From his house on Wood Street, young Tom Bowden watched weary porters and sailors trudge home toward 7th Street’s boarding houses. As a boy he shined shoes for a nickel and later racked pins at the local bowling alley. As he got older, Bowden didn’t just play music on 7th Street. He knew the place; watched the people; understood how his little corner of 7th Street worked. He is often referred to as “The Mayor of Wood Street.”
Born into a musical family, Bowden began his career at 7th Street’s Lincoln Theater, singing in talent shows when he was just a kid. When he wasn’t singing, he was fighting, and ran afoul of the law for cracking someone’s jaw. He earned the nickname, “Terrible” Tom Bowden. Bowden claims the name stuck because he was a fearsome boxer.
Bowden soon found his voice in the “doo-wop” style of music on 7th Street, and liked to harmonize with friends. He performed locally at Esther’s Orbit Room and by the 1960’s he was singing with top musicians at popular clubs throughout California. Later he moved on to the Los Angeles music scene and was the first black musician to play at L.A.’s Apartment Club.
In his lifetime, Bowden shared the stage with luminaries like Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Richard Pryor and Ray Charles. He has been described as the only person alive who can sing like the late Otis Redding. He has been praised for his energy and his soulful voice.
Bowden recalls the 7th Street of the past as both a rough neighborhood and a safe close-knit community where neighbors didn’t have to lock their doors. He describes it as “diverse,” where many ethnicities lived together and looked out for one another. His description aptly illustrates the extremes of the once-thriving neighborhood, with its famous musicians, shopkeepers, hustlers, preachers, schoolchildren and dreamers. All were part of Tom Bowden’s world; the world of blues-infused 7th Street.
Now 69 years old, Bowden still lives on Wood Street. Dedicated to West Oakland, Bowden is involved in community projects to help local youth, and still performs at jazz and blues festivals.