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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Top 20 Greatest San Francisco Musicians: The Complete List

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 11:35 AM

See also:

* The Top 20 Greatest San Francisco Musicians: Honorable Mentions

Here they are -- the 20 greatest San Francisco musicians ever:

Cameron Paul
  • Cameron Paul

20. Cameron Paul

Lists of pioneering American DJs often mention the usual suspects in New York and Chicago, but go back to the '70s and '80s and you'll find a small but innovative group of S.F. spinners that laid the foundations for what would later become turntablism. In his day, Cameron Paul was a local legend, a powermixer par excellence, who held storied residencies at Studio West and City Nights, as well as influential radio shows on KMEL and the now-defunct KSOL. Cutting with godlike ease through electro, new wave, hip-hop, hi-nrg, and disco, his sets were met with reverential awe, inspiring an entire generation of DJs to hit the decks and start scratching. Yet, far from just being a local legend, Paul took the nation by storm with his Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling remix of Salt-N-Pepa's "Push-It" (aka, the version you know), and a highly sampled back-catalog of essential DJ tools on his Mixx-It label. While others might have gone on to more fame, it simply wouldn't have happened without the man who started it all. -- Derek Opperman

Steve Miller
  • Steve Miller

19. Steve Miller

There are few things that scream "nerd" harder than T-shirts, posters, and school folder doodles of mythological creatures. So give Steve Miller credit that he managed to make Pegasus cool in the late '70s, after making the winged horse a symbol for his bright brand of chart-topping prog-pop-rock. And that's the thing about Miller: He's never been cool, but he's always been awesome.

Miller has been a lot of things to the commercial music canon since launching his eponymous band in the psychedelic scene of 1967 San Francisco. Since arriving like so many others in an era-defining Volkswagen Bus, the Wisconsin-born, Texas-bred, Chicago-honed guitarist/singer has presented his personae as the Space Cowboy, the Gangster of Love, and a guy named Maurice in his breezy 1973 party vibe-summation frathouse sing-along "The Joker." But through it all he's been very serious about crafting a fluid, melodic style. Miller was already seven albums into a career of winding psychedelic jams when he reoriented his approach toward pop. And though he indulged echoing interludes and 16-minute space disco explorations, he'll always be best remembered for encapsulating San Francisco's atmosphere of trippy blues into easily palatable songs that are great for a toke and a grin. --Tony Ware

Michael Tilson Thomas
  • Michael Tilson Thomas

18. Michael Tilson Thomas

Symphonies across the nation have been scrambling for funds and bleeding ticket buyers for years now -- leading some pop music enthusiasts to pronounce the classical genre a goner. But Michael Tilson Thomas, esteemed music director of the San Francisco Symphony, offers a glimmer of hope. His wide-ranging repertoire and innovative programming has opened San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall to audiences across the globe and has placed the organization at the forefront of the classical music world. A fierce advocate for music education and accessibility, Tilson Thomas created a popular multimedia series called, "Keeping Score" in partnership with PBS. He has led the orchestra on 13 national tours and through a landmark 12-concert festival celebrating the work of American composers of the 20th century. His work has garnered a long list of accolades, including 10 Grammy awards -- eight of which recognize his recordings with the San Francisco Symphony. Friendly and charismatic, Tilson Thomas helms the symphony through its centennial year and, certainly, for more to come. --Jessica Hilo

Etta James
  • Etta James

17. Etta James

As a fierce and uncompromising R&B superstar, Etta James changed the industry for female blues artists and musicians alike. James lived a rough-and-tumble life. As a child, she bounced between homes in Los Angeles before she was moved to San Francisco's Fillmore district. It was here that her singing career blossomed. James was a talented songwriter with a knack for tongue-in-cheek, which made her lyrical exploits, youthful arrogance, and sexual confidence ripe for rock and doo-wop. At 15, James and her band the Creolettes were discovered by renowned producer Johnny Otis and signed with Modern Records. She went onto a solo career with Chess Records in the 1960s. In the thick of civil rights-era politics, much of her work went undercompensated or unrecognized -- leading to long battles with personal, legal, and health issues. Despite this struggle, James toured extensively and produced a smattering of chart-topping hits. She was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, and earned six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. James passed away earlier this year after a lengthy battle with leukemia and dementia. --Jessica Hilo.

Mike Patton
  • Mike Patton

16. Mike Patton

From humble beginnings in Eureka emerged one of the most limber larynxes of today. Mike Patton co-founded Mr. Bungle as a teen. By Bungle's fourth demo, 1988's OU8I8, Patton's profound vocal talents were evident. He veered from disemboweling growls to soulful falsettos, keeping pace with Bungle's schizophrenic sense of genre. His star turn came when he joined Faith No More in 1989. Although the FNM years represented Patton's singing at its most restrained, his experimental tendencies crept in, particularly on Angel Dust. Patton parted company with Faith No More and Mr. Bungle in the late '90s, abandoning the whole funk-metal shebang to a generation of nu-metallers. He has since loaned his lungs to metal supergroup Fantômas, covering everything from Slayer songs to horror-movie theme songs; crooned Christmas carols and other delights with jazz experimentalist John Zorn; and belted out the bottom end on Björk's "Where is the Line?" In between, he's released two solo albums, sung opera composed by Eyvind Kang, and reunited with FNM. His sometimes-prickly personality and rejection of celebrity have forced the spotlight to remain on his voice -- right where it belongs. --Beth Winegarner

Huey Lewis and the News
  • Huey Lewis and the News

15. Huey Lewis

Turn your cynical switches to the off-setting and try to take us seriously for a moment. We'll start by pointing out the obvious: Back to the Future would have been significantly less cool, as a movie, if it weren't for "The Power of Love." In addition, thousands of post-wedding first dances would've been less touching if "If This is it" had never been written. Plus, nerdy uncles the world over would feel significantly less confident in their everyday endeavors if it weren't for "Hip to be Square." Huey Lewis and the News put out so much effortlessly great pop music in the '80s, we should all remain in awe to this day -- especially when the band did so much for the San Francisco tourist board (see: the video for "I Want a New Drug"). -- Rae Alexandra

Roy Loney
  • Roy Loney

14. Roy Loney

Roy Loney epitomizes the San Francisco musical ethos with a freewheeling, impossible to pin down style that's able to distill the entire history of rock 'n' roll into concise three-minute blasts of unbridled abandon. Loney was born in the city and started The Flaming Groovies, one of America¹s most underrated bands, in 1965. Loney was the band's main songwriter (with guitarist Cyril Jordan) and a riveting lead singer, known for his wild stage antics. After playing teen clubs and parties for about a year, the band put out a 10-inch LP called Sneakers on their own label, showcasing their unique brand of primitive rock. They signed to Epic in 1968 and released the legendary Supersnazz album, which was a commercial failure. After two more essential albums, Flamingo and Teenage Head, Loney left the band for a solo career and cut the rockabilly flavored Out After Dark, another underrated masterpiece credited to Roy Loney and the Phantom Movers. He broke up the Movers in 1981, but continues to record and perform with a wide variety of musical friends and relations. As Roy Loney and the Longshots, a band consisting of Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey (R.E.M.), Jim Sangster, and Tad Hutchinson, he made two more solid albums, Full Grown Head and Action Shots, as well as the Record Party EP. He still works his day job at Jack's Record Cellar on Scott Street and appears sporadically on Bay Area stages. His latest album is Got Me a Hot One (Hotsak 2009). -- J Poet

nofx_fat_mike_best.jpg

13. Fat Mike

Based on his musical contributions alone, "Fat Mike" Burkett might not warrant inclusion here. The leader of NOFX is responsible for a number of great punk songs, yes, but also some that are uninspired, juvenile, and simplistic. Yet Burkett easily belongs here, because -- along with leading one of the most successful independent punk bands of all time -- he created and remains committed to Fat Wreck Chords, the label he founded in S.F. in 1990. The list of groups that have been on Fat Wreck make up a who's who of punk rock from the last two decades (and occasionally earlier), with Against Me!, Descendents, None More Black, Dillinger Four, Lagwagon, Avail, The Dickies, and Propagandhi all sporting that chunky vinyl logo at one point or another. Moreover, Fat's managed to consistently succeed at something other still-breathing punk labels like Epitaph, Fearless, and Fueled By Ramen have lapsed in: Nearly every name on Fat legitimately feels like a punk band, even if all those bands create a variety of sounds. Finally, let's not forget the subversive genius of NOFX's own songs, like "Liza and Louise," "Please Play This Song on the Radio," and "Don't Call Me White." -- Reyan Ali

Sylvester
  • Sylvester

12. Sylvester

The condensed history of disco's trip through the light fantastic tends to center under the moon of the Studio 54 nightclub in New York and explode on the baseball field at Comiskey Park in Chicago, leaving the West Coast largely out of the narrative. But now that decades have spun past the heyday of the mirror ball, the story of Sylvester James, the biggest and boldest contribution that San Francisco made to disco, has finally begun to be told. James, who lost his surname Cher-style in his ascent through local clubland, has now been the subject of an Unsung documentary, as well as an endearing academic tome, Joshua Gamson's The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco. Eleven years after graduating from beauty school in Los Angeles and moving to San Francisco to join the trippy gender illusionists known as the Cockettes, Sylvester had two Top 40 hits with "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)." Most importantly, the mighty presence of a falsetto-rocking black drag queen from San Francisco landing on Billboard charts would unconsciously help to usher in an era of androgynous acceptance in '80s pop music. -- Tamara Palmer

guaraldi_best.jpg

11. Vince Guaraldi

Best known for the beloved jazz accompaniment he provided for the animated Peanuts television specials, Vince Guaraldi was a skilled pianist and composer whose relatively short life nonetheless produced work that continues to be revered by musicians and adored by listeners. A North Beach native, Guaraldi's first recordings were made as a member of The Cal Tjader Quartet (vibraphonist Tjader was raised in San Mateo and a veteran of Dave Brubeck's short-lived octet). As a leader, Guaraldi was an early importer of bossa nova. His 1962 album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus pre-dated Stan Getz's work in the genre. The album interpreted songs by Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Manha de Carnaval" and "A Felicidade") that have long since become standards, and contained a hit original ("Cast Your Fate to the Wind") that won the composer a Grammy. Guaraldi's sound was crisp, sunny, and playful. When producer Lee Mendelson heard it, he hired Guaraldi to score A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965 -- along with sixteen further animated specials and a feature film before Guaraldi's untimely death in 1976. -- Casey Burchby

dan_the_automator_peter_ellenby.jpg

10. Dan the Automator

The beat designer born Dan Nakamura has been involved in so many off-kilter hip-hop-oriented outfits that it's difficult to keep them all straight. Dan the Automator has been part of Deltron 3030 (with Del the Funky Homosapien and Kid Koala), Crudo (with Mike Patton), Lovage (with Mike Patton, Kid Koala, and others), and Handsome Boy Modeling School (with Prince Paul), the last of which had a tongue-in-cheek performance art angle that led to Nakamura assuming the alias of Nathaniel Merriweather. Nakamura was also part of one of the earliest incarnations of Gorillaz, playing a key role in shaping the 2001 record the world remembers best for "Clint Eastwood."

In the more traditional role of producer, he's worked with a remarkably diverse lot: Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon project, Galactic, Kasabian, Ben Lee, Cornershop, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Primal Scream, Jamie Cullum, and Redman. It's not hard to figure out why all these folks have wanted a piece of his time, since his alluring beats demonstrate great care and restraint. Grab a cigar, throw on Handsome Boy's "I've Been Thinking," stare into space, and let the moment lift you. - Reyan Ali

marty_balin_airplane.jpg

9. Marty Balin

Marty Balin is the founder, lead singer, and songwriter for Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. Balin studied art at San Francisco State University, but his love of folk music led him to start performing. He had his own folk band, The Town Criers, in 1963 and was briefly a member of The Gateway Singers, a group that included Lou Gottlieb (The Limelighters) and Travis Edmonson (Bud & Travis). When his idea of playing folk music using electric instruments met resistance from folk clubs, he opened his own nightclub, The Matrix, and started a house band he called Jefferson Airplane with guitarist Paul Kantner. The band was soon playing as much rock and jazz-inspired improvisation as folk, and helped spawn the San Francisco psychedelic sound. The Airplane and The Grateful Dead became touchstones for the hippie generation and helped make San Francisco a center of the musical universe in the '60s. Balin's soaring tenor was a perfect counterpoint for Grace Slick's gritty, blues-infused style. After leaving the Starship in 1979, Balin produced the rock opera Rock Justice; released two solo albums, Balin and Lucky; performed with Paul Kanter and Jack Casady in the KBC Band, and continues to perform with his own band and at sporadic Airplane/Starship reunions. -- J Poet

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8. Patrick Cowley

The story of dance music is long and convoluted, and San Francisco isn't often given its full due. Without the city by the bay, there's a good chance that things might have turned out quite differently. More so than any other figure, Patrick Cowley represents the city's contribution to the broader lineage of dance music. His experiments in the late-'70s and early-'80s would result in a streamlined sound that fused the hedonism of disco with the steady rhythm of machines. Most famous for his work with Sylvester, Cowley is responsible for some of hi-nrg's most enduring anthems: Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Do You Wanna Funk," Paul Parker's "Right on Target," and "Menergy" -- a Cowley original. These works, plus the rest of his prolific run, would define an era in gay dance music history. Though he tragically died a young man in 1982, the spirit of his vision lives on in the many forms of electronic dance music rocking the world's clubs today. -- Derek Opperman

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7. Grace Slick

Rock 'n' roll is a man's world, but singer-songwriter and HBIC Grace Slick leveled the playing field. As one of the most prominent female rockers of all time, Slick helped to incite a psychedelic rock revolution that put San Francisco's musical hub on the map. In 1965, she and then husband, Jerry Slick, created folk rock sensation The Great Society. Named after the social reform program, The Great Society churned out a number of quasi-acid rock hits, including "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," which Slick would later make famous with the Jefferson Airplane. Slick replaced Airplane's lead singer Signe Toly Anderson in 1966, when Toly Anderson left to focus on her family. With Airplane, Slick became an outspoken force for social and political change -- turning out controversial performances in support of the Black Panther Party and other leftist movements. Personal turmoil plagued the singer as Airplane achieved commercial and critical success. Bouts with drugs and alcohol curbed the band's ability to record and tour and inevitably led to its demise. Slick was inducted with Airplane in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and now works as a visual artist. -- Jessica Hilo

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6. Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana is probably the best guitarist that San Francisco ever produced. He graduated from Mission High in 1965 and sang on the streets for spare change for a year when an impromptu jam session at the Fillmore West brought him to the attention of Bill Graham. His knowledge of Latin, African, jazz, rock and folk music gave his playing a unique flavor. The Santana Blues Band was soon known as one of The City's best outfits; their appearance at Woodstock sent their debut album, Santana, to the top of the charts, making Santana a household name. His collaborations with John McLaughlin, Alice Coltraine, Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, Micky Hart, and Olatunji showed off his ability to adapt to any situation. Santana has won 20 Grammys, three Latin Grammys, and is No. 13 on Rolling Stone's list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time. -- J Poet

bob_weir_now.jpg

5. Bob Weir

Bob Weir was one of the founding members of The Grateful Dead, probably the most influential American band of the 1960s, and the first jam band. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist was born in San Francisco and grew up playing folk music. When he was 16, he met guitarist Jerry Garcia and founded The Grateful Dead. Weir sang lead and pioneered the complex, melodic rhythm guitar style that became the hallmark of The Dead's arrangements, along with Garcia's free-form lead work. He added slide guitar techniques to his music in the late 70s, also incorporating elements of bop, ragtime and classical music into his expanding musical palette. Ace, his first solo album, was released in 1972. When The Dead took time off from their relentless touring, Weir played with the roots rock outfit Kingfish, the more pop inspired Bobby and the Midnights, the free flowing RatDog and as a jazzy acoustic duo with bassist Rob Wasserman as Weir/Wasserman. Since Garcia's death in 1995, Weir has played with other members of The Grateful Dead as The Other Ones and The Dead. In 2009, he started Furthur with bass guitarist Phil Lesh; the band's songbook draws heavily on the music of The Grateful Dead. -- J Poet

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4. Jello Biafra

There's an argument to be made that the Dead Kennedys, which Jello Biafra founded in 1978, were San Francisco's best punk band. Certainly they were its most delightfully obnoxious, issuing sarcastic, speedy three-chord anthems that railed against a host of societal ills: corrupt auto mechanics, clueless college business majors, warmongering politicians in general, Gov. Jerry Brown in particular, and the hollowing effects of consumer culture. Though Biafra's lyrics often referred to issues specific to their time, Dead Kennedys records remain quite popular today. And even after the band broke up in 1985, Biafra remained a potent force in the local scene: His Alternative Tentacles label (now headquartered in Emeryville, alas) still puts out records by a very diverse and often very weird variety of acts, and Biafra himself has never lost the inclination to loudly and hilariously savage things he doesn't like. These days, things Jello Biafra doesn't like include high-tech yuppies, milquetoast indie-pop bands, and the availability of valet parking on Valencia Street. Agree with him or not, Biafra remains the punk conscience of San Francisco -- and that's still something this city needs very much. -- Ian S. Port

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3. Sly Stone

Numerous places can lay claim to Sylvester "Sly Stone" Stewart: He was born in Texas, raised in Vallejo, and relocated to L.A. in 1969, at the height of his popularity. But since Stone was a DJ at San Francisco's KSOL -- and hell, he wrote a song called "Luv N' Haight," spelled like the city street -- we're including him on this list. His greatness is inarguable: Stone melded funk and psychedelia into a near-perfect output of rhythm and euphoria, and supercharged his songs with a political and racial awareness that was radical in its time. Decades later, Sly and the Family Stone songs like "Everyday People," "If You Want Me to Stay," and "Dance to the Music" still sound incredible -- and their influence on funk, rock, and disco remains palpable. Perhaps James Brown's main rival as the king of funk, Stone's freewheeling personality and vivid style were also an importance influence on Jimi Hendrix. Sadly, it was reported last year that Stone is now living, apparently by choice, in a van on the streets of L.A.. He claims to have hundreds of new songs written and recorded, but is wary of releasing them to a record company. -- Ian S. Port

janis_joplin.jpg

2. Janis Joplin

Probably the best pop singer to ever come out of the San Francisco music scene, Janis Joplin was by most accounts born to be a star. She was too out-there for her hometown of Port Arthur, Tex.; got profiled in her college newspaper for wearing Levi's and going around barefoot; and almost single-handedly lifted Big Brother and the Holding Company to fame when she joined in 1966, shortly after moving to San Francisco for the second time.

Joplin was not a particularly gifted songwriter or an instrumentalist -- she was just a singer. A great singer. With the signature rasp in her voice, Joplin gave songs a gritty, bluesy edge that made them feel real -- and made her more than just another white artist borrowing from decades of black music. She opens "Cry Baby" with a panoramic rise, emphasizing the hugeness of the sentiment, but then creeps down into an almost whisper-like intimacy on the verses, showing off a sweetness her voice could also possess. She positively inhabits Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," a song that has rightly become synonymous with her life and career. And she could win laughs while indicting American culture, as she demonstrated on the indelible "Mercedes Benz," where hints of that Texas drawl rise to the surface. Always a colorful personality, Joplin had numerous tumultuous relationships and struggled with addiction; she died in 1970 of a heroin overdose before the release of her second solo album, the seminal Pearl. Today, there remains a large portrait of Janis Joplin, pictured naked, hanging inside the Fillmore -- a fitting memorial to a woman whose greatest gift was the way she could bare her soul the world. -- Ian S. Port

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1. Jerry Garcia

Since this list is not a piece of trollbait -- and since we're neither young nor dumb enough to ignore the Grateful Dead's unrivaled legacy -- there was no way that Jerry Garcia was not going to come in at No. 1. But we're not picking him just because the old hippies of the Bay Area would get pissed off if we didn't. Jerry Garcia is the closest thing to a musical God that San Francisco has ever produced. (And yes, he was born here, on August 1, 1942.) Garcia was raised by musician parents who ran a city bar. At age four, he accidentally sliced off two-thirds of his right middle finger while chopping wood. He was a disinterested student and such an undisciplined Army recruit that he got thrown out. He founded a jug band that took up electric instruments in 1965 and rechristened itself the Grateful Dead. And as the Dead's lead guitarist and de facto chief, Garcia helmed a popular music juggernaut the likes of which has never been seen before or since, basically inventing the jam band and helping to make San Francisco the center of a social and cultural revolution.

A formidable musician with wide-ranging interests, Garcia is still an underrated guitarist. (You don't have to sit through 30-minute jams to appreciate his work, but listening to him improvise in live recordings remains a breathtaking experience.) Santana was flashier and more celebrated, but Garcia's solos and leads have an agile grace and a watery smoothness that is instantly recognizable. The man got more soul out of two notes than many lesser guitarists will ever get out of 12. Just listen to his work on the 1970's "Easy Wind," where Garcia peppers the tune's dragging, blues-as-fuck rhythm (itself a testament to the Dead's greatness) with crystalline phrases that talk back and forth to one another, telling a beautiful story without saying a word.

Garcia, of course, was more than a guitarist. With his longtime friend, the lyricist and poet Robert Hunter, Garcia wrote many of the Dead's best song-like songs -- the ones you don't need a tab of acid to understand: "Ripple," "Uncle John's Band," "Friend of the Devil," "Bertha," "Casey Jones," and many, many others. And of course he handled much of the band's singing duties, too. Garcia died in 1995, giving the Dead an exactly 30-year career that saw an incredible amount of success, especially considering the sudden, tragic ends found by many of their psychedelic-era peers. So is Garcia a safe choice when we're talking about the greatest San Francisco musician of all time? Sure -- but that's because he's obviously it. -- Ian S. Port

See also:

* The Top 20 Greatest San Francisco Musicians: Honorable Mentions

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