Lou Curtiss kept the music alive

RIP Folk Arts Rare Records co-founder

Lou Curtiss manning the record store in his Robert Crumb-drawn T-shirt (http://www.folkartsrarerecords.com)
  • Lou Curtiss manning the record store in his Robert Crumb-drawn T-shirt (http://www.folkartsrarerecords.com)

Former Folk Arts Rare Records owner Lou Curtiss, who promoted concerts and ran a retail record store in San Diego for nearly a half a century, has passed away at the age of 79.

Originally from Seattle, Luis F. Curtiss was 12 when he arrived with his family in San Diego circa 1951. He began promoting live music as far back as 1967, heading up the San Diego Folk Festival, which launched on the SDSU campus and moved to Adams Avenue in 1994. The Festival essentially led to the Adams Avenue Roots Fair, whose organization Curtiss departed in 2008 and returned to in 2012 (when it was renamed Adams Avenue Unplugged). "I did the San Diego State Folk Festival from 1967 to 1987," he recalled for the Reader in 2012. "The Library of Congress hailed it as ‘The best traditional music event in the Western United States.’ I also did three blues festivals and a sea chantey festival."

Folk Arts and Rare Records was founded in the late sixties, along with two partners, with a locale at 3743 Fifth Avenue, eventually becoming a fixture at 2881 Adams in Normal Heights. The store's inventory would top around 70,000 albums, covering everything from vintage blues, ragtime, and jazz to offbeat rarities by the likes of R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders (featuring the underground cartoonist who co-created Zap Comix) and Dr. West and the Medicine Show's Eggplant That Ate Chicago (an early kazoo-heavy Norman Greenbaum project). And that's not even considering the additional 90,000+ hours of recorded music Curtiss kept at home, where he lived with his wife and fellow musician Virginia. The duo occasionally performed concerts together going all the way back the SDSU Backdoor dayz of the early '70s.

“I taped all twenty years of the San Diego Folk Festival,” Curtiss told the Reader of the annual shindig he launched at SDSU in 1967, “and a lot of Adams Avenue Roots Festivals. The local events go all the way back to the early sixties, with guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and a Big Joe Williams concert I taped around 1960.”

“Aside from what I taped, I’ve acquired several collections, including one from a guy who used to follow the Duke Ellington Band and tape them in the fifties.”

In 1993, Curtiss also joined the board of the Adams Avenue Street Fair, where he continued to curate performances. "The first Roots Festival was in 1994, after Scott asked me to book the Adams Avenue Street Fair. I pitched him about doing a springtime folk festival. The roots concept gave room to bring in music that wouldn’t have worked at the folk festivals.”

Many concerts held at Curtiss’ area record stores and venues that he booked were archived, including at least one early performance by Tom Waits (11/17/73), whose work Curtiss championed from early on.

Lou Curtiss with Tom Waits in 1973

Lou Curtiss with Tom Waits in 1973

"He did our open mic nights back when he was still at Hilltop High," Curtiss told the Reader in 2005. "In '73, he was a doorman at the Heritage but, when they closed, I started doing concerts at the store, and I asked him to do one of the first ones. We didn't have much space, so we were crammed to the rooftops; he was just starting to get real well known.... Bob Webb, who owned the Heritage, played guitar, and Tom played guitar and piano."

Waits, who had one album under his belt, performed songs from his upcoming LP The Heart of Saturday Night, including "Shiver Me Timbers" and "San Diego Serenade." Admission was "no more than $4" and Waits was paid from proceeds of around 150 ticket sales. "He got most of the money," says Curtiss, "we weren't getting rich off these things."

Curtiss interviewed Waits for the Reader in January 1974, shortly before Waits began his second tour with fellow famous former neighbor Frank Zappa, and they discussed how linked Curtiss and his store was to the local music scene at places like the Heritage, where Waits basically launched his career.

"I was the doorman," recalled Waits, "and that was one of the important steps for me because I got to listen every weekend. It was one place you could run into someone you haven’t seen in three or four years, and that was usually the place you went when you got back in town to see who was in town. All those people that used to hang out there. When the Heritage closed, it was hard for a long time to even make contact with them, and now you can make contact with them at Folk Arts."

In 2007, Curtiss was awarded $35,128 by the Grammy Foundation Grant Program, to preserve the Waits performance, as well as around 400 of his concert tapes.

“It only covers a fraction of my collection, but it’s a start,” Curtiss told the Reader at the time. “I got my first reel to reel recorder in 1957, and I have over 8,000 reels of live shows.” The Grammy Foundation awarded a total of $650,000 to eighteen recipients in 2007, to facilitate various music preservation and research projects. The UCLA Library and the Library of Congress became digital repositories for copies of Curtiss’ tapes, in order for them to become accessible to researchers or interested citizens.

Curtiss said it was a challenge, choosing which 400 tapes covering 50 years’ worth of concerts to preserve. Surprisingly, however, the oldest tapes weren’t his biggest concern. “The stuff from the sixties and seventies on their original reels hasn’t deteriorated much. It’s the tapes from the eighties that are fading, [because] they were using inferior quality components. Those are the recordings that need to be saved before they’re gone forever.”

Digitally restored recordings from the first four San Diego Folk Festivals, 1967 through 1970, can be found at the Lou Curtiss Sound Library site. Also available are samples from concerts held at the Sign of the Sun bookstore in San Diego, circa 1962, including Bessie Jones, the Chambers Brothers, Jean Ritchie, and one of the only known recordings of Reverend Gary Davis playing a 5-string banjo.

Four years after the Grammy grant, in 2011, Curtiss told the Reader that they got through the year 1975 before the grant money ran out. “We’ve got about 2000 tapes left,” Curtiss said, “and that doesn’t include the video.”

“I’m worried,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger.”

Former radio records-keeper Boyle bought the Folk Arts stock

Former radio records-keeper Boyle bought the Folk Arts stock

Brendan Boyle bought out Folk Arts Rare Records in summer 2014, moving the shop to its fifth locale on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. "Lou's record store was a magical place for me," says Boyle. "Lou was a true artist, whose love and knowledge for music was remarkable. He artfully decorated his store with his own creations. 'Lou's bedroom,' as his wife Virginia would be quick to say. His old timey handwriting was something out of a long lost past, and his use of language was oh so playful and creative. At his store, he was pretty much always playing some kind of older, incredible music. You'd ask him about it, and especially if you kept asking questions, he would pepper you with the stories."

"His life experiences were unbelievable, and he had oh so much to share. After he would bombard you with stories, he likely would say 'Have you heard this?' and he'd put on something amazing you'd never heard before. The two of us would sit there in his lovable little Folk Arts nook, listen and be silent. All while we listened, Lou would have that childlike, wild man look in his eye."

Selling the record store enabled Curtiss, then 75, to retire, other than continuing his digital archive project and doing occasional live music performances with his wife. He also spent around two decades hosting a Sunday night radio show for KSDS 88.3 FM, which often showcased locals, both established and up-and-coming.

"His championing and preserving of folk music will benefit future generations," says local music historian and longtime music scene maven Bart Mendoza. "Rarely have I met a person who loved music that much, with a truly astounding depth of knowledge. The original Sounds Like San Diego shows were fundraisers for Folk Arts, and you could feel the love from the audience for Lou."

"He is gone, but his legacy will continue."

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Jay, you are such a wonderful documentarian of San Diego's culture over the past several decades. Thank you for doing this. Interestingly, I just passed by the old Folk Arts Records on Adams Avenue tonight and was thinking about Lou Curtis. I was a frequenter of Rich Horowitz's Off the Record location on El Cajon Boulevard for the entirety of the 1980s. I remember walking into Folk Arts Records during that period and realizing that I would never be able to fully comprehend the world of American roots music no matter how much I tried. A wonderful and magical place.

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