BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Few people are likely to associate these names with Bakersfield music history: Ike and Tina Tuner, James Brown, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Billy Preston. But they’re part of that history as well, by way of the so-called Chitlin Circuit.
The music and lively action, in the side-by-side clubs and all along what was then called Lakeview Avenue, might be hard to imagine as you consider the way things look now. But 50 years ago, Lakeview was one of the liveliest stretches of road in what was once known as the Mayflower-Sunset District of southeast Bakersfield.
The energy was akin to the original Chitlin Circuit, an informal entertainment pipeline that brought black actors, comedians and musicians to venues throughout the country’s Eastern, Southern and Upper Midwest from the turn of century — during days of strict racial segregation — through the 1970s.
A latter day version of the circuit also brought them through California — and Bakersfield. Blues reviews, they called them.
While White folks were honky-tonking at clubs like the Blackboard and the Clover Club, Black folks were tearing it up on Lakeview Avenue — now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — at juke joints like the Cotton Club, the Delwood Club and Mom’s Place — from East California Avenue, across East Brundage, all the way south on Cottonwood to Planz Road — and eventually spilling out onto Union Avenue at mixed-race dance halls like the Rainbow Garden, later to be known as Harmony Garden. Today it’s the Kern County Basque Club.
Janie Randle was a regular at the clubs along Lakeview with her husband James Randle starting in 1962. Some clubs could be dangerous — shootings not uncommon, especially at places like the Delwood. But she had a great time.
“The Delwood Club was a club where you go in, and back in those days, they didn’t ask you for a liquor license or nothing like that,” she said. “They sold beer. You brought your own liquor in.”
The Cotton Club, across the street and down a block, owned by Jay and Emily Collins — was so much a favorite the Randles eventually bought it.
Now the building is a guitar shop and an auto parts store. At least those buildings are still standing. Many, like the Delwood, aren’t.
While Merle Haggard and Red Simpson were entertaining Okies a couple of miles away, a whole constellation of stars were coming through Bakersfield.
Little Richard. Fats Domino. B.B. King. Albert King. Bobby Blue Bland. Etta James. The Platters. Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Little Milton. Wilson Pickett. Ike turner — whose wife liked to come through Bakersfield because she had extended family here. Yes, that would be Tina Turner. Some of the groups that played here were homegrown, like the Paradons, whose lead singer, Charles Weldon, went on to become a Broadway actor, working with the likes of Denzel Washington and Cicely Tyson.
Weldon, like so many other blacks who came to Bakersfield in the 1940s, came to escape the poverty and deeply entrenched discrimination of the south — Arkansas, in the case of many. They settled in what became known as the Mayflower-Sunset District and worked as farm laborers, digging potatoes and picking cotton. As difficult as that was, most found it better than the place they’d left.
That was the case with bluesman Robert “Bilbo” Walker, a native of Bobo, Miss., who came to Bakersfield to pick cotton and ended up maintaining dual citizenship — the San Joaquin Valley and the Mississippi Blues Trail — for the rest of his life.
Like the Okies who worked in the oilfields to the north, the Mayflower District’s Blacks looked to live music for their weekend entertainment — rock, jazz, soul and especially the blues.
Danny Johnson, a performer himself, remembers many a great show on Lakeview.
“I like that performance that Bobby “Blue” Bland did when he came here,” Johnson said. “He did a hell of a thing down here, him and B.B. King. I think they did a double duo in some club down here, and everybody, it was just packed, man, you couldn’t get up in there.
“I talked to Albert King a lot. Albert King was a hell of a … I love Albert King. I love him, but Little Milton … was a bad boy — hoo! I think Little Milton came to the (Harmony) Garden. … Little Milton was bad. He made ‘Blind Man.’ Man, I love ‘Blind Man.’ That was cold blues right there. You’ve probably heard it:
“‘Standing on a corner,'” Johnson sang, “‘crying out the blues. He said, I don’t want a dollar and don’t you give me a dime — until you bring back that little girl of mine.’
“Boy, when that band hit it, boom: ‘I can’t let her go.’ Boy, they went crazy down there when Little Milton did ‘Blind Man.’”
Johnson had another favorite.
“Wilson Pickett act the fool down here, that guy,” he said. “He performed so cool. I gotta say Wilson Pickett was a bad act down here too. You know he loved performing in the front of his people. He loved it, man. That boy could scream so loud too, he was like James Brown.”
Don Allen, whose bands opened for a lot of big regional and national acts, said by the 1970s the Lakeview Sound was reaching into other areas of the city and audiences of all colors.
“They kind of migrated from the Lakeview area to other clubs like the Bakersfield Inn, the Star, the Casa Royale, you know, (Maison) Jaussaud, different places like that — the Hacienda, Black Angus — so they started migrating from there over into other areas of Bakersfield.
“And I think we were on a ticket — we were on a ticket — I want to say it was (Maison) Jaussaud that night, not on Lakeview, but (Maison) Jaussaud, was the Ray Charles Review and then Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. So that was in the early, early ‘70s.”
Like the city’s country music honky tonks, though, Lakeview’s time eventually ran out. It happens. Years pass, musical tastes change, neighborhoods evolve. But history must remember.
If you know Bakersfield history you know the legend of the Blackboard and the Clover Club and the Lucky Spot. Turns out there was a lot more to it than just the Okie music.