In t he 1960s and 70s, Marvin Holmes gained notoriety as the frontman of groups The Uptights and Justice and The Funk Company. Holmes passed away in January, 2022. Credit: Evolutionary Blues

A lot has changed in the five short years since Cheryl Fabio premiered her documentary, Evolutionary Blues…West Oakland’s Music Legacy. As its title suggests, the film traces the history of the city’s blues scene, while also paying homage to the musical pioneers responsible for making West Oakland prosper in the mid-20th century as a hub of blues music and Black culture. 

Some of the icons interviewed by Fabio in the film have since passed away. But audiences unfamiliar with their legacies will have a chance to learn about them at a special screening of the 2017 doc next Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Grand Lake Theatre. The event is being hosted by the Rotary Club of Oakland in observance of Black History Month. A Q&A with Cheryl Fabio will follow the screening. 

The documentary draws on archival footage and photographs—including from Agnès Varda’s 1970 short, Black Panthers, and Marlon Riggs and Pete Webster’s 30-minute 1981 West Oakland blues documentary, Long Train Running—along with interviews with living artists conducted by Fabio, to tell the history of Oakland blues

In one section of the film, author Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) explains how the Great Migration paved the way for West Oakland to become a vibrant Black community. Some who migrated here from the South included blues and jazz musicians, who came to be loved on Oakland’s music circuit but never gained national or international fame. 

More than just a music film, however, Fabio touches on how West Oakland’s once-flourishing community was demolished in the 1960s to make way for “urban renewal” redevelopment projects. In one instance from 1960 documented in the film, the Abdo S. Allen demolition company used a surplus Sherman tank from World War II to bulldoze 500 homes over a 12-block radius to clear the way for new developments including a new main post office and mail distribution center, displacing hundreds of residents and business owners from the neighborhood.

A Sherman tank from World War II was used to bulldozed homes in West Oakland in 1960. Credit: Oakland Tribune, Aug. 16, 1960

Neighborhood economies may rise and fall over time, said Fabio, but the West Oakland mid-century era documented in her film will never be replicated. 

“You can make a new economic engine on Seventh Street. It could be San Pablo Avenue, MacArthur, or East 14th. But what we lost when they bulldozed those houses and just kind of wiped people out in West Oakland—it’s a community that’s gone,” said Fabio.

Fabio won’t get to reunite with some of the familiar faces she interviewed and had stayed in touch with since the film made its debut, who have since passed away. 

One of those is Sonny Rhodes, who passed away in December of 2021. A gifted blues singer and lap steel-guitar player, Rhodes graced the stages of Oakland venues like Esther’s Orbit Room and Eli’s Mile High Club. Marvin Holmes, who was the frontman for bands The Uptights and Justice and The Funk Company, passed soon after in January. His Oakland funk sound resonated throughout the 60s and 70s.

“How am I getting on a stage and not seeing or not naming these people?” Fabio said. “The death of all these men is the end of an era.”

What made that era in West Oakland special, said Fabio, wasn’t just the music—it was the community that built up around it. “The undergirding of what’s exciting about what this film is representing [is that] it happened in places that Black folks have towered. It doesn’t happen in white establishments that let you come in, do the gig and go,” she said. “This is something so much deeper than that. And no, it will never be rebuilt. It is gone for good.”

American blues singer and lap steel guitar player Sonny Rhodes passed away in December 2021. Credit: Still from "Evolutionary Blues"

In addition to preserving the legacies of those who paved the way, Evolutionary Blues feature interviews with contemporary Oakland musicians who are now leaving their own mark on Oakland’s rich musical history. 

Artists lending their voices and experiences in the film include D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné! fame; The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol, who is currently performing every Sunday at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle; Ronnie Stewart, the executive director of the West Coast Blues Society and the creator of The Music They Played on 7th Street Oakland Walk of Fame; Sugar Pie DeSanto; and blues singer Alabama Mike.

Fabio also interviewed Fantastic Negrito and captured the artist playing a set at Oakland First Fridays. Back then, Fantastic Negrito was known for busking all around Oakland, and his impromptu shows at First Fridays were a fan favorite. Since the film’s debut, Fantastic Negrito has amassed three Grammys (including in 2017 for his album, The Last Days of Oakland), and opened Storefront Records, an independent record label and community space on San Pablo Avenue at 34th Street.

For Fabio, next week’s screening with the Oakland Rotary Club is an opportunity for the film to reach new audiences and increase understanding of different people’s histories and experiences in Oakland. 

“I hope that the screening is a success,” she said, “because it’s an indication that there’s maybe some bridging happening.” 

The show next week is not limited to club members and is open to the public. For those who are still not comfortable going to movie theaters, the film can be streamed through the Oakland Public Library using your library card. 

Thursday, Feb. 24, 6 p.m., $14, Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Ave. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.