By Hal Smith
Earthquake McGoon’s was the longest-running traditional jazz club in San Francisco. Between 1960 and 1984, the featured act, Turk Murphy’s San Francisco Jazz Band, exposed many thousands to the joy and excitement of the San Francisco Style.
Originally located at 99 Broadway, the former site of the Sail’N and home base for the Bay City Jazz Band, the club was named after a character in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip. Capp gave Turk Murphy the permission to use the name, “as long as you keep your nose clean and play good jazz.” Ward Kimball—Disney animator, trombonist/leader of the Firehouse Five Plus Two and longtime friend of Turk’s—designed the logo, a cartoon rendering of Turk, holding a pail containing a mangled trombone, and the tagline “I just happened to bring my horn.”
The club space was leased by Turk, in partnership with his longtime pianist Peter Clute.
McGoon's Opens at 630 Clay Street - 1962
In 1962, McGoon’s moved to the most well-known of its four locations, 630 Clay Street, the site of the old William Tell Hotel.
The Murphy Band performed regularly but when the ensemble went on tour, replacement bands were hired, including the Bay City Jazz Band, Eddie Condon’s Jazz Band, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, the Dukes of Dixieland, Wild Bill Davison’s Jazz Band, Ev Farey’s Bay City Six, and James Dapogny’s Little Chicago Jazz Band. Turk’s band would sometimes alternate sets with out-of-town groups like the New Orleans Rascals of Osaka, Japan or the Firehouse Five Plus Two that came up from LA at least once a year to celebrate the anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake.
Featured Guests - Eubie Blake, Earl Hines and Sippie Wallace
McGoon’s played host to Ragtime legend Eubie Blake who performed at McGoon’s with the equally legendary Earl Hines sharing the keyboard.
Classic jazz and blues vocalists Victoria Spivey and Sippie Wallace were popular guests. Sippie Wallace in guest appearance with James Dapogny’s Little Chicago Jazz Band c. September 15, 1980
Special Occasions and Benefit Concerts
Special occasions at McGoon’s included the appearance of Lu Watters as a guest with the Murphy Band, during the time Watters was involved in protesting Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposed nuclear facility on Bodega Bay and the Blues Over Bodega recording session.
There were benefit concerts, too, most notably Clancy Hayes Day held in 1970 and 1971 with a stage full of Bay Area musicians and bands.
Fink Street Five appeared on stage for Clancy Hayes Day at McGoon’s, June 13, 1971
Turk Murphy's Band
On very special occasions, Lu Watters would make appearances with the Murphy Band at McGoon’s as he did when Watters was involved in protesting Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposed nuclear facility on Bodega Bay and in the Blues Over Bodega recording session.
The regular lineup in the Murphy Band included ex-Yerba Buena Jazz Band members Bob Helm on clarinet and Squire Girsback on string bass, tubist Bob Short, and the great New Orleans bassist Pops Foster.
Vocalists Pat Yankee and Jimmie Stanislaus often performed with the Murphy Band.
McGoon’s was a magnet for celebrities. Clint Eastwood was a fan and so was filmmaker Woody Allen. News anchors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor might be seen in the crowd, or even sitting in with the band. On one occasion, Chancellor played washboard with the Murphy band.
In an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Woody Allen recalled his affection for Turk:
I wouldn’t have played jazz if it wasn’t for San Francisco. It was Turk Murphy’s constant reassurance that I wasn’t as horrible as I thought I was that kept me playing. I remember we would shoot “Take the Money and Run” until 7 p.m. and then have dinner and I would get back to the hotel and pull the covers over my head and practice the clarinet so I could play [at McGoon's] the next night.
Dating back to Hambone Kelly’s, Turk developed a gregarious public persona. He often went to patrons’ tables, engaged them in conversation, accepted their requests for songs and even bought drinks. His willingness to engage the public served him well, as patrons returned to McGoon’s again and again. Celebrities like Walter Cronkite, Clint Eastwood and others knew they would be treated with respect and kindness.
Intermission at McGoon's
Intermissions at McGoon’s ran the gamut from solo pianists and singing banjoists to an all-star trio with Darnell Howard on clarinet/violin, Elmer Snowden on banjo, and Pops Foster on bass.
One of the most beloved intermission artists was Clancy Hayes. A total professional with a sense of timing that nearly matched Turk’s, Clancy would always end his intermission act with a song from the Dawn Club/Hambone Kelly’s era like “Ace in the Hole” or “Willie the Weeper,” as the Murphy band joined him onstage, one by one.
The Magic Cellar
A trip down the stairs at McGoon’s transported fans to the “Magic Cellar” with continuous magic acts on offer.
A variety of food, from Creole to Yakitori, was offered from time to time, to circumvent the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s ruling that minors could only enter nightclubs where food was served. However, none of the food promotions were successful for very long.
Turk - The Showman
Turk Murphy ran a tight ship, starting and ending sets almost to the second. He watched the dance floor and the patrons seated at tables to gauge whether a hot stomp or slow blues should be the next tune played. The dancers in particular appreciated his sensitivity. A typical night at McGoon’s would find the dance floor crowded with a wide range of fans—from older couples who had danced to the Yerba Buena Jazz Band at the Dawn Club and Hambone Kelly’s to young people learning to dance to traditional jazz for the first time—or, the Lehto Mob, an eccentric group who embraced a 1920s lifestyle, dressing in ‘20s-vintage clothing and driving classic automobiles to the club.
McGoon's on Clay Street Closes - 1978
Local tour bus companies boosted attendance when they made Earthquake McGoon’s a stop on their tours of the city. Passengers might only be in the club long enough to have one drink, but the extra revenue was a welcome addition to the bottom line. Live broadcasts by KMPX helped spread the word that some of the best traditional jazz in the world was being played at 630 Clay Street. In spite of all his effort at promotion, Turk recalled royalties from his Columbia records often kept the band and the club in business.
Earthquake McGoon’s was never a huge money-maker for partners Murphy and Clute, but the club managed to keep going through tough times, especially when the block in which McGoon’s was located was sold for redevelopment as an office building.
The Third Earthquake McGoon’s at 128 The Embarcadero
When 630 Clay St. closed in 1978, the band found temporary—and unsatisfactory—quarters at the Rathskellar. The musicians pitched in to paint and refurbish the building which would become the third Earthquake McGoon’s, at 128 The Embarcadero.
On opening night, a fatal stabbing in front of the entrance of the club was a bad omen, to say the least. Inside, patrons, musicians, and staff were subjected to a foul odor from brackish water just under the floorboards. Parking was difficult, and walking to and from a remote parking area was risky.
The Embarcadero McGoon’s finally closed in 1983 and the operation relocated to Pier 39.
McGoon's at Pier 39
The band and the club received a boost when See’s Candies began broadcasting live from Pier 39 on popular KJAZ radio, ensuring that jazz fans knew the San Francisco Style was alive and well in new surroundings. Unfortunately, financial irregularities surfaced and the Murphy-Clute partnership was dissolved amidst a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits. The band managed to hang on until 1984, when Earthquake McGoon’s closed for good and Turk’s ensemble moved on up to the glitzy New Orleans Room in the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.
BROWSE—Images and audio from the collection