70-Year-Old Buck's Oakland Laundromat Remains Direct Link to City's Rich Musical Past, But For How Much Longer?

Posted by Billyjam, March 14, 2016 10:57pm | Post a Comment

"In 1959, 1960 James Brown dropped off the original Flames in Oakland and he left them." "Louis Jordan was here all the time."  "Slim Jenkins was the premiere club in Oakland in the '50s." These nuggets of Bay Area music history are among the many sprinkled throughout a typical conversation with lifelong music loving 70-year-old Oakland native Charles Presley, who everyone knows as Buck. This particular conversation (hear the full 10 minutes in the clip below) is one of countless engaging ones that I've had over the past two plus decades of stopping by the North Oakland coin-op laundromat this music fan owns and operates. But it could be any conversation with Buck who loves music and loves to talk music. And his conversations are always from the historical perspective of his beloved hometown of Oakland, CA.  Buck loves all good music from soul and jazz to gospel, but blues and rhythm and blues, the music he grew up on, remain his favorite sounds. Most new laundromat customers' conversations are inspired by the the overhead soundtrack of RnB and soul grooves Buck plays from CD collections or the music-themed DVDs he might play on the overhead TV screens. Doing laundry at Buck's is never a dreaded chore, so long as he's there.
As heard in the audio interview clip below, once Buck starts reminiscing he goes off on detailed lists of artists and shows at long gone Oakland clubs back in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, most notably Slim Jenkins Cafe at 1748 7th Street that operated from the '30s through the '60s. It was just one of several businesses owned and operated in West Oakland by the Louisiana born Harold "Slim" Jenkins who was such a successful businessman that he earned the title of "Mayor" of West Oakland. Buck fondly remembers those times like he clearly remembers the very first records he ever bought and heard. One of the first records he remembers hearing was the 1951 single "Sixty Minute Man" by The Dominoes.  He caught most acts in Oakland clubs, but for some he'd travel across the Bay Bridge. Most often those would be jazz shows. In 1961, he got to see Miles Davis playing San Francisco's Black Hawk. The famed jazz club, located in the Tenderloin on the corner of Turk and Hyde, operated from 1949 through 1963. 

Buck grew up in Oakland on 13th Street between Campbell and Peralta Streets. He notes how construction of the freeway in the '50s had a major impact on Oakland, displacing and dividing communities. And again how, two decades later, the construction of BART in West Oakland had a deep impact on the community. The area that now surrounds the site of the West Oakland BART, was where there were once many clubs and fun venues. "We had a bowling alley and Earl's BBQ." The City of Oakland, "tore down all the beautiful Victorians" only to be replaced by the failed Acorn housing project that was divided into three huge public housing units. Ironically in 1990 the City of Oakland in turn demolished the Acorn 1 unit and replaced that stretch from Filbert to Market Streets back into individual single houses. 

Buck recalls the age of the segregated Chitlin' Circuit that lasted through to the '60s and how the artists on those tours always stayed in Oakland. "Tina Turner, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin," he says, listing more artists who came through Oakland.  He even recalls the house that Big Mama Thornton would stay at when the Alabama-born blues belter stayed in Oakland. "The Continental Club: The Temptations, Bobby Bland..." he begins his list of artists that played Oakland's happening bygone club on 13th Street.  He loves all the old music even more over the passing decades. "The music has gotten better, like fine wine," he smiles, recalling how he went to school with Larry Graham, the future innovative bassist with Sly & Family Stone and founding member of Graham Central Station. "Johnny Guitar Watson, my landlord was his first cousin," he explains of how he got to know the guitarist. Buck recalls such acts as the LA group The Coasters coming north to play and how onetime member of the group, Adolf Jacobs, hailed from Oakland where his family ran the Jacobs bakery on 13th Street.  And he vividly remembers Oakland's long gone 16th Street Station, the railway station that was once a key cultural hub of the West Coast. He remembers how growing up he and his friends would hang outside the 1912-built historic landmark that closed in 1994, to catch glimpses of visiting stars. And not just musicians visited the cultural mecca that was Oakland. "All the movie stars, they came in on the train to 16th Street Station [aka Oakland Central Station]. We used to stay at 16th Street Station just to see who was coming in."

The sad part is that once Buck closes up his laundromat and is no longer there to chop it up with customers, this invaluable link to Oakland's under-documented rich musical history will be gone. And the remaining days are surely limited for his old fashioned North Oakland laundromat in a prime real estate location. Business is slow says Buck of his business with the simple signage that reads ABLE FABRIC CARE COIN OP.  "Everyone's got washing machines at home now."  Besides Buck says he's pretty much ready to retire. But sooner or later the booming market will dictate the future of his building, which sits in a prime Rockridge location where Claremont Ave. merges with both Colby and Forest streets and is near both the freeway and BART. The old coin-operated laundromat sits in the middle of one of the East Bay's hottest property markets. A few months back a three-bedroom house down the street sold for $1.7 million.

Luckily, Buck's landlord is cool and isn't trying to jack up the rent of his 32-year tenant. But at the real 2016 market value, in which his laundromat's limited profits are counted in quarters, Buck would be priced out instantly. He insists that he's not shutting down his laundromat in the immediate future, and maybe not "for a while." In the meantime, if you are doing laundry in the East Bay and want to talk Oakland music history, stop by Buck's Able Fabric Care Coin-OP laundry on Claremont at Colby and Forest streets in North Oakland, 94618. The dryers are free. Below is the recent audio interview with Buck that's referenced aove.

Relevant Tags

Miles Davis In San Francisco (1), Oakland History (2), North Oakland (3), Rnb (1), Charles Presley (1), Buck (1), Charles "buck" Presley (1), James Brown (30), The Continental Club Oakland (1), Slim Jenkins Cafe West Oakland (1), Louis Jordan (2)