Tin Angel - On the Levee
By Hal Smith
THE EARLY DAYS
The flamboyant entrepreneur Peggy Tolk-Watkins opened The Tin Angel at 981 The Embarcadero in 1953.
The club hosted folk singers like Odetta but was best known for presenting first-class Traditional Jazz bands, including groups led by Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy, Kid Ory, Muggsy Spanier, George Lewis, and Bob Mielke, as well as blues singer Claire Austin, and vocalist Lizzie Miles with Wally Rose on piano.
Rare Live Recording at Tin Angel
Hardly any live recordings were made at the Tin Angel during the club’s heyday, and photos of the club are just as rare. However, the interior may be seen on the cover of Turk Murphy’s album, When The Saints Go Marching In (Columbia CL 546).
Turk Murphy and sidemen Ev Farey, Bob Helm, Pete Clute, Monte Ballou, and Squire Girsback are visible in the foreground. The owner Peggy Tolk-Watkins is in the audience, seated just to the left of the bandstand. Tolk-Watkins’ collection of antiques and bric-a-brac cannot be seen in the photo, but her hand-lettered announcements on numerous chalkboards and her unique collection of interesting objects contributed to the bohemian atmosphere of the club.
Kid Ory Launches On The Levee
Peggy Tolk-Watkins sold the club to Kid Ory in June 1958.
The club opened as On The Levee on October 29 after Kid Ory got rid of the antiques and chalkboards and had the interior painted white. From the start, On The Levee faced major obstacles.
The constant turnover of musicians quickly became a problem. Many objected to the limited repertoire, and reacted negatively if told how to play by Ory. Some of the best jazzmen in the Bay Area passed through the ranks of the Ory band during this time, but few stayed around for long.
On The Levee Faces Competition
On The Levee also faced stiff competition from Pier 23, which was just across the Embarcadero. At the Pier, for the price of a drink, one could be almost certain to hear seven, eight or more musicians sitting in with pianist Burt Bales, and later Bill Erickson.
Ory resented the fact that so many jazzmen were willing to play for nothing, while he struggled to bring in enough customers to pay a sextet. Despite the ill will, Ory and On The Levee patrons managed to raise $2,000 for Bales in 1960 when he was seriously injured after being struck by a car.
Embarcadero Freeway Signals the End of On The Levee
Kid Ory kept trying to make On The Levee a success. He cut the entertainment to weekends only, and tried presenting bands led by Muggsy Spanier and Joe Sullivan as special attractions. Finally, Ory gave up on owning a club and sold the place in July 1961. The building was demolished in 1962 to make way for the Embarcadero Freeway.
The Unheard Bob Scobey and his Frisco Jazz Band 1950 – 1957. New Orleans 1993. GHB BCD 285 (four tracks)
Bailey, Sid, et. al, The Kid Ory Archive (see additional resources).
Boyd, Nan Amilla: Wide Open Town: A History Of Queer San Francisco To 1965. Berkeley, CA. 2003. University of California Press.
Clute, Peter and Jim Goggin: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994, Donna Ewald Publishing.
Collinson, John and Kramer, Eugene: The Jazz Legacy of Don Ewell. Essex, U.K., 1991. Storyville Press.
Gleason, Ralph: Liner notes to Kid Ory! Favorites! Good Time Jazz 10041/42, 1961.
Gleason, Ralph:The World Was A Good Place When They Turned Out For Burt, SF Gate, San Francisco, Apr. 1, 2007.
Hadlock, Richard: Liner notes to Giants of Jazz: Joe Sullivan Time-Life STL-127 (Three LP set, 1982; out of print).
Leigh, James: Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life. Los Angeles, CA, 2000 XLibris Books.
Leigh, James: Liner notes to The Unheard Bob Scobey and his Frisco Jazz Band 1950 – 1957. New Orleans 1993. GHB BCD 285.
McCusker, John: Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz. Oxford, MS, 2012. University Press of Mississippi.
Selvin, Joel: San Francisco: The Musical History Tour: A Guide To Over 200 Of The Bay Area’s Most Memorable Musical Sites. San Francisco, 1996. Chronicle Books.
Author’s Conversations with Musicians
Allen, Peter; Bales, Burt; Carroll, Bill; Farey, Everett; Hadlock, Richard; Leigh, James; Mielke, Bob; Napier, Bill; Oxtot, Dick; Rose, Wally; Valencia, Lee