Friday, August 6, 2010

660 Great Highway, San Francisco Family Dog On The Great Highway January 30-31, 1970: Jefferson Airplane/Osceola

To some extent, Archaeology is about uncovering mysteries, so here's one that's recently come to light for me. The above is a clip from Ralph J Gleason's San Francsico Chronicle column on Wednesday, January 28, 1970. I realize its hard to decipher, so I will quote the clip
...at the Lion's Share (San Anselmo) tomorrow night Sir Douglas Quintet, Shades of Joy...The Jefferson Airplane and Osceola will be at the Family Dog this weekend...at The Rehearsal tonight and tomorrow night John Antle, Jim Britton
Buried at the end of Gleason's usual lengthy recitation of upcoming rock. jazz and folk shows in the Bay Area in the coming days is a reference to a Jefferson Airplane show at Chet Helm's Family Dog, presumably on January 30 and 31, 1970 (Friday and Saturday).

As far as lists go, this Jefferson Airplane show is a new one for me. Without question, the best list for Family Dog shows is Ross's list, and I see no sign of it here, and the various Jefferson Airplane lists that circulate do not include it. From that perspective, its always great to add another show in the interests of accuracy. However, there are a number of aspects to this booking that make it all the more curious, with respect to both the Family Dog and the Airplane.

Family Dog, January 1970
The Family Dog's history is complex and obscure after it was forced out of the Avalon Ballroom in December 1968. Noise complaints generated a review of the venue's city issued Dance Permit, itself a strange anachronism. Helms complained in subsequent years that he could have simply paid off the police and gotten around the review but he refused to do so (there is good reason to believe this account). However, the Family Dog's finances were always tenuous after the failed effort to open another branch in Denver in late 1967, so the battle over the Dance Permit may have given Helms a chance to rethink his business.

The Family Dog On The Great Highway opened on June 13, 1969 with the Jefferson Airplane. The site was at the former Edgewater Ballroom, part of the Playland At The Beach complex. Despite the dominance of the Fillmore West, many fine bands played the smaller FDGH in the Summer of 1969. However, after a "strike" involving Light Show operators in August, 1969, the Family Dog was once again in dire financial straits. While the Family Dog continued to put on shows in their ballroom throughout the balance of 1969, the fine posters advertising the events were rarely produced, and based on contemporary newspapers advertising and promotion seemed somewhat haphazard.

Ross and I, among others, have relentlessly trolled through old flyers, Berkeley underground papers and various daily newspapers of the time, and yet we are still struggling to come up with a complete list of shows. Thus it is remarkable to find a Family Dog show in January 1970 featuring the Airplane, probably the most successful band to ever play the Dog. This "lost" Airplane show suggests that Chet Helms had found a new source of finance to re-invigorate his enterprise.

By the end of 1969, The Family Dog On The Great Highway was producing regular shows, but headliners were mostly local club bands like Osceola or Cleveland Wrecking Company.  A few old Avalon stalwarts (like Canned Heat on December 12-14) headlined some shows there, but that very well may have been as much a favor to Helms as anything else. The bills in the previous month had been

  • December 26-28, 1969: Lonnie Mack/Osceola/AB Skhy
  • January 1-3, 1970: Osceola/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Devil's Kitchen
  • January 4, 1970: Osceola/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Mendelbaum/Phoenix
  • January 11-13, 1970 Chambers Brothers and Friends

Of these groups, only the Chambers Brothers and Lonnie Mack had a national profile, and the Chambers Brothers were past their commercial prime, and in any case old regulars from the Avalon. Many of the other groups were fine bands, but they were all regulars at The Matrix rather than Fillmore West, and FDGH seemed to be a Western extension of the SF club scene.

In contrast, the Airplane show presaged an exciting month:
  • January 30-31, 1970: Jefferson Airplane/Osceola
  • February 4, 1970: NET TV Special, "A Night At The Family Dog" Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Santana/Kimberly (invited audience, broadcast in April 1970)
  • February 6-7, 1970: Quicksilver Messenger Service/Freedom Highway/Mike Seeger
  • February 13-14, 1970: Steve Miller Band/Elvin Bishop Group
  • February 20-21, 1970: Big Brother and The Holding Company with Nick Gravenites/Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys (Cat Mother replaced Rhythm Dukes)
  • February 28-March 1, 1970: Grateful Dead/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
  • March 6-8, 1970: Lee Michaels/Rhythm Dukes with Jerry Miller and Bill Champlin/Robert Savage
  • March 13-15, 1970: Country Joe and The Fish/Joy Of Cooking
  • March 20-22, 1970: Big Brother and The Holding Company/Kaleidoscope/Devil's Kitchen
  • March 27-29, 1970: Youngbloods/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Jeffrey Cain
  • April 3-5, 1970: Eric Burdon and War/Ballin' Jack

Although many old friends seemed to be returning for Helms, all of these groups were working bands who could not readily have given up weekends for free, so their had to be some expectation of a payday. In Stephen Gaskin's 1980 book Haight Ashbury Flashbacks he alludes to attending meetings with Chet Helms at the home of some potential backer, so we know that Helms was working to find a new partner. Bill Graham (of all people) has alluded to loaning money to help Helms, but I think that was in the late '69 period. Based on the sudden improvement in bookings from January 30 to April 3, along with actual posters (which cost money), Helms clearly found someone as a silent partner. Their very silence suggests either a rich hippie or downtown businessman who preferred to not to advertise his investment, or a partner in a "business" that shunned publicity.

The other interesting event in the January/February 1970 period has to do with the Grateful Dead. While the Grateful Dead were frantically touring the country, trying to pay pack the debts they owed to Warner Brothers Records, their manager Lenny Hart was hatching a plan to merge the Grateful Dead operations with the Family Dog, and move Dead headquarters from Marin County to the San Francisco Dog. Musically and culturally, this was a very interesting idea, and if the Dead had had their own concert facility starting in February 1970, with an experienced booker like Chet Helms running it while they toured, San Francisco rock history might have taken some very interesting turns indeed.

The only problem with the Dead/Dog merger was that Lenny Hart was not an honest businessman. By the middle of February, the Grateful Dead would realize that he was absconding with their money and fire him, a difficult thing even though he was drummer Mickey Hart's father. In the end, Lenny was found to have taken $155,000 from the Dead, a huge sum for 1970, effectively bankrupting the band. The Dead were forced to tour endlessly just to make ends meet, and as a result made an entire generation of Northeastern college students lifelong Deadheads.

According to Dead biographer Dennis McNally, however, Chet Helms sniffed out Hart's perfidy while the Dead were on the road, sometime in the January-February period. Helms had a reputation as keeping sloppy back-of-an-envelope records, but he wasn't a con man. When Helms asked to see the Dead's account books and Lenny Hart refused, Helms called off the merger (the Dead were in Oregon, Hawaii, New Orleans or St. Louis).

A con man like Lenny Hart would not have wanted to merge with the Family Dog unless their were assets he could co-opt. In late 1969 the Family Dog was apparently even more broke than the Dead--and that's saying a lot--yet Lenny found the Dead's arrangements fine. Presumably having stripped their assets bare, he needed another target, and Lenny's eagerness to merge with the Dog suggests some deep pockets to pick. Helms was enough of a businessman to call off the merger and promote the Dog for one last hurrah in February and March. However, the distant location of The Great Highway and the rising costs of the rock market doomed the Dog in any case, and it only lasted through August of 1970.

Jefferson Airplane, January 1970
The activities of Jefferson Airplane in January 1970 are quite murky, and the discovery of this January 30-31, 1970 show adds a little clarity, though not much. The Airplane had released their hugely successful Volunteers album in November 1969, and they were bigger than ever. Existing 1970 Airplane chronologies put them in Hawaii from January 22-26 with the Grateful Dead, but this unlikely event did not take place (the Dead played two nights with local bands in support). In fact, it appears the band only played twice in December (Altamont on Dec 6 and Winterland on New Year's Eve) and one more time at the Family Dog, playing an abbreviated set at the NET special on February 4, 1970. The NET show appears to have been Spencer Dryden's last performance with the Jefferson Airplane.

Thus if the Family Dog Airplane shows on January 30-31 really happened, they would be the last complete concerts by the "classic" Airplane (Grace, Paul, Marty, Jorma, Jack, Spencer). Since the activities of the Family Dog in this period are always murky, and we only have Ralph Gleason's single reference to go on, its hard to say for certain whether the shows occurred or not. A couple of speculative points worthy of consideration:

  • The Jefferson Airplane had played at least one "stealth" concert at the Family Dog before, on September 6, 1969, when they played with the Grateful Dead (and Owsley thoughtfully taped it).
  • Although we put the Airplane today in the same category as the Dead or Country Joe and The Fish, in 1970 they were one of the biggest draws in rock and could easily have sold out the Family Dog on the basis of word-of-mouth alone. Thus the absence of a flyer is not in itself significant.
  • On the other hand, the San Francisco rock scene was very much like High School, and the Airplane were not part of Chet Helms's "set." They only played the Avalon one weekend (July 22-23, 1966), and while they did play the Denver Dog (November 7-8, 1967) they did not have the long history of regular shows with Helms that some of the other bands did. This fact is another suggestion that the Airplane's show was part of a business arrangement rather than a personal favor.
  • Even more oddly, the Airplane were not planning a tour and the drummer was about to quit. They had less of an incentive to play a stealth show than they might have at other times. 

Still, given the run of shows that followed the weekend of January 30-31, 1970, there is every reason to think that Jefferson Airplane made the shows. Since the show was hardly publicized--it didn't have to be--it never got reviewed, and no flyer or poster survives, but a few thousand people likely heard the last stand of the classic Jefferson Airplane at the edge of the continent in the San Francisco fog.

39 comments:

  1. A real find - and that is one of the long lost gaps filled in. I'll take a look to see if there is anything in the Barb/Tribe around this period in respect of partners for Chet. Also I see a second change for me in the Cat Mother show.

    I also check Eric King's masterwork and it seems Eric has never come across a handbill between 19700109 and 19700206 either.

    As an aside, a while ago we (JJ and I) took a policy decision to use the "Family Dog On The Beach" nomenclature to cover the various "on/at" and "Great Highway/Beach" name variances. We may be wrong but at least we will be consistently wrong.

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  2. Very interesting! I always wonder exactly where the ballroom was when I'm riding my bike by there. Was Stephen Gaskin's monday night thing through the Family Dog? Or was he also just renting the space?

    Also, Spencer got married on January 26. Any chance he would have been on his honeymoon at this time? Do rock drummers take honeymoons? Joey had played a couple shows with and without Spencer. Maybe it was him that night?

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  3. The definitive work on the actual building of FDGH (or FDOB) is here

    http://gdvenue.blogspot.com/2010/02/hmmm.html

    I did not go into the whole Spencer Dryden/Joey Covington thing in detail, but Covington has said different things in the past. He said he joined JA on Jan 25, but Spencer played the Family Dog show on Feb 4. Up until now, I had thought that it didn't matter because the Hawaii shows (ostensibly Jan 22-26) were canceled, but the discovery of a Jan 30-31 show changes the picture.

    It would make sense if Jan 30-31 was a sort of Covington try-out.

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  4. Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class was somehow under the Family Dog's umbrella, but seemed to be a separate entity. Whatever that means.

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  5. Just finished Gaskin's Weird Dope Tales. Pretty interesting book!

    What do you know about Osceola? They apparently moved from Florida and lived in the same building as Initial Shock and the two bands shared a rehearsal studio in the apt. basement.

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  6. You just told me more about Osceola than I had ever known before. To me, they are one of those latterday Family Dog mysteries. I certainly have seen them on a lot of bills but I haven't been able to find out anything about them.

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  7. I'll keep you posted on what I find out.

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  8. Actually, Yellow Shark, I think we ruled differently on the name, following Helms's oracular "I have applied for and received a dance permit to open at 660 Great Highway ... and I shall call it 'Family Dog On The Great Highway'."

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  9. You are correct of course - this is one of those "Oh bugger" moments after I had been going through files renaming stuff.

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  10. The "official" name of the venue was, indeed, Family Dog on the Great Highway but the "legal" company name that was on our paychecks (I sitll have a couple of the stubs) was Associated Rubber Dog. THAT'S a longer story than I have time for now.

    The Gaskin "class" was one of the results of the "Common" meetings that started around the time of the aborted Wild West Festival. Anyone who proposed a show or event idea that the assembled gathering thought MIGHT be a good idea could be assigned a night on the FDGH schedule. Some of those, like the "Holy Man Jam" did very well, some like the barn dance with Commander Cody and a couple of other country rock bands didn't.

    The deal on Stephen Gaskin's Monday Night Class was that admission was free but he would ask for donations. The understanding was that the night's pay for the house staff including the janitors and the sound man, me, would come off the top.

    Osceola was indeed, originally from Florida, and by that time had become members of, and the "house band" for the Good Earth Commune who occupied several houses in the Haight,

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    1. Just wondering, Did you stay on at the Avalon After Gary Scanlan took over for that short period of time before the Family Dog on the great Highway opened? I worked the door at the Avalon for a short period of time before Chester lost the lease and I stayed on to help Gary and Cheryl until the place finally closed down. I also helped get the beach location cleaned up before the grand opening. I took part in the Commons meetings as well, The wildest one being the one for the holy man jam, which is something I'll never forget. It's good to see that someone else from those days is still around and I hope everything is going very well for you...

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    2. Boy, it's been a while since I checked in here. I stayed on at the Avalon through the Gary Scanlan management which was, briefly called as I recall "Sound Proof Productions" to reflect the efforts they made to reduce the sound out of the back of the building that was annoying some occupants of the residence hotel across the alley.

      I was gone by the time the management of the band The Initial Shock and their drummer Brian Knaff had taken over. Brian went on to operate a successful booking agency after he returned to his native Montana.

      I was back on board with Chester from the time of the two shows he promoted at Winterland before getting the venue at the beach opened.

      And yes the Commons meeting period was wild, and somehow very much the "damn good try" at real community involvement with a performance venue. The Holy Man Jam probably spawned a whole genre of "new age expos" that followed and flourished a decade or two later.

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  11. Thank you for sharing your insights, anoldsoundguy!

    Please allow me to be the first to ask about whether you recorded any of your handiwork ... :)

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  12. oldsoundguy, thanks for the great information. Of course, we are looking forward to the story of "The Associated Rubber Dog."

    Besides seconding JGMF's hopeful plea, do you have any idea who might have helped finance the FDGH? Any idea about who might have been Helms's silent partners at various junctures?

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  13. I'm not surprised by the request from "Jerry's Middle Finger". That's nearly always the first question anyone asks me.

    Sorry, I didn't have the gear or the time to record any of the FDGH shows I was busy enough as it was. Remember, this was before decent cassette machines much less DAT recorders or the like. Good reel to reel machines were expensive.

    As for the financing, those of us "in the trenches" were not included in that knowledge.

    It was obvious that Lenny Hart was making moves at one point and always rumored that Bill Graham was helping out from time to time but I certainly never had any first hand knowledge of that.

    I do remember earlier, when we were still at the Avalon, driving Chet around the city (he didn't have a driver's license at that time) so that he could borrow, a little here and little from there, enough money to meet the deposit that Pink Floyd's agent insisted on before they would sign a completed contract.

    Small loans or "donations" from small time dealers in one thing or another were often part of the "business plan". A lot of those "casual investors" names were in that big Rollodex file in the Avalon box office that served as the "permanent" guest list.

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  14. "I'm not surprised by the request from "Jerry's Middle Finger". That's nearly always the first question anyone asks me."

    anoldsoundguy, I apologize if this offended you. Based on your name and experience you describe, it seemed a plausible possibility. And given how important tapes are in this whole thing, I hope you don't take it personally that are fascinated (sometimes obsessed) with some of the things that you spent some time doing. I guess I intend it as a compliment and apologize if you felt it wasn't.

    Cheers,

    JGMF

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  15. Oldsoundguy, your explanation of Avalon economics reveals some pretty fascinating details that have gone unnoticed up until now.

    Its a truism of the story of the Summer Of Love that the Avalon went under because Chet Helms let in too many people for free. However, it turns out that many of the people "let in for free" had actually contributed money to Chet and the Avalon, and open admission was simply part of Chet's agreement with them. This doesn't mean that the Avalon didn't have money problems, as it did, but it does show that Chet wasn't so dense as to not understand how admissions worked.

    The business model described by oldsoundguy is similar to a Museum or (believe it or not) Intercollegiate Athletics. If you are a member of a Museum, you pay a lump sum, but you are given some sort of free admission (a certain number of passes, or something like that), and in an informal way, Chet seems to have been doing that. Some people gave Chet money to help the Avalon, and it was understood that they were welcome at the Avalon without a ticket. The fact that there was a Rolodex at the door is very revealing.

    I mention the Intercollegiate Athletics model because "backstage access" is a critical part of why people donate to sports programs, and I don't doubt that cachet and access were one of the perks that Chet promoted when he got all sorts of informal "donations" from vendors of various products.

    Following this line of reasoning, Bill Graham Presents was run more like a Professional Sports Franchise, and the Avalon was run more like a college team. Too bad the Avalon couldn't participate in an end-of-season playoff to monetize their coolness...

    Oldsoundguy, thanks again for giving us an insight into how the Family Dog really operated.

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  16. JGMF

    No offense taken. I just have gotten all too used to people asking, once they've found out what I do and where I've worked that the next thing out their mouths is, "got tapes?"

    I didn't start taping shows on any regular basis until well into the 1970s and by then, in the post Altamont era, I chose to concentrate on jazz and folk shows.

    Betty Cantor and others were handling taping the rock side of SF in that decade.

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  17. Thanks for understanding!

    I heard a rumor this past summer that there may be some Family Dog film (besides the "Night at the Family Dog" stuff from early '70). Any truth to that rumor, to your knowledge?

    Did you ever catch any jazz at the Keystone Korner? Some amazing acts through there in the 70s.

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  18. from 1972 I was doing the sound at the Great American Music Hall which started out to be a jazz club but quite quickly became the home of the most diverse, in house, bookings of any venue that size before or since IMO.

    I occasionally would get over to Keystone Korner but was working most nights and recuperating the rest ;-).

    For much of the mid 1970s the sound at Keystone Korner was handled by Rich McKean who was the sound guy at the Fillmore and Fillmore West at the same time I was working at the Avalon.

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  19. Good news. I tracked down the guitarist Bill Ande from Osceola and am starting to interview him. Look at these great pics he has posted on his site.

    http://www.billande.com/photos/hippie/hippie_days.html

    He had been in the Razor's Edge and the American Beetles before moving west.
    http://www.barneydvds.com/videos-the-american-beetles-live--[sCb-zVUwQhk].cfm

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  20. An amazing score. The American Beetles also played Frenchy's in Hayward, along with "Bikini Girls Under Glass" (what could be better!).
    http://rockprosopography101.blogspot.com/2009/08/frenchys-hayward-ca-january-june-1966_18.html

    Can you find out what Berkeley venue the Osceola photos are from? New Orleans House, maybe?

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  21. Will do.

    Also, this is an interesting piece in Billboard about the new Family Dog ballroom, etc.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=jSgEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA90&lpg=PA90&dq=%22bob+simmons%22+%22family+dog%22&source=bl&ots=7Z4VDzjaKd&sig=fUKebS81VrgS6FVNWAf-dtYdygQ&hl=en&ei=7LFqTZujOIP2swOlh7WmBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&sqi=2&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22bob%20simmons%22%20%22family%20dog%22&f=false

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  22. Bill thinks either New Orleans House or Moe's

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  23. Anyone know anything about the blond who used to dance at the Family Dog concerts?

    I saw her when the Velvet Underground played there. And I think that she's in the DVD "Night at the Family Dog" dancing while the Dead played.

    She was highly erotic and hypnotizing to watch.

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  24. The blond dancer was Rene LeBallister. She was a long time Family Dog participant.

    I last spoke with her at the "Chet Fest" Memorial to Chet Helms at the Great American Music Hall.

    She's married, living in Southern California now and has a beautiful, fully grown daughter of her own.

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  25. Scan of an ad for the Youngbloods at Family Dog in July 1969.

    http://babylonfalling.tumblr.com/post/8953293678/the-youngbloods-in-stores-and-at-chet-helms

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  26. Kenny, thanks for the interesting link.

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  27. I was a member of the Good Earth Commune during the summer of '69 until about April '70. We developed a relationship with the managers of the Airplane and Quicksliver during meetings about the non-event "Wild West Show", which didn't happen in the fall of '69 because of "threatened violence" from the "Haight-Ashbury Commune." The HAC was a political nom de guerre of the Armed Love/SF Newsreel guys who lived upstairs from the Good Earth when we all still lived on Fell St. Osceola was a band associated with Good Earth and "managed" by a couple of guys named Joel and Randy, al of whom had come out from the Miami area. Osceola got a repertoire together during the summer of 1969, and by late '69 early '70 got some gigs at the Dog on the Great Highway. I wnet home for Christmas some time after Altamont and didn't get back to SF until late January, but I do remember and did attend. some of these concers

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  28. Two Crows, thanks for sharing your memories! I'd love to hear more Family Dog stories.

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  29. "The Dead were forced to tour endlessly just to make ends meet, and as a result made an entire generation of Northeastern college students lifelong Deadheads."

    That's an awesome line about the effects of Lenny's perfidy.

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  30. @arnoldsoundguy - this has been an interesting read, with good comments by all. I wonder if any of you remember a Lighting Company run by Bob and Connie from Marin. I remember it being a called "San Francisco Light & Sound" but am not really sure. They worked the Avalon, the Fillmore, and I believe the FD, but I was in New York then. Later they worked with dB Labs/Sound Company out of San Rafael - Peter deBlanc.

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  31. A little oddity about this listing. I trust your entry and Gleason's listing as what actually happened, but I'd note that the Airplane were apparently scheduled for the weekend prior.

    From UCSF Synapse v14 n12 (January 19, 1970), p. 7: "At the Family Dog on the Great Highway, next Friday and Saturday nights is the Jefferson Airplane and the week after, January 30-31 Big Brother and the Holding Company will perform."

    FYI.

    Also, an aside from the same source: "Sunday afternoons the Dog is now presenting a show for those who want to do something musically on their Sundays. The charge for the concert from 2-7 p.m. is $2 and the smaller groups around the Bay Area will be featured." We don't show any listings for the Sundays around this time, for whatever it's worth. Also sounds like a revival of The Common kind of idea from August 1969.

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  32. It strikes me that the Synapse entry may have come from some sort of "coming attractions" list that had been called in. The Jefferson Airplane was scheduled for and played Hawaii the following week (January 22-26) and I think these were the first post Spencer Dryden shows with Joey Covington. However, by the end of the month the JA did play the Family Dog and within a month, so did Big Brother.

    It is an interesting thought about The Common revival on Sunday afternoons but I suspect the performances were put on for other reasons. In mid November 1969 the Family Dog had $20k worth of debt hanging over them including a pressing $5k to be paid to the IRS. This had led to the decision to concentrate on better paying weekend shows and the November 19 benefit at the Fillmore West (not Winterland as originally planned) where Big Brother and the Holding Company (billed as Mumble, Fumble, Jumble, Dumble), New Riders of the Purple Sage, Barry McGuire and The Doctor Naut Family performed in a Benefit for the Family Dog. Steve Miller was originally scheduled but pulled out.

    As you say, we have not identified any performers nor do we know how long the Sunday afternoon shows carried on for. It would be great to nail these.

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  33. I have a xerox of a handbill advertising a performance by Sylvester (then associated with the Cockettes, later a dance music singer) at Poor Richard's formerly family dog, and the flyer notes it as On the Great Highway. The dates are Saturday and Sunday December 26 & 27. No year is noted, but by the calendar that would be 1970. So apparently after the collapse of FD someone else was promoting shows in the venue.

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  34. Poor Richards was a short lived name for the venue at 660 Great Highway.

    About that same time of the flyer you mention I did the sound for the Cockette's and for Sylvester's debut show as a solo performer at the Palace/Pagoda Theater in North Beach

    After Poor Richard's 660 Great Highway was again renamed "Friends And Relations Hall"

    Under that name it was home for the first live performance version of The Who's rock opera "Tommy" which had started as a student production at USF/Lone Mountain College and had been successful enough to make the move to a long term "commercial" location.

    Personal note, "anooldsoundguy's" wife was one of the dancers in that production

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  35. I was often on the guest list but never donated any $. I did buy a lot of little white pills from a guy who either knew or was the sound man.

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