Keeping the music alive

DOWNEY - What is it about Downey that so many gifted singers, songwriters and musicians develop in this town? Is it the pristine water from the city's own wells? Downey Studios, in the back of Wenzel's music store on Lakewood Boulevard, was the recording site in 1962 for the international surf hit "Pipeline." Grammy winner James Hetfield from Metallica is a Downey boy. And a prominent display in the library reminds visitors that this city was home to the award-winning Carpenters.Equally legendary, but in a different musical genre, is another pair of Downey siblings who have achieved an international fan base with devoted followers - song writer and guitarist Dave Alvin and brother Phil of the Blasters. The band, founded with fellow Downey residents Bill Bateman and John Bazz, was known for its throbbing interpretations of rockabilly style and first appeared during the LA punk scene in the early 1980's. The reputation of the Blasters grew when their first album, "American Music," caught the attention of the British rock band Queen, who invited the group to be an opening act on a portion of their west coast tour. The Blasters in turn helped promote Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakam with invitations to tour. In 1989 Yoakam's cover of Dave's "Long White Cadillac" was a hit on country charts. Both brothers are charismatic performers with exceptional musicianship. Their music is often referred to as "American roots" music because they skillfully fuse so many styles -blues, rock, country rock, alternative country, honky-tonk, western swing, etc. Performances can be roof-raising, leaving the audience exhausted, with Phil's soaring voice lifting the rafters and Dave's ripping guitar work shaking loose the studs. For a change of pace the band can ease into an irresistible swinging grove, compelling listeners to dance. And Dave's delivery is riveting with his plaintive lyrics about love gone wrong. The early Blasters are referenced in a history of California country music, "Workin' Man Blues" by Gerald Haslam, as a creative force impossible to ignore. Brother Dave left the band in 1986 to pursue song writing and a solo career, which eventually would earn him a Grammy. In 2009 he and Greg Leisz gave an acoustic performance at the Disney Concert Hall. He is a prolific writer, and his reflections on life prompted two books of poetry. His songs include memorable tributes to Bill Haley, "Haley's Comet" (co-written with Tom Russell), and Big Joe Turner, "The Boss of the Blues." Arguably his most beautiful song is the tribute to his father, union organizer Cass Alvin, "The Man in the Bed." For a while after Dave left, there were some changes in personnel; but the Blasters continued, with Phil as dynamic as ever. Despite their creative differences, the brothers' love is deep, and Dave rejoins the group from time to time on reunion tours. Dave's new album, soon to be released this June, and entitled "Eleven-Eleven" after his birthday, contains a testament to the strength of that love. As the Blasters, Dave and Phil observed a division of labor and never sang together - Dave wrote lyrics and was lead guitar and Phil did vocals. For this album, they will sing a duet written by Dave. In addition to songwriting and performing, Dave has also worked as a producer for other acts, and performed in movie roles. Earlier this year he was spotlighted in the national press when creators of the FX series "Justified" (who are Alvin fans) wrote him into an episode to play himself in a country bar. In early April, the blogosphere was again abuzz when Mayor Joe Krovoza of Davis, Calif., presented an official proclamation, with gold seal and calligraphy, lifting a 1982 ban on any Blasters performances in that town. Through no fault of the band, a riot had started among fans after a performance in Davis 29 years ago and police helicopters were brought in. The current mayor is a big Dave Alvin fan and rode along for a while on the singer's musical rail tour to Seattle to present the proclamation and invite the brothers to please come back to Davis. Brother Phil still calls Downey home, even as he travels the country to perform with fellow Blasters. His powerful, lead voice has a crystalline quality that he uses with superb musicality. He's also multi-faceted, completing a master's thesis in mathematics and teaching for a while at California State University at Long Beach. Musical Influences The Alvin brothers, like so many aspiring musicians at an early age (think Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones), immersed themselves in blues, R&B, and rock and roll by the great ones. They also performed in bars and clubs when they were underage (plenty of good company here with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carlos Santana and Pink, among others). What is somewhat unique about the Alvins' situation is that, as teenagers, they were actually mentored by legendary blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, and saxophonist Lee Allen because of Downey's proximity to the historic jazz center on Central Avenue. By day they were students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help grammar school and Pius X Catholic High School. On weekends they went to rock concerts at the Shrine Auditorium, and later to the fabled Ash Grove near Hollywood. When they looked old enough, they performed wherever they could, and in 1970 they played at the York Club on 88th street for Big Joe Turner. Phil was just 17. The back story of their formative years is as interesting as the brothers' stories about Central Avenue, because their mother Eleanor played a significant role in their musical education. The Early Days Parents Cass and Eleanor Alvin settled in Downey in the early 1950's along with hundreds of other young couples eager to begin their families and make up for lost time during the war. Although the area had a significant aerospace industry, the city was not yet incorporated and still abounded with orange groves. Dairy farms were nearby. The idyllic look of the community must have been a balm to the soul after what Cass had seen as army photographer at Dachau when Germany surrendered. A daughter Mary was the first of the couple's three children. Phil was born in 1953, and Dave followed in 1955. Reminiscing about weekend jaunts with big brother Phil to the San Gabriel River, Dave said the undeveloped area sheltered abundant wildlife. "It was my Mississippi," he explains, "a place where we could all be Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn." It was a magical time for young children who had no way of understanding that they were in the vortex of a profound change. Downey would incorporate in 1956 and exceed a population of 86,000 by 1960. When the orange groves were cut down to make room for all of these people, it left a mark on Dave that he has written about and sung about ever since in "Dry River." Cass Alvin (nee Casimir for the patron saint) was from a large Polish family in South Bend, Indiana. He rode the rails west to study at UCLA, and his brother Joe had come as well; but life was interrupted by World War II. After the war, the two men stayed in southern California, and Cass went to work for the United Steelworkers Union as an organizer and publicist before meeting a nice California girl. Eleanor was a third generation Californian whose family had moved from Reedley in the Great Central Valley to Los Angeles County during the depression. Her goal of being a professional dancer and actress was put aside by the need for a regular paycheck. In time, she became a wife and mother, and the guiding force for her children when Cass had to travel for the union. The family was musical, and the brothers talk about their father playing polkas and popular tunes from his youth on the violin and organ. Phil recalls his father teaching him how to play the harmonica when he was six years old. The brothers also enjoyed the legacy of AM radio in the 1960's when they traveled with Cass to union events in other states during their summer vacations. This was still a time of live DJ's, and the airwaves weren't controlled by predetermined, commercial playlists. Cass himself had a beautiful singing voice, and in 1931 his vocal quartet won first on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a widely popular radio show. As part of the prize, the quartet toured for three months, but unlike his sons, Cass turned said no to a career in music. The 1950's and 60's were a time of swirling musical influences and social changes, from Elvis, Fats Domino, and the Civil Rights movement, to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Watts Riot and the Vietnam War. With Wenzel's Music store as a center, Downey played its part. Dave recounts that surf bands seemed to be everywhere. He often woke up on a Saturday morning hearing two or three bands already practicing. He would throw on his clothes and run to listen by an open garage door or window. When he was older, he learned that a Denny's on Lakewood was a gathering spot for many musicians after their gigs in the area. Well-known lounges included the Dodge City Saloon, the Tumbleweeds, and the Silver Saddle. He would go there at night hoping to hear them recount the night's events. The Alvins enjoyed an extended family life, and Dave acknowledges the significant influence of his older cousins. Reflecting on the path of his career, the singer/songwriter observes, "Everything I try to do is a natural growth from my family gatherings." Cousin Mike in Whittier liked the blues and Bob Dylan, and played folk music on the banjo and guitar. When Phil set out to learn the guitar, he would play along to Dylan songs. Cousin JJ in Chatsworth also played the guitar, and Dave remembers trying to imitate the older boys whenever they set an instrument aside. Cousin Donna, on their mother's side from Bell, had known rock and roll pioneer Eddie Cochran. She was quite a bit older, and when she had to watch Dave and Phil, she would take them cruising in her big American car with a stack of 45's playing on a portable record player placed on the floor near her feet. Dave's "Blue Boulevard" is dedicated to her memory. The Ash Grove As the boys approached adolescence, their musical bent was obvious to their mother. Phil recounts that when he was 12, Eleanor was the one who showed him an announcement and got tickets to see blues harmonica player Sonny Terry at Ed Pearl's Ash Grove in Hollywood. Opened in 1958, the Ash Grove was a unique venue that featured legendary older artists such as Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee, along with young performers including Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, and Kris Kristofferson. Bob Dylan and Linda Ronstadt both said they used to dream of playing there. Eleanor continued providing opportunities for her sons to experience live performances. Phil describes how she drove him and his friends to rock concerts at the Shrine Auditorium on Friday nights. Performers included Creedence Clearwater and the Doors. Eleanor would wait in the parking lot for the show to end with young Dave in the car. When Dave was in seventh grade she let him see Jimi Hendrix, twice, and Cream. Dave's inner drive to play music was becoming evident as he took up other instruments in high school. He was self-taught on the guitar, but as he explains, there were so many guitar players around that you had a better chance of joining a band if you played a different instrument. His high school, Pius X, offered a music program that would help a student learn an instrument, so he took up the flute and tenor saxophone. His first gig, at age 17, was at a place called the Lion's Lair on Woodruff Avenue. Describing it in a poem "The Music Business," he paints a humorous and sympathetic picture of a young man trying to look cool as he carries in his saxophone and flute cases into a biker bar. Playing Central Avenue The year 1970 was memorable for both of Downey's musical families. The Carpenter's album Close to You featured two massive singles that were #1 and # 2 on the charts: "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun." In that same year, Dave and Phil's life-changing friendship with Big Joe Turner and Lee Allen grew out of a chance meeting in a music store with a blues player named Ernie Franklin whose mother was a singer and knew Big Joe Turner. Though Phil was only seventeen, the brothers showed up at the York Club and auditioned that night. Phil explains that no questions were asked because he always looked older than his actual age. And by then they certainly could play. The brothers came often after that and Dave immortalized their friendship with his song "The Boss of the Blues." Set to a swinging beat, the lyrics are inspired from one night in 1972 when Joe reminisced about the heyday of Central Avenue as they drove him home: "…you could get sin, salvation, love, or a damn good fight…let me tell you, it was a poor man's paradise." Surprisingly, the developing musicians did not head straight off to claim a career in music after high school. Instead, Phil went on to college and completed a degree in mathematics. When Dave finished high school, instructors at Cerritos College encouraged his poetic talents - which clearly came to fruition in his songwriting. It wasn't until years later, in 1979 that they seriously worked at having success with a band. They played for free beer and in talent shows. They had a vintage sound that blended blues, R&B and rockabilly, but they were not interested in nostalgia. When asked why it was the punk scene brought them prominence, Dave says, "We played fast and we played loud." Mentor and legendary Saxophonist Lee Allen joined the Blasters after their first year. Allen had played with Fats Domino and for most of Little Richard's bit hits in 1954 and 55. He played with the Blaster until his death in 1994. The Blasters occasionally played backup for Big Joe Turner, and a photo on Dave's web page shows Dave and his mother Eleanor flanking the famous blues singer at the Club Lingerie in Hollywood in 1983. It was the last time she would see her sons perform before her death a year later. Eleven-Eleven Dave's latest album is titled for his birthday, Nov. 11, and it is also his eleventh album. The first tract, "Harlan County Line," was the song featured for the episode of Justified. The last tract, "Two Lucky Bums," is a duet with his closest friend, the late Chris Gaffney. He will begin touring for the album in June. While Dave has a devoted following and critical acclaim, national fame still eludes him, but he is not complaining. "I've been really lucky considering that 98% of the people who were playing music when I started no longer play. The fact that I still can is a real blessing. I just plow through." From that perspective he is a performer in the tradition of Willie Nelson or Lyle Lovett - he writes and performs what feels right to him. Dave didn't move far from Downey; choosing to make his home in Silverlake. Devoted to all things southwest, one of his favorite California places is Carrizo Plains National Monument west of Bakersfield, site of petroglyphs and the easiest place to view surface fractures from the San Andreas Fault. He also enjoys revisiting the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, and he's been known to bird watch. The songwriter's deep love of family and longtime friends is reflected in the public photo album on his website, Each picture is painstakingly captioned with appropriate detail about who is in it and what was happening. It is a family album, with a nod given to each person who has played an important role in his life. While the Carpenters are the group most closely identified with Downey in peoples' minds, the Downey music tradition runs deep. The Polish son and the Central Valley daughter had no idea how much they would add their own significant contribution to the musical mix through the nurturing of talented sons. Hats off to the Alvin family, and Downey homeboys Dave and Phil.

********** Published: May 5, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 3