By Larry Clinton and Cindy Roby
Regular attendees at Sausalito’s summertime concert series, Jazz and Blues by the Bay, know that the final performance will feature local bluesman Eugene Huggins. What they may not know is that this homegrown performer has closed the summer series virtually every year since it began.
Eugene’s roots in the Bay Area blues scene go back to his high school days, as he told Cindy Roby for a MarinScope profile back in 1982. Here are some key excerpts from that interview:
One of the songs that Sausalito's Eugene Huggins and his group The Casuals really relish is entitled "Don’t Go No Further,” a rhythm and blues classic but a title increasingly inappropriate to the top billing destiny the group Is beginning to enjoy.
Their ascent was formally recognized on March 3rd when they received nominations in two categories at the Bay Area Music Awards (the cognoscenti just call 'em the "Bammies"). The Casuals were nominated in two categories: "Best Blues Band" and "Best Club Band".
"We came in second for Best Club Band," Eugene says, "And that was especially great because it was a write-in category."
Pretty heady stuff for this Sausalito son. But when we met to talk during his break at the Sausalito Gourmet on Caledonia Street, where he works during the day, it was clear Eugene Huggins is still pretty down-to-earth and unassuming — well, I'd guess you'd call him casual!
"I've worked here for five years," Eugene told me as he settled down with a cake. "Frank (Hountalas) is very nice about my music and lets me go early when I need to." Eugene appreciates the steady income he makes dispensing opulent sandwiches and other savories for the daytime locals. "It's getting so The Casuals are making pretty good money now but I still can't depend on it because it is so inconsistent."
If music's in his blood, Sausalito's in his soul. "Sausalito is it for me. I wouldn't want to be anyplace else. I've met really nice people," he says. And Eugene's had plenty of time to meet them; he's spent most of his 21 years here. "My family moved here in I960. My father was bead of PR for the Army Corps of Engineers. I looked up to him a lot and he always encouraged my music. He liked music himself a lot. My mother used to be PTA president and has worked as cashier at the Spinnaker for 15 years."
At 21, Eugene is pretty much of a Sausalito old-timer. "I've seen Sausalito go through a lot of its changes. I remember when they closed Vina del Mar Park [during the hippie era]. My Dad used to take me to the Glen to play when I was a little kid. There were no houses there at all and you know what it looks like now. I went to elementary school at the Old Central School which is City Hall now."
Along with just about every teenager in the world, Eugene got into music playing with a rock group. "The Casuals bass player, Steve Webber, and I played together in high school. While everyone in Marin was still listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash, I was listening to Jimmy Reed. The other kids thought I was weird."
Eugene plays the harmonica and sings. "There is a different harmonica for each of the 12 different keys,” he points out. “So I have a little shaving kit packed with harmonicas that I take to each gig.
"We gig a whole lot," Eugene says. "We play at the Sleeping Lady in Fairfax; all the Keystone Clubs — in San Francisco, Berkeley and Palo Alto and at the Old Waldorf in the City and many others. We have a young audience — mostly teenagers, high school students — and I think we are the only blues band that does. We are not really into hard rock."
He continues, "My heroes are people like Muddy Waters, Junior Walker, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells."
And last fall when The Casuals were tapped to back up Guy and Wells at the Old Waldorf they performed impressively enough to generate a two-column rave review by Michael Snyder and a picture in the Chronicle’s "Pink Sheet."
Some excerpts are typical of the tone.
"At the Old Waldorf for a one-nighter, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells used the quintet, ranging in age from 16-21, as their back-up band with no rehearsal. Wells was so impressed he called for an unscheduled second set, joining the band on stage during ‘Key to the Highway....’
"Junior said, ‘I like to plug in and play and see what happens,’ added genial Eugene Huggins, 21, whose lead vocals and harmonica stick close to the blues tradition. 'And what happened was a lot of spontaneous interplay’. "
So there's no doubt there's a rosy future ahead for Eugene and The Casuals and I look forward to witnessing it some night. In the meantime, I can only vouch firsthand for Eugene's sandwich making abilities and I say give the guy the "Sandy" award!
This year, Eugene Huggins and Friends will perform on the Gabrielson Park stage Friday evening, August 25, as he has appeared “Pretty much since the beginning.” Recalling this long string, he says, “It means a lot to me, being a hometown boy, and I have lots of happy memories of playing there.” For more information, and a preview of Eugene’s music, check out his Website: http://eblues.webs.com/biographybooking.htm.