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Mr. Fillmore moves on

Photograph of Vas Kiniris by Chloe Jackman

By CHRIS BARNETT

After nearly three decades of involvement with the Fillmore Merchants Association — as board member, vice president, president and the last five years as executive director — Vasilios Kiniris, the personable man-in-perpetual-motion known to some as Mr. Fillmore and to all as Vas, is exiting stage left.

For most of that time, he’s been working — sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scenes — to wrangle the neighborhood’s diverse coalitions into a cohesive and positive force. A lifelong merchant himself, save for a brief detour into architecture, Kiniris, 55, isn’t giving up on small businesses. He’s just crossing the street, so to speak, to a new entrepreneurial venture he calls NextSF, an agency that will offer his marketing savvy to other merchant associations and individual businesses and organizations seeking to build their brands and business.

Timothy Omi of Liberty Cannabis is the new president of the Fillmore Merchants Association. Patti Mangan is the new executive director. Continuing board members are Beverly Weinkauf of Toujours, Victorian Dunham of HiHo Silver and Chandler Tang of Post.Script. 

A candid long-hauler who believes in relationships, the Greek-born Kiniris sees life as a series of “half-empty opportunities,” but he’s no Pollyanna. He doesn’t shrink from the hard facts plaguing San Francisco and the Fillmore in particular. 

“Crimes are happening, no doubt about it,” he said during an exit interview this week. “Fillmore needs to be a safe place for its merchants, their employees and their customers.” The street, battered by the pandemic, has an unprecedented number of empty storefronts. But Kiniris remains upbeat. “Many are currently in contract with new leases,” he says. “They are filling up again.”

Kiniris has been swimming upstream all his life, and not without failures. “I’ve made my share,” he admits. One of his more visible ill-fated ventures was moving his Zinc Details home design emporium south to a huge vacant space on Fillmore near the Geary bridge, where an old dollar store once stood. It didn’t pan out. Zinc Details had been on Fillmore for 27 years when it closed in 2018.

Kiniris was 7 when he and his family arrived in San Francisco from Macedonia in northern Greece. At first they lived in public housing in the Mission “to get our bearings.” His dad Nick was a dishwasher at Nob Hill hotels, including the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins. “My mother was a garment worker,” he says. “Dad quickly realized he had to go into business for himself.”

The family opened one, then another, small corner grocery store. Young Vas went to work there as kid and grew up stocking shelves and checking out customers while his dad made sandwiches. “We worked every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day for 15 years,” he says. “For me, it was my baptism in retail. Some people call it a sacrifice, but not me. The stores, the business, the customers were my social glue, my family. I didn’t get a chance to party much, and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. But it was a learning experience.”

So were four years at UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in architecture. “But the practice was not to my liking,” he acknowledges. “And frankly, my mechanical skills were not all that good.”

He had a side job waiting tables in the ’80s at Stars, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower’s once-glittering restaurant near City Hall. Remembers Kiniris: “I waited on people like Walter Cronkite and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and all the socialites and movers and shakers.”

He says he was first exposed to the finer things in life as an exchange student living with a prosperous German family. “Here I was, a blue-collar immigrant surviving day to day by extreme frugality and I was introduced to the extras, the intangibles of life, this joie de vive. Even now I still consider them my second family,” he says. “We all have many parents in our lives.”

In 1990, accustomed to living with no safety net, Kiniris and his wife, Wendy Nishimura Kiniris, plunged into retailing on their own with a small store at Post and Hyde in the Tenderloin, with drug dealers and prostitutes just outside their door. The rent: $500 a month. Their wares: contemporary furniture. The name: Zinc Details.

“We were credited with introducing modernism to San Francisco,” he says. “In those days, you were either old money or you had no money. We appealed to both. Our look was so fresh to the market, which had been dominated by Macy’s.”

From there they were thrust into the public arena. “We were both designers and highly edited curators,” he says. The couple was invited to set up a “store within a store” in Macy’s, created products for the Gap, and launched a wholesale business and private labeled to top retailers in Paris, London and Tokyo.

A recession brought them back to earth, which Kiniris now calls “a great opportunity, if you take advantage of it.” They moved upmarket, from the Tenderloin to Fillmore Street. “We looked at Union and Fillmore,” he says, “and Fillmore was coming up at the time.”

As the years passed, the Kinirises at one point had three Zinc Details stores in the neighborhood, with 20 employees, and he embedded himself as a passionate and engaged merchant. So when longtime Fillmore Merchants Association president Thomas Reynolds resigned in 2015, Kiniris stepped up to the plate. “Thomas left us a very good merchants association and his were very big shoes to fill,” he says.

Kiniris took some big steps in different directions. Using his social media skills, he expanded the association’s communications and membership. Pedaling on his electric bike, he integrated the small business owners on the street with representatives from the corporate and international brands that had been moving into the neighborhood. He reached out to merchants on lower Fillmore and in Japantown.

“My goal was to create a dialogue and potential collaboration among all groups,” he says, “and to help the big chain stores demonstrate good corporate behavior by engaging with the community in a meaningful way.”

Kiniris says he is proud the FMA has built relationships with many sectors of the community. “We have a strong relationship with District 2 supervisor Catherine Stefani and District 5 supervisor Dean Preston,” he says. Indeed, the supes handed him a certificate of honor when he announced he was stepping down from the FMA.

He has worked closely with the S.F. Police Department and the city’s top cops. Kiniris is a graduate of the SFPD’s community police academy, helped secure a two-officer foot patrol on Fillmore, and is co-chair of police chief Bill Scott’s small business advisory forum. Recently he helped organize a small business summit with all 10 captains of the the city’s police districts. “We had breakout sessions where each captain met with merchants in his district.” he says. “I realized the merchants don’t know what the police do, and vice versa.”

More ambitious and still a work-in-progress are partnerships between merchants with mega-companies including Google, Facebook, Uber and Spin, the city’s micro-mobility scooter renter. “We have to demonstrate how they can be true community partners,” Kiniris says. “They can’t sit in their ivory towers.” While many San Francisco streets remain dirty and littered, Kiniris has worked with cleanup groups like the city’s Department of Public Works, Together SF and Refuse Refuse.

During his years as Mr. Fillmore, Kiniris says he has sought to “reach across many aisles” to bring people together who can help Fillmore Street and other merchant corridors.

“The role of the merchants association is to provide three things to its members and the community: security, maintenance and marketing,” he says, repeating his frequent mantra.

Despite San Francisco’s well publicized woes, Kiniris is convinced the city — and especially the Fillmore — is on the verge of a rebirth, or “a regeneration,” as he calls it. 

And not for the first time.

“It’s part of our history,” Kiniris says. “The Fillmore Merchants Association is the city’s oldest, formed 115 years ago after the 1906 earthquake. This neighborhood was the birthplace of the rebuilt city, and the Harlem of the West, and the Summer of Love. It was a hotbed of business opportunities with its big Jewish, Japanese and African American communities over the decades,” he says. 

“It was diverse, an ethnic collaboration, and it is again time to work with many partners,” he says. “It’s the Phoenix rising.”

Minnie’s Can-Do Club was a gathering spot

Photograph of Minnie in the 1970s by Ed Brooks

FIRST PERSON | DENISE KORN

’Net surfing can get you into a whole lot of trouble. That’s what happened to me. I rarely get bored — even during these crazy pandemic days. But, one night, Netflix just wasn’t doing it for me. It was late and there I was in bed scrolling again under the glare of my phone’s blue light. I wasn’t really searching for anything in particular. I was just … looking. 

I happened to run across an article on the New Fillmore website. The piece, dated several years ago, was about my neighborhood — the Fillmore. 

When I was young, there was no “upper” or “lower” Fillmore. It was just the Fillmore. Lots of people called this area the Western Addition. But for the thousands of African-Americans who strolled past the old Melrose Record Shop, or got their ’fros tightened up at the barbershop near the corner of Geary, or browsed the jumble of shops between Geary and Sutter; this didn’t happen in the Western Addition. We lived the rhythm of our lives in the Fillmore. 

The night I discovered the New Fillmore website, I scrolled through looking at old pictures and articles about a time I remember so well. Then I happened upon an article and — even better — a painting featuring an old family friend, Minnie Carrington. I couldn’t believe it!

I live in Atlanta now, and seeing someone I knew so long ago, looking just as I remembered her, pulled me down the rabbit hole of my memory. I decided to see if the once-famous proprietor of Minnie’s Can-Do Club on Fillmore was still around. 

I’m happy to report that I was able to track down a phone number and speak with Minnie. She’s over 80 now, and living in an East Bay senior facility with her daughter, Felita. Minnie is confined to her bed, but she still loves to talk. She’s the true old-school San Franciscan, interested in everything and interesting to everyone. San Franciscans are natural storytellers.

So, here’s mine.

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He created the Elite Cafe

SAM DuVALL | 1940 – 2020 

In the 1970s, the two blocks of Fillmore Street between Clay and California were the prime blocks for retailers; south of California was a desolate strip of lifeless shops and joints. Leasing broker Carol Chait broke through that barrier when she listed the Art Deco Asia Cafe space that had been vacant for a couple of years. She narrowed it down to two prospective tenants. 

“Restaurateur Sam DuVall saw the space as a diamond in the rough,” Chait says. “It was a bookie joint with a card room and the Croatians from Tadich Grill used to hang out there.” Jeremiah Tower — the former Chez Panisse chef who later opened Stars near City Hall — was the other bidder for the space. Chait had to choose between the two, who were both willing to pay $2 a foot plus a percentage of the gross revenue.

Her decision was driven by one thing: a dead rat.

“I was showing the space to Jeremiah,” Chait says. “There was crap all over the floor and all of a sudden I saw this rat in the corner. It was dead, but I was afraid to pick it up. I asked Jeremiah to put it in the trash, but he didn’t want to touch it either. Later that day, I was showing the space to Mr. DuVall and I said ‘Sam, would you do me a favor and get rid of that thing?’ He did — and he also had the best ideas for revitalizing the restaurant. I said to the owner, ‘Sam’s your guy.’ ”

Chait adds that DuVall did a painstaking restoration of the space, renaming it the Elite Cafe. “The Elite did such enormous volume even on that block that the owner, with his rent and percentage, got this windfall of cash,” she says.

— Chris Barnett

FAREWELL: “Restaurateur Sam DuVall dies at 80
EARLIER: “There’s a reason they call it the Elite

Farewell to the Artists Inn

The Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street, near Fillmore.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Even during the first weeks of the virus lockdown in early April, the Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street was at full occupancy, brimming with love and laughter. But it was a bittersweet time.

Beloved owner Denise Shields had recently returned from her second home in Mexico with an ache that turned out to be pancreatic cancer. The cozy little blue house half a block from Fillmore, behind a white picket fence, quickly filled with her two sons, Will and Jason, daughter-in-law Lily and five granddaughters. Will’s partner Elisabeth was home in San Diego awaiting the birth of grandchild No. 6. “We’re sort of hoping for a boy,” Denise said during a brief break from a family Parcheesi game, “but we’ll be delighted with any healthy baby.”

Two months later, on June 6, the family welcomed a sixth granddaughter into the world. Three days after that, Denise died.

Now the Artists Inn, in one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, is ending an era as a center of warmth and hospitality for guests from around the globe. Following the death of their mother on June 9, Denise’s sons reluctantly decided to permanently close the four-room inn. They will host a garage sale — masked and socially distanced — from August 14 to 16.

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Still being neighborly

Andre Matsuda, Dan Max and Audrey Sherlock bring their own.

EVEN SINCE THE stay-at-home order went into effect on St. Patrick’s Day, some locals find it possible to enjoy a few minutes of togetherness at cocktail hour — carefully spaced six feet apart at tables that remain fixed outside The Grove, with beverages brought from home.

Lights, Camera, Washington Street

Eleanor Coppola shot her new film at 2561 Washington Street.

By ALISON OWINGS

The audience gasped.  

Eleanor Coppola’s triptych, “Love is Love is Love,” comprised of three shortish California-based films, was having a solo showing a few weeks ago at Dolby Laboratory’s splendid theater in downtown San Francisco, her purpose partly to thank people involved in the production. The longest and final of the three, “Late Lunch,” opened simply with an exterior view of a house.

Located at 2561 Washington Street, between Fillmore and Steiner, the fancifully handsome Victorian was home for decades to neighborhood notables John and Carol Field and their children Alison and Matt. John, an architect, remodeled the rear of the house, fashioning a soaring solarium and library and a rustically sophisticated kitchen; while Carol, among other accomplishments, baked and breaded and simmered, creating recipes that often made their way into her Italian food-themed cookbooks. 

John and Carol died within three weeks of one another in 2017. Now, in “Late Lunch,” the house re-appeared, a touchstone for many in the audience to the Fields’ years of hospitality and friendships.

Thus, this October evening, the gasp.  

As it opened, the first of the 10 actresses in the film began walking up the familiar front wooden steps to the landing. A door opened into the living and dining room — more gasps — to reveal their home had been converted into a movie set — an especially cozy movie set. The gasps turned to tears as the plot unfolded, especially for Carol’s women friends.

An email exchange with director Eleanor Coppola provided the backstory.

How did you and Carol and John meet?

“Francis [Coppola, my husband] and I met John and Carol in 1969 when we moved to S.F. from L.A. We bought their house a few blocks away on Webster Street, which was a small Victorian that John had renovated in his stylish good taste for his family.”

When the Fields moved from Webster Street to 2561 Washington Street, the two families, their children about the same ages, stayed in touch.

Carol and John Field died within days of each other in 2017.

“I found myself asking Carol to recommend a pediatrician, where to buy kids’ shoes, where she bought her groceries, etc. She was super helpful and always had the best information. So much so that when Francis bought City magazine (a publication about what was going on in the city at the time), he began asking Carol to write articles about where to get the best bread, the best meat, etc. Her articles were terrific, and I think may have been the beginning of her food writing. We remained friends over the years.”

“Then our family moved to the Napa Valley in 1977 and we drifted out of touch. Some years later I joined a writing class that met once a week in Marin and there was Carol, part of the group. We reconnected. In the writing group, we often made an altar in the living room of our instructor’s house with photos of people we were writing about, or objects from seasonal nature walks we took together for inspiration before sitting down to write.”

“I was feeling isolated living in the Napa Valley and, along with a friend, hosted a number of weekends at our ranch for 10 or 12 women from near and far to talk about their lives, aspirations and whatever was on our minds. We’d hike, eat from the garden, etc. I was very interested and often surprised by what the women were willing to reveal about themselves. I found that women in a group with no men in the room spoke differently than when there were men present.  I always wanted to try and capture that experience on screen.” 

How did the idea for the movie come about?

“At a memorial lunch [for Carol] I had that feeling again, with just women attending, who talked so openly together and so fondly of Carol. I decided to write a script. I set it in the house where the lunch was held.”

The lunch was co-hosted by Carol’s daughter-in-law, Camilla Field, at her home a few blocks away, and Carol’s daughter, Alison. The film centers around a candid reckoning at a lunch the deceased woman’s daughter has for her mother’s best friends. In fact, Eleanor planned to shoot the movie at Carol’s daughter-in-law’s house. Camilla was willing, but she and Matt have two children of their own, and a family of four on a movie set meant “attendant problems for a movie crew.” Camilla suggested 2561 Washington Street, which was then empty, pending a family decision to move in or sell.

“It was perfect for our production needs. Of course I had visited Carol and John there numerous times. I have fond memories of going to the Fields’ house to watch the Academy Awards with Carol and John and their friends. Carol was a huge movie fan and we would always have the ballot printed out and guests would make their picks for the awards in advance. At the end, we’d count up who got the most right. Carol always won. So I was especially touched to be able to shoot a movie in Carol’s house in the very room where we watched the movie awards. It was a miracle that it worked out.” 

The 10 actresses on set in the Fields’ house, which was empty after their deaths.

Friends in the audience gasped again at certain scenes — especially when the daughter gives each of her mother’s friends a scarf from her collection, which is precisely what Camilla and Alison did at their lunch. 

“Late Lunch” is indeed an homage to Carol Field, but the director said her movie is more about women’s friendships. 

Rosanna Arquette, Nancy Carlin, Polly Draper, Maya Kazan, Elea Oberoin, Valarie Pettiford, Alyson Reed, Cybill Shepherd, Joanne Whalley and Rita Wilson filled the bill, but not each was planned for the part. 

How did the casting work?

“I wrote the parts for the women with specific actors in mind, but when it is actually time to cast there are always many variables. I was able to get some of the actors I had envisioned, but since I was casting 10 women, it was impossible to find all of actors available at the same time.” A casting team brought her up to four candidates to interview for each of the parts. “Amazingly, the actors came together as an ensemble stronger than I had originally imagined.”

What happens now? 

“ ‘Love is Love is Love’ is in the hands of a sales agent who is strategizing as to how best to get it to its intended audience. It may be sent to a film festival or two, it may or may not have a theatrical release. It may go directly to streaming. I await the fates.” 


Since the movie wrapped last April, John and Carol Field’s house at 2561 Washington Street starred in another act: a difficult family decision not to move in, but to sell. The house was spiffed and staged, and sold in three days.

Alison Owings is a neighborhood resident and the author of three books. She is currently writing a biography of Del Seymour, “the mayor of the Tenderloin,” a study about homelessness. 

Finding the poetry in the Fillmore

Neighborhood poet Mark Mitchell has a new book of poems.

FIRST PERSON | MARK J. MITCHELL

I arrived in the neighborhood in September 1978, following the woman I’m still lucky enough to love. I had dreams of being a San Francisco poet. 

We moved into the Preston Apartments above what is now Santino’s Vino, but was Uncle Vito’s in those days. I was fresh out of UC Santa Cruz with not-quite-a-degree in aesthetic studies and creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry. So I needed a job. I’d been unemployed a week and the rent was due. I decided to head downtown to apply at a new Walden Books that was about to open. But on the way I stopped in at Bi Rite Liquors, on the other corner of Fillmore and California, and asked if they needed any help. I was working there by the end of the day. 

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When Gorbachev stopped by Dino’s

Photograph of Fillmore & California by Daniel Bahmani

FLASHBACK | RICHARD SPRITZER

IT WAS ONLY a few months after the 1989 earthquake when Mikhail Gorbachev, still president of the still superpowerful Soviet Union, made a swing through San Francisco in early June of 1990.

It was a brief 22-hour stay, which included sleeping late on Monday morning, June 4. Gorbachev and his wife Raisa had flown in late the night before, after stops in Washington and Minneapolis, and stayed in the neighborhood at the Soviet consul general’s residence at 2820 Broadway. Gorbachev was behind schedule all day, but still feted like a visiting rock star in appearances at Stanford University and with the local business elite. The Gorbachevs even worked in a reunion with old friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

“The Bay Area basked in the afterglow of a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “happy to show the world it has rebounded from last fall’s earthquake.”

Late in the afternoon, Gorbachev and his retinue headed back to the consul general’s mansion on Outer Broadway. Their motorcade of fierce-looking Zil limousines came barreling down the hill headed west on California Street toward Fillmore.

When he spotted a group of two dozen people waving on the corner, the procession came to a halt. Gorbachev bounded out of the big boxy Zil and started shaking hands like a veteran American pol. 

The Chronicle reported the next day: 

Gorbachev stopped only once to mingle with a crowd of ordinary people — at about 6:15 p.m. at California and Fillmore streets. He walked toward the people on the street, and they surged toward him. Others ran out of Dino’s pizza parlor, the corner liquor store and the neighborhood copy center.

“Usually you don’t have occasion to see somebody so important so close,” said Felix Nager, who works at the copy center. “He’s like a normal man.”

Norm Newman, a 30-year-old ex-U.S. Marine, was so overcome he screamed, “I love you, Gorby!” Later, after he had shaken Gorbachev’s hand, he said, “What I did for 10 years in the Marines was completely opposite to what that man stands for. But he’s opening the doors. He’s a very likeable guy.”

Dino Stavrikikis, who owns the pizza shop, said Gorbachev was the most famous man he had ever met — and he’s met Ronnie Lott, the famous 49er, Sleepy Floyd, the basketball player, and Jerry Brown, the politician. 
“I would have liked it if he would have come in for a piece of pizza,” Dino said.

Inevitably, there were T-shirts for sale all over the city. At Broadway and Divisadero, two blocks from the Soviet consular residence, shirts portrayed Gorbachev as Bart Simpson, with the words “Radical Dude” underneath.

Not far from the Soviet consular residence where the Gorbachevs made their headquarters, a large house displayed a pre-revolutionary Russian flag and a picture of the last czar.

Although Gorbachev and his wife went separate ways for most of the day, they met again at 6:33 p.m. at the consular residence on Broadway.

The stop at Dino’s had lasted only a few minutes. The return to 2820 Broadway didn’t last much longer. A visit to the Golden Gate Bridge was called off because of the tight schedule.

“I always wanted to come here,” Gorbachev told reporters as his motorcade started to leave for the airport. “You’re very fortunate to live here. President Bush should tax the people for living in such a beautiful place.”

MY FILLMORE

Like any street in any great city, Fillmore is always changing, always dying, always being awakened

Photograph of Richard Rodriguez on Fillmore Street by Frank Wing

By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Growing old on Fillmore Street has taught me how much a city can change, how much I have changed — and how a city continues despite it all. 

Lately, if I have any sort of errand on Fillmore, I will most often take a digressive route. I leave my apartment on Clay Street, climb the Aztec steps into Alta Plaza, then circle around Pacific Heights. I climb back up the hill on Pierce. 

So much of my life has been consumed by exercise. When I could still jog, I used to run through Pacific Heights on my way to the Presidio. The great houses were blurred landmarks in those days. 

Now, exercise offers more of an opportunity to pause. I have favorite houses. Many mansions have had their facades lifted. After being swathed in netting or shrink-wrapped in white plastic for months, even years, exteriors are revealed to the street in pristine turn-of-the-century clarity. I have long admired the novels of American wealth — Wharton, James, Fitzgerald — and the interior secrets they revealed. Walking along Vallejo or up Steiner, however pleasant, is not like reading novels. There is no discernible narrative. 

I know the Getty house. I know the confectionary palace where Danielle Steel lives. I can tell when Nancy Pelosi is in town from the assembly of black security cars. I know the Whittier mansion, which was briefly the consulate of the Third Reich. I even know where a bitten Apple executive lives. I never see anyone in a window. 

I do see Mexican construction workers feverishly employed, or lounging in the manner of Manet, following their noonday meals. The sidewalks are empty except for the occasional Filipina housekeeper walking a joyless dog. 

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Fillmore’s own Sonny Lewis

NEW RELEASE | SCOTT YANOW

Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career.

He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman — but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on Fillmore Street Live is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.

Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. Catterton says:

“I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag. They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released.”

At that point, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Lewis could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, he spent time in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley’s In C.

After moving to San Francisco in the early ’60s, Lewis created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the ’70s he went on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group the Whispers for over a decade. Lewis played on many of the Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.

Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Micki Lynn’s set in the future.

Saxman Sonny Lewis performing at the Fillmore street fair in 1992.

Sonny Lewis’s quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for more than 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman’s albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (Manhattan Egos, 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown and organist Gerry Richardson. 

All three of these fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.

Jazz journalist and historian Scott Yanow is the author of 11 books, including Jazz on Record 1917-76. This article is adapted from his liner notes for Fillmore Street Live, which is available on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music outlets.