The Elusive Legacy of Bill Erickson 1929-1967

Erickson in the mid-1950s photographed by Bob Mielke.

Erickson, usually erroneously labelled a Dixieland jazzman, was in every way a comprehensive modern musician, performer and composer whose interests ranged from the blues to Bartok,” wrote Phil Elwood in the San Francisco Examiner. When the gifted musician committed suicide in late 1967 it was a great shock to the San Francisco jazz community.

Bill Erickson (Pasadena, CA 1929 – Berkeley, CA 1967) had worked as a sideman with bandleaders Kid Ory, Jack Sheedy, Bob Mielke, Dick Oxtot and was deeply involved in the East Bay jazz revival from 1950 until 1967. The soft-spoken, gifted multi-instrumentalist who’d been running combos and jams for more than a decade was suddenly gone.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Despite heartfelt tributes and memorials, he was quickly forgotten, due largely to a lack of commercial recordings. Today, his music, catalytic leadership skills and role in Bay Area jazz can be reconstructed through the recollections of those who knew him, photos and a large number of recovered live performance tapes (linked at the end of this article).

Willie the Master

Many called him Willie the Master “and no one seemed to think the term hyperbolic” wrote trombone player Jim Leigh, offering high praise in his self-published jazz memoir Heaven on the Side. He was fascinated by Bill’s wit, intelligence, skills and colossal musical talents when he played with him at Pier 23 and other venues:

Evergreen

Erickson was one of the best leaders I have ever played for. . . He led by example, he led by temperament (but without being in the least temperamental). [He] never showed off at the keyboard; he played no dazzling specialty numbers. He always played very, very well, and always served the band in all respects. As a soloist he was neither greedy nor shy, and he rarely if ever repeated himself.

Much of Erickson’s early musical training, writes Leigh, took place at a strip joint where he “learned to play the piano while playing for ‘exotic dancers’ at a theater in the Tenderloin district.” Yet he also describes him composing complex music for a progressive jazz octet around 1963, “just for the fun, the exercise, and to give him a chance to work off some of his musicianship.”

L to R: Bob Mielke, Freddie Grote, Bill Erickson and Jerry Stanton early 1950s.

Leigh relates that when Bill was pursuing a music degree at San Francisco State University in the early 1950s he went to his professor with the score of an early Mozart symphony saying he could write one. “Someday you might,” the prof demurred. But he was astonished when “he got the whole thing. It was just an early symphony . . . [but] Mozart could have written it. I really do believe that he was definitely some kind of genius.”

A full-time musician and broad intellect, Bill had many interests according to his friends: cooking, chess and writing witty stories or humorous skits. Fascinated by electronic circuits, he kept a workbench full of experimental projects.

With Kid Ory at his “On the Levee” nightclub (formerly Tin Angel), L to R: RCH Smith, Bill Napier, Kid Ory, Bill Erickson and Walter Roberts. From William Claxton & Joachim Behrendt, JAZZLIFE, 1960.

Willie the Weeper

Both Jim Leigh and clarinet player Bill Carter tell the same poignant story about how, seeking to avoid being drafted for the Korean War, Erickson got himself addicted to heroin and it worked. Except he was then arrested, convicted of felony drug possession and served a year in prison. 

Nauck

Though he never took heroin again it was always a temptation, says Carter:

My only burning memory was of him chatting about his habit one night . . . saying that he had deliberately made himself a heroin addict in order to avoid being drafted; that he had recovered from the habit; but that it never really could go away in the sense it remained out there, always tempting him to revert back. As everyone will attest, he was a sweet soft-spoken guy.

Elvis

Of Cops, Condoms and a Waterfront Dive

Around 1957, Erickson, Dick Oxtot and singer Barbara Dane had a trio gig at “Jack’s Waterfront Hangout” on the San Francisco waterfront. Bill played piano, Dick cornet and banjo; Barbara sang. They shared the venue, wrote Oxtot in his memoir, with “a muscular gay singer named Walter Hinton, plus singer and dancer Jeannie Deleuze.”

A minor controversy arose over a risqué song popular at the time celebrating a widely available brand of condom called “Green Light”: Green Light MP3

Someone complained to the authorities about what they considered a vulgar song. Bill and I were informed that we could be cited and even arrested if we continued to sing “Green Light” in public. Each evening a cop was there, apparently keeping his ears open.

Nauck

At Monkey Inn 1962, photo by William Carter.

The One-Man Band Recordings

Erickson’s one-man-band sessions are extraordinary gems. Polished and technically brilliant, they’re among the finest of their kind that I’ve heard. Sometime before 1955 Bill overdubbed himself playing trumpet, clarinet, piano, tuba, washboard and singing harmonized vocal parts from his own arrangements.

His playful musical parodies gently satirize an earlier era. Though not Jazz, they showcase his many talents, offering harmonized horn choirs, clangorous musical jokes and delightful Bix-like flourishes. Among these charming confections is the naughty ode to a condom mentioned above:

Green Light shine on me tonight,

protect me wherever I may go.

Green Light, with your price just right,

you can buy a package in the show.

Oh, give me the pack with the green light upon it,

so I’ll feel safe when I go down on it.

Green Light shine on me tonight,

protect me wherever I may go.

Such sessions required multiple overdubs at a time when these capabilities were rare or unknown, yet the sound is clean and undistorted. Roommate Oscar Anderson who loaned him use of the professional-grade audio equipment remained baffled as to exactly how Bill achieved such audio excellence. (A collection of these gems is linked below.)

Berkeley Jazz House Parties

In the years around 1960, Erickson was renting a spacious Victorian house in Berkeley where epic music parties took place. Sometimes there would be bands playing in the front room, in the kitchen, in the large back yard and at a similar house across the street.

Mielke, Erickson and clarinetist Bill Napier at a Berkeley music party in the early-1950s.

Berkeley House Parties were attended by 80-100 persons. Launching around 2:00 pm, they rolled through midnight into the early hours, recalled Dave Greer:

These were big and very jolly events. The women would cook up red beans and rice or spaghetti and meatballs, some kind of mass feeding, and big bowls of salad. We drank dollar-a-gallon Sergeant burgundy, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We had many wonderful jazz sessions there.

Berkeley house party on Woodmont Avenue prior to c. 1955.

Erickson directed traffic from the keyboard for the many musicians who showed up. An embarrassment of riches which included the likes of cornetist Ray Ronnei, P.T. Stanton and Earl Scheelar (also clarinet); trombonists Bob Mielke and Jim Leigh; Dave Clarkson (tenor sax); Dick Oxtot (banjo); Bill Napier (clarinet); Pete Allen (bass) and many others. Noteworthy among the jammers were veteran African American musicians living, working and thriving in the Bay Area, clarinetists Darnell Howard and Frank Big Boy Goudie; bass players Pops Foster and Wellman Braud.

Pier 23 Trios and Jam Sessions

Erickson was probably best known for leading combos and jam sessions at Pier 23 on the San Francisco Waterfront. After Burt Bales was badly injured around 1960, Bill deftly assumed the piano bench, anchoring the jam sessions several nights of the week for years.

Pier 23 was a slightly seedy waterfront jazz dive on the San Francisco waterfront and still is today. Local music critic Ralph J. Gleason memorialized it in liner notes for a Burt Bales album:

In San Francisco for some years now the Embarcadero (the dockside road than runs along the Bay waterfront wharves) has been a sort of North Rampart Street with Dixieland jazz floating out over the waters of the Bay every night from the Tin Angel and Pier 23, that converted dock wallopers lunchroom where Burt plays.

A spectrum of Bay Area jazz musicians dropped in, augmenting the regular trio with clarinetist Frank Big Boy Goudie and drummer Jimmy Carter, both Louisiana natives. Jazz musician, writer and broadcaster Richard Hadlock played reeds at the Pier 23 jams and says Erickson “knew where he was going and how to get there. He knew how to arrange and run a band and was totally reliable.”

Pier 23 broadcast, L to R: Erickson, Goudie, Oxtot, San Francisco 1959.

The sessions were a swinging musical hybrid fusing New Orleans Revival, Harlem Jazz and Kansas City Swing. Leading from the piano bench, Erickson’s manner was firm but low-key, wrote Leigh. When necessary he kept things on track with a wilting glare not unlike the infamous “Benny Goodman Ray.”

Surviving tapes from Pier 23 validate its reputation as the foremost jammers bar in the area. The genre and style of the sessions varied according to the sensibilities of the personnel on hand (sampled below). Among the drop-ins were trumpeters Muggsy Spanier, Ray Ronnei, Byron Berry, Jack Minger, Amos White, Robin Hodes and Ernie Figueroa; clarinet players Darnell Howard, Richard Hadlock and Vince Cattolica; trombonist Jerry Butzen; and drummers Vince Hickey and Cuz Cousineau.

Monkey Inn Quartet 1962, L to R: Frank Goudie, Jimmy Carter, Bob Mielke and Bill Erickson.

The Monkey Inn Combos

The crown jewels of recovered Erickson audio are the tapes from Monkey Inn, 1961-63. Mielke described it as an unpretentious dive with sawdust on the floor and “fraternity guys out on their first beer benders,” though it was occasionally troubled by unsavory motorcycle gangs. The boisterous pizza joint opened onto busy Shattuck Avenue through swinging saloon-doors next to the piano; clattering of the door-hinges is audible on tape.

Bill Erickson at Burp Hollow in North Beach c. 1959.

Bill’s extraordinary quartets featured Frank Goudie or Ellis Horne on clarinet, Bob Mielke on trombone and occasionally trumpeter Jerry Blumberg making it a quintet. With drummer Jimmy Carter, Erickson supplied a sturdy foundation for the horns recalls Mielke:

. . . when there was a bass player present in the group, [in] a light Teddy Wilson sort of style. But if there were no bass player present, then he came on like gangbusters with a strong left hand. He was trying to be a real rhythm section unto himself. When I first heard these after many years I was astonished by how good Erickson sounded.

Similar to Pier 23, Frank “Big Boy” Goudie was a featured soloist. Repatriated after three decades abroad, the six-and-a-half-foot Creole Johnny Appleseed of Jazz was never more eloquent, stretching out on long expressive solos. Recorded in stereo, these are the finest sound pickup we have of these musicians now available on various Grammercy Records CD titles, streaming online and linked below.

Restoring a Lost Master

There were plenty of occasions when Bill was simply a piano soloist or featured in a trio at Monkey Inn accompanied only by Earl Scheelar on banjo and Bret Runkle washboard. In this mode he offered a broad, swinging style with flashes of Jess Stacy and Arthur Schutt, according to Richard Hadlock.

Play MP3

As a horn player, Erickson was neither selfish nor shy and never showed off. Highly adaptable, he evolved from an initially Bixian stance. Based on the surviving recordings, he developed a personal style ranging from soft and sensitive to muscular and declarative, fusing tastefully with an ensemble, as heard in the Burp Hollow tapes, below.

In the recovered audiotapes, distinctive characteristics emerge. As noted above, he mixes exceptionally well with other musicians. When playing piano, he creates a supportive foundation for the horns or plays fine blues and ballads featured in a trio. His horn leads, and solos are strong, blending seamlessly in the ensemble counterpoint of the extended out-choruses.

In jam sessions and music parties, Bill’s deft leadership made him a catalyst for good times and great jazz. Sadly, he made no commercial recordings, beyond a handful of 78 rpm discs waxed with bandleaders Bob Mielke and Jack Sheedy. That vacuum, and the traumatic reverberations of his suicide from asphyxiation by oven gas, conspired to obscure and delete memories of the magnetic leadership, quiet charisma and rollicking music of Bill Erickson.

Audio and photos are from the personal collections of Dick Oxtot, Bob Mielke and Dave Greer.

More than a dozen hours of Erickson performances have been recovered, restored and preserved. Many are found on compact discs, with a representative sample below, or may be found on various JAZZ RHYTHM pages:

Pier 23 http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/295633.html

Monkey Inn http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/285112.html

Bill Erickson page http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/249912.html

Bill Erickson archive http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/354412.html

Berkeley Jazz Houses http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/465123.html

Bob Mielke http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/247312.html

Bill Napier http://www.jazzhotbigstep.com/400312.html

Interviews, discussions or corroboration:

Anderson, Oscar, 2014-15

Carter, Bill, 2014

Dane, Barbara, 2013

Greer, Dave, 2013-14

Hadlock, Richard, 2013-14

Mielke, Bob, 1993, 2013

Scheelar, Earl, 2013-14

Bibliography:

Elwood, Phil, “Jazz Memorial on Sunday For Pianist Bill Erickson” (San Francisco Examiner, December 1, 1967)

Goggin, Jim, Bob Mielke: A Life in Jazz (Goggin/Trafford Publishing, 2008)

Leigh, James, Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life (self-published, 2000)

Oxtot, Dick and Goggin, Jim, Jazz Scrapbook (Creative Arts, 1997)

Runkle, Bret R., Bay Area Jazz Clubs of the Fifties (monograph, Berkeley 1978)

Erickson’s Vincent Bach Stradivarius trumpet.

Bob Mielke 78 rpm, 1952

Bob Mielke (leader, trombone), Bill Erickson (trumpet), Bill Napier (clarinet), Jerry Stanton (piano), John Shuler (bass)

Crazy Chords 

Charleston 

Didn’t He Ramble 

Jack Sheedy 78 rpm c. 1950

Jack Sheedy (leader, trombone, vocal), Bill Erickson (piano), Jack Minger (cornet), Vince Cattolica (clarinet), Paul Miller (guitar), Vernon Alley (bass), Bill Dart (drums):

A Good Man is Hard to Find 

Gambler’s Blues 

Napier, Erickson, Sheedy at Club Hangover c. 1950.

One Man Band early 1952

Erickson plays trumpet, clarinet, piano, tuba, washboard and sings harmonized vocal parts of his own arrangement:

On the Good Ship Lollipop 

Hot Town 

Hard Boiled Mama 

Green Light 

Pier 23, back in the day.

Pier 23 Broadcast & Jam Sessions, San Francisco 1959-63

Broadcast 1959 with Bill Erickson (trumpet) with Frank Goudie (clarinet), Mielke, Bales, et al:

Struttin’ with Some Barbeque 

Saturday Night Function 

Erickson plays piano with mostly Ray Ronnei (cornet), Frank Goudie (clarinet), Jim Leigh (trombone) et al 1960-63:

Under the Bamboo Tree 

Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet 

Eh La Bas 

The King (Robin Hodes, trumpet; Leigh; Dave Clarkson, tenor sax; Goudie, clarinet) 

Bob Mielke, Bill Erickson, Pete Allen, Dick Oxtot and Bill Napier at Burp Hollow 1959.

Burp Hollow, San Francisco 1959

Bill Erickson (trumpet), Bill Napier (clarinet), Bob Mielke (trombone), Dick Oxtot (banjo), Pete Allen (bass), Max Leavitt (drums).

Song of the Islands 

Original Dixieland One-Step 

Don’t You Leave Me Here 

Beale Street Blues 

Back in Your Own Backyard 

Berkeley Jazz House Parties 1960-61

Mostly Bill Erickson (piano), Frank Goudie (clarinet), Bill Napier (clarinet), Jim Leigh (trombone), Dick Oxtot (banjo), Pete Allen (bass).

Just Because (Ray Ronnei, cornet) 

See See Rider (featuring Goudie and Napier) 

Say Si, Si (PT Stanton, cornet)

Under the Bamboo Tree (Ray Ronnei, cornet) 

Mielke and Erickson at a Berkeley house party mid-1950s.

Monkey Inn Trio, Berkeley 1962

Erickson (piano), Earl Scheelar (banjo), Bret Runkle (washboard):

When You’re Smiling 

I Ain’t Got Nobody 

Wabash Blues 

Monkey Inn Combo (piano), Berkeley 1961-62

Erickson (leader, piano), Frank Goudie (clarinet), Bob Mielke (trombone), Jimmy Carter (drums):

Gettysburg March 

Joseph, Joseph (add trumpet) 

Careless Love (add trumpet) 

I’ve Found a New Baby (add trumpet) 

Willie the Weeper 

Mielke and Erickson c. 1950.

Dave Radlauer is a six-time award-winning radio broadcaster presenting early Jazz since 1982. His vast JAZZ RHYTHM website is a compendium of early jazz history and photos with some 500 hours of exclusive music, broadcasts, interviews and audio rarities.

Radlauer is focused on telling the story of San Francisco Bay Area Revival Jazz. Preserving the memory of local legends, he is compiling, digitizing, interpreting and publishing their personal libraries of music, images, papers and ephemera to be conserved in the Dave Radlauer Jazz Collection at the Stanford University Library archives.

Or look at our Subscription Options.