When We Were Kings-harassed, gentrified, silenced, criminalized for playing his drums in San Francisco

POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

"To me, the drum has been the communicator since the beginning of time. I'm sure it was the first message ever sent. When I think of the beat centuries ago, it was the only thing that kept us together."
--Lloyd Price

Tony Robles
March 25, 2008

Legendary Rhythm and blues pioneer and performer Lloyd Price spoke these words in the academy award winning documentary, 'When We Were Kings.' The film was set in 1974 in Zaire, Africa and the stage was the heavyweight championship of the world between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The film brought back many memories. Resonating from Price's words was the larger context of the event's significance--the connection between black Americans and their African brothers and sisters. He does this beautifully by illustrating the importance of the drum.

I was blessed to meet a music and poverty scholar using the drum as a form of resistance 3 years ago. I was walking along Market and Powell Streets in San Francisco among the tourists when a rhythmic and festive beat pulsed through the air. The trees swayed and my body was swept into the infectious rhythm that tingled its way from my toes, to my hips, up my spine and into my shoulders. I looked beyond the people and beheld the warm and disarming smile of Larry Hunt AKA Larry the Bucket Guy.

I watched as he entertained the crowd with his rapid rhythms, interjecting lyrics to familiar songs Jingo, The Girl from Impanema, Thank you falettinme be mice elf again, and Low Rider. I looked at the setup, an array of plastic buckets, some topped with cooking pots. Larry's sticks hit the buckets with precision. No bucket or pot remained silent. I was so moved by Larry's playing that when my second children's book, Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel was published, the inspiration for one of the characters, Tick-A-Boom, was Larry Himself, who proclaimed:

My name is Tick-A-Boom
I play the buckets to pay for my room
The rain was leaking in my hotel room
And the rain hit my buckets
Tick-a-boom tick-a-boom!

Larry's musical career was born in Leavenworth, Kansas where, at the age of 3 he started playing the pots and pans in his kitchen. "I owned my first drum set at the age of 4" says Larry. "As I got older I played at school dances and parties." The community soon recognized his talent and in 1964 he made the front page of the local newspaper.

If you've walked along Market and Powell Streets or Union Square in the city, you have surely have heard Larry's music. If you haven't, you're missing a true San Francisco Treasure. When you ask him, who is Larry the Bucket Guy, his face lights up the whole of Market Street. "I am a person trying to survive the jungle of San Francisco, the Tenderloin, and trying to do the right thing."

Larry survived his share of peaks and valleys on his journey to San Francisco. He was a member of the army's 82nd airborne division in North Carolina. Upon his discharge he joined some of the biggest acts in the music business Little Royal, The Drifters, The Tams, Rufus Thomas and Sonny Til and the Orioles, John Lee Hooker, Greg Allman and Lady Margaret.

Larry's musical success, however, put a strain on his marriage. "My wife wanted me to quit music," Larry says, reflecting back. The marriage ended when his step son assaulted him. "He was disrespecting his mother and I told him I wasn't having it. My wife sided with her son and I figured it was time to move on."

He recalls a chance meeting with Lou Bellson, the drummer for Pearl Bailey at the Starlite Theater in Kansas City. He said, "Kid, you got it. Don't stop. You're gonna make it." Invigorated by those encouraging words, Larry made the trek to the Bay Area in 1991. "I used to play Fisherman's Wharf," Larry recalls, "But there was a lot of turf harassment by other street musicians. I made 175.00 for 35-45 minutes work."

Disenchanted with his experiences in Fisherman's Wharf, he relocated to Berkeley where he stayed for 6 six years. He was homeless but maintained a positive attitude and never gave up playing. "When I arrived in the Bay Area, I had 350.00 in my pocket. I slept in the Bart Station." It was in a homeless shelter minus his drums that Larry's resourceful mind was prompted by the encouraging words of a fellow shelter resident.

"You played the pots and buckets before you played the drums. Go back to your roots." Larry soon obtained an arsenal of buckets and pots and his musical scholarship manifested itself in a unique way. He incorporated fire eating as part of his act shortly after.

Larry sees his act as unique, a full entertainment experience. "I am a stone cold, pure entertainer, a die hard, a full-fledged entertainer/drummer." In 1996 he hooked up with Brian Compton and formed the New Funk Generation Band, performing on Powell and Market Streets.

Larry's gift for entertaining was featured in the movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness", starring Will Smith. Larry laughs when recalling that time. "Will Smith approached me in front of Market and Powell streets. He was a nice guy. He said he liked my playing. The director of the film told me they'd been watching me play for 3 weeks."

One would think that things would get better for Larry after being featured in the movie but it hasn't. He has become a victim of gentrification. The San Francisco Police Department has issued him tickets totaling 1000 dollars for the sole act of playing his music. A downtown art gallery owner complained about Larry's presence and an officer informed him he was blocking the sidewalk. "They told me they didn't want me here," Larry says. The holiday season, normally a fruitful season for Larry, was lacking in spirit courtesy of the SFPD. "They're trying to keep me from showing my talent but I'm not going to stop playing," says Larry.

During the holidays Larry normally earned $70 a day for one hour of playing. As a result of being told to 'move on' by SFPD, Larry earned $50 during the entire holiday season.

The little money he makes as a street musician supplements his meager income of 40 dollars per month after his rent is paid by General Assistance. "I have a bad knee and cannot work," Larry say. "I'm not going back on the streets." Larry has donated his time in the schools, inspiring children with his music. He was asked to perform at the Shoreline Amphitheater before 22,000 at the Wild 94.9 Comedy Jam. 33,000 people have seen Larry perform on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0Nz1MOKzw0).

Larry finds himself in a situation where his very livelihood is threatened. Larry has worked to inform the public of his situation and has gathered a petition that is growing by the day. Most people he speaks to are supportive of him.

"I took a picture with Mayor Newsom but it was a photo op. I was told by an officer that they're leaning on me as part of the Mayor's agenda to earmark the streets for the rich by getting rid of the street performers." A fan in Australia sent the Mayor a letter in support of Larry as well as a member of the issues committee of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. The Mayor has not responded.

Larry's struggle is a struggle for all street performers to have the right to earn a living performing in our public spaces. Larry takes his fight to court in late March. Larry recalls the words of his late grandmother, who passed away at the age of 99 words that have deeper meaning now for Larry: Don't stop playing the drums.

Support Larry in his fight to retain his livelihood by contacting Mayor Gavin Newsom's office by phone at 415-554-6141 or by email: gavin.newsom@sfgov.org. Larry's court hearing is scheduled Tuesday March 25th at 1:30 at 850 Bryant Street, Dept. A. You can sign an online petition in support of Larry: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/larrythebucketman/. Hear Larry's Music: http://www.myspace.com/thebucketman. For information about Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel, see www.tony-robles.com


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