Saunders King was a blues and jazz giant who began performing on 7th Street as a teenager. His father, the Reverend Judge King, was pastor at the Christ Sanctified Holy Church on 7th Street, where the young King sang in the gospel choir.
King grew up to become one of the most famous musicians to come from West Oakland. On 7th Street, he was part of the house band at Slim Jenkins’ Place, but his fame soon swelled beyond the confines of the neighborhood where he was raised.
In the 1930s, he debuted at a downtown Oakland club called Sweet’s Ballroom, sang on the radio with a group called The Southern Harmony Four, and became a staff artist for NBC Radio. He created a new kind of jazz, and many tried to emulate it.
King moved from Oakland to San Francisco in 1938 where he played many popular clubs. In 1942, his album “S.K. Blues” was the first Bay Area blues record to become a hit. Recorded with an electric blues guitar, it was innovative; S.K. Blues was the perfect song for blues “shouters” like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner, who used the power of their booming voices to give their music a special resonance.
King did not tolerate segregation in the clubs where he played. He once threatened to walk out of a club when the owners pulled a rope down the center of the dance floor to separate whites from blacks. Racism was unacceptable to him; those close to him say his music was born of this deep sense of injustice. One of his daughters described him as a man of few words who only spoke when he had something important to say.
He sang with a smooth, clear voice and played guitar, ukulele and banjo. He recorded for top labels like Decca and Aladdin and was considered one of the great electric guitarists. His talents were huge, but so were his demons. A jazz musician who played with him in San Francisco said that he was always in trouble with heroin; he served time in prison on drug charges. He also experienced personal tragedy when his wife committed suicide in 1942. His problems too often eclipsed his remarkable talent.
King’s stability seemed to improve after he married second wife Jo Frances and had two children. He put his troubles behind him when he retired from music in 1961 and returned to Oakland, the scene of his gospel roots where he joined a church and began singing and playing for the congregation. He made a brief comeback in 1979, working with his son-in-law at the time, Carlos Santana, on his album “Oneness.”
In his life and music, Saunders King reflected of the vibrant but sometimes troubled nature of his native 7th Street. He died in 2000, at the age of 91.