When I was four, my parents gave me a toy drum kit, and then later in second grade I took piano lessons for awhile, then along about 6th grade I started really getting interested in drums. I played in the school band in Junior High School, but I didn’t dig it.
Then the surfing thing hit, big time, and I loved that. My friends and I decided we had to start a band, and my parents bought me a real Ludwig 4-piece drum starter kit, and in 8th grade we had a band called The High Fives, and we just started going from there. Our parents were always supportive, but never forced music on us.
When we were freshmen in High School, my brother Robben, who was in 6th grade, came to see us play at the fair grounds, and thought that was just the coolest thing, and he wanted to start a band with his friends. So Robben started his own band in 7th grade. By the time I was a senior and Robben was a freshman, he had developed into a really good guitar player… and he was possessed by music… listening, playing and practicing all the time. He has said that he can’t keep music out of his head. He was great really quick, so I told the guys that we needed Robben in our band.
My band in high school was always able to play most weekends, sometimes both nights, around Mendocino and Lake counties. Sock Hops had been the norm up until then, so to be able to have a live band for dances was a big deal. As we were one of the few bands around, we got lots of work. We did so well I was able to quit picking pears in the summer. I had done it for three summers and that was hard work. I needed the money to get “cool” school clothes. You know kids don’t do that kind of work anymore. It’s too bad. It was not only a good physical work out, but also it gave you real respect for the Mexican workers who did that kind of work for a living. They were so good at it, fast, they were real pros at their gig.
We came into music when it was blossoming on a major level. Everyone was experimenting, trying different things. Robben and I would comb through the record bins and listen to the radio, always trying to find music that nobody else was doing, always trying to make music be something special that would work in our band, which was great fun.
It was a great time to be into music. We had moved from surfing music, to being a Top 40 band, then followed the music into being a bluesy Rhythm and Blues band, then the English thing hit… you could be listening to the Beach Boys, who I loved, and the Beatles, and the Kinks’ hard-edged rock, and The Who… taking the music to all these different levels… to something pretty, like Maryanne Faithful, and the Trio acts came on big… Hendrix, Cream… so we became a hard rock trio with guitar, bass and drums. At the same time we would also have these jazz trios or quartets playing standards… the jazz thing started with me getting Dave Brubeck’s album, Take Five, which to this day is one of the greatest albums ever made. I got it from a friend of mine.
We would go to shows at The Fillmore in San Francisco, and you would see Richie Havens doing his solo act, which was always great, then you would see Ravi Shankar doing a totally off the wall thing, then followed by the Byrds. It was this unbelievable mixture of people: James Cotton, Cream, and Blood, Sweat and Tears… what an incredible bill!… and a free apple and poster, for 3 bucks! And they all were just great! When we saw Hendrix do his first show at Winterland… I will never forget.. .at one point he walked up to the mic, started tuning his guitar, and said “I’m a little out of tune, but I’m coming to get you anyway.” Then the stage exploded! To this day, those of us who were there, talk about it with reverence, like seeing some spiritual guru guy. It was all good. It was all fun.
Then, one day Robben and I were looking through the records at Hayes Music, which was at the corner of State Street and Church, and came across this blues record by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band that changed everything. We had been doing some Stones stuff, and Animals stuff, not because we wanted to do blues, but because we liked the tunes. But here was a band that was doing blues music because they liked it. They were called a “blues band” because they loved that genre. We took that record home and overnight our whole musical world turned upside down.
In 1969, Robben and I were sleeping on a friend's floor in San Francisco trying to find gigs. Rolling Stone magazine was new, and there was an ad: “Help. Stuck in Sunnyvale. Harp player who digs Little Walter, Applejack, Charlie Musslewhite. Get me out of here.” We called, not having any luck in the city, drummer and guitar player looking for a band, and went down there to a jam they were having. Gary Smith was the real deal Chicago kind of harp player, and the bass player was adequate, and we brought another Ukiah boy, Mike Osborn down to play rhythm guitar, and we started a band we named The Charles Ford Band after my dad.
We started playing around the South Bay for a few months, then we opened for Charlie Musslewhite at the Lion’s Share in San Rafael. Charlie’s drummer sucked and he asked me to join his band. I didn’t want to leave my brother, but this was the real deal. Charlie had albums out and was one of our idols, and he was getting ready to do a tour. So I spent the next couple of months playing with Charlie in a four-piece band – drums, piano, bass, and harp – and bugging him saying he really needed Robben, who could play sax and lead guitar, but Charlie said he “played way too much.” Finally he said Robben could play sax half the night, and guitar half the night on one of our gigs, he passed the audition, and then came into the band. We spent the next year on the road with Charlie. It was a great experience, but hellacious. Charlie was drinking, we weren’t getting paid much, sleeping in funky hotel rooms in Chicago, just awful. We met some great guys, like Luther Tucker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, James Cotton, but we decided we needed to start our own band. By that time Mark was almost 16 in high school but not liking it at all.
Mark was getting into a bit of trouble, cutting school and stuff, so I convinced Mom and Dad he would be better off with Robben and I, and he was rapidly becoming a great harp player. So they let him move down to the Bay Area, and along with Stan Poplin on bass, also from Ukiah, we reformed The Charles Ford Band. That was one great little band, and though it only lasted about a year, it still has a cult following and the recording we did for Arhoolie a few months after breaking up is still a classic piece of modern blues and still sells. Then Mark quit, and Robben decided to go to L.A. and play with Jimmie Whitherspoon. I didn’t want to go to L.A., so I joined back up with Charlie.
And through all my adventures, I’ve had Sharon with me. She’s put up with an incredible amount. She did two long tours with us, three months each, back and forth across the U.S. and Canada. Pretty brutal.
All in all, it’s been a pretty good run for us. When Sharon and I decided to have kids, we moved back here to Ukiah. We were lucky to have such a supportive unit. Lots of family. We could always find work around when we needed it, but it was a different time.