Eugene "Gino" Blacknell Jr. wanted to play football as a freshman at Richmond's Salesian High School, but when time came for spring training, Eugene Blacknell Sr. made his intentions clear. "You have rehearsal," father told son. The elder Blacknell was a major figure in local R&B, so Gino's decision was made for him.
Gino always knew he was going to be a musician. "During the summer after ninth grade," he recalls, "I told Pops, 'I'm going to be just like you,' and he told me then that it wasn't going to be easy, and I might have to get a regular job at times."
But the lad never reached the heights of his father, who passed away from heart failure in 1990 and is still viewed as one of the most influential artists in Bay Area soul. It was largely Blacknell, along with Marvin Holmes, who would usher the raw new urban sounds from the 1960s into the '70s. His angular, blues-tinged guitar playing worked in marvelous contrast with the syncopation of a gritty, but always-tight rhythm section, as Blacknell and his bands spanned generations with multiple interpretations of the R&B genre.
The elder Blacknell attended Durant Elementary with childhood friend Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. His career got rolling as a teenager with Eugene Blacknell and his Savonics. KDIA DJs Bob Jones and Johnny Morris supported the youngsters and ensured radio play as the group built its rep backing up Bay notables such as Joe Simon and the Dynamic Four.
Eventually, Blacknell's various bands were opening for the likes of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and later, Aretha Franklin, and playing all the top spots around town, from Al's House of Smiles to the Sportsman and the Showcase.
After graduating from Hoover High School in 1964, Blacknell toured the U.S., becoming one of NYC's youngest muscians to perform at the famed Apollo Theater. He also established his signature band, the New Breed, the first group to cross over from Oakland's clubs to the higher-profile Broadway strip in San Francisco's North Beach. "Pops opened doors for a lot of musicians," Gino recalls, "because Broadway spots didn't have a lot of brothers playing them."
But Blacknell and his band had a business-first attitude. When the group confronted club owners unwilling to pay black musicians sufficiently, Blacknell pushed for unionization and taught his men the value of self-worth. "'Work for yourself,' Pops always said," according to his son. "He kept it real like that."
On stage, the education was just as real. "As far as what I've heard, people generally liked Eugene Blacknell," says noted Bay Area soul scholar Justin Torres. "But everybody also said he was a hard-ass and tough to work with, like what you would hear about James Brown and his band.
"But that's why his shit was so tight, and that's why all the clubs would hire him and his band," Torres continued. "He was just a solid musician who could really move a crowd."
For all the praise, Blacknell never released anything but various singles on small imprints like Boola Boola and Seaside. By most accounts, he was more interested in performing. "I didn't understand it at the time," Gino says, "but Pops was very much self-sufficient and into his own thing."
That thing is now captured on We Can't Take Life for Granted, released on Ubiquity Records in September. It consists of just a few of the countless recordings made over the course of his thirty-year career. Each track was handpicked by Gino, who suffered minor heart attacks himself during the production process, but, at the behest of his mother Blacknell's widow, Lillie was determined to see the project through.
Over the past two decades, Gino has solidified his own stature as a producer and performer, but he carries his father's legacy every day. "When Pops passed, I kind of lost it," the keyboardist and bass player says. "It jacked me up for a while, and there were a few years where I don't remember anything I said or did. But I hear him now I hear him all the time."
Thanks to Gino's efforts, we can too.
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