Back Door Memories

Tom Mazzolini speaks proudly of his San Francisco Blues Festival. But each musician is proud for a different reason.

At 1995's San Francisco Blues Festival, every time a limo pulled up on the grassy knoll at Fort Mason, people were looking for John Lee Hooker. The rumor among the performers milling around the tents backstage at the Great Meadow was that this would be the blues legend's final public performance. "It was just somehow out that it was like John Lee's last concert. That was the vibe," recalls Brenda Boykin, a singer who then fronted the Johnny Nocturne Band. The vibe was wrong. Hooker will be back onstage Sunday, when the sun sets on the 27th annual San Francisco Blues Fest.

When the limo doors did open at the 1995 event, they revealed up-and-comers like Santa Cruz vocal powerhouse Sista Monica, who was stepping out like it was the debutante ball. Boykin says she then saw her contemporaries and the festival in a slightly different light. "She was styling," she says of Monica. "Building her good reputation. And I'm saying to myself, 'I came with my friends in a Datsun. I'm a baby, I don't know nothing. But she knows how to work this thing.' "

"This thing" is the brainchild of producer Tom Mazzolini, who in 1973 took advantage of a city arts program to put together a relatively modest one-night indoor show at UC Extension featuring Jimmy McCracklin and Charlie Musselwhite. If, back then, you'd asked Mazzolini whether he thought there would be a second San Francisco Blues Festival, he wouldn't have been able to tell you. But it's come to consume most of his professional life; wary about some subjects, Mazzolini gets rhapsodic when it comes to the festival. "It's about authenticity. It's about the real thing being there," he says. "It's about trying to keep something. It's about mythology."

John Lee Hooker: Every year at the Great Meadow, another rumor of  his final performance.
Herman Leonard
John Lee Hooker: Every year at the Great Meadow, another rumor of his final performance.

But at first, it was just about following his natural instinct. Mazzolini, 57, moved to the city in the late 1960s to soak up what was left of the beat scene, absorbing the explosion of literary and musical arts while working on a history degree at San Francisco State. He found his way to the blues through what became a well-traveled path for a new crop of white listeners: folk music to country blues, country blues to electric blues. Along the way, he took in Hendrix and Cream, Paul Butterfield, Albert King, and Muddy Waters. But he pushed it further than most. Combining his interests, he got to know blues musicians living in Oakland, Richmond, and the Fillmore District, interviewing artists for oral histories. He hit juke joints and produced shows with lost legends, discovering, for example, that Tiny Powell, author of a memorable tune called "My Time After Awhile" -- recorded most famously by Buddy Guy -- was working as a skycap at SFO. (Powell performed at the 1977 fest, the fifth overall and the last to be held on a hillside at McLaren Park.)

"My whole intention at that time was to put everybody onstage who had ever performed or recorded the blues in the Bay Area," says Mazzolini. "People could be found working as janitors or in the post office, people who had walked away from their careers so many years ago. It was an era filled with passion for me and it was all-encompassing in my life. I was consumed by it."

Mazzolini's approach is different now, but it is still all-consuming. LPs fill the available shelf space in his home office in Noe Valley, rows of CDs jut out on the floor, and festival posters from previous years adorn the walls. He's hosted a blues show at KPFA for two decades, and received a W.C. Handy Award -- the blues equivalent of a Grammy -- for his work with the festival. He's the impresario behind the Battle of the Blues Harmonicas each winter, has produced European tours for a Bay Area blues caravan, and has seen a handful of festival performances released on CD and LP. These days, through music publications, new releases, and an endless stream of phone calls with artists and agents, the blues world comes to him.

While some roots festivals glory in musical gluttony -- the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest has perhaps a dozen stages cranking simultaneously for the better part of two weeks -- Mazzolini's show is tightly wound: 20-minute sets for the acts who open the days' proceedings, 45 minutes or so for the headliners who appear before sundown. Nineteen acts, two days, one stage. Mazzolini watches from the edge of the stage, introducing performers to the crowds of up to 10,000 who fill the meadow.

"There isn't a need to hear somebody for an hour and a half," Mazzolini says. "I think an artist can do it in 30 or 40 minutes. Look back at the Apollo Theater, all the great shows where the artists all did two or three numbers at most. When you go to a festival what you want to do is sit in front of one stage and see the greats and not-so-greats, whatever, and get a taste of it."

"You have to be ready to hit the stage running," says guitarist and singer Tommy Castro, one of the rare blues artists who has actually cracked rock radio and headline gigs at larger rooms like the Fillmore. "There's not a lot of time for a sound check, and you have to start kicking ass the minute you get up there."

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