Robbie Stokes & Brett Champlin of Devil's Kitchen recall memories from psychedelic San Francisco era

"I think the blues touches your brain and stirs your emotions in a way that is unique and compelling and universal in humans."

Devil's Kitchen Band: Haight Ashbury Times

Devil's Kitchen Band was a four piece rock and roll band that lived and performed in San Francisco from the Spring of 1968 through the Summer of 1970. Devil’s Kitchen were the "house band" at Chet Helm's "Family Dog Ballroom on the Great Highway" opening for, and often jamming with, many of the most well known groups of the times and performed at all of the major West Coast venues from San Francisco's Fillmore West to L.A.'s Whisky A Go Go with Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana Blues Band, Janis Joplin, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Butterfield Blues Band, Sir Douglas Quintet, Lightnin' Hopkins, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Mike Bloomfield & Nick Gravanites, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Charlatans, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Youngbloods, Southern Comfort, Big Mama Thornton, Taj Mahal, Magic Sam, Savoy Brown, Mountain, Barry Goldberg Reunion,  Humble Pie, Kaleidoscope and more.

Devil's Kitchen Band was: Robbie Stokes (Lead Guitar, Vox), Brett Champlin (Guitar, Vox),  Bob Laughton (Bass, Vox), Steve Sweigart (Drums), and last  few gigs Randy Bradle (Drums)

For several months, Robbie and Brett continued to play as Devil's Kitchen in and around Carbondale. They formed a trio with Robbie on guitar, Brett on bass and a new drummer, Randy Bradle. Eventually, the groups merged to become "Coal Kitchen". Shortly after that, Brett dropped out of the group. Brett went back to school and got his degree in Computer Science and later an MBA. He taught computer science and graduate management courses at Roosevelt University for 18 years and has been teaching at the University of Chicago part time for the last years. He still plays guitar and sings around the house and occasionally jams with friends and at open mikes at local blues clubs. Robbie returned to the West Coast where he performed with Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter on their solo albums and played bass for a time with the Quicksilver Messenger Service. In the 80's Robbie became house sound tech/talent buyer at the original Gatsby's in Carbondale during the heyday of the Carbondale music scene, holding that position until 1993, booking and mixing many great acts including Foghat, Dave Mason, Dr. Hook, Spirit, the Byrds, Cub Koda, Son Seals, Eddy Clearwater, and Matt 'Guitar' Murphy. Lets talks with Robbie Stokes and Brett Champlin about the Blues, Fillmore West, Chet Helms, and Psychedelic era.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

When was your first desire to become involved in music & what are your first musical memories?

Brett: My Mom used to sing along with the radio and I would sing with her – back when I was maybe 4 or 5… I recall playing the “Sweet Potato” (aka Ocarina) and tamborine in 1st and 2nd grades, then I got a clarinet in the 6th grade (12 years old) and a saxophone the next year. I played tenor sax in the marching band and pep bands through high school. About 13 or so, I got an old guitar from a neighbor that only had three strings and of course I didn’t know where to get new ones or how to string it, so I learned “power chords” early on 

Then when I was 16 and my family was living in California, I took folk guitar lessons from someone at the University of California at Berkeley and that started a whole new thing – I started playing as an individual at “hootenannies” – I was also playing sax with a surf rock band called the Lonely Rebels then. In college I joined the Folk Arts Society and performed a lot of folk music but I also played blues harp and sang in a couple party bands. Eventually, I formed a group called “Om” with some artist friends and we played mostly Chicago Blues and Rock and Roll cover tunes. 

Robbie: I was smitten by the folk music craze and not long after the advent of The Beatles. My first musical memories are of marching bands on our college Homecomings here in Carbondale, IL, USA.

 

Who were your first idols & what have been some of your musical influences?

Brett: First “idols” were Buddy Holly, Johnny Burnett, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rickey Nelson.  Influences range from Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Jesse Colin Young (earlier) to Rolling Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Magic Sam, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Williams, Son House, Robert Johnson, John Mayall (later)

Robbie: At 12 years old I started to buy American rock and roll singles (45 RPM records) by The Contours (‘Do You Love Me’) and Dion and the Belmonts (‘Little Diane’). Strangely, my grandpa had a ‘Mugsy Spanier and the Silver Dollar Boys’ Dixieland LP and I liked that.  Roy Orbison, Bobby Darin, the Isley Bros., and a little later the instrumental rock stylings of ‘The Ventures’, plus of course Motown.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Brett: Best –Grand opening of the Family Dog Ballroom, we opened for the Jefferson Airplane and the Amazing Charlatans, June 13-15, 1969

Worst – end of Devil’s Kitchen Band, not really a moment but a long slow process of entropy

Robbie: It was cool to hear myself play on a Norman Greenbaum single (‘California Earthquake’, the follow-up single to ‘Spirit in the Sky’) on San Francisco radio, right after ‘Brown Sugar’ by the Rolling Stones. I remember really liking that! The worst moment is any night some drunk gets in my face at a show and no one at the club or venue moves to throw them out.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Brett: Well, I like to think that it’s still interesting, but most people are most interested in all of the adventures we had playing on the West Coast in the late 60s with so many classic rock and psychedelic rock legends. I have lots of stories about hanging out and jamming with so many guys who are blues or rock and roll legends now.

Robbie: I’d probably have to say that working with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead was the most interesting period in that the music and cast of characters was so intense. Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Pigpen (until his death in 1973), David Crosby (of  ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’), the Quicksilver Messenger Service (including my revered friend David Freiberg, who never gave up on me). I was in over my head in a way, not musically, but socially I couldn’t handle the drug thing. Lucky I am to have made it out of THAT!  During those years (1968 through 1973) I met Jimi Hendrix, jammed with John Mayall’s Bluebreakers (with soon-to-be Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on guitar), and played with Elvin Bishop, Lightning Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton, and so many others that  it would be too lengthy to go into here.

Also when I got it together in the 1980’s, started my sound company ‘Robco Audio’, started ‘4 on the Floor’ and later ‘St. Stephen’s Blues’ bands, and started to raise a family. Now I’m in the ‘Venturis’.

 

What are some of the most memorable events, gigs, and jams you've had?

Brett: Other than opening night at the Family Dog, I guess, our first night playing the Fillmore West was really memorable. That was the biggest stage I’d ever been on at the time and we really wanted to go over well with that crowd and we did. I jammed with lots of legendary players – Alvin Lee, Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop to name just a few, but I think the most memorable for me was jamming with the Allman Brothers to close their set at the Ludlow Garage in summer 1970. It was just a great night and it stands out in my memory.

Robbie: Devil’s Kitchen played the Kickapoo Creek Fest in Illinois with B. B. King, and also the Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati, OH with the Allman Bros., with Mike Bloomfield (of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) in San Francisco; I played guitar on a live radio broadcast with David Crosby, Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, John Cippolina and Phil Lesh.  In much more recent times, I did production for a ‘Blue Oyster Cult’ show that was incredible. I did sound for a ‘Cee-Lo’ gig.   Recently. I mixed ‘LMFAO’. Thousands of other shows, small and large.

 

Are there any memories from San Francisco's Fillmore West to L.A.'s Whisky A Go Go which you’d like to share with us?

Robbie: Jamming at the Fillmore with Bill Champlin (of the ‘Sons of Champlin; Bill later joined the band ‘Chicago’), and also with Alvin Lee of  ‘10 Years After’,  Santana, and Bill Graham getting me in for free two nights in a row and letting me sit onstage while The Who did ‘Tommy’!  The Whiskey, we opened up for Savoy Brown. Memories of that show are still a bit fuzzy…

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Brett: Devils Kitchen assiduously avoided the “music business” which is why it was 42 years after we broke up that our first (and only) record came out. So it is the obvious stuff to me – the transition from vinyl records to CDs to instant downloads is huge. The internet where sharing and finding what were once scarce and obscure recordings is easy today, instant access to lyrics, chords, how-to videos, etc have changed everything about how people learn and communicate about music. Cheap guitar tuners that clip on the headstock are a godsend and we would have paid anything for those back in the day… we spent what seemed like hours a day just tuning… the quality of musical instruments now is incredible – honestly, I don’t know why anyone would want a 40-50 year old electric guitar when you can get something hundreds of times better now for a lot less cost. I used to lug really heavy amplifiers up and down the hills of San Francisco and now I can get a much more powerful and versatile amp that weighs only 30 pounds with more power and features. And nowadays everybody just mics the amps and uses the power of the PA… much better than the old “wall of sound” busload of amplifiers we used to haul around.

Robbie: My senior thesis for my BA in 1998 concerned how the Internet was leveling the playing field, as it were, for musical artists.  Unfortunately, it’s also made it possible for literally ANYONE to flood the market with bad music.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Brett: Blues is fundamental and it seems to speak to something deep inside you. There is a book called “This is Your Brain on Music” about the neuroscience of music and how deeply music is associated with the human condition. I think the blues touches your brain and stirs your emotions in a way that is unique and compelling and universal in humans.

Robbie: Because it’s pure human soul/alma and passion.

 

Is there anything that you miss nowadays from the 60’s?

Brett: You mean other than being single in my early 20s and playing music all day and all night?  Ha ha ha… sex, drugs and rock & roll… yeah, I kind of miss all that, but we all have to grow up sooner or later.

Robbie: Sure.  So much freedom.

 

What characterized the sound of California in 60s?

Brett: Experimentation. Of course, the San Francisco sound – the so-called jam band and psychedelic rock stuff was much much different than the LA polished studio song crafting stuff. They both had their characteristic “sound” and both were very blues/jazz based but with lots of other stuff overlaying that. You would have 2-3 minute sound bites from LA and 20-30 minute expositions from San Francisco. The LA sound was tight – live music sounded exactly like the recordings. The LA sound was kind of sterile with a lot of energy but little excitement. San Francisco was loose and experimental – every performance was unique and exciting (or maybe boring depending on how well the night went) but it never sounded exactly like the last time you heard it or like a record.

Robbie: Jangly guitars and/or long, well-constructed solos.

 

What do you think were the reasons for the blues rock boom at the ‘60s?

Brett: It was part of the times – one thread in a whole fabric of change. The 60s were an age of change around the globe – political, social, economic, scientific,  technological, cultural… we went into space, computers were just starting to change business and science… it was part of the freedom of the era – new doors were opening, the pace of change was accelerating and the electrified blues reflected that change – electrified, energetic, free and loud.

Robbie: Caucasians at large had the blues brought to their attention by Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon, all the greats who were blues influenced.

 

What mistakes of the 60s and psychedelic era would you want to correct?

Brett: You mean if I were God? I don’t know what I could have done to correct any mistakes of the 60s… the only one I would change about the band would be our thumbing our noses at record companies – I think we should have been more open to signing a record deal and listening to feedback about our music. I recall one gig when a very nice man came up to the bandstand and politely asked us to lower the volume just a bit. Our response was to turn it up several notches which on reflection was rude and not paying attention to our audience.

Robbie: Getting blind-sided by drug use and the fallout thereof.

 

What are some of the most memorable meets you've had & of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

Robbie: Jimmy Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.

 

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from the Family Dog Ballroom?

Brett: None that should be in print

Robbie: Well that’s actually where I met Hendrix; Chet Helms, the proprietor, introduced us. Later I got to jam with (Experience drummer) Mitch Mitchell at The Ark in Sausalito thanks to Chet. He was always great to work with. Some very attractive young women hung out there, LOL. I saw the Velvet Underground there—Nico, man.  Wow! You could eat cheaply there, too. It was really a community.  I did get robbed at a bus stop not far from there, though, but even that was a singularly San Franciscan experience in that the kid wouldn’t take my bus fare money!

How did you first meet & what kind of a guy was Chet Helms? Do you remember any fanny with him?

Brett: Shortly after we arrived in San Francisco, we played a gig with a group called “The Land of Milk and Honey”. They weren’t all that serious but just having fun playing music. One of the guys in that group was an old Family Dog friend and he became our manager and introduced us to Chet and the whole scene. Chet was all business from everything I knew about him. He was friendly and liked the music a lot but he had to focus on all of the business aspects of producing events

Robbie: The first two gigs Devil’s Kitchen got when we arrived in June of 1968 were with the San Francisco Mime troupe and opening up for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Somehow Chet heard about us right away through these shows. He was always a gentleman.

 

Tell me a few things about the story of Family Dog, how that came about?

Robbie: It was cast as sort-of the hippie, anti-capitalist alternative to the more business-oriented Fillmore West(s).

 

Are there any memories of Family Dog which you’d like to share with us?

Brett: The Family Dog Ballroom was special. It wasn’t competing with the Fillmore as the Avalon had done. It drew more of a local crowd and was more intimate and down home. It was right on the beach and as their slogan said, it was “Magic at the Edge of the Western World”.

Robbie: Sure. Meeting Corliss McClane there, one of the most beautiful creatures that ever walked the planet.

 

 

What do you think of PSYCHEDELIC music & how close are to BLUES?

Brett: Most of the psychedelic players were well grounded in folk, blues and jazz and their traditions of experimentation, improvisation and performance. In fact, back then I don’t think anyone called the music psychedelic, we called it rock or blues-rock or jamming… but there is a psychedelic sound and to my ear it is close to fusion jazz but with a stronger beat, blues scales, and longer, more and more dramatic  “movements” or sections. Our music changed as we spent more time in the city, evolving from crafted songs to the point where the song was just the opening theme for a long drawn out improvisational segment and then a return to the song to end it. This is very close to the way blues music is performed generally (as opposed to recordings which are shortened versions of the performance version).

Robbie: It’s a mash-up, but what-the-hey.

 

What we should keep or forget from Haight Ashbury time?

Brett: I think it would be a shame to forget the freedom and free expression of spirit and community that was the core of the Haight Ashbury or hippie culture. How music and art were integrated into daily life and seen to be as necessary as bread and water to sustain a full life – exercise too… many people forget that the hippies were very into yoga, group work ethic (balanced with plenty of recreation and relaxation), healthy food, helping others, and a balanced lifestyle which was not the norm back then. The Diggers laid a lot of the foundation of that community with their free food and outreach programs to the surrounding community. The hippies urged people to take time to taste their food, enjoy their bodies, feel their spirituality, use all of their senses and be more whole beings in a time when the mainstream culture was trying to box them in and channel them into narrowly defined niches.

Robbie: Lose the hard drugs, keep the love and music.

 

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