversity of the music available those days.
One of my favorite bands was Jefferson Airplane, so I was very excited about working with Marty. Also, Marty was one of the only bandleaders to pay a weekly salary whether you gigged or not. Marty owned an old church that served as a rehearsal hall. We would rehearse 4 or 5 days a week and knew about 150 songs. That's a lot of stuff to remember! One day Paul Kantner and Jack Cassidy showed up and asked Marty about putting the act back together. The band was called the KBC Band. We made a record with Clive Davis on Arista records, produced by the legendary Jim Gaines (who also produced two Tommy Castro records). Some of the highlights of that experience were being in my first MTV video, singing harmony with Marty on the Airplane song, Today, and creating an instrumental hook for the Kantner song, America.
As that band was disintegrating, I got a call from Bob Brown, manager of Huey Lewis and the News, asking if I wanted to audition for the house band of a new club in San Francisco called Slim's. I got the job and started working with a great singer and songwriter, Michael Duke, who wrote Doing It All For My Baby, I Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do, and sang with the band Wet Willie. I also worked with Texas guitarist Bill Campbell, who has become a lifelong friend. The band was created in the style of Little Richard and Fats Domino (three saxes, no brass) and named The Solid Senders. We would play every Monday night and on the weekends to back-up great blues and R&B touring acts. I played behind Albert Collins, James Cotton, Big Jay McNeeley, Bonnie Raitt, Huey Lewis, Joe Louis Walker, Elvin Bishop, and once again, John Lee Hooker.
During this time I got a call to play on a session for a Commander Cody record called "Let's Rock" on Blind Pig Records. I did the record and ended up joining the band. For the next three years I toured with the band.
During the '80s I had a couple of other ongoing gigs that allowed me to work with a lot of incredible artists. About 1983, a friend of mine from the coffeehouse days, Will Porter, asked if I wanted to work behind some soul and R&B acts. I played with Mary Wells, Sam Moore, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Platters, Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Leslie Gore, the Dixie Cups, Del Shannon, and Frankie Valli. I also played and became friends with the great rock and roll sax player Steve Douglas. This was one of the gigs I kept working until I joined The Tommy Castro Band.
Also during the '80s, every year I would play at the Bill Graham Civic Center in the house band for the Bay Area Music Awards. I developed a lot of the skills I would need to use on Comedy Showcase with Tommy in the '90s. In 1990 I moved to San Francisco and started working with blues bands in North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf. Here I met Tommy, Randy, Shad, and most importantly, my wife Marianne. I first heard Tommy sing at a club called Lou's Pier 47 with The Dynatones and he knocked me out! So when he called me about doing a gig with him and Randy in North Beach I accepted and we've been working together for 17 years.
After a million miles of traveling, ten thousand gigs and 11 records with the Tommy Castro Band I decided to make my own. I've named it "Beatnik Jungle". The title refers to an area in San Francisco called North Beach. This is the neighborhood where the band got it's start. There were three bars: The Lost and Found, the Grant and Green and The Saloon ( which still has blues 7 nights a week) that supported a great blues scene. It is the place where the great poets and writers of the Beat era produced their works. Hence, the Beatnik part of the title. During the early 90's, when I worked there with Tommy and the band, I found it was still a place full of great writers, poets, painters and musicians, but also it could be a very dangerous place for me. Hence, the Jungle part.
The music in this record reflects the experience of growing up and surviving as a musician. Big Band jazz, garage band rock & roll, R&B and even the late Folk scene in S.F. are things that shaped these songs. I hope you enjoy them.
- Keith Crossan
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