Dusty Baker, John Lee Hooker, and the Fillmore District

(Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)

Excerpted with permission from Kiss the Sky: My Weekend in Monterey at the Greatest Concert Ever by Dusty Baker, published by Wellstone Books and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods.

I remember once when I was hanging out a club in San Francisco listening to music, I looked over and saw I was sitting next to Carlos Santana. He was cool, man. He had his hat on and everything. I always liked Santana. We started talking and it was the most natural thing in the world. The thing about musicians, they hook up together in a minute, especially the blues guys. Guys show up out of nowhere and before you know it, they all start playing together, just jammin’.

My wife Melissa and I used to go to John Handy’s place up in the Fillmore in San Francisco, a nice little blues spot. I remember when the Fillmore reopened I went back there, where I’d seen Jimi Hendrix years earlier, and caught Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. That’s another one of my favorite guitarists, Tom Petty, and Bob Brenly met me for that show.

Sweetwater in Mill Valley was always a great spot to hit and I remember being there with Rusty Evans and Kenny Tennell, who I grew up with in Riverside, to see Rod Piazza, the guy who’d always been fiddling around with a harmonica when we were kids. I remember nights at Sweetwater in Mill Valley where you’d be lost in the music, hardly noticing who just walked in, but then you realized it was Bonnie Raitt or Clarence Clemons, just hanging out like you are. And then they might start jammin’, too. That was on one night when those two came in and we were talking. Everyone was having a good time. Later a young woman came up to me with a big smile.

“I love your music,” she told me.

I just smiled at her, like: You putting me on?

Someone asked me: “Did she really say that? Who did she think you were?”

I answered: “Doesn’t matter, but I better move on, before she asks me to sing.”

When I met John Lee Hooker that took it to another level for me. John Lee was born in Mississippi. His daddy was a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher. He played down-home Delta blues and no one did it better, as you know if you’ve heard his versions of “Crawling King Snake” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” He moved around a lot in his life, but spent a lot of time in California, especially as he got older. He was here so much that later in 1997 he opened John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. But John Lee and I go back farther than that. I played for the Dodgers for eight seasons starting in 1976, and John Lee was a Dodger fan. He had a house in Long Beach and would come to games. I signed a Dodger uniform for him – and I found out later he had that framed and on the wall of one of his houses in the Bay Area.

I started managing the Giants in 1993 and that was a good year in a lot of ways: We won 103 games, but finished one game back of the Braves in the N.L. West and back then there was no wild card, so our season was over. I was named Manager of the Year, which was nice, but like I always tell people, and I say this in private or in public, doesn’t matter to me: Baseball is all about the players, not the manager or anyone else. Matt Williams and Barry Bonds combined that year for eighty-four home runs and 233 RBIs. Bill Swift and John Burkett both won more than twenty games for us. We had good defense up the middle in Royce Clayton and Robby Thompson at short and second, and Darren Lewis in center field. And we had a lot of good character guys. I told Darren one time: You’re just how I’d want a son of mine to be. And when I did have a son, I named him “Darren” after Darren Lewis.

San Francisco hadn’t changed all that much at that point from how it was when I was a young kid hanging out in the Haight with my buddies. I still loved hanging out. Baseball can wear you out, mentally I mean, and San Francisco was always there to help you change the channel and just chill out. I was a regular at Slim’s on 11th Street. Remember Boz Scaggs? That’s a cool name. He was guitarist and lead singer for “The Steve Miller Band” and had a hit as a solo artist with “Lido Shuffle” in the late ’70s. He opened Slim’s in 1988 and tried to turn it into his dream night club, and did a good job of it, too. Huey Lewis was there playing harmonica the night the club opened, and the word was out to musicians that this was a great venue. By the ’90s when I started managing the Giants, it was the place to go. I saw Simply Red at Slim’s, Bonnie Raitt, Funkadelic, Bootsy, Maceo Parker from the James Brown band – the list goes on and on.

So much was going on at Slim’s, you felt part of the action even if you couldn’t be there that night. Here are some of the highlights from those years, as recorded by Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle:

May 13, 1993

Under the name Dr. David Gunn, Pearl Jam plays a benefit. Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl play catch with club dog Buster in the alley.

 May 20, 1993

Green Day pays to replace onstage carpets it ruined.

 July 11, 1993

With “Creep” on the radio, Radiohead sells out the band’s first San Francisco appearance.

Oct. 21, 1993

No Doubt opens for the Dance Hall Crashers.

Nov. 9, 1993

On a two-night double bill with Lemonheads, Hole lead vocalist Courtney Love spends the weekend wandering around backstage in her slip, fighting over the phone with her husband, Kurt Cobain.

April 18, 1994

The first S.F. appearance by Beck, originally booked at out-of-the-way Olive Oyl’s on the waterfront, moves to Slim’s.

June 19, 1994

Sheryl Crow makes her first San Francisco appearance.

Aug. 13, 1995

First of three sold-out, ecstatic performances over the years by Dogstar, the famously bad rock band featuring Keanu Reeves. A bomb scare brings police to the club.

John Lee would sometimes come see me at Candlestick when I was manager of the Giants. He was a real baseball fan. At home he’d have three TV sets on at a time, each tuned to baseball, and he would pay close attention. He’d been a catcher way back when and always loved to talk baseball with me. He came to a game as my guest in September 1995 and had himself so much fun, talking to the players in the clubhouse, wearing a fedora hat made of felt with diamond and gold pins shaped like musical notes. He watched the game from a broadcast booth up in the press box, then came down afterward and we talked in my office for hours. My dad was there, and my youngest brother, Millard, from my dad’s second marriage, who picked up a love of the blues from my dad, too. Deion Sanders played for the Giants that season and he was there in my office to hang with John Lee, too. Asked who his favorite Giants player was, John Lee said, “Royce Clayton.” And why was that? “Because he’s cool.” Royce was cool. He had that right.

The next August John Lee invited me to a big birthday party he was having. He was turning seventy-nine year old, but you’d never know it from talking to him. He was having himself so much fun all the time, he might as well have been a teenager. That was John Lee. He was still performing regularly, too. I went to that birthday party and met all kinds of people, including Elvin Bishop, whose guitar work I’d first seen at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He’d actually seen John Lee’s “Baker” Dodgers uniform and asked about me and John Lee said he’d introduce us.

Elvin was my kind of guy. He’s lived up in Marin County for years, and was actually born in California, but grew up in Iowa and Oklahoma and earned a National Merit Scholarship to attend the University of Chicago and study physics starting in 1960. He met Paul Butterfield a few years later and started playing guitar in his blues band. Elvin formed his own group before long and had a hit with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (he didn’t sing on that one, though). Elvin has played with everyone you can think of. He played with Muddy Waters. He played with Lightnin’ Hopkins. He and I could have talked music all night, or baseball, but instead we started talking fishing, which we’re both serious about. After that we became fishing buddies.

“You know all the good spots,” Elvin says. “You check it out and make sure it’s going to be good. We always catch fish. But you’re competitive. There are times when two guys will be out there using the same bait and one guy is catching all kinds of fish and the other can’t catch anything. That’s just part of fishing. But when it happens to you, your jaw gets tight. You don’t like that!”

Elvin can kid me like that because we’ve had so many good times. One time I was with Elvin and Orlando Cepeda was there, too, and he took a look at Elvin and kind of did a double-take, and then he told him: “I know you! You were on one of Santana’s records.” Actually, it was some of Santana’s guys who played on one of Elvin’s records, but that was cool. Orlando saw everything from the Latin angle. When I was manager of the Cubs from 2003 to 2006 Elvin was often in Chicago and he’d come out to Wrigley Field and sit in the dugout during batting practice and take in the scene.

Later Elvin called me up and asked me if I’d like to be a presenter with him at the 2007 Blues Music Awards down in Memphis, Tennessee. Did I want to be a presenter? Of course I did. That was one of the best times I ever had, like seeing thirty concerts in two days and meeting people right and left. Charlie Musselwhite, who I’d met at John Lee’s houses, was a big winner, snagging “Song of the Year” with “Church Is Out,” and “Traditional Blues Album of the Year” and “Album of the Year” with “Delta Hardware.” Elvin and I had all kinds of fun and the next day we went fishing down in Mississippi at Morgan Freeman’s place. We were driving down the road and they told me that was the spot where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil. I could feel the spiritual power of the crossroads, just like Eric Clapton sang about.

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