When guitarist Big Bob Deance moved to Oakland from his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a teenager in 1959, he thought he'd left the country behind -- until he landed a gig at Miss Al's in Russell City. As a member of a rhythm-and-blues combo called the Five Brooks, he performed at the juke joint on the outskirts of Hayward, sometimes till six in the morning. It was a wide-open little town with strip shows and informal gambling, and no one seemed to care that it was against the law for a bar to keep such hours. The county sheriff, Deance says, seldom made the trip to Russell City -- down Russell Avenue (now known as West Winton Avenue), over railroad tracks, then along a dirt road, past hog and cattle farms, to the edge of the bay -- unless called.
"I grew up in the country, and when I went to Russell City, I was at home," recalls Deance, 58, who recently returned to Oakland after two and a half years on the road with former Oakland bluesman Sonny Rhodes. "I never imagined that that type of scenery was in California until I went to Russell City."
Populated primarily by African Americans from the rural South who settled there during World War II, Russell City ceased to exist around 1964, when it was incorporated by the city of Hayward, and its shotgun shacks and other buildings were demolished, in some cases without compensation to the owners because they had not been built to code. Many former residents and visitors remember the stench of the town's slaughterhouse, but Deance and others harbor fonder memories -- of the blues played at Miss Al's and the rival Country Club by such Bay Area musicians as L.C. Robinson and Big Mama Thornton as well as by national attractions like Lowell Fulson and Joe Turner.
At age 52, guitarist Ronnie Stewart is too young to have played in Russell City, but as executive director of the Bay Area Blues Society, he has done much to perpetuate the long-defunct district's memory. "When it comes to West Coast blues, the historians always talk about Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond, and even Vallejo sometimes, but no one talks about Russell City," he says. "A lot of the Oakland sound was kind of nurtured in Russell City."
On Saturday and Sunday, between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day, the Bay Area Blues Society presents its fifth annual Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival in Hayward City Hall Plaza at 777 B Street in downtown Hayward. Stewart performs Saturday with the Bay Area Society Caravan of All-Stars. Deance appears Sunday as a member of the Russell City Memorial Blues Band, also featuring guitarist Jimmy Mamou and keyboardist Billy Dunn.
The theme of this year's festival is "My Guitar Sings the Blues," and Stewart is bringing in prominent pickers from around the country for the event. Saturday's bill features Little Jimmie King from Memphis, John Primer from Chicago, and David Thompson from Greenville, Mississippi. Sunday's lineup includes John Lee Hooker's old Detroit sidekick Eddie Kirkland, Chicago's Phil Guy (Buddy's brother), Sacramento's Charlie Baty (with Little Charlie and the Nightcats), and Bay Area favorites Tommy Castro and Chris Cain. Phone 510-836-2227 for further information.
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