Dutton-Goldfield Celebrates Twenty Years


Winemaker Dan Goldfield is all about the area.  His local neighborhood consists of some 60 non-contiguous parcels, part of 1,300 acres of the Dutton Ranch vineyards within the Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA.

The Dutton Family has owned and farmed this land since Warren Dutton began acquiring land in 1964.  Twenty years ago, Steve

Steve Dutton and Dan Goldfield

Dutton and Goldfield merged their skills and created Dutton-Goldfield to pursue a passion for creating primarily cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir. Over that time, they have achieved success by making the wines that they like to drink. 

As a lab chemist ardent about the outdoors, Dan Goldfield did the only logical thing, he earned an MS Degree in Enology from UC Davis and began making wine with early stints at Robert Mondavi and Schramsberg.  His love of cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir led him to La Crema and Hartford Court before partnering with Steve to release the first Dutton-Goldfield vintage in 1998.

Goldfield’s comment that, “You shouldn’t make a wine unless it is different” is revealing of his style.  Nuance like this makes their palate of wines appealing.

As a fifth generation farmer, Steve Dutton has worked this land literally his whole life.  His father planted the family’s first chardonnay vineyard in 1967, the year Steve was born. The Green Valley soils are literally on his jeans and figuratively in his genes.

Truly pushing the envelope requires exploration outside of the neighborhood.  In addition to the Dutton Ranch vineyards, Dutton-Goldfield sources grapes from Russian River Valley, Marin County, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County and Sonoma Coast AVA’s. Dan led me through a sample of their current releases including the first wine I have tasted from Marin County vineyards.

The 2017 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling Marin County is sourced from 25 year-old, dry-farmed vines in northwest Marin. Dan aptly described it as a cool-climate, Austrian-style riesling; bone dry, aromatic, with a rich mouthfeel and nice long finish.

Next on our tasting menu was a flight of pinot noir releases representing three AVA’s.

Cold-soaking pinot noir is commonly done to extract flavors and color from the skins at an early stage. It gives the juice a head start in developing richer flavors and softer tannins.  From an east-facing vineyard the heart of the appellation, the 2015 Emerald Ridge Pinot Noir Green Valley of Russian River Valley, aged 16 months in French oak, 50% new, displayed those characteristics with deep berry and cherry flavors, clear spice elements and, yes, soft tannins.

Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded this vintage 94-points.

Impacted by a wet 2015 Spring, the grapes in the Freestone Vineyard were harvested early and yielded little.  As a result, aromas and flavors of the 2015 Freestone Hill Pinot Noir Russian River Valley are highly concentrated with layered dark berry, red fruit flavors and a significant spice element.

Surrounded by protected redwoods in the far north Sonoma Coast, six miles from the ocean, the 32-acre Putnam Vineyard sits above the fog line and is subject to cooler temperatures and above average rainfall, resulting in a longer growing season.  As the winery highlights the “wild character” of 2015 Redwood Ridge Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, I found a savory, herbal component that complimented the rich berry flavors.  The complex aromas and flavors of this release confirmed my preference for Sonoma Coast wines. 

Nearly fifty years ago, much of the original stock in the Rued Vineyard turned out to be “chardonnay musque” and it has produced rich, aromatic wines since, always with a floral quality.  From a low-yield vintage, the 2015 Rued Vineyard Russian River Valley, with 100% malolactic fermentation and multiple lees stirrings, exudes intensely concentrated flavors and a rich minerality through the finish.

When asked to recommend a Sonoma County syrah, the Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah is my first thought since

Dutton-Goldfield tasting room on Highway 116

tasting its balanced complexity years ago.  The vineyard location is described as a “warm spot in a cold area,” and the 2015 vintage adds depth to the bouquet and flavors with vanilla spice, courtesy of new wood.

A little research will reveal how highly regarded Dutton-Goldfield wines are.  Their terroir driven releases are distinctive, but share the consistent high character of  carefully crafted wines. It’s not hard to imagine twenty more years of success. 


Pine Ridge Winery Turns 40


Many years ago, I purchased a 1982 vintage of Pine Ridge Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, cellared it and drank it in 1990 at an anniversary party.  It was a time when my palate was developing and I began to be more circumspect in my wines choices.  Since then, the number of wineries and choices in the Napa Valley have grown exponentially while Pine Ridge Vineyards has continued

tosustain and evolve and is now celebrating its 40th Birthday at their Stag’s Leap District location.

The keys to their success are the same as other producers of fine wines:  good stock in the right terroir, meticulous farming practices, thoughtful enology and the best oak available.  The strategic way that Pine Ridge has grown their winery to ensure sustained quality is a story.

Pine Ridge owns and farms vineyards in five prestigious Napa Valley appellations to produce cabernet sauvignon and cool-climate chardonnay: four in Stag’s Leap, three in Carneros and one each in Rutherford, Oakville and Howell Mountain.  As the weather and the vintages vary, they will always be assured some of the best fruit in the valley.

Pine Ridge also has a veteran winemaking team that has worked together for nearly a decade.  At their recent birthday celebration,

Pine Ridge Estate Vineyards

General Manager and Winemaker Michael Beaulac introduced Vineyard Manager Gustavo Avina as someone who understands the local soils and vines as well as anyone in the valley.  Avina has been with Pine Ridge since 2003 and his team has met the challenges in working with many different microclimates and diverse soil-types including, but not limited to clay, sandy loam, volcanic, and silty clay loam.

Beaulac joined the Pine Ridge group in 2009 after years of developing his craft while working at nearby notables Murphy-Goode,

Winemaker and General Manager Michael Beaulac

Markham Vineyards and St.Supery Winery.  He enthusiastically described the current and future vintages as we entered the elaborate network of caves.  Before we barrel-tasted three future cabernet sauvignon releases, Michael spoke of his excitement about soon adding a sauvignon blanc to their palate of wines. In recent years, many established Napa Valley producers have become serious about sauvignon blanc and Beaulac believes that Pine Ridge will be among them.

My first taste of Pine Ridge cabernet sauvignon in years came from a barrel as Michael removed the “bung” and used a “thief” to transfer the juice to my glass. The 2016 and 2017 futures need and will get more time but I was impressed with the expressive flavors and balance that was already at hand.

Before leaving the depths of the underground grotto, we visited Club 47,a very private lounge with comfortable furnishings, soft lighting and a large Chihuly glass art installation. The cave room is used for special options such as Savor Pine Ridge, a VIP tastings of the five cabernet sauvignon wines paired with “small bites” dishes from the in-house chef.

As anticipated, all the cabernet sauvignon releases are stunning wines.  The Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($140) follows past releases from the steep, hillside vineyards that surround the winery, dating back to 1978.  There is such history here that the stag supposedly took his final leap from the cliffs atop these vineyards.

Beaulac describes a love for the Howell Mountain appellation, that at 2,000 feet elevation, is different from others in the valley because of cooler temperatures and rocky, volcanic soils that produce small-cluster fruit with intense flavors. The Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) has been sourced from the estate Los Posadas Vineyard since 1986 and typically earns ratings in the mid-nineties.

The cooler Carneros appellation, exposed to foggy days, has long been the ideal terroir for chardonnay like the inaugural single-vineyard Carneros Collines Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($48) whose rich mouthfeel is derived from sur lee aging and full malolactic fermentation.

Michael Beaulac and Gustavo Amina in the vineyards

Equally impressive releases included the 2013 Petit Verdot ($75), from the original Stag’s Leap vineyards and the bone-dry 2016 Chenin Blanc ($38), sourced from Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta region.

As impressive as the site and facilities are, Beaulac spoke of an expansion project designed to enhance the tasting experience for current and future members. Clearly, Pine Ridge does not plan to sit on its laurels for the next forty years.


My Whites of Summer


Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard

For absolutely no logical reason, the warmer weather reminds me of my best-loved white wines.  The foggy mornings in Sonoma County bring to mind our world-class cool-climate chardonnay, but my list, years in the making, represents a broader range of varietals and California appellations. The current releases are designated, but my love of these wines goes far back.

Sauvignon blanc is the classic summer white that can be enjoyed with nothing but fresh air and conversation or, in its comfort zone, paired with shellfish, scallops, grilled fish and chicken.  The sauvignon blanc in my cellar always includes two releases from very different appellations that are both produced by women.

Perpetually acknowledged as one of the highest rated among the varietal, the 2016 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc ($36), from

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

the Russian River Valley icon, includes sauvignon musque and is barrel-fermented with several lees stirring that accounts for the rich mouthfeel.  Complex stone fruit aromas lead to nicely restrained tropical fruit flavors and a wonderful minerality on the finish.

Sourcing grapes from the Happy Canyon appellation in the Santa Ynez Valley, winemaker Kathy Joseph has long explored the potential of sauvignon blanc with five releases including my favorite, the 2016 Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury” ($34).  A popular wine of limited production, the 2016 vintage is now hard to find.  The

Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury”

citrus and floral aromas lead to tropical fruit and savory flavors with a healthy minerality that pairs well with grilled or pan-fried


Whole-cluster pressed with no oak or malolactic fermentation, the complexity of the 2016 Carlisle Sonoma Mountain “Steiner Vineyard” Grüner Veltliner ($30) was first tasted a few years ago at their Windsor production facilities.  Expect a crisp, fragrant wine with flavors that explode on the palate.

Similar to sauvignon blanc, my favorite chardonnay releases hail from the Russian River Valley

2011 Carlisle Gruner Veltliner Steiner Vineyard

and the Santa Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara County. I have long appreciated the pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay wines from the heart of the Russian River Valley including the single-vineyard 2016 William Selyem “Allen Vineyard” Chardonnay ($65).  This current vintage is excellent with stone fruit and spice on the nose and palate followed by a clear mineral nuanced finish.

As with earlier vintages, the 2015 Foley “Barrel Select” Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills ($50), from the Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard, located between Buellton and Lompoc, is the perfect chardonnay for my palate.  Whole-clustered pressed, the selected barrels are aged 18 months in 100% new oak with several lees stirrings. The complex bouquet and rich flavors of stone fruit, lemon and roasted nuts play out in an exceptionally extended finish.

Indian Rock Vineyards Pinot Grigio

Paso Robles is the world’s best source of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateaunef-du-Pape. From the patriarch of California Rhone Rangers with cuttings from Chateau de Beaucastel, the 2015 Tablas Creek “Esprit de Tablas Blanc” Paso Robles ($45), a blend of roussanne, grenache and picpoul, exudes a fruity nose and rich flavors of ripened melon and enhanced spice.

Sourced from a single Paso Robles vineyard and created in her Santa Rosa production facility, the 2016 Carol Shelton Coquille Blanc ($24) is a complex, yet accessible blend of viognier, roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc.  The welcoming fragrant  bouquet is followed by complex, layered flavors aptly described by Carol as “crisply dry, yet creamy and round.”

From a somewhat obscure Calaveras County winery near Murphys, CA, I discovered a previous vintage of the 2015 Indian Rock Vineyards Pinot Grigio ($24) a decade ago. Many of the great pinot grigio releases come from Oregon, but this one is closer to home and has complexity on the nose and palate.

Napa Valley sourced and produced, the St. Supery 2016 Napa Valley Estate Virtú ($30), a white Bordeaux-style blend of semillon

St. Supery Virtu

and sauvignon blanc, is always a “go to” wine when looking for something different.  It is initially crisp before the luscious, rich texture seems to lengthen the palate.

Years ago at a Market Street wine bar, the som recommended a 1998 Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese ($17). It was the first time that I experienced the soft “petrol” elements of German riesling.  The Spatlese wines come from fully ripened grapes that produce balanced fruit forward flavors. The 2011 vintage,

Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese 2012

now available, is a huge value.

Albeit unique and different, these wines all pair well with food and have the complexity to be enjoyed by themselves or with a nice Sonoma County goat cheese.  Enjoy your summer.

The Roots Of Gehricke Wines


Old Gehricke Road, near the town of Sonoma, is simply a strip of asphalt between two vineyards, but for kids like August Sebastiani, who grew up minutes away, it was a dusty, adventurous playground while growing up.

Sebastiani, now a fourth generation vintner in the iconic family, celebrates his childhood roots and continues the evolution of the

business as an negotiant through the introduction of Gehricke Wines, a new premium label that sources quality grapes closer to home.  Under his 3 Badge Beverage Corporation, August Sebastiani, son of Don and great-grandson of founder Samuele, has launched lines of premium spirits, craft beers and wines, but Gehricke is uniquely farmed and produced locally.

The sustainability of such an effort relies on expertise to manage the viticulture practices and envision the future in the vineyard through bottling.  Once vineyard partnerships were established, consulting winemaker Alex Beloz was hired to oversee the production and push the fruit to its greatest potential. Beloz brings years of experience producing wines in Sonoma County, many at MacRostie Winery.  Although all grapes are sourced within the county, he has his hands full dealing with very diverse terroir:  the cool west and warm east Russian River Valley, foggy Carneros, northeast Knight’s Valley and the varying microclimates of the Sonoma Coast appellation.

On a warm afternoon, under a tent next to Gehricke Road, surrounded by vineyards, we tasted the current releases paired with

August Sebastiani and Alex Beloz

lunch selections by Chef Ari Weiswasser, owner/chef of Glen Ellen Star, a restaurant that I frequent for their farm-to-table menu, especially the wood roasted vegetables.

Before lunch, Alex was pouring the single-vineyard, “copper label” reserve chardonnay from the known Chalk Hill Vineyard in Windsor.  Each of the diverse microclimates within the chardonnay blocks alone make the fruit desirable, especially for wines created in the Burgundian style


Paired with the 2016 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($32), the first course was a Lebanese fattoush salad with Dungeness crab and green garlic pull-apart rolls, one of Glen Ellen Star’s signature breads.  Aged 20 months in French oak, one-third new, the wine delivers expressive fruit flavors and, in Beloz’s style, has a fresh acidity, not overly oaked.

The 2015 Los Carneros Pinot Noir ($32) and 2016 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) releases were nicely paired with a wagyu beef rib eye bordelaise, spring vegetables and fava beans for our second course.  Sourced from three vineyards within the appellation, the pinot noir, with ratings in the nineties, balanced rich cherry with spice

Chalk Hill Estate Vineyard

flavors and was long on the finish.  Beloz prefers to keep a small percentage of the grapes whole cluster to augment, not dominate the character of the wine.

A first vintage, the 2016 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from the Bavarian Lion Vineyard, north of Calistoga. The volcanic soils of the vineyard sit at a higher elevation, far enough inland not to be affected by the Pacific Ocean.  For complexity, Beloz adds malbec and a pinch of petite verdot to enhance flavor intensity and the rich mouthfeel. With 90+ratings from both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines, the Knights Valley Cab is an exceptional value. 

Pairing the 2015 Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($30) with a dessert plate of baked sourdough, toasted walnuts, blue cheese and preserves complimented its jammy fruit and spice flavors. The grapes are sourced from the Ponzo Vineyard in the warmer, northeast

Gehricke Los Corneros Pinot Noir

section of the Russian River appellation, near Healdsburg.  Beloz adds 10% petite sirah to enhance the dark fruit flavors and deepen the color.  

August Sebastiani understands the evolution of his family’s historic winery, from bulk wine to more premium labels. He also realizes that the wine industry has carefully groomed the palates of a young generation, eager for something good, new and original.  To that end, Sebastiani envisions a physical location in Sonoma for people to come and taste all of his brands.

In the short-term, he and Alex are focused on adding a petite sirah and building the Gehricke portfolio in a way the honors the memory of the land that neighbors that old road.

Wines From “The Grade”


In his 1883 memoir, “The Silverado Squatters,” Robert Louis Stevenson describes traveling through north Napa Valley. Commenting on Mount Saint Helena, he said,”it looks down on much green, intricate country.  It feeds in the spring-time many splashing brooks.  Its naked peak sits four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.”

In those days, traveling to desirable Lake County resorts required passage over the mountain via Calistoga and the Old Toll Road operated by businessman John Lawley. Arriving by coach, Stevenson wrote, “we entered the toll road, or to be more local, entered on “the grade”…”

The Silverado Squatters 

Tom Thornton

Stevenson’s book served as the inspiration and motivation for Tom Thornton and Brenda Mixson to purchase, in 1997, an old vineyard along “the grade” and re-plant it with fine cabernet sauvignon stock.

Wine is a second career for both Tom and Brenda, who actually met on a blind date.  Moving past their expertise in architecture and commercial real estate, they re-located from the East Coast to pursue a passion for cabernet sauvignon.

As newcomers to this prestigious area, Tom and Brenda have managed to attach themselves to a known star. After a time at Turley

Thomas Rivers Brown

Cellars, Thomas Rivers Brown worked for Shraeder Cellars where he developed a reputation for crafting fine cabernet sauvignon. Of note, his initial 2012 vintages of The Grade “Kingly Project” and “Winfield Estate” cabs received 99-pt and 97-pt ratings from Robert

The 12-acre Winfield Vineyard, using Tom’s middle name and part of a 32-acre ranch site, sits on a shelf above the old toll road

Winfield Vineyard

leading into Calistoga.  It is said to be at the confluence of the volcanic mountain soils and the alluvial valley floor. It is here that the team has created three distinct cabernets and a complex sauvignon blanc, all named from chapters of the “Silverado Squatters” memoir.

The tasting room sits among many other businesses on Lincoln Ave. in downtown Calistoga.  While located in a quaint old, well-appointed California cottage, it’s easy to walk by their stylish sign that blends in with many others.  However, there is a unique story here at The Grade Cellars and, for those seeking fine small-production cabernet sauvignon from an authentic boutique producer, a reservation to taste their current releases is recommended. The tasting fee is $35 which includes a cheese pairing;  everything is served in “The Library,”  a private space with comfortable chairs.

The Grade Cellars produces about 900 cases per vintage including 215 cases of The Grade 2016 “Sea Fog” Sauvignon Blanc ($28), the only white varietal. From volcanic soils, the “Sea Fog” is barrel-fermented in all neutral oak to produce melon, white peach flavors, balanced acidity and a mineral elements through the finish. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass to open up.

The Grade Winfield Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

The biggest yield at 530 cases is The Grade 2015 “Winfield Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), aged for 20 months. Perfumed aromas of licorice and baked fruit precede full-bodied, rich and integrated flavors of red fruit, berries and cassis. Again, I found a nice minerality throughout.  The 2014 vintage of this wine was named by California Wine and Wineries among the “top five exceptional wines of 2017.” 

With floral and chocolate aromas, The Grade 2014 “Kingly Project” Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) would make a nice Valentine’s Day gift for that special wine connoisseur. I found earthy, slate elements on the nose and palate with red stone fruit flavors, demonstrative and balanced.  Additional time in the bottle will soften the tannins and allow these complex flavors to integrate. 

The exceptional releases are at a price point that’s not for everyone. However, if you are serious about cabernet sauvignon, you owe it to yourselves to try The Grade wines on your next visit to Calistoga. For the enhanced experience, read “Silverado Squatters” and stop by the Winfield Vineyard along the old toll road before you taste.



Purple Heart Wines



Memorial Day is when we honor and remember veterans, especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  To honor and support veterans and to pay homage to patriarch Peter Mondavi, Sr., a WWII veteran, the Mondavi Family has challenged winemaker John Moynier to create a wine that salutes the Purple Heart medal, a high symbol of unselfishness among our military

Winemaker John Moynier

men and women.

We had the pleasure, years ago, of meeting Peter Mondavi Sr.,at his winery. I could sense Napa Valley history just by being in the same room with him.

The wine is the Purple Heart Red Wine Sonoma County 2015 ($19.99), a Left Bank-style Bordeaux blend with 19% California zinfandel added.  The production and availability of Purple Heart wines is the result of a collaboration between the Mondavi Family and the Purple Heart Foundation whose mission includes support, outreach and advocacy for combat wounded veterans and their families. Much of the focus of the Foundation’s work centers on employment for people with disabilities, homelessness and women veteran’s issues.

The Purple Heart wines, along with other efforts, will hopefully increase awareness and funding needed to continue and expand services. A noble cause, but let’s talk about the wine.

Purple Heart is not head winemaker John Moynier’s first rodeo, he has made wine for the Mondavi family nearly 33 years.  It’s the only place he has worked since earning a degree in Fermentation Science from UC Davis.

It is hard to imagine telling my parents in the late 1960s that I was majoring in fermentation science.  They would have seen it as a metaphor for everything but studying.  Things have changed.  Today, it is an honorable profession that balances brains with brawn. 

Moynier, a US Air Force veteran, was inspired enough by the project to return from his retirement.  He felt up to the challenge to create a wine worthy of the cause it would support.

The 2015 Purple Heart Wine is a merlot dominant blend that includes zinfandel, petit verdot and cabernet franc.  There is a reason merlot is the third most planted grape globally.  Early to ripen, it is intended to be a good blender and flourishes with the support of the other Bordeaux grapes.  

If zinfandel was grown in Bordeaux, it would be a good addition as long as its bold flavors were held in check. Here, the 19% zinfandel adds, for the most part, to the flavor profile, not a high alcohol level (14.2%) or an imbalanced pH. 

In contrast to the merlot, petit verdot is late-ripening and, although it can add dynamics to the wine, it definitely influenced the deep color here. The cabernet franc is evident in the spice hints.

I tasted the 2015 Purple Heart three times, once after twenty minutes in the glass, hours later and, finally, the next day when the flavors were fully integrated.  Each time, after much swirling, it expressed nice texture with balanced, accessible flavors. If your budget is under twenty dollars per bottle and you enjoy red wine, I recommend this one without hesitation.

2015 Purple Heart Wine

Dark and opaque in the glass, the medium-bodied release offered dark plum and a hint of licorice on the nose, a rich mouthfeel with more red fruit flavors and some spice on the finish. The added zinfandel grape was clear, but did not dominate. With healthy balanced tannins, Purple Heart will cellar well, but is very drinkable now.

The task of creating a complex red blend, using Sonoma County fruit, for under twenty dollars cannot be a simple one. Kudos to John Moynier for an effort to be proud of.

It would be appropriate and symbolic for those enjoying wine with friends on Memorial Day, or at any time, to include a bottle of Purple Heart wine to toast and remember our heroes.  I knew and know a few who would appreciate it.  

Purple Heart wines are available in some outlets and, with a little research, can be easily located throughout the Bay Area.

Changes At The Hop


Though not included in any dictionary at the time, the word “hop”, during the late 1950s, was a term used by young people to describe a place to gather and begin the pre sexual revolution, innocent pubescent introduction to intimate contact called dancing.

Danny and the Juniors


At this stage, you are immediately cast into another teeny-bopper comparison.  Even while on the floor, I would question my

dance skills.  Was I good or just average?  I looked around and surmised that I didn’t have the graceful swagger of Stephen, but was better than the kid with flaying arms who missed every other beat. I had just enough confidence to ask someone to dance, knowing I could never be as bad as that guy.

Danny and the Juniors with their one and only hit, “At The Hop,” helped cement the term into our middle school vocabularies with their somewhat racy lyrics:


“Well, you can swing it you can groove it

You can really start to move it at the hop

Where the jockey is the smoothest

And the music is the coolest at the hop

All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop

Let’s go!”

I was more than ready to go. When I would hear my parents complain that they couldn’t understand the words to our modern music, I thought that was the plan.

By high school in 1962, “the hop” began to lose its luster.  It didn’t sound like this new decade.  Unable to settle on a name, our weekly summer dance night in the high school multi-purpose room became the What’s It club.

By twelfth grade, I was still small.  Six foot would come two years later, after a fairly rapid growth spurt. My legs were so skinny that after sitting in a hot bath with my new jeans on, they still didn’t fit tight. My hair had turned from straight to wavy to coarse and curly in a span of three years, leaving me with fewer options than I preferred.

In the end, I could handle my myself socially.  I was less shy about interacting with girls than many of my friends.  Something about not being seen as serious gives you limited access and I had all the dancing I could handle.  To use a baseball metaphor for intimate progression, I was a prime candidate to slide safely into second base.

She said, “Hey, Lyle, you wanna dance? 

Yes, at times they came to me.  Whether on the dance floor or in a phone booth, a girl making the first move was usually better than my plan, no move at all.   

The What’s It was mostly about hanging out and dancing to records, but twice a month we had a live band that immediately turned the atmosphere from teen club to nightclub. 

By 1962, Elvis Presley had already made twelve films and his days of producing good rock ’n roll were behind him.  The music of many of the black musicians who inspired Elvis surfaced and, thanks in some part to Barry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit,

James Brown

became mainstream.  One of those performers who appealed to young people was James Brown, the King of Soul. His sparkling costumes, wavy processed hair and rapid footwork in his dance moves appealed to crowds from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl.  The  rhythms were relentless and the lyrics insignificant, all that was needed was an intermittent, “I feel good,” followed in the next riff by, “I knew that I would.” 

Brown’s music inspired local bands to cover his style and they were presented throughout the summer at  What’s It. The Jaguars with Richie Jackson performed twice, adding a small brass section for the danceable beginning numbers before introducing Jackson, who entertained with his voice and his soft feet. Another soul band, The Young Starlighters with Mitch and Cherie, delivered much of the same with harmonized vocals and some knock-off James Brown choreography. 

On records-only nights, we danced to Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and later to the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.  These were innocent, soulful times that we thought would last forever.

In 1964, the Beatles, a new group from Liverpool, England began to dominate AM radio airplay with the juvenile phase of their music.  For many of us, their songs were short and silly, nothing that signaled legendary. However, the album, “Rubber Soul,” released in December 1965, began their ascent into creative brilliance that has not been matched since.

By the end of 1964, the California-sound of the Beach Boys, could no longer compete with the Beatles invasion in the annual Battle of the Bands call-in survey sponsored by KLIV-1590 AM Radio in San Jose.

We were raised on the music of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Motown, but now listening to bands called The Rolling Stones and the Kinks. 

The British had taken our black music, respectfully filtered it through their culture and voice, and fed it back to us. To say that we

The Chocolate Watchband

hailed it as groundbreaking is an understatement. How many potentially great live Beatles albums were ruined by the screamers? 

   The Jaguars and the Young Starlighters were gone from Thursday nights at the What’s It, replaced by bands like The Chocolate Watchband, mostly covered Rolling Stones tunes. Another band, Stained Glass, whose recording of the Beatle’s “If I Needed Someone” was number one on the 1965 Buffalo, New York top hit list, were always idiosyncratic and our high school classmate Dennis was the drummer. Then there was the Gollywogs who, a few years later, changed the band’s name to Credence Clearwater Revival and went global.   

For a time, I missed Little Richie Jackson and hoped he would catch on with a new band, even if it meant performing on Friday nights in the lounge of a local bowling alley. 

We danced nostalgically to Johnny B.  Goode by Chuck Berry or Marvin Gayes’s “I Be Doggone,” but most of the new stuff was British.  In 1965, “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction” became number one as we stepped our way to commencement.  Soon, we were off to college and what happened over the next five years will be discussed by historians and sociologists for centuries.

Stained Glass

As I look back, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, early beginnings of the women’s movement, the protests, the whole damn cultural revolution, happened in the face of the previous generation who had saved and protected our way of life.

I wish I could re-do some of those tense conversations and get my point across in a more sensitive way.  I regret that courtesy and understanding were, at times, overshadowed by the cause, or what was perceived as such. 

Songwriter Jackson Browne in a musical analogy, wrote, “Make room for my 45s along beside your 78s, nothing survives but the way we live our lives.” 

We stopped dancing and started listening.  The role of dance as an introduction to intimate contact became obsolete. With the dawn of birth control and a new open-mindedness, such encounters resulted from nothing more than a simple twist of fate. 

American black music inspired the first British invasion which, in turn, inspired a new generation of British and American bands like Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as singer songwriters like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

In 1969, using a firmly planted, powerful position in student politics, the Black Student Union at my university secured comedian/activist Dick Gregory as a Scholar-in-Residence and brought in a series of jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Bobby Hutcherson to celebrate the black experience.

My musical horizons exploded.  I once heard Reverend Jesse Jackson introduce the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago, referring to the role of music in the black movement.  

He said, “The musician often tries to capture the new thing that gives us melody and rhythm as we do our thing.”

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at Operation Breadbasket

I became a sponge for the rhythms and the messages of the time. As Jackson urged those in the audience to stand up straight, the Quintet launched into their new inspiring anthem, “Walk Tall.”

There it was, the identical rhythms of James Brown, The Jaguars with Richie Jackson, and The Young Starlighters, disguised in a new package with a new meaning.  As it all evolved musically and spiritually, I have never forgotten, not for one minute that, for me, it all started at the hop.