In most parts of the country, club owner/promoter types are often regarded by musicians as a pernicious cluster of dingleberries.
But pulling the strings behind OC's music scene are three for whom no one-musicians or otherwise-seems to have a bad word: Linda's Doll Hut's Linda Jemison, Club 369's Randy Cash and the Foothill's Steve Zepeda.
At 43 and with a track record dating back to the '70s, Zepeda has been a biz guy the longest of the three, but he doesn't have the jaded, arrogant temperament generally associated with industry vets. The Long Beach native even looks like a pleasant fellow: he's short and smiley-faced, like some lovable second banana from a '50s sitcom.
In years past, Zepeda has worked as a DJ (back when that meant spinning records on the radio), a label owner (Beat Records) and a personal manager. But his legacy will undoubtedly be marked for booking the defunct and lamented Bogart's in Long Beach and his current independent promotions at the Foothill in Signal Hill. Zepeda has also booked Long Beach's Beach Fest/Chili Cook-Off, and he handles the alterna-rock talent for Monday nights at the Blue Cafe.
"The Blue Cafe is a nice, casual gig for me, and the local scene people dig it because it's low-key," he says. "I do a mixed bag. I'll book almost any kind of music there, but I try to steer away from your more violent forms of punk rock because the room just can't handle it. It's too delicate."
But at the Foothill, Zepeda has earned a reputation as the preeminent local roots-music promoter-though he also regularly features rock and punk shows. More than anything, the Foothill has become Rockabilly Central, as Zepeda brings in a stream of local and national rockabilly talent: Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Russell Scott and His Red Hots, and Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars are among the club's regular performers.
The Foothill's history and ambiance lends itself to such fare. A wide, flat, cavernous room with low ceilings, vintage fixtures and dusky lighting, the club has been open since the late '40s-and a few employees have been working there almost since the first shot of booze was imbibed. In days of old, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, the Collins Kids and George Jones were among the stars who graced its stage. The Foothill seems untouched by time, still haunted by long-dead alcoholic greasers with glazed, yellow eyes. "I see the Foothill as a very David Lynch kind of place," Zepeda says with a cackle. "I think if that guy ever came here, he might end up using it in one of his films."
Between the Foothill's natural appeal for roots fans and Zepeda's own affinity for vintage music, the club has become a magnet for area Crisco-heads. "It's much more diverse than that," Zepeda says. "But I do have a basic fondness for roots music. I'm a great believer that rock came from somewhere, and that somewhere is the '50s. The resurgence of roots music in the '90s has a lot to do with that. I'm basically behind it, just like I was behind it at Bogart's. I've noticed the scene grow in the area incredibly since that time, and I try to give those people a forum."
Catering to this niche market comes with its frustrations, however. Zepeda seems dumbfounded by area scenesters' unwillingness to embrace music that falls outside the confines of their own small sphere, and he expresses a deep desire that they'd somehow broaden their horizons.
"I believe the rockabilly and/or swing scenes have their rule books in what they're willing to accept," he says. "I've watched the whole evolution of that scene, and in a certain respect, they kind of remind me of mods: they have what they're willing to enjoy or participate in, and that's it.
"I can't blame people for liking what they like, but I certainly wish they'd open up their minds and try to appreciate other things," he says. "Unfortunately, I think this is happening in all music scenes right now. What I've noticed since the closing of Bogart's in '93 is a fragmentation of the music scene in Long Beach and Orange County. Only rockabilly people go to rockabilly shows, only punk rockers go to punk rock shows, and so on."
Zepeda concedes he's not above harboring his own limits in taste, and he books shows accordingly. He claims that even if he knows a band will fill a room, he won't promote them if he's not into what they're laying down.
"I won't book heavy metal, for example," he says. "Even if it was a heavy-metal band that really drew, I wouldn't book it. I'm not gonna book something that's crass, something that's damaging to my character. I won't do it."
What if Kenny Loggins offered to play the Foothill for $500?
"No! That's not my style, man; that's not what I do."
What if he offered to play for free?
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"I'll tell the owners about it, but I'm not gonna promote it-no way. I've been accused of being obstinate, but I'm pretty happy with the kinds of music that I book, and I don't wanna steer away from that."
Distaste for metal and wuss rock aside, Zepeda's track record of booking variety speaks for itself. During his five-and-a-half-year run as a talent buyer for Bogart's, he brought a huge spread of disparate acts to the area: roots rockers such as the Blasters, Lone Justice, the Paladins and the Stray Cats; classic rockers like Johnny and Edgar Winter, Hot Tuna, Eric Burdon, and Robin Trower; punk acts like Johnny Thunders, Wendy O. Williams, Social D and UK Subs; alterna-rockers like Wall of Voodoo, the Pixies, Primus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Lemonheads; blues and jazz acts such as Buddy Guy, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Dr. John, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; and even such cool speakers as John Waters, Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary and my personal fave, G. Gordon Liddy. Zepeda misses the days when diversity was a booker's stock in trade and he wasn't limited by the whims of a narrow-minded fan base. But he's still determined to do whatever he can to help nurture the scene and play whatever role he can to advance local talent.
"I feel a sense of responsibility to those people," he says. "As in all places, you have to have a local scene. You have to develop it. You take the scenes that are going and try to pull the quality out of it. I'm giving people an opportunity to build their bands and go as far as they can go.
"But one thing people fail to see is that music-no matter what it is-is rock & roll. That's what it is, and I feel that people don't recognize that. Whatever it is, wherever it comes from, if it's good rock & roll, I'll book it."