The Charlatans - Biography
By Nick Castro
The Charlatans were one of the most important groups of the San Francisco folk rock music scene. They were not only trail blazing pioneers in their genre, they were huge catalysts for the 60's San Francisco scene in general. The Charlatans are often remembered for their early days, while playing at the now legendary Red Dog Saloon, located in Virginia City, NV, where many have argued that the San Francisco psychedelic scene had its roots. They are also credited for being the first band to utilize rock art poster, though many other shows and concerts were already promoted with posters and large bills, theirs was a sort of first in its own genre of poster art. Just as important as their sound was to defining a generation, also was their visual aesthetic, which incorporated victorian era western wear, complete with rifles and revolvers, and a flair for the leftover beat, and the burgeoning hippie, look of the mid 60's. While all of the other groups of the Bay Area were still playing acoustic folk music, The Charlatans were already plugging in their guitars and experimenting with rock music. In most ways, The Charlatans were complete originals.
The Charlatans were first playing together in 1964, when George Hunter, who was attending San Francisco State College, began jamming with Richard Olsen. Hunter was not actually a musician at the time, but he had the vision of what a band needed to be great. Hunter began to organize the group, and included Mike Wilhelm, who had gone to high school with Hunter, as well as Sam Linde and Mike Ferguson. Ferguson worked at the Magic Theater, in San Francisco, and had access to a lot of victorian era clothing because of it. Hunter already had a healthy obsession with the wild west. Together they created the look of the band that has become synonymously linked with San Francisco, later being emulated, to a some degree or another, by bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Lastly. the band needed a sound to match their old timey look, and they began playing an electrified hybrid or rock and early ragtime and blues. The band soon lost Linde as their drummer, and replaced him with Dan Hicks, who would later go on to have an illustrious career of his own with his band, The Hot Licks. The band would soon cultivate a reputation for themselves, in the underground drug and hipster scenes of Haight-Ashbury and surrounding areas, and trendsetters and pioneers of a new movement.
Hicks was already well versed in jazz music, and he brought these skills to The Charlatans to help refine and polish their rough sound. In 1965, The Charlatans got a two month residency at The Red Dog Saloon, in Virginia City, and people from the Bay Area, would flock their to see and hear the psychedelic light shows, loud rock music and antics of the group, who legendarily even walked onstage with their firearms at side. The Red Dog Saloon fit the image of the group perfectly as well, having been recently renovated with antiques from the turn of the century. During their stay at The Red Dog Saloon, The Charlatans only further reinforced their image and reputation as drug enthusiasts who incorporated the effects into their show and music. They are said to have been the first band to take LSD and perform publicly, during this time, although the band recalls it having been done under the presumption that they had the night off, only to learn were in fact scheduled to play, regardless of their states of mind. The band soon made some failed attempts at recording an album, mainly consisting of old blues and country songs, and had some run ins with the law, over drugs, almost losing Wilhelm to jail time over an arrest he had. They did record demos with producer Erik Jacobsen, who was known for working with The Lovin' Spoonful, which would remain unreleased for some years. Jacobsen reportedly had difficulties recording the group because most of them were not studied musicians, and it was tricky to capture the essence of the band's live shows on a recording, which worked as more of a microscope than offering the panoramic scope the band required.
Upon receiving their residency at The Red Dog Saloon, Ferguson and Hunter began to print posters using art nouveau and proto-psychedelic drawings and imagery. The iconic imagery of the poster has led to it being revered and cherished amongst collectors, who often refer to the poster as The Seed. Like a seed, the idea of the rock poster grew vines throughout San Francisco, and soon everybody was doing it to promote their shows.
The Charlatans finally released their first record in 1966, titled "The Shadow Knows", but apparently the band was unhappy with the choice of the song, which was not their own. The next year they recorded a series of sessions with Leon Russell, which also failed to get the band a finished product, instead leading to Ferguson leaving the group, to be replaced by Patrick Gogerty. Hicks then switched to guitar and they hired drummer, Terry Wilson. it was not long before Hicks too became frustrated, musically, with the band, and he left to form his own group, Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks.
After Hunter broke up the group in 1968, Wilhelm, Wilson and Olsen reformed the band and released, what was actually, the band's first full length record, The Charlatans (1969 - Philips). Although the record strong enough by itself, it is often criticized for either not being the original members, or else with not being representative of the group's actual sound. Some of the high moments on the record are the songs, "High Coin", "Alabama Bound", and, "Easy When I'm Dead".
There is also an album called Alabama Bound (1970 - Eva), which is comprised of their demos made by producer Jacobsen, including a long jam of the title track. There is also an excellent documentary about the days of The Red Dog Saloon, called The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, which features The Charlatans in it.