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Legacy Oral History Online Collection

Eddie Alley

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Eddie Alley (1910-2005) was born on December 19, 1910 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  He and his family, including younger brother Vernon, moved to the Bay Area when his father transferred to Mare Island Naval Base, settling in Santa Rosa in 1918.  In 1920, the Alley family relocated to the Potrero District of San Francisco where Eddie and Vernon attended Daniel Webster Grammar School.  During grammar school, Eddie played drums in a school competition and began to study music formally.  Graduating from Polytechnic High School in 1929, the height of the Great Depression, Eddie began working at a local club called Topsy’s Roost near the Cliff House where he shifted from a busboy position to playing drums.  Consequently, Alley joined Musicians Union #669 and studied music formally at the Golden Gate School of Music.

During the 1930s, Alley played with several bands, including the Wesley Peoples Orchestra, at San Francisco and regional clubs, including a stint in Reno,Nevada.  Part of Alley’s contribution to civil rights history includes his willingness to play in clubs that were designated as segregated, i.e., across the acknowledged “color bar” east of Van Ness Avenue.  In 1937, Eddie met his soon-to-be wife Dorothy and they married in 1939.  At this important juncture, Alley made the decision to play music part-time and work full-time at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to support his wife and future family of four children, Philip, Kenneth, Steven and Lisa Alley.  Starting as an elevator operator due to racial discrimination in job opportunities at Met Life, Alley’s personal drive and acumen enabled him to pass the necessary qualifying test to become Met Life’s first African-American worker in administrative jobs, eventually rising to a supervisory position in the payroll division.  He retired at Met Life after forty years of service, celebrated by not only Met Life but also San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

During this period, Alley continued to work as a musician part-time, eventually forming his band, “Eddie Alley and The Gentlemen of Rhythm.”  His musical genre was primarily in dance band-era music, modeled after Jimmy Lunceford’s smoother sound.  However, Eddie and his family home became an informal meeting place for many jazz musicians of note including Dizzie Gillespie, Ray Brown, and Clark Terry, among others.  During the 1950s, Eddie also collaborated in shows that featured performers such as Billie Holiday, Gene Kelly, Charles Mingus and Sammy Davis Jr., among others.  As a contractor, putting together various bands on a project basis, Eddie continued to challenge various situations at clubs and in the Musicians Union where racial discrimination was a continuing concern.

Due to health concerns including ongoing kidney dialysis, Alley’s last music gig was at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco during his ninetieth year.  He was also celebrated as one of San Francisco’s Jazz Greats.   Eddie lived in the Sunset District of San Francisco with his wife of over sixty years, Dorothy.

  -- Jeff Friedman

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