21 June, 1965
The Charlatans first tumbled into rock history when George Hunter (vocals autoharp), Richard Olsen (bass, vocals) Mike Wilhelm (lead guitar, vocals), Mike Ferguson (keyboards) and Sam Linde (drums) got together in San Francisco during 1964, achieving a modicum of interest for being clad in late Victorian clothing or gear that stemmed from the shootout at the OK Corral. With Dan Hicks replacing Linde, the band of longhairs crossed the border into Nevada and, with stars in the eyes and LSD in their brains, began a three-month residency at Virginia City’s Red Dog Saloon on June 21, 1965. The event is now perceived as a landmark in San Francisco rock; it also sparked the era of the psychedelic concert poster, with Ferguson and Hunter producing The Leaf, the first piece of art of its kind and a forerunner of promotional offerings by such as Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Wes Wilson and others.
Onstage, The Charlatans offered a kind of acid-steered trip through Americana. There was rock, sometimes Brit-related but shaped for Californian ears by the various band members. And there were reminders that cowboys (even mock ones) love country music, as they performed material ripped from the Opry songbook, along with other material that the Sons of The Pioneers would never have touched in a zillion years. Richard Olsen explained that though every member of the band felt they were as important as each other, “we were so individual that we were inconsistent. We’d come together when it suited us, like five gunfighters coming to town, hired to do some job.” Dan Hicks, rated by some as the major provider of original material, mused: “Nobody was really a songwriter, no-one was really a singer either, at least an outstanding singer. It was a matter of consensus.”
“Sly Stone was so hyped they opted to eject him from the studio.”
Mike Wilhelm recalls: “The venue, originally known as the Comstock House, was built in 1876. It required substantial refurbishment but still had its ornate gold leaf back-bar which had been imported from France.” It was bought by one Mark Unobsky, who talked his father into buying the Virginia City building, which he turned into a hideout for those who merely want to stay high while listening to the right kind of music amid the multi-coloured shapes created by Bill Ham’s pulsating light show.
A chef was recruited along with resident folksinger Lynn Hughes, and an impressive bouncer, a man-mountain Washoe Indian in a top hat. The Charlatans were there to provide the floorshow. During this period, they recorded some demos for the Autumn label, though Wilhelm recalls that during the band were fatigued and that Sly Stone, who was working at Autumn in an A&R/producer capacity, was so hyper they opted to eject him from the studio.
Mike Wilhelm: “At the Red Dog, Mark Unobsky and a few of us had an audience with Chief Deputy Englehart at his request. He warned us that Nevada State Bureau of Narcotics detectives were on their way to investigate reports of drug use – LSD was still a legal substance at that time but they suspected we smoked weed. He told us ‘Don’t embarrass us, boys, we like to make the arrests around here.’”
But when Wilhelm and proto-hippie Chandler Laughlin got busted in Rodeo, California, the sheriff was forced to act due to public pressure. Wilhelm recalls: “They eventually found some deer meat, which was probably planted, in the Red Dog’s refrigerator and busted the place for poaching, a relatively minor offense carrying a $50 fine.”
San Francisco's first psychedelic rock bonanza
Then, with the venue fighting for survival as the local authorities took the moral high ground, The Charlatans made their way back to San Francisco, where some of those involved with the Red Dog Saloon formed an organisation known as the Family Dog. During October 1965 they mounted a dance, dubbed A Tribute To Dr Strange, at the Longshoreman’s Hall. The event was San Francisco’s first psychedelic rock bonanza, featuring The Charlatans with Lynn Hughes, along with Jefferson Airplane, The Marbles and The Grateful Dead.
What music critic Ralph J C Gleason hailed as “the San Francisco Sound” was well and truly launched. Luria Castell, a political activist involved both with the Red Dog and Family Dog declared: “San Francisco can be the new Liverpool.” But a new regime, spawned on lengthy guitar solos and a yen for world domination took over. The Western ways of The Charlatans took a back seat and by early 1968, only Olsen and Wilhelm remained from the original line-up. Less than a year later, The Charlatans were no more.