In Honor of Brubeck: Early Recording Around the Bay

Thank you Dave Brubeck, for giving us seven decades of incredible music.

In this great man’s honor, I dug through my book, If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour Through San Francisco Recording Studios, to see if I had any good Brubeck stories. I don’t have any at length, but I did find some info on one of his early record labels and its studio, Circle Records. I added the section on Sierra Sound Labs as a bonus. I remember researching for this chapter, thinking, if only I had more time and more pages, I could write at length about the music made here pre-1960s. If only If only… Happy reading. — Hj

Circle Records

Some sources question whether or not the small spot on Treat Street (an alley street in the Inner Mission district) could, as rudimentary as it was, even be called a studio. Right after World War II, Sol and Max Weiss started Circle Records as a pressing plant, issuing tiny titles mostly for the Chinese community. However, the Weiss brothers also owned a piece of the famous San Francisco jazz club Th e Blackhawk, and after recording a number of shows there, the pressing plant morphed into a small jazz label. Their first artist was an Oakland pianist named Dave Brubeck. When Brubeck’s recordings began to sell, they pursued their label ventures more aggressively, recording Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Cal Tjader, as well as Odetta, beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and comic Lenny Bruce.

“If they had facilities [on Treat Street] they weren’t very good,” recalls engineer George Horn. But engineer Jim Easton reportedly got his start in a studio at Circle Records and later went to work at Fantasy Records. A young John Fogerty worked in the stock room. A few years before Phil Edwards walked into Columbus Recorders for an engineering gig, he recorded at the Treat Street studio with his jazz band. “It had corrugated a tin roof that leaked and would leak into the piano when it rained,” he recalls. “Their entire record inventory was in this building, along with this sort-of studio. And Sol was this odd guy who explained that you couldn’t have too many mics in a room because it would suck all the audio out.”

My, how much we’ve learned. The Weiss brothers would later take over Koronet Records, the original home of Brubeck, rechristen their company Fantasy Records, and grow it into one of the most successful independent labels in the United States. And it all started by two visionary music lovers under a leaky tin roof.

 

Sierra Sound Labs

Robert DeSousa’s Sierra Sound Labs, located on the other side of the Bay Bridge in Berkeley, held sessions as early as 1955. These included regular visits from folklorist/producer Chris Strachwitz. Strachwitz founded Arhoolie Records and recorded albums for blues artists such as Tony De La Rosa, Sydney Maiden, Earl Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, K.C. Douglas, and various projects for Prestige Records, among many others. East Bay “Record Man” Jim Moore, founder of Jasman Records, brought in Joan Adams (the singer that reportedly inspired him to start a label) and the Bay Area’s beloved blues queen, Sugar Pie DeSanto, in the early 1960s.

During this time, the East Bay flourished with a scene quite different than the city across the Bay. In Oakland, Berkeley, and other communities around the area, small labels churned out folk, blues, R&B, and gospel, a lot of them with their own small recording setups. Many who didn’t record in-house

came to Sierra Sound to record on their custom console and Scully tape machine. The studio’s solid reputation later attracted the likes of psychedelic rock pioneers Country Joe and the Fish, who recorded their Vanguard debut, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, at Sierra Sound in 1967. To his credit, Country Joe continued to record locally while his musical peers headed for better-equipped L.A. and New York facilities.

The late 1960s saw acts such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Stonewall Jackson, Los Tigros del Norte, and a slew of Latin and other international acts at the studio. Jef Jaisun visited Sierra Sound Labs in 1969 to record “Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent,” which became sort of a cult classic when Dr. Demento started playing it on his radio show years later. He chose Sierra Sound Labs mainly because Country Joe had recorded there. On his website, Jaisun says that he had a grand time that day recording the goofy song around the jackhammers outside drilling the new Grove Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way) BART line about a half a block away.

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