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If you were in a rock band in late-1960s San Francisco, the world beat a path to your garage door. Record executives walked the length of Haight Street and saw dollar signs instead of peace symbols, signing bands to fat contracts as fast as they could.
But if you wanted to rock ’n’ roll in the East Bay, particularly in that no-man’s land between Oakland and San Jose, you were a beggar at the banquet happening just a few miles away. It didn’t matter that you thought your group could be the next Herman’s Hermits, Beatles, or Rolling Stones. If you and your band were so cool, why weren’t you in San Francisco?
Bill Quarry was the exception to this exclusionary rule. Throughout the ’60s, Quarry promoted East Bay bands in shows at a number of now legendary East Bay music venues, the most famous of which was a roller-skating rink called Rollarena at 15721 E. 14th St. in San Leandro.
“The San Leandro strip was second to none,” recalls Bruce Tahsler, who was the lead singer in a British invasion-inspired outfit called the Talisman and is the author and editor of “Garage Bands From The 60’s, Then And Now.”
“When kids got out of the drive-ins, they would cruise the strip,” Tahsler said. “We’re talking bumper-to-bumper traffic for about a mile or so. It was a terrific place to be, like in ‘American Graffiti.’ Every restaurant and coffee shop was packed.”
While the Rollarena may have been Quarry’s most famous music venue in the East Bay, it was by no means his first.
“During high school,” Quarry says, “I was working with the Hayward Recreation Department at a teen club they sponsored. We’d put on little dances around town. After I graduated in 1955, I realized there was no place for people who were out of high school, but still under 21, to go.
“So a friend of mine and I rented the Castro Valley Moose Club for dances,” he continues. “We wanted to get teens to come, but we also wanted people who had just turned 20, so I called the dances Teens ’N Twenties. Every Friday night we’d pack 300 or 400 people in there, as many as it would hold, at a dollar a head.”
From the Moose Club, Quarry branched out, promoting concerts at Carpenter’s Hall in Hayward and even bigger venues. “I knew a guy named Mannie Schwartz,” Quarry said. “He was a big-time promoter who used to book the Coasters, the Drifters, Duane Eddy, all those people. He happened to live in San Leandro, so we used my name when he brought in acts locally.”
In partnership with Schwartz, Quarry promoted Fats Domino at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, as well as a big “Cavalcade of Stars” at the Oakland Auditorium, with everyone from James Brown to Jerry Lee Lewis to the Everly Brothers on the same bill.
A stint in the military interrupted his career, but by 1964, Quarry was back at Carpenter’s Hall, booking local bands who were inspired by the success of The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” earlier in the year. One of the most popular pseudo-Brit bands of the mid-1960s was the Baytovens, which opened its first show in 1965 at San Leandro High School’s Christmas Dance with a cover of “A Hard Day’s Night.”
“They were a Beatles look-alike and sound-alike band,” Tahsler said. “They dressed like The Beatles and had top-notch equipment like The Beatles. They brought their own sound system to their concerts and dances.” For a brief while, the Baytovens were one of the highest-paid bands in the East Bay, but 18 months after their first gig, they were gone.
At the tail end of 1965, on New Year’s Eve in fact, Quarry produced his first show at Rollarena, which held about 2,000 people. Peter Wheat and the Breadmen headlined.
“It wasn’t big names,” Quarry says of the majority of bands who played Rollarena. “I built two stages so we could alternate bands. One band would be setting up while the other was playing. It was the first time anybody had ever done that.”
A typical Rollarena show featured four bands and admission was usually just $2, although Quarry had to charge an extra 50 cents when big-name acts like Them (Van Morrison’s band) were headlining.
“The first California stop on their first American tour was Rollarena,” said Tahsler of Them. “Van Morrison met his future wife there.” Rollarena was also the site of the first California performance for Neil Diamond.
For about six months, Quarry promoted weekly shows at Carpenter’s Hall and Rollarena simultaneously, but he eventually dropped regular bookings at Carpenter’s Hall in favor of high-impact events, like the April 6, 1966, appearance of Paul Revere and the Raiders at the Oakland Auditorium. East Bay stalwarts Peter Wheat, the Baytovens, and a group of Rolling Stones-like tough guys from Fremont called Harbinger Complex provided support.
Quarry tried his best to create an East Bay scene that would do the musicians and fans there justice and feel, well, hip. He even got his “everything guy” Don Ryder to create psychedelic posters for his Rollarena shows, just like the ones Wes Wilson and others did for the Fillmore and Avalon. But East Bay bands languished in the shadow of those on the other side of the bay.
“There were definitely groups in the East Bay that were really good,” Quarry says, “but they were penalized for not being in San Francisco. I think if a few of them had moved into the Haight-Ashbury, they probably would’ve made it, but they didn’t do that.”
After a great run throughout all of 1966 and most of 1967, Rollarena closed its doors.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, Quarry juggled his time between a printing company he’d started in the late 1960s — his day job — and concert promotion, much of which occurred at a venerable club in Hayward called Frenchy’s, where Quarry briefly promoted shows in the 1960s.
“Frenchy’s was the biggest nightclub in the East Bay,” Quarry says. “We could get 500, 600, 700 people in there. Joe Cocker played there a couple of times, Tower of Power, the Sons of Champlin. I even did big bands like Woody Herman, and Michael Jackson played there after he left The Jackson 5.” Jackson was promoting a new tune called “Beat It.”
* To read the full, original January 2012 story about the San Leandro Rollarena, visit Collectors Weekly. Also, check out Bill Quarry’s Teen ‘N Twenties website, where you can order a copy of Bruce Tahsler’s book. The book’s CD companion, “You Got Yours!” features songs by such East Bay bands as the Baytovens, Harbinger Complex, and Peter Wheat and the Breadmen; to purchase a CD, visit Ace Records.