Back Alley Owner Sandy Kates Was Fullerton’s Man Behind the Music


Sandy Kates inside Back Alley (Damion Lloyd)

Sandy Kates was many things to many people. Father and father-figure, grandfather, mentor and confidant, pot smoking pal, beer drinking buddy, liar’s poker adversary, friend. He loved professional tennis and Las Vegas, despised Donald Trump and Fox News, was honest, compassionate, generous. Of course, all the truly interesting people contain multitudes. He could also be impatient, prickly and, when the situation warranted it–and sometimes even if it didn’t–possessed of a temper as furious as a pissed-off Zeus hurling devastating thunderbolts from atop Mount Olympus.

Sandy’s Mt. Olympus was admittedly smaller: the Back Alley Bar and Grill, which he opened in 1999 in downtown Fullerton. At the time it opened, DTF was a much milder beast than it is today. You could get a drink at about 10 places in the general vicinity, and maybe catch some blues, jazz or other live entertainment at a few of them, but if you wanted to hear live, local music on a nightly basis, Back Alley was the only place downtown. And was for several years.

And, nearly every other night for a solid 15 years or so, that’s what Back Alley offered.  A local’s bar by day, dominated by Sandy holding court on a stool at the end of the outside bar, at night it served as a haven for local bands. Name the genre, and it passed through its confines: blues and country, jazz and reggae, punk and rock, lounge singers and tribute bands, cover bands and original acts.

Sandy, who passed away at age 70 from cancer-related complications Jan. 27, wasn’t a musician himself, though, as most guys growing up in Baltimore and New Jersey in the 1960s, he could strum a guitar and carry a tune. But his vision for his bar—which was his third career, after selling rugs and licensed marriage and family therapist— was a family-owned, unpretentious place where just about anybody, and any kind of band, was welcome.

“There was no bullshit red tape to go through, submitting demos, bios, photos,” says Tom Schmitt, whose bands Longfellow and Sederra, and numerous side projects, played Back Alley dozens of times. “Sandy just wanted live music and that was most important.”

At the time of the bar opening, Schmitt said,  Longfellow was playing shows and drawing 1000-plus kids at Chain Reaction and Glasshouse, neither of which sold alcohol. 

“But there were no decent 21-and-over venues in North OC,” he said.  “Back Alley changed that. It allowed us to play shows to a different audience, and for our friends, and there was actually less pressure to perform, although that never stopped me. After Longfellow, every performing project I was in played there. Any time I wanted to play a show, I’d call Sandy and it’d be done. Didn’t matter if I was tearing strips of paper while I beat-boxed. Didn’t matter to Sandy.”

Several bands over the years played weekly or monthly gigs, but no ensemble played as regularly or often as the 70s-themed Jungle Boogie and 80s-themed 80s is Enough. Both bands dressed in outlandish costumes and featured the same core musicians, augmented by seasoned professional performers who have played with the likes of Scott Weiland, Jeffrey Osborne, Bow Wow Wow and Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night.

Courtesy of Back Alley Bar & Grill

Frank Reina, the principal drummer of both outfits, first met Sandy in 1987 at an Irvine club Reina was playing. They struck up a friendship and he soon realized that Sandy could be more than a fan.

“I found out he was a therapist, and I was going through some shit with my (former) wife,” Reina said. “So, I asked if he could help me (on a professional basis). He ran his practice out of his house, and we got together a couple of times, but we ended up just smoking pot and playing tennis. That was our therapy session. And, looking back, it’s exactly the therapy I needed.”

Back Alley’s sound was never pristine. The combination of brick walls, wood floors and high ceilings always made amps, particularly guitar amps, sound unduly harsh. But that didn’t stop bands from wanting to play there. There was no pay-to-play bullshit and, most nights, bands received 10 percent of the bar sales.

“Before the Back Alley, occasionally somebody would start booking shows at random places like Pete and Tony’s and Mikki’s, but no venue was willing to commit to the live, original music thing, except for Steamer’s which did a great job focusing on the jazz scene,” said Dave Dutton, whose bands Trip the Spring, Bodi and John Kraus and the Goers have frequently played Back Alley.  “But there was still no absolute place where you could be guaranteed to see a live band. And that’s where Sandy filled in.

“He agreed to let (Trip the Spring) perform before he heard us,” Dutton said. “And we could perform all night long, where at most other venues, a gig would be filled with five to seven bands, and you only got 20 minutes to play. We got to stretch our wings out, improvise and do what we best. There was no other place like it.”

Ironically, the Back Alley’s open-door policy to any and all bands may have signaled its demise of offering mostly live music. Some nights, bands seemed to drive more crowds away than attract them.  And once the Slidebar (whose founders, the members of Lit, also played Back Alley back in the day), positioned itself as the premier live music venue downtown, along with increasing competition from the plethora of new bars downtown, most of which focused primarily on DJ’s, Back Alley began doing the same.  

But local bands still play there from time to time, including a resident bi-weekly gig on Sundays by the Darden Sisters, a phenomenally talented group of sisters whom Sandy loved.

All the bands, no matter how polished (or, frankly, how sucky) they were, left a mark (and not just the obligatory stickers that festooned nearly every empty surface of the bar.) And through their leaving their mark,  Sandy also left his.

“Sandy gave people opportunities,” said John Harrington, a former trumpet player in Delta Nove (think P-Funk meets Miles Davis), who played numerous full-capacity shows that often bled out to the Back Alley’s outside patio. “If all our past experiences help shape who we are today…then Sandy and the bar shaped a lot of people.”

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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