Music by local legend Richmond Talbot

Richmond Talbot from the sleeve of his unreleased record "Gettin' Plenty."

Richmond “Steve” Talbot (aka Talbott) was born in Maryland and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He played guitar and entered the Bay area music scene in 1959 or so. Guitar instructor Rolf Cahn said this of Richmond: “Unlike most musicians, he knew what he wanted to play even before he learned to play…” He played old time blues. Cahn also said: “His approach to the instrument was one of quiet certainty.”

In his encyclopedic history of the folk music revival of the 1950’s and 60’s “Which Side Are You On?” (Continuum Press, 2005), musician and scholar Dick Weissman wrote: “Steve Talbot had a reputation for being a fine blues and ragtime guitarist, but he made his living on the railroad.” Talbot’s day job was as a brakeman for Southern Pacific. Railroad buff and guitar genius John Fahey wrote and recorded “Steve Talbott at the Keddie Wye” as an instrumental tribute to Talbot’s railroad work (Keddie is a “town” and transfer station in the Feather River Canyon, and a ‘wye” is a track in the form of a "Y" which leads from a main line and is used for turning trains around in a restricted space like the canyon.)  

When not riding the rails over the Sierras and across the west Talbot was performing in clubs and bars from the north Bay to the south Bay. During this time Berkeley was awash with talented guitarists. Along with Talbot and Cahn, there was Steve Mann, Tom Hobson, Perry Lederman, Billy Roberts, Larry Hanks and Jorma “Jerry” Kaukonen. Between 1962 and ’64 Texas transplant Janis Joplin performed in an acoustic trio with rotating guitarists:  Kaukonen, Talbot, Mann, and Hanks.

Talbot’s love of old blues tunes was infectious and often transferred to others. Jim Kweskin (of Jug Band fame) recalls traveling across the country in the early 1960’s and developing his musical chops by performing with a wide array of musicians in local music stores, coffee shops and bars……“and in Berkeley California I met a guy named Steve Talbott, who adapted an old Blind Boy Fuller tune and I learned it from him. The song was ‘Rag Mama’ and it became my theme song” (quoted in “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” by Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, UMass Press 1979). Talbott’s knowledge of the obscure may have been the motivation behind Kaukonen’s invitation for him to help out on a song for Hot Tuna’s 1974 “Burgers” LP. "99 Year Blues" was written by an old Piedmont style blues musician from South Carolina, Julius Daniels (1901-1947). The tune is performed as a country-blues shuffle that features Papa John Creach on violin and Talbot on slide guitar and accompanying vocals. The Tuna version features lyrics that are a combination of original (“Well now, bring my pistol, I said three round balls. I’m gonna shoot everybody I don’t like at all.”) and new (“Well if the world’s a drag my friends, and you can’t cope, go out and find a connection and smoke some dope…”)

Jorma Kaukonen of course gained his fame with the rock band Jefferson Airplane. It was Jorma who named the band but he gives credit to Talbot for the inspiration behind the name:  “I had this friend up in Berkeley, Steve Talbot, and he came up with funny names for people….His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, ‘You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!’”

By 1970, the band with the silly name was so successful that RCA gave them their own label to record their solo projects and music by musicians who they liked. Talbot recorded a selection of rock, boogie, blues and country songs between 1969 and 1971 and an album was scheduled for release on the Airplane’s Grunt label in 1972, but by that time Grunt was losing lots of money and Talbot’s album, “Gettin’ Plenty” (Grunt FTR-1010) was shelved, never officially released, and forgotten. Copies of the record appear occasionally on E-Bay.

Richmond Talbot moved north to the Chico area in the 1970’s. Here he worked at the upstart Sierra Nevada Brewery and later for the City of Chico parks department but he was always active in local music; performing and producing live shows, hosting a blues program on KCHO radio, repairing instruments at a local music store, and teaching the craft of instrument repair to others. Bluegrass musician Harrison Phipps (who was performing with local dobro player Sally Van Meter at the time) had moved to Chico to become a student of Art Overholtzer, the guy who wrote the book “Classic Guitar Making.” The book was published in 1974 and attracted hordes of would-be luthiers to Chico to learn from the master. In short time Phipps also met Talbot and began learning the craft of repair and restoration. Today Phipps owns and operates Fretted Strings in Davis CA, and credits Overholtzer and Talbot for his success. Phipps even designed and produces a custom hollow body guitar which he calls the “Richmond Talbott Gibson.”

Richmond died in 1992.

On American Pastimes: Selections from Richmond Talbot’s “Gettin’ Plenty,” and his performances for "Folk Music with Rolf Cahn" originally broadcast in November 1962 on KPFA-FM, Berkeley. Plus John Fahey’s “Steve Talbott at the Keddie Wye,” Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band “Rag Mama,” Hot Tuna’s “99 Year Blues,” and Rolf Kahn & Eric Von Schmidt’s “Frankie & Johnny.”

A while ago there was an audio recording on YOUTUBE:  “Janis Joplin at the Folk Theater, San Jose, CA December, 1962” with Steve Talbot on guitar. It doesn’t seem to be there anymore, but I recall that the duo performed a country music song. Currently there are a number of other YOUTUBE audios of Joplin performing in San Jose in 1962 with string instrumental accompaniment, but the accompanying musicians aren't identified.

RadiOm.org has archival recordings of radio broadcasts. A KPFA-FM performance by Steve Talbott on acoustic guitar from November 1962 is located at this link: http://archive.org/details/FM_1962_11_26_c1.  The program’s host is Rolf Cahn (1924 -1994) who was a guitar and martial arts instructor. In the late 1950’s he was married to folk singer Barbara Dane and living in the Bay Area where he taught guitar (folk, blues & flamenco), opened a club in Berkeley (the Blind Lemon) and hosted a radio show on KPFA. In 1959 he followed a new girlfriend to Cambridge Massachusetts and arrived just as the ‘great folk scare’ was gathering steam. In Cambridge he served as guitar instructor guru for many of the musicians who had gravitated to the Boston area during that time, and he recorded an album with Eric Von Schmidt. He later moved back to Berkeley with his new girlfriend, musician Debbie Green, and settled in to teach, write and host his program on KPFA. In 1963 he co-founded the Berkeley folk club The Cabale which became a showcase for many old blues musicians, traveling Boston area musicians, and young local talent. Cahn eventually left Berkeley for Santa Fe, New Mexico where he recorded musical tapes, taught guitar and martial arts, and hung out and traveled with John Muir (1918–1977), a descendent of the famed naturalist. Muir was the aerospace engineer who had worked for Lockheed and who "dropped out" ‘60s style to become a car mechanic who specialized on Volkswagens. He wrote and self-published How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot. It was indispensable and it sold millions - and is still in print. Muir’s second book was also a repair manual: The Velvet Monkeywrench (1973) was a proposal of detailed plans to replace the United States of America with the Republic of North America. It didn’t sell as well as his first book.

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