Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Buena Vista Studio, 737 Buena Vista West, San Francisco, CA

737 Buena Vista West, once connected to the home next door at 755 Buena Vista West, was originally designed and built by architect Edward J. Vogel.
This stately house, a mixture of Beaux-Arts Classicism and Colonial Revival, was built in 1897,  for Richard Spreckles, a nephew of sugar magnate Claus Spreckles.

Richard Spreckles on the right, with wife.

It is said to have had it's share of noted residents, including journalist Ambrose Bierce and writer Jack London-the latter alledgedly wrote one of his better known stories, White Fang, here.(2)

Buena Vista Studios, one of the first truly hippie-friendly studios, appeared on the scene in the mid-1960s. It was located in an old-money mansion, didn’t have much space, and the acoustics weren’t the best; however, its close proximity to Haight-Ashbury coupled with owner Gene Estribou’s musician contacts led to some interesting sessions. Engineer/producer Estribou learned his craft  from Henry “Sandy” Jacobs, an audio wizard known for his experimental KPFA radio programs, where he oft en showcased his space age soundscapes, hypnotic drum loops, and other avant-garde arrangements. Estribou had also conveniently married an heiressto the Spreckels Sugar fortune. He set up his recording facilities on the fourth floor of a late 19th century mansion formerly belonging to Richard Spreckels (nephew of sugar baron Claus Spreckles), overlooking Buena Vista Park at the edge of the Haight. Estribou’s room did not refl ect its lavish surroundings by any means, but the bare-bones space did acquire one of the city’s fi rst 4-tracks, at a time when most engineers were still trying to get more mileage out of the 3-track.

Intensifications (MEA, 1965; reissued on CD by Locust Music in 2004) was recorded in 1965 at Gene and Sara Estribou's home, the former Spreckels Mansion at 737 Buena Vista Avenue, San Francisco. Gene and J.P. converted the top floor ballroom of the Spreckels Mansion into a recording studio, where Intensifications was recorded. Gene plays songs he wrote for guitar on one side of the album, and J.P. plays songs he composed for banjo on the other side. (5)

Photographer Herb Greene introduced Estribou to members of the Grateful Dead, and he promptly invited them to his studio. They accepted, the day after a Saturday night Acid Test party at California Hall, on the fringe of the seedy Tenderloin district. Band and crew hauled massive amounts of heavy equipment up four flights of stairs to rehearse and record some of their first studio demos under their new name (putting an end to The Warlocks) for Scorpio Records in June 1966. Scorpio released two of these tracks, “Stealin’” and “Don’t Ease Me In.” 
The Dead, though, did not have a good time recording – Weir was very irritated about hauling the band’s gear up to the fifth floor; Lesh dismissed Estribou as a “dilettante”; and Garcia summarized the sessions: “we never got in on the mixing of it and we didn’t really like the cuts and the performances were bad and the recordings were bad and everything else was bad, so we didn’t want it out…it doesn’t sound like us.”
Estribou himself also had a hard time: “It was an effort to get out of the zone of indecision, as you can imagine. The early Dead was trying to find themselves…and get a product out, when Phil wanted to do one thing and Jerry wanted to do another… So it was frustrating for everybody, but we had to get something finished rather than nine thousand hours of shit that was unusable.”
Even Estribou’s hopes for his record label came to grief when it turned out that there was already a Scorpio Records in San Francisco!
And as Scully says, he had almost zero distribution. It seems only 150 copies of the Scorpio single were printed, and mostly vanished. Garcia said, “Those records never went on sale. That was a guy who was starting his own record company, but he didn’t really have any connections, so it’s not as if that single was released to any stores apart from maybe one or two in Haight-Ashbury. The Psychedelic Shop probably had 20 or 30 of them.”

One side note is that Estribou said he took the band to Western Recording to finish recording for the single. But Blair Jackson suggests that, since Western Recording was actually in Los Angeles, they more likely went to Coast Recorders. This seems to dovetail nicely with Scully’s recollection that the band recorded some demos at Coast, though with Estribou at the helm rather than Healy.(6)

“We had an Ampex 3-channel instrumentation deck that Henry Jacobs brought into the studio,” said Estribou in an early interview. “I had built a big horn and a studio; we had good condenser mics
and spent a lot of time optimizing the board. We went down to Western Recording and used their studio for doing some tapes that ended up being on the first 45 from Scorpio Records.”
Scorpio, an imprint of Fantasy Records, would only last two years, amassing only 13 releases during that time, two of which were cancelled. The labels best known act was of course the Golliwogs from El Cerrito, who would change their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival and go on to great success.

These Grateful Dead sessions came out much later, in 2003, on Birth of the Dead, a compilation of studio and live material from 1965 to 1966.
Bob Matthews, fresh out of high school and living on Bob Weir’s bedroom floor, sat in on the sessions at Buena Vista. A voracious learner,  he took in every microphone placement, every spin of the tape machine’s reels, every nuance of the recording process.
And on that post–LSD trip Sunday, he realized his purpose with “the tribe.” “That was when I became enamored with recording as a function and a process in the legacy of any given live performance of the Grateful Dead,” says Matthews, who went on to engineer dozens of live and studio recordings for the band. “I told Weir that the live performance would always be what they were about; that whatever they did in the studio would be different, and I thought it would require somebody within the family to properly create a recording that represents what takes place musically. And I was going to be that person.” Weir answered, “If you have the dream, go for it!”

When The Dead weren’t using the room to rehearse or record, Estribou rented the space to bands such as Quicksilver Messenger Service and Steve Miller Band, who recorded songs for the film
Revolution at the studio.

Mainstream Records’ Bobby Shad, a guy that Joel Selvin describes in his book Summer of Love as a “practiced shyster who rummaged through the peripheries of jazz and
blues, making cheap records and paying the artists as little as he could,” also graced the studio with his presence.

Shad auditioned S.F. rock acts such as Wildflower and the Final Solution, both of which he signed. Big Brother & the Holding Company, featuring their new lead singer, Janis Joplin, also auditioned for Mainstream Records at Buena Vista studio, but didn’t get a deal initially. Aft er a four-week residence at a Chicago nightclub, the band got a call from Shad, who apparently pitted the group against their manager, concert promoter Chet Helms, and convinced them they would get the “short end of the stick” if they didn’t sign with him. Th ey agreed to the deal, shoddy as it was, and recorded their self-titled debut for the label in 1967. Columbia Records soon saved the group from Shad’s grip by buying out their Mainstream contract.

Not much of note came from Buena Vista Studios after the late1960s.
Graham Nash bought the mansion in the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by actor Danny Glover, who performed with the San Francisco Mime Troupe before going to Hollywood.
Modesto Bee, March 4, 1983

The city saved the mansion from demolition in the 1990s, when it operated as a bed and breakfast. (1)

The house has been available for rent since January, 2011 (asking $14,000 per month).(4)

The building is in mint condition as of 2011(3)

Jerry recorded here in
June 1966 Grateful Dead
“In July [1966] our first single comes out on a small local label, Scorpio Records: Don’t Ease Me In with Stealin’ on the B-side, both recorded in John Estribow’s attic. Estribow was a friend of the band who had a small label with almost zero distribution.(7)

1.)^Johnson, Heather, If These halls Could Talk, pg 41
2.)^Richards, Rand, Historic Walks in San Francisco: 18 Trails Through the City's Past,pg148
3.)^nalepa,michael, fodor's sanfrancisco 2009,pg143
6.)^Grateful Dead Guide, The Dead In The Studio, 2011-10-18,
7.)^Scully, Rock, Living With The Dead


  1. Producer Bobby Shad's grandson is actor Judd Apatow.

  2. Stayed at the Mansion when it was a bed and breakfast. James

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