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December 2023
Vol. 23, No. 3

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Pickin’ Around

by Lou CurtissNovember 2017

Virginia and I kicked off the show at the reunion of the Heritage Coffeehouse last Saturday (Oct 14) and it got me to thinking about my early days in the San Diego scene. I started playing music on Dexter Sykes’ front porch in Imperial Beach. Mostly it was country music that we heard on XERB and the other border blaster radio stations. Dexter really got into Johnny Cash and I think we did every song on the first two or three LPs that Johnny put out. That was during my high school days in 1956 and 1957. I was seeing live shows at Town Hall Party in LA and the Bostonia Ballroom “one mile east and one mile north of the city of El Cajon” (it’s in the middle of the city today). Dexter dropped out of school and after I graduated in 1957 I started going to the coffeehouses. First it was the Zodiac at 12th and Broadway. The first guy I saw play there was named Mickey Myers. I don’t know anything about him except that he used a rewrite of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song as his theme. I also saw Judy Henske and Marilyn Powell first at the Zodiac although I first saw Judy at the Zen Coffeehouse and Motorcycle Repair Shop down at Broadway and India. I also saw her duet with Fred Gerlach down there.

During the day I was working at National Steel and I ran into a guy named Roger Geldardt who played the banjo. He knew a guitar player named Eric Hord and they were planning to go to New York to become part of the Striped Shirt Hall of Fame. They talked me into going with them. Well, I never got famous. Eric wound up playing guitar for Ian and Sylvia and I lost track of Roger in a short time. I visited Washington Square a few times and saw Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paley, Ed McCurdy, and a few of the other New York regulars. In fact, it was Ed who put in a word for me that got me a job washing dishes at the Gaslight Cafe. I was around when quite a few of the then folk music greats came through. Saw bits and pieces of a lot of them (I was mostly in the kitchen).

After about six months (and a bit of New York Winter) I was longing for California. I called my Dad and he sent me money for a bus ticket home and I was back in San Diego. It was shortly thereafter at a Young Democrats meeting that I ran into Terry Huston who played guitar and we formed a group called the Lysanders. I can’t remember how that name came about except that I had a book whose hero was named Lysander. Terry and I went to a coffeehouse in the college area called the Upper Cellar (this was summer of 1960), played the Hootenanny (Wednesday night jam session), and got hired for a weekend gig. After that we played a few other places, parties, and even a parade in Imperial Beach where we sang on a float belonging to the Imperial Beach News (we sang a Vern Partlow song titled “Newspaper Men Are Such Interesting People” over and over for the length of the parade). It wasn’t long after that that someone from the paper called us “the lice eaters” and we decided to bust up. Terry’s still around the scene playing a variety of instruments. I still see him from time to time.

I got a degree from San Diego City College and moved on to San Diego State. I met up with Curt Bouterse and we decided to reorganize the Campus Organized Folksingers and Folksong Society.” We held regular meetings and Thursday afternoon jam sessions. There was a group of regulars including Curt and myself, Wayne and Warren Stromberg, Pam Baker, Larry Murray, Nicolette Axton, Corkey Woerner, Clarke Powell, Dennis Squier, and others. I often played at those hoots with Clarke Powell but we all played some together. I remember we took the whole Folksong Society crowd out to Pacific Beach to play at a club called the End (on Grand Ave.) and several people got the idea of playing out at the coffeehouses again, including me. The next fall I got a group together called the Red Mountain Ramblers with Dennis Squier, Ned Getline, Peggy Fallon, Alan Scott Glascoe, Pat Prickett, Larry Fumo, Rex Morris, and, of course, myself. We started playing regular at a place called Occam’s Razor out on El Cajon Blvd. but they soon closed and we moved on out to The End where we stayed for about six months. At the end of the spring term at San Diego State we all kind of went our own ways.

In the fall I set about getting a new group together. This one was called the Old Reliable Egg Preserver Jug and String Band and Janitorial Service, which featured Virginia Curtiss, Stan Smith, Tim Smith, Pat Griffith, John German, and Mike Tozer. This was the first band I had that actually played at the Heritage (sometime in 1966). It was about that time (1967) that I opened Folk Arts Rare Records and was too busy to stay with a group and we all broke up, but later that same year we started picking with Brian Steeger (Virginia and I) and we tried to ape the Country Comics as the Krudd Family. We started to run the Wednesday night Hoots at the Heritage and did so for about a year. After the Heritage gig ended Brian moved up to Santa Cruz and we started picking with Joe Gwaltney as the Lower Washington Street Woolthumpers. We played at the Heritage a few times but it was in its twilight years. When it closed in 1973 we started doing concerts in the store (Virginia and I played with W.B. Reid on occasion as the Old Home Town Band; sometimes Don Brader would play with us). Mostly since then its just been Lou and Virginia Curtiss.

It was so nice to see all those Heritage regulars get back together last month: Ray Bierl, Pam Ostergren Brown, Martin Henry, Tony McCashen, Ted Staak, Suzanne Shea, Pam Baker, Cliff Nimen, Curt Bouterse, Larry and Deborah Hanks, and of, course, me and Virginia. A special thanks to Michele Janette who got the idea and put the whole show together and the owners of the Single Fin Surf Bar in the same building that housed the old Heritage. Although they didn’t play I saw Heritage regulars Clair Hart, Robb Strandlund, Zoya Smithton, and others whose faces don’t connect with names. It was a truly great evening and I hope we can do it again. How about a reunion of The San Diego State Folk Festival next?
Lou Curtiss

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