San Francisco, in the 60’s, was the mecca for peace, love and everything hip. (And if you were “hip,” you were a hippie.) The language was groovy, the style was Victorian, weed was a staple, acid was dessert and everyone was a flower child. This way of life, living and the pursuit of “far out” can be directly traced back to The Amazing Charlatans, the most influential band in the San Francisco music scene of that era.
Formed in 1964, The Charlatans most notable members included George Hunter, Richard Olson, Mike Wilhelm on lead guitar, Michael Ferguson on keyboards and Dan Hicks—who later founded Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks—on drums. They were just one of many bands that were springing up in ‘Frisco at the time, and may have been relegated to historical obscurity had not three things come together in 1965.
In June of that year, #1, they were booked to play the Red Dog saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, which was a hop, step and a jump away from San Francisco. To play the role, #2, they decided to comb resale shops and dress in late 1800’s era dress, wearing scarfs, boots, vests, jeans, long dress shirts that weren’t tucked in, with straw boaters and cowboy hats perched on their heads. Although common now, this was a revolution in dress codes. Up until that point, jeans were for manual labor only and nobody EVER wore a dress shirt that wasn’t tucked in.
Inside, the pot smoke was so thick, you didn’t need to actually smoke it up to get high, and LSD did not become illegal until the following year. With that in mind, it was said that if you went into the Red Dog “straight” to see The Amazing Charlatans play, you came out at the end of the gig psychedelic.
Perhaps the best part of the entire Red Dog experience, #3, was “The Seed.”
“The Seed” was the first recognized psychedelic poster that combined music and art at the same time. Created by George Hunter and Micheal Ferguson, it was an advertisement for the Charlatans gig at the Red Dog. It was done in a wavy flowing style that came to embody the writing of the 60’s counterculture, and it was incredibly fun to look at. This one singular poster spawned the birth of this genre’, and featured artists like Wes Wilson, Lee Conklin, Gilbert Shelton, David Carlin, Tom Wlkes—who did the Monterey Pop Festival poster, and Stanley Mouse, arguably the most famous avant garde psychedelic artist of the bunch. As these posters came into prominence to promote rock music gigs throughout the country, it was said that you almost had to be high to understand them.
The Amazing Charlatans never made it into the mainstream, but those who saw them never forgot them. They had no big hits, and the first major studio recording of one of their songs called “Codine,” was never released because of the drug connotation in the title, even though it was an anti-drug song.
Internal tensions in the direction of the band caused their break up in the later 60’s, but without The Amazing Charlatans, the dress, the style and the art of the 60’s renaissance may never have happened.
Here are The Amazing Charlatans with “Codine.”
“The Seed” and other posters of that era