The year before Lou Gottlieb died, I went up to Occidental, California and spent a day with him. Lou had been one of the founding members of the Gateway Singers. We’d become friends later on, during his career with the Limeliters. We shared a radical history and a certain outsider’s perspective on the things we were doing. Here are some of the things he remembered, in his own words.
The California Labor School was the headquarters of People’s Songs, an organization Pete Seeger started that had local chapters everywhere. I met Jerry Walters and Barbara Dane and Jimmy Wood there, and we started the Gateway Singers. The Gateway Singers used to be called the “Re-Weavers” when we first got started, because I just took down all their tunes and transposed them into keys that the Gateway Singers could sing in.
The minute we got Elmer Lee the thing started to sound really good. First of all, she’s the greatest rapper the world has ever known. I mean, she could really get an audience going. If you’d make a little funny, she’d crack up. And that’s apt to give you delusions of success if you‘re a nascent comic, you know, and you’ve got a laugh meter like that standing right there. And, of course, she had a magnificent contralto voice that was really dependable — a lot of singers have got about two good weeks out of four, you know. It had no great personality, but for an ensemble group it was magnificent. You could put her anywhere. You could put her on lead, you could double the lead on the outside, you could put her above the lead and it would be right. You could not misuse that voice.
I remember one night, the Hungry i was so crowded people were sitting on the stage. We’d been working there about two years, seven nights a week, minimum three shows a night, sometimes five on Saturdays. And some guy made some kind of a nasty racist remark about Elmer Lee. It was during the last number. I came up to him, and later I thought, “Did I kick him in the head? Or did I not?” I was doing pretty good with the booze. I thought I had kicked him in the head, because his face was right there and it ran through my mind that I would just destroy his face for this vile ridiculous racist remark, you know, about a girl that was about as straight as you could get. And I really didn’t know.
That‘s when I thought l‘d better quit. lt’s gin mill-itis. You know, you cannot stay in a gin mill seven nights a week, month after month, and not get crazy, because everybody there is drunk.
But generally speaking the reaction in San Francisco was okay. Even Ralph K. Davies, who was the moneybags for the Democratic party for twenty years — he’s got a hospital named after him in San Francisco — he was the number one Elmer Lee Thomas fan in the city. And Harry Bridges was there two or three nights a week. Everybody came. I mean everybody.