I’m sitting on a brown leather couch inside Studio A at Hyde Street Recording in the Upper Tenderloin. A white baby grand piano sits to my left and a faded blue rug with pink roses lies on the hardwood floor in front of me. If you close your eyes and listen hard enough, you may be able to hear the sounds of San Francisco in the 60s.
Fifty years ago, this building was called Wally Heider Recording. And this room was used by the likes of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Starship.
On most evenings, recording engineer Stephen Barncard would sit in the booth to my left and try to catch every sound that came out of one of the artists’ spontaneous jam sessions.
Barncard was a recording engineer and mixer at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. Wally Heider Recording is still in the Tenderloin, but it’s now Hyde Street Studios. Then and now it remains one of the best places to record an album in the city. Artists including Prince, Willie Nelson, and Green Day have recorded in Studio A.
But if you aren’t getting ready to record your next hit, you may not recognize the dark blue doors as you scurry down Hyde Street.
“The building hasn’t changed much at all and that’s why I like it,” Barncard says.
Barncard remembers what he calls “the good old days of the Tenderloin,” when he recorded the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty sessions.
“In those few hours we got a lot done. And the Dead would be here half the time, Starship, and Santana were working in studio....so that was a great time...stuff was bound to happen. It became a cross pollination, Dead, Airplane, Crosby Stills and Nash.”
But today, when you walk outside the studio, you’re more likely to hear sirens and street fights than music.
The Uptown Tenderloin Historic District is trying to preserve memories like Barncard’s with funding from SF Grants for the Arts and the city’s Neighborhood Arts Collaborative. It’s recognizing places like Hyde Street Recording with nine sidewalk plaques – plaques that stand out against the sticky gum and cigarette butts layering the Tenderloin’s pavement. They add to the texture of the neighborhood, one that includes 400 buildings already considered to be historical.
David Murray, who worked nightclubs here over half a century ago, walks me to the corner of Hyde and Turk. Fifty years ago, this spot sounded a lot different. I’m standing where the Blackhawk jazz club used to be. Between 1940 and 1963 Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and other jazz greats played late into the night on stage inside.
“In 1953, I started coming once and awhile to the Blackhawk 'cause teenagers could get in and listen to music. I’m a music groupie, but being a jazz fan it was an ideal place for someone to go free and get a free drink now and then, plus it was wonderful music,” Murray says.
“When Miles Davis would be really into his set, the bars closed at two o’clock and we’d just let him keep playing. We’d collect all the drinks and lock the doors and then he would just keep going until he was done, usually the next half hour or so, I think that’s one of the biggest memories I have,” says Murray.
It’s been nearly 50 years since this corner has seen music. In fact, what was once the Blackhawk is now a parking lot. Now, at least, something notes the significance of the spot for passersby.
The Tenderloin’s history isn’t just about music. It traces back to the debauched days of the Barbary Coast, through the path of high-rises defining the city skyline, through episodes of the civil rights movement, which the Sidewalk Plaque Project commemorates too.
Felicia Elizondo is a transgender activist. She says she is also known as Felicia Flames.
“I am a screaming queen, a pioneer, an icon, a legend, and a diva,” she often says while introducing herself at public events. And in 1966 she demonstrated for equal rights here at 101 Taylor Street, just off Market near the Golden Gate Theater.
“Everybody was grouped here, because right across the street was Rossi’s, now the 21 club, which used to be a transgender bar. Well this was our area, and well we couldn’t get jobs so we went to prostitution,” Elizondo says.
Now a plaque marks the location of the Compton Cafeteria Riots. Elizondo is honored that it will help the community remember what she says is a key part of San Francisco’s history.
“We’re somebody now, we have two plaques, a cement one and a bronze. One by the community and one by the Uptown Tenderloin Museum. I tell the girls be proud of who you are, be proud of what you are, because we have two landmarks right here that are just fabulous to the us – that we started the gay movement here movement here in San Francisco,” she says.
You may no longer be able to hear Miles Davis playing late into the night at the Blackhawk or see the Grateful Dead walking into 245 Hyde Street, but the Tenderloin’s history still lives on: through bronze plaques and the memories of Elizondo, Barncard and Murray.