The youngest of 12 siblings, Annie Sampson has spent much of her life singing amid throngs of people. She loves it that way, but the powerhouse vocalist is more than capable of transporting an audience as the leader of her own band. She’ll be doing both in the coming weeks, performing with her rock and soul combo Saturday at the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center, and playing Freight & Salvage on June 24 with the Blues Broads, a sensational project featuring sisters-in-soul Tracy Nelson, Dorothy Morrison, and Angela Strehli.
“My father and mother and sisters had beautiful voices, and we were a singing family,” says Sampson, who graduated from Berkeley High in the late 1960s. “Coming from a big family, I knew how to get a long with people. It makes it easy for me to be with other women, singing with them. It’s easy for me to be with a crowd.”
She’s thrived on teaming stages since the beginning of her career, when she was cast in ACT’s original San Francisco production of Hair. She stayed with the musical for some 300 shows, until joining the East Bay rock band Stoneground, which recorded three albums for Warner Bros. in the early 1970s. Playing an eclectic mix of rock, blues and gospel, the sprawling band eventually featured 11 players, including four women vocalists Sampson, Lydia Phillips, Deirdre LaPorte and Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks singer Lynne Hughes.
Stoneground never scored a hit but seemed to come close to breaking through several times, particularly when it served as the house band for the Woodstockian Medicine Ball Caravan, a cross-country tour arranged by Warner Bros. that took the Aquarian ethos on the road with a series of free concerts. The resulting documentary and album famously flopped, despite strong performances by B.B. King and Doug Kershaw.“We had a wonderful time,” says Sampson, who did her first recording with Stoneground. “We traveled over to Europe and made a lot of fans.”
When several members left Stoneground to launch Pablo Cruise, Sampson and founding singer and guitarist Tim Barnes kept the band rolling until 1982. Meanwhile, numerous blues, rock and roots acts sought her out for recordings, including Elvin Bishop, Taj Mahal, Buddy Miles, Maria Muldaur, and Country Joe MacDonald. She also performs with artists such as with Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Nick Gravenites, and Clarence Clemmons.
Born on a 250-acre spread in the north Louisiana town of Grambling, Sampson grew up in a family deeply enmeshed with Grambling State University, where several uncles were on faculty, and the school’s legendary football coach Eddie Robinson. By the age of 10, she had relocated to the Bay Area with her family. Sampson came of age amidst the burgeoning Bay Area music scene, catching free shows in Golden Gate Park and Bill Graham productions at the Fillmore, soaking up Cream and Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and the Staple Singers.
Through her teenage years she did most of her singing in church, but during her senior year at San Francisco State she decided to drop out and focus on performing. She was in a band with vocalist Mike Mathis, a younger brother of Johnny Mathis, when a friend told her about auditions for Hair. She did nearly a dozen auditions for the production before getting cast in the musical (she played the hallucinatory Abraham Lincoln, among other parts), and felt committed to the show’s anti-war message.
“I loved the show,” she says. “It wasn’t about the nudity thing. It was about people loving each other in the communes and having to go to Vietnam, about people being more offended by nudity than the killing that was going on during the war.”
When Stoneground broke up she went back to school and got her teaching credential and spent many years at Mt. Diablo High in Concord. She’s been leading her own band since the mid-1980s, and the group she brings to the Art House features her longtime guitarist John Whitney and guitarist Gary Vogensen, bass guitarist Steve Hazelwood, trumpeter Tom Fuglestad, and drummer Gary Silva.
The intimate performance space at Shattuck and Russell was launched by veteran Berkeley photographer Harold Adler in 2009, who played a key role in documenting the protests and social movements roiling the region in the 1960s and early 70s. He wasn’t familiar with Sampson before he happened to catch her singing Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at the January concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Human Be-In.
“I fell in love with her,” Adler says. “Holy shit, this woman can sing! She has an amazing voice.”
Recommended gig: Gail Dobson, Starry Plough Sunday
Gail Dobson has been an essential part of the Bay Area jazz scene since the 1960s. On Sunday April 23 she starts a residency at the Starry Plough, playing a 3 p.m. set with her band featuring Masaru Koga on saxophones and flutes, guitarist Luke Westbrook, bassist Adam Gay, and drummer Josh Jones, followed by a 4 p.m. vocal workshop for kids (much like she’s been for years at La Peña).