Merced guitarist who crossed racial lines with Blue Notes band has died, family says

Kenneth Craig’s Saturday, June 7, 1958, graduation photo.
Kenneth Craig’s Saturday, June 7, 1958, graduation photo.

One of the original Merced Blue Notes, a rock band that nearly exploded into stardom in the 1950s, has died, his daughter confirmed on Friday.

Kenneth Craig, who died at 81 on May 10, was the lead guitarist for the inclusive rock band that featured black, Latino and white teenagers during a time when intermixing races was rare. He had pancreatic cancer, according to his family.

Craig was born on Jan. 20, 1938, to a family deeply entwined with music, according to Cheryl Lockett, his daughter.

“The most important things to him was his family and music. It’s always been a part of the fiber of our family lineage,” she said. “His father and his father’s uncles and their father played the guitar and the mandolin and the banjo.”

He attended Merced High School back when it was called El Capitan, where he was named “Most Outstanding Lineman” for the Bears in 1956. He also was a standout amateur boxer, according to Lockett.

Athletics were a part of his life, but it was music that stuck. On an afternoon in 1956, Craig went to the music room with his guitar to practice. In the room playing piano was Roddy Jackson.

They played together so smoothly that they decided to recruit some classmates for what became the Blue Notes. Like something out of a movie, the youngsters started jamming together and it was working.

“Next thing we know, the room started filling up with all these high school students and they’re just all excited, screaming and yelling,” Jackson said. “It was a real event. This just happened spontaneously.”

“Merced” was a later addition to the name to prevent confusion with a Fresno band.

The 1950s lineup of the group, which would change over the years, included Craig, Jackson, Gil Fraire, Clarence Lewis, Buddy Wiggins and James Burkes. Fire Chief George Coolures managed the band.

Of the original lineup, all but Jackson and Wiggins have died.

Craig’s guitar-playing was full of soul, Jackson said. “Kenny, to me, was in the same league as BB King and those guys. He was just an awesome guitarist for blues and R&B,” he said. “He was a good singer too.”

Not only were the bandmates part of one of the Central Valley’s first rock bands, the Merced Blue Notes were also one of the first integrated rock bands. Because of that, the band experienced threats over the years.

“We were part of a movement that was taking place all over the country of musicians doing mixed groups,” Jackson said. “We didn’t know that and we weren’t trying to do that, but that’s what happened and we became part of history.”

“I’m very proud of that and I know Kenny was too,” Jackson said.

Following a successful performance at a talent show, the Merced Blue Notes played their first gig at the American Legion Hall in Merced. Then Coolures began booking gigs in cities along Highway 99, including the Stockton Ballroom and the California Ballroom in Modesto.

Jackson described the band like a football team with himself at quarterback and Craig as captain of the team. As the oldest member, Craig was level-headed, soft spoken and calm, but never one to back down.

The band would a year later get a tryout with Specialty Records through scout and producer Sonny Bono, who went on to success with Cher. That deal never came to fruition for the Merced Blue Notes.

But, little did the teens know, they had a following in Europe. British-based Ace Records in 2004 released “Merced Blue Notes: Get Your Kicks on Route 99,” a compilation of 26 songs by the group, several of which were previously unissued.

Craig would later raise cattle and drive a truck, but music was always part of his life, Lockett said. She described him as a loving provider.

“He was a phenomenal individual. Whatever challenges he was faced with, he went head-on. He didn’t run from it,” she said. “He knew how to strategize to overcome whatever obstacles he was facing to raise his family, to keep the music alive, to (face) racism.”

He is survived by his second wife, Irene Gomez-Craig, three daughters, four sons, 18 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, according to his obituary. A musical celebration of his life is planned by the family on a date yet to be determined.