New Richmond blues foundation plays on amid challenging times

New Richmond blues foundation plays on amid challenging times
The North Greater-Richmond Blues Foundation Inc. recently made its debut. (Photo Credit: Joe Fisher)

Kathy Chouteau

The North & Greater Richmond Blues Foundation, Inc. is overcoming unexpected adversity while making its debut. But just as the music plays on, so too does Executive Director DeJeana Burkes, who hasn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic slow her down.

“You have to learn how to change horses in the middle of the stream,” said Burkes about the situation while evoking a song by Lenny Williams.

The organization received its nonprofit designation in January, but had to “change horses” when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.  Much of the work the foundation was planning to do in person is now on hold, with a renewed focus on expanding its online offerings, which will be launched via its website in May.

“We’re reconfiguring how we’re going to present” due to COVID-19, said Burkes. “When we launch our website, it will be like a cultural center, where you can go and visit and see some of the things that we would have put in a physical place.”

“When we are able to put the cultural center together in a physical location, we will,” she said. “We’re rolling with it just like everybody else. We’ll find a way.”

Until then, Burkes—a 40-year resident of Richmond—has a clear vision of the foundation’s mission and what it will do once it has the opportunity to really sing.

“Our mission is to uplift the blues community and to give it a place to shine the focus on the history of North and Greater Richmond,” said Burkes, a blues singer herself. “I felt like it was time that the world knew about the fabulous history of music that we have—the music out north in Richmond and spread across the Bay Area,” she said about her reason for starting the foundation.

According to Burke, during the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, North Richmond and Richmond played home to a vibrant blues scene.

Clubs like the Savoy, Kozy Club, Lone Star, Tapper’s Inn and Minnie Leu’s regularly hosted a long playlist of blues musicians like Jimmy McCracklin, Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Sugar Pie DeSanto and more popular acts. Many of the musicians came in from around the country and joined together with existing Bay Area blues artists to create what is now known worldwide as the ‘West Coast Blues Sound,’ per Burkes.

Also notable was that “many blues clubs in Richmond were either run by or owned by women,” said Burkes. “The Savoy was owned by a woman, Minnie Leu’s was owned by a woman, Tapper’s Inn was run by a woman—those three were probably the most popular clubs out there and they were also run by women.”

“It started to change in the late 60s because music began to change,” Burkes said of the local blues scene. “The country began to shift because [of] what was happening in the Vietnam era.”

Burkes was prompted to start the foundation was because she feels there are “inequities in the storyline” about blues history in the Bay Area. Per Burkes, the focus tends to be on Hayward, Oakland and San Francisco “and very little [is] ever mentioned about North Richmond.”

“I had always heard from older musicians in the community that that’s where the music really was the best. All the major performers and stars during those years made sure to come through North Richmond.”

“And so I feel that I would like to have that story told” while bringing “the rich, cultural heritage of North Richmond to the forefront.”

Eventually, the Blues Foundation will establish the aforementioned cultural center that Burkes’ says will be “like a blues museum but will also incorporate some of Richmond’s history and Gospel [music] history of African Americans.” She said arts, and of course music, will also play roles in the center.

The foundation’s post-COVID-19 vision also includes plans for an annual blues festival that will be regional in scope; a Hall of Fame awards program that will honor blues musicians of yesterday and today; and an annual picnic day for the churches that will celebrate Gospel music.

Also post-COVID-19, Burkes hope to host open-mic “blues jams” in the community on a weekly or monthly basis where people can enjoy music while connecting with the foundation. The foundation plans to offer presentations to interested parties about the history of the local blues scene and Richmond’s role in it.

To see The North & Greater Richmond Blues Foundation’s video on local blues history, click here. The organization, currently located at 1350 Kelsey St. in Richmond, is working to launch its website and Facebook page. In the meantime, email DeJeana Burkes at [email protected].