Rockin' at the Rollarena, Pre-Summer of Love

January 12th, 2012

If you were in a rock band in late-1960s San Francisco, the world beat a path to your garage door. Record executives walked the length of Haight Street and saw dollar signs instead of peace symbols, signing bands to fat contracts as fast as they could.

But if you wanted to rock ’n’ roll in the East Bay, particularly in that no-man’s land between Oakland and San Jose, you were a beggar at the banquet happening just a few miles away. It didn’t matter that you thought your group could be the next Herman’s Hermits, Beatles, or Rolling Stones. If you and your band were so cool, why weren’t you in San Francisco?

Above left: In the mid-1960s, Bill Quarry promoted local and international acts alike at Rollarena on East 14th Street in San Leandro. Above right: Bill Quarry (left) with Tiny Tim.

Above left: In the mid-1960s, Bill Quarry promoted local and international acts alike at Rollarena on East 14th Street in San Leandro. Above right: Bill Quarry (left) with Tiny Tim.

Bill Quarry was the exception to this exclusionary rule. Throughout the ’60s, Quarry promoted East Bay bands (including the Baytovens, shown at top) in shows at a number of now legendary East Bay music venues, the most famous of which was a roller-skating rink called Rollarena at 15721 East 14th Street in San Leandro.

“The San Leandro strip was second to none,” recalls Bruce Tahsler, who was the lead singer in a British Invasion-inspired outfit called the Talisman and is the author and editor of “Garage Bands From The 60′s, Then And Now.”

“When kids got out of the drive-ins, they would cruise the strip,” Tahsler says. “We’re talking bumper-to-bumper traffic for about a mile or so. It was a terrific place to be, like in ‘American Graffiti’. Every restaurant and coffee shop was packed.”

Quarry got his start producing Teens 'N Twenties dances at the Moose Club in Castro Valley. In the late-1950s, Quarry helped promote shows such as this one with Fats Domino.

Quarry got his start producing Teens ‘N Twenties dances at the Moose Club in Castro Valley. In the late-1950s, Quarry helped promote shows such as this one with Fats Domino.

“Bill Quarry could have been as big as Bill Graham in San Francisco, but he was too nice.”

While the Rollarena may have been Bill Quarry’s most famous music venue in the East Bay, it was by no means his first. “During high school,” Quarry says, “I was working with the Hayward Recreation Department at a teen club they sponsored. We’d put on little dances around town. After I graduated in 1955, I realized there was no place for people who were out of high school, but still under 21, to go. So a friend of mine and I rented the Castro Valley Moose Club for dances. We wanted to get teens to come, but we also wanted people who had just turned 20, so I called the dances Teens ’N Twenties. Every Friday night we’d pack 300 or 400 people in there, as many as it would hold, at a dollar a head.”

From the Moose Club, Quarry branched out, promoting concerts at Carpenter’s Hall in Hayward and even bigger venues. “I knew a guy named Mannie Schwartz,” Quarry says. “He was a big-time promoter who used to book the Coasters, the Drifters, Duane Eddy, all those people. He happened to live in San Leandro, so we used my name when he brought in acts locally.”

Quarry promoted shows all over the East Bay. This pair of posters by Don Ryder advertise concerts in Vallejo, San Leandro, and Oakland.

Quarry promoted shows all over the East Bay. This pair of posters by Don Ryder advertise concerts in Vallejo, San Leandro, and Oakland.

In partnership with Schwartz, Quarry promoted Fats Domino at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, as well as a big “Cavalcade of Stars” at the Oakland Auditorium, with everyone from James Brown to Jerry Lee Lewis to the Everly Brothers on the same bill.

A stint in the service interrupted his career, but by 1964, Quarry was back at Carpenter’s Hall, booking local bands who were inspired by the success of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show earlier in the year. One of the most popular proto-Brit band of the mid-1960s was the Baytovens, which opened its first show in 1965 at San Leandro High School’s Christmas Dance with a cover of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Quarry made it a point to pair big-name acts of the day like Paul Revere and the Raiders with East Bay bands like the Harbinger Complex.

Quarry made it a point to pair big-name acts of the day like Paul Revere and the Raiders with East Bay bands like the Harbinger Complex.

“They were a Beatles look-alike and sound-alike band,” says Tahsler. “They dressed like The Beatles and had topnotch equipment like The Beatles. They brought their own sound system to their concerts and dances.” For a brief while, the Baytovens were one of the highest paid bands in the East Bay, but 18 months after their first gig, they were gone.

At the tail end of 1965, on New Year’s Eve in fact, Bill Quarry produced his first show at Rollarena, which held about 2,000 people. Peter Wheat and the Breadmen headlined. “It wasn’t big names,” Quarry says of the majority of bands who played Rollarena. “I built two stages so we could alternate bands. One band would be setting up while the other was playing. It was the first time anybody had ever done that.”

Jim Armstrong of Them with an unidentified fan at Rollarena, the first California stop on the Irish band's first U.S. tour.

Jim Armstrong of Them with an unidentified fan at Rollarena, the first California stop on the Irish band’s first U.S. tour.

A typical Rollarena show featured four bands and admission was usually just $2, although Quarry had to charge an extra 50 cents when big-name acts like Them (Van Morrison’s band) were headlining. “The first California stop on their first American tour was Rollarena,” says Tahsler of Them. “Van Morrison met his future wife there.” Rollarena was also the site of the first California performance for Neil Diamond.

For about six months, Quarry promoted weekly shows at Carpenter’s Hall and Rollarena simultaneously, but he eventually dropped regular bookings at Carpenter’s Hall in favor of high-impact events, like the April 6, 1966, appearance of Paul Revere and the Raiders at the Oakland Auditorium. East Bay stalwarts Peter Wheat, the Baytovens, and a group of Rolling Stones-like tough guys from Fremont called Harbinger Complex provided support.

Quarry nurtured the East Bay music scene by giving young bands a chance to play Rollarena and bringing East Bay acts to San Francisco venues like Longshoreman's Hall.

Quarry nurtured the East Bay music scene by giving young bands a chance to play Rollarena and bringing East Bay acts to San Francisco venues like Longshoreman’s Hall.

Despite the nostalgic that’s usually shown for 1967 and the Summer of Love, 1966 was easily the most important year for music in the San Francisco Bay Area. That was the year Chet Helms began producing dance concerts at the Fillmore, before Bill Graham’s signature on that storied auditorium’s lease forced him to move his Family Dog productions to the Avalon Ballroom. During one week in August alone, The Beatles played their last gig at Candlestick Park, Country Joe and the Fish played their first concert at the Fillmore, and Bill Quarry hosted the Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds at the Carousel Ballroom, which would become the Fillmore West in 1968.

Quarry could have had the Carousel’s lease, but he was “very content to stay in the East Bay. I actually had no wishes to go into San Francisco at all,” he says. “But eventually, reluctantly, I did some things in San Francisco because younger people, both musicians and fans, wanted to go over there. I guess I was a little jealous because they were getting all the publicity and we were basically ignored.”

Above left: San Francisco rock promoter Bill Graham didn't like it when Bill Quarry produced a Jefferson Airplane concert at Rollarena. Above right: Less than two years after Quarry presented the Yardbirds at the Carousel Ballroom, Bill Graham had moved in and renamed it Fillmore West.

Above left: San Francisco rock promoter Bill Graham didn’t like it when Bill Quarry produced a Jefferson Airplane concert at Rollarena. Above right: Less than two years after Quarry presented the Yardbirds at the Carousel Ballroom, Bill Graham had moved in and renamed it Fillmore West.

“They,” of course, were Graham and Helms, the yin-yang rock impresarios of 1960s San Francisco. “I liked Chet Helms a lot,” Quarry remembers, “and Bill Graham was really friendly with me when he was starting out. He gave me a tour of the Fillmore; he was just so gracious. But five months later he was calling me up, cussing me out. He didn’t like what I was doing, especially when I booked the Jefferson Airplane at Rollerena. He complained about the small stages, the lighting, the sound. He didn’t like any of it.”

Graham was also miffed that anyone would have the temerity to compete with him. “He didn’t want any competition, period. I think his goal was always to have everything to himself. Chet used to say, ‘I have to admit, Bill Graham gets up way earlier than I do.’ Bill was always ahead of the Family Dog people on everything.”

Bruce Tahsler puts it this way: “Bill Quarry could’ve been as big or bigger than Bill Graham in San Francisco,” he says, “but Bill Quarry was too nice of a guy.”

A snapshot of Doors singer Jim Morrison, taken by Quarry from the stage of the San Jose Rock Festival, 1968.

A snapshot of Doors singer Jim Morrison, taken by Quarry from the stage of the San Jose Rock Festival, 1968.

Quarry tried his best to create an East Bay scene that would do the musicians and fans there justice and feel, well, hip. He even got his “everything guy” Don Ryder to create psychedelic posters for his Rollarena shows, just like the ones Wes Wilson and others did for the Fillmore and Avalon. But East Bay bands languished in the shadow of those on the other side of the bay.

“There were definitely groups in the East Bay that were really good,” Quarry says, “but they were penalized for not being in San Francisco. I think if a few of them had moved into the Haight-Ashbury, they probably would’ve made it, but they didn’t do that.”

The crowd and security at an early Rollarena show.

The crowd and security at an early Rollarena show.

“We all know what took place over in San Francisco,” adds Tahsler, “about all the wonderful bands that played over there, but not much is known about what took place on this side of the bay. A lot of musicians used these little garage bands as springboards for their careers. Skip Mesquite, who played keyboards and sax for my second band, The U.S. Male, went on to play in a little band called the Motowns, and they evolved into Tower of Power. He played with Cold Blood, too. Keyboardist Gregg Rolie was with William Penn and His Pals. He went on to Santana and Journey. Ron Meagher was a bass player for the Offbeats before he joined the Beau Brummels. And on and on.

“There was a self-consciousness about San Francisco,” Tahsler continues. “All of us wanted to record at Golden State Records and play the Fillmore. We looked at the Airplane, Moby Grape, all of those bands, but for one reason or another, most of us didn’t make it.”

Neither did Rollarena. After a great run throughout all of 1966 and most of 1967, the roller-skating rink closed its doors.

Like Wes Wilson, Don Ryder used hand-drawn lettering to create the shapes that filled his posters.

Like Wes Wilson, Don Ryder used hand-drawn lettering to create the shapes that filled his posters.

The 1960s ended on the same sour note for Quarry as it did for most people in the Bay Area music scene—Altamont. “I was promoting shows with former Baytovens manager Larry White,” Quarry recalls. “We were doing concerts here and there, and somehow or other we got word about a Rolling Stones show that was supposed to happen at Sears Point. We knew it was going to be a free show, but we wanted to get involved, so we got in touch with the Rolling Stones’ manager, Sam Cutler. We ended up getting a contract to do food concessions. Then, at the last minute, they moved everything to Altamont.”

The Stones decided to hire the Hells Angels to provide security for the event. Reportedly, the gang was paid in beer. Unsurprisingly, this plan did not go well, but ominous signs were literally on the horizon before the first note was played. The day before the ill-fated concert, if you lived in some parts of the East Bay and looked up, you probably noticed helicopters transporting pairs of portable toilets from Sears Point to Altamont. The porta-potty airlift went on all day and into the night. “It seemed like the sky was full of them,” says Tahsler.

“The night before the concert,” Quarry remembers, “Sam Cutler drove me all over those mountains in his Lincoln Continental, to show me where to put the concession stands, where everything would go. But things were already out of control; people were just streaming in.”

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones looks on while his Hells Angels security force practices crowd control at Altamont, 1969.

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones looks on while his Hells Angels security force practices crowd control at Altamont, 1969.

The trouble at Altamont went well beyond the killing of a gun-toting spectator by a member of the motorcycle gang. “The whole thing was a disaster,” says Quarry, “it was terrible. We had arranged for two school buses of kids from a local high school to work at the concession stands. And we had a couple of trucks full of food, but we couldn’t open up but one stand because the crowd at the show expected everything to be free. One vendor opened up his truck to sell oranges and within 10 minutes he was completely looted. We had three or four bikers working for us to keep one of our stands open, but there were 300,000 people, so…”

In the 1970s, Quarry juggled his time between a printing company he’d started in the late 1960s—his day job—and concert promotion, much of which occurred at a venerable club in Hayward called Frenchy’s, where Quarry briefly promoted shows in the 1960s.

For a brief period in the 1960s, and during much of the 1970s and '80s, Quarry produced music shows at Frenchy's, a roomy East Bay night club.

For a brief period in the 1960s, and during much of the 1970s and ’80s, Quarry produced music shows at Frenchy’s, a roomy East Bay night club.

“Frenchy’s was the biggest night club in the East Bay,” Quarry says. “We could get 500, 600, 700 people in there. Joe Cocker played there a couple of times, Tower of Power, the Sons of Champlin. I even did big bands like Woody Herman, and Michael Jackson played there after he left The Jackson 5.” Jackson was promoting a new tune called “Beat It.”

Indeed, a lot of people played Frenchy’s, including Bruce Tahsler. “Yeah, my band played Frenchy’s in the ’60s,” Tahsler confirms. “It was a big spot in those days. It had a restaurant, a bar, and a stage in the back where the bands played. Go-go girls danced in cages on each side of the stage.” This was a far cry from the liquid light shows and psychedelic sound in San Francisco, but, recalls Tahsler, “When we played Frenchy’s, we thought we’d arrived.”

(All images except Altamont courtesy Teen ‘N Twenties, where you can order a copy of Tahsler’s book. The book’s CD companion, “You Got Yours!” features songs by such East Bay bands as the Baytovens, Harbinger Complex, and Peter Wheat and the Breadmen; to purchase a CD, visit Ace Records.)

5 comments so far

  1. Vincent Anton Says:

    If you liked the Garage Band era, tune into beyondthebeatgeneraton.com Come to think of it, it is a perfect compliment to cruising the Collectorsweekly website!

  2. Cynthia Diana Cornelius Says:

    Thanks for the memories.

  3. Diane Profumo Olsen Says:

    Yes, what great memories! I had forgotten about Frenchy’s until I read your article, fun place.

  4. Roanna Says:

    I used to have such a great time at Rollarena and saw some really good bands there. I met the love of my life, well the 1st in the series, there.
    Mr. Quarry, thank you for what you did for our little San Leandro. You shaped so many of us and I thank you

  5. Tom Says:

    Do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around!


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