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Exploring the History of Sacramento Music

1980 Crayon single “Carry Me Back”

Labor Day weekend is usually the time of year when you hear special countdowns on the radio of the biggest songs or groups of all time as voted by listeners. Other holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4 feature the exact same kind of programming. But there never seems to be much talk about local music scene history, unless you’re doing research online. So I put together a brief history of the Sacramento music scene for SacTV.com to celebrate the many talented acts who have advanced to greater success beyond the region. 

It really wouldn’t make sense to create a "top 100" of the biggest Sacramento songs in history, because there isn’t really a media outlet that plays that music in regular rotation to create any type of cultural consciousness about it. Sacramento shouldn’t feel left out, though, because for most cities it’s the same story, as national music has always dominated local playlists almost everywhere. A handful of local hits are sprinkled in the mix to remind people that their city does have occasional input in the national picture.

For the record, the biggest hit by a Sacramento group was probably the 1987 gold-certified number one single "Lean On Me" by Warner Brothers artist Club Nouveau, who were covering a song that had already hit number one over a decade earlier by Bill Withers. It would seem strange to listen to a countdown of Sacramento hits only to find out the top song was a cover of an already famous national hit.

Tesla also built their career on cover songs, as several of their hits including "Little Suzi" and "Signs" were covers. Tesla remains the best selling artist from Sacramento, selling over 15 million albums while they were signed to Geffen. Since many radio countdowns are just made up lists forged by programmers, if I were making up a list of the city’s top songs it probably wouldn’t include covers. I might pick "Love Song" by Tesla as the top Sacramento hit or one of the many great songs by Cake, such as "Rock and Roll Lifestyle" or "The Distance."

I would certainly include other signed bands on the list, such as Deftones, Oleander, Cause and Effect, Steel Breeze, Bourgeois Tagg, Papa’s Culture, Endeverafter, Cleanse, DRS and the sixties one hit wonder Spiral Starecase. Even though they recorded "More Today Than Yesterday" in Los Angeles, they still count as a band from Sacramento. I would even include Papa Roach even though they were from Vacaville or Mother Hips from Chico. Noteworthy Davis acts who gained attention beyond the region were Thin White Rope, Game Theory and Chance the Gardener. I usually think of Mumbo Gumbo, Tattooed Love Dogs and Beer Dawgs as regional acts who played a lot of high profile shows locally for many years. 

There are many ways to stretch the list of Sacramento musicians if you really want to come up with a list that people on Facebook from other cities could related to. One way to do it is include bands from the Bay Area who performed in Sacramento frequently as a second home. Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example, played a lot of high school dances  in town as the Golliwogs before they were signed to Fantasy Records and started having big national hits. Lynn Anderson grew up in Carmichael in the 1950s then moved to Nashville in the 1960s and started having huge country hits. Rose Maddox grew up in Sacramento and had her own radio show on KFBK in the 1940s before regularly appearing on the national country charts in the early 1960s.

There were artists who had national hits and then relocated to the region, such as Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels. Ronnie Montrose also moved to the area after his band became an established rock act of the seventies. Another way to stretch the list is to include artists from Sacramento who ended up in national bands, such as Timothy B. Schmit who joined the Eagles and sang lead vocals on their hit "I Can’t Tell You Why" or Craig Chaquico, who played guitar with Jefferson Starship. Jackie Greene, who was born in Santa Rosa but grew up in Sacramento where he established his musicianship and solo work, recently moved to Atlanta to join the Black Crowes as a guitarist. Local artist Eric Martin wound up on top of the charts in 1992 with a song called "To Be With You" by his band Mr. Big, who were formed in San Francisco. 

There were also some local hits that sounded like they could have gone much further than local airplay, such as the 1980 single "Carry Me Back" by Crayon featuring vocalist Caron Vikre or the 1988 dance hit "Spiritual Zoo" by Harrison Price. The Features had a big selling local album in 1983 called Up Up Side Side, driven by local airplay. An overlooked artistic masterpiece that was played on freeform station in KZAP In 1968 was "Lemonade Kid" by Kak, who were signed to Epic Records. Kak was a follow-up to psychedelic band Oxford Circle, put together by singer Gary Yoder, who went on to become a member of national act Blue Cheer and still performs in the Davis music scene. Erick Purkhiser and Kristy Wallace met at Sac State in 1972 before moving on to New York and forming the Cramps in 1976, an early punk band who played at CBGB’s. 

One of the most remarkable local bands buried in rock history was the Svelts, one of the first all female rock bands formed in 1961 by Jean and June Millington. The band later were discovered in Los Angeles and became Fanny, who were signed to Reprise and later Casablanca. They had a few minor hits in the seventies such as "Charity Ball," "Wild Thing" and "Butter Boy." It would be interesting to find out if there was an earlier all female band in rock history. Another success story was Roger Voudouris, who died in 2003. Even though the McClatchy High student only had one hit in America called "Get Used To It" in 1979, he became a big sensation in Australia. 

Sacramento has a very rich history of music, that warrants a book or even a movie. You can learn more about it on my own music site at Tangent Sunset. There has been enough great music by Sacramentans to create a radio format, but the only time that’s really happened was a one year project I did from 1999 to 2000 called SacLive, which was Sacramento’s first 24 hour internet radio station, playing all local music. What the local scene needs in order to become a deeper part of culture is to be reminded that the city has an extensive catalogue of music worth exploring.

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