It was the early 1970’s and, musically speaking, it was all going on in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. The Summer of Love had gone up in smoke, and around Grant and Columbus Streets, the remnants were everywhere. Hippies, beatniks (the movement was spawned in North Beach), college kids, strippers and barkers going to work on Broadway…and musicians of every stripe… busking on the street, playing in the strip joints and nightclubs, hanging out in the coffee houses. Within a three block radius of the intersection of Columbus and Grant, you could hear Cannonball Adderly or Jimmy Smith at the Keystone Korner, McCoy Tyner or Cal Tjader at El Matador, John Coltrane at the Jazz Workshop, Azteca at the Keystone San Francisco, Larry Graham and Grand Central Station at the Orphanage…and at many more venues that have come and gone.
If your tastes ran to Blues Music, you were in luck. You could start at one end of Grant, walk up the street past The Saloon (still there today and the City’s oldest bar), Gulliver’s, The Coffee Gallery (where Janis Joplin used to perform), the Grant and Green, The Savoy Tivoli, Mooney’s Irish Pub….. Those places all featured blues performers, and not just any run-of-the-mill performers. Stars like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Albert Collins, Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Luther Tucker. Up-and Comers like Ron Thompson, Robert Cray (featuring a young Curtis Salgado)... It was heaven for Night Owls and Blues Lovers.
Tucked in the middle of the street, next to the Coffee Gallery, in what seemed to be the hub for all this musical energy, was a joint called Wumper’s Old Man. There was a giant photo of Albert Einstein above the bar, and you came in through two swinging saloon doors, past two very large door men – Big Jack and Joey. The bar ran the length of the room, with a large wooden dance floor, tables and chairs, a low stage, and a jukebox against the far wall.
The reigning Musical King of Wumper’s was Perry Welsh, with his band, Perry and the Pumpers.
Perry migrated to California with his longtime buddy, the great keyboardist/singer Stephen Miller, and the two became part of Elvin Bishop’s Band. Perry soon jumped ship and formed his own group, and he consistently found musicians who loved equal parts of fun, mayhem, and the soulful Blues and R&B that Perry taught (because joining The Pumpers meant qualifying for a sort of “finishing school”). Over the years, several members of Perry and the Pumpers went on to play with Elvin Bishop, as well as with musicians as different as John Lee Hooker and Peter Gabriel. But while with
Perry, they pumped out that Sound demanded by The Boss, a driving, thumping, good-time blend of American Roots music.
Dancers would be sweatin’ and rockin’, Drinkers would be drinkin’, and the energy would build to a crescendo, often culminating with Perry walking the bar, wailin’ on that harmonica and belting out “Got My Mojo Workin’”, while drop-kicking shot glasses off the bar.
The band was no less colorful, including, at different times, characters like “Fly” Brooks, Johnny “V”, “Cheetah”, Johnny “Ace”….
Bishop would come in to jam almost every night when he got off the road, along with bluesmen like Tucker, or Nick Gravenites. The joint would get to jumpin’ and every once in awhile, somebody’d get out of control. Jack and/or Joey would “escort” them, rolled up into a ball, out into Grant Street,. The saloon doors would slam open and Perry would yell, “And there goes another satisfied customer”!
The cast of regulars included “Millie the Flower Lady”, “Ernie, The Dancin’ Fool From the Fairmont”, “Red”, a young man dressed in overalls with no shirt or shoes, who had a Gibson guitar with no case strapped on his back, and would sit in and play like BB King (he later morphed into “Johnny Nitro”, performing successfully at the Saloon for decades.), beat poet Bob Kaufman…. Pimps and Preachers mingling with Streetwalkers and Celebrities…What a scene! They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Almost unbelievably, Perry is still doing that thing he does so well, and it must have been fate that, through a convoluted series of circumstances, he was reunited with some of his old bandmates Phil Aaberg and Steve Ehrmann, and a few new Characters – and exceptional musicians. Some of us feel that he’s never sounded better. The result is this CD, just honest music, heartfelt and soulful, without the electronic and contrived gimmicks present in so much of what passes for music today. These tracks were recorded live with no cheating ( no perfection here, just like life), and a few solos and vocals were added later.
The spirit of Wumper’s Old Man and North Beach lives on in this music and in Perry and the Pumpers…