Steve Rebuck’s Bio
My years working for the East West Musical Instruments Co.
Steven L. Rebuck
One summer day in 1969, I rode my customized Harley Davidson chopper to Santa Barbara, a small coastal town north of Los Angeles. My girlfriend wanted to show me a new boutique, The Egos Nest. The store was rather small, maybe 300 square feet, located at the edge of a parking lot on Canon Perdido Street. The owner was an affable British fellow named Tony Sugden.
The Egos Nest was filled with the wonderful tanned cowhide aroma of beautiful leather garments, hanging among cases of Navajo and Zuni Indian jewelry. Most of the leather clothing was manufactured by a San Francisco business called East West Musical Instruments Company. An unusual name for a leather garment company, but not out of line with the curious names of that era.
Over the next few months, I stopped by to visit Tony, who loved music and a good laugh. One day he pulled from the shelf a pair of leather pants, in a popular color called Mojave, kind of a orange-tan color. He handed them to me as a gift. They were wonderful! And, as a motorcyclist, they made riding safer and more comfortable. Feeling like Jim Morrison, who made leather pants famous in the 60s, the Mojave pants became my daily choice in attire.
Later that year, Tony began building a small cabin up on Mountain Drive, a narrow skyline road above Santa Barbara with a commanding view. I joined the work crew. About the same time, the Egos Nest became too small and Tony prepared to open a new store at 706 State Street. The new enterprise was called Down Home.
Down Home was about 1,800 square feet. Now there was room to move. Tony had me begin by painting the walls in a rainbow motif. To accomplish a smooth blending of colors, we installed wheels on a 10 foot ladder. As I sprayed paint, Tony pushed the ladder. We soon had blue sky ceilings and rainbow walls. We chipped and stripped linoleum off the floor with hand scrapers that left us with blistered, bleeding hands but cemented our working man relationship. We sanded floors and built counters, fixtures and a work area out of redwood planks and lath. The store became a very warm, inviting place.
Tony’s partner in Down Home was East West’s visionary owner, Norman Stubbs. We hired seamstresses and hard leather toolers to make belts and custom bags. We occasionally had celebrity customers like Michael Parks, star of Along Came Bronson. Every day at Down Home was an adventure. For the next couple years I became a part-time fill in for Tony when he was away.
Up north, our supplier and partner East West was growing. Sales were increasing. Norman needed more space. He decided to move the Factory from Folsom Street to 3rd Street., about eight city blocks away. Recognizing Tony’s leadership and sales ability, Norman offered to make Tony the new manager. Tony sensed opportunity and agreed to move to San Francisco.
By 1973 I was the new manager at Down Home. I learned that East West used Down Home to move quite a lot of old, shop worn merchandise, returns and seconds. These items had material expense, labor and other fixed costs attached and needed to be somehow liquidated. I tried running ads for motorcycle clothing, a minor success. With clothing piling up, in the fall of 1973 I created something unheard of at the time: a Pre-Christmas sale. We shipped more merchandise into Down Home and by offering great discounts, we moved a huge volume of clothing. It was fun and it happily created some cash flow for East West.
More change was coming; Norman wanted out of Down Home. I was ordered to pack up the little East West Datsun truck and drive it to San Francisco. I removed the front end of my Chopper to fit it into the truck, and headed north.
When I arrived at the 1175. We put the front end back on my Harley and unloaded it. Norman rode motorcycles, but not Harley’s. Still, he seemed to enjoy the design, the chrome and flame paint. The motorcycle became a prop in the shoot and later the photos were used in East West advertising. Decades later, they showed up as a poster for a vintage clothing show, Electric Leather, in year 2000.
Norman’s next idea for liquidation of sale merchandise was a little store next to the East West store on Grant Avenue, North Beach. I lived in the store for a while, in a little loft/room upstairs.
We began moving all kinds of things into the new store: leather bags, shirts, jackets pants, etc. Among them were dozens of “Bomber” jackets with sheepskin collars, which had been cut for a store in Philadelphia. Somehow the patterns were small and the jackets were tiny. But, we were nearby China Town, the smallest people in San Francisco. We sold the jackets at cost, but we sold virtually all of them!
This store was only open for a couple months but the mission was accomplished. We created good will for the company and more important, some cash for the move from Folsom to 550 3rd Street. Afterward, I repacked my motorcycle and headed to San Luis Obispo where I spent most days attending the trial of Dr. Timothy Leary who had escaped from the California Men’s Colony. But soon I got a call from Tony. Norman wanted a showroom in the new factory and I was tapped to run it.
By early spring, I was in San Francisco. We were dealing with the City bureaucracy. The fire department required a fire sprinkler system. After mechanical plumbing and installation we had to have the system signed off by the Fire Marshall, who wanted a “gift”: a leather outfit for him and his wife. But not free. Oh no. He would pay, but only “cost.” So, he and his wife were measured and two tailored outfits were made. Once he had them, he signed off on the system.
We encountered other corruption over the years. At Grant Avenue, the local meter-maid (a man) coveted a new pair of Frye boots, but not a style we carried. We ordered a pair of “Wellington” style boots in his size and provided them at cost. He then wanted us to purchase tickets to the “Policeman’s Ball.” We bought the tickets and received a sticker. This sticker on our vehicle meant fewer parking tickets, which were a real problem on Grant Ave.
The new showroom was up front by the main entrance door on 3rd Street. We bought some bright red carpet from San Francisco’s old Avalon Ballroom. It was fun to close my eyes and remember Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead playing and partying at the Avalon, and the Hells Angels swinging from the stage curtains!
Norman had us paint the new showroom in garish colors — black, red and purple in shiny enamel –and decorate with art deco paintings. A classy room in a grimy industrial neighborhood. Across the street was South Park, a funky little park where junkies hung out. Like Larry Fritzlan, the manager of the Grant Avenue store, I carried a gun every day at work. There were many days where being armed was comforting. I had served in the California Army National Guard from 1967 until June 1973 and had received “tactical weapons training” (now known as SWAT) from the US Air Force, so was familiar with small arms. I also got another Harley and parked it in front of the factory as a message to the outlaws and drug addicts.
The years 1973 through 1975 were intense. I worked eight hours in the factory store, then went home to my North Beach studio and painted jackets. Most weekdays I worked 10 to 12 hours. During the day musical acts would stop in to buy jackets and carry on. Night in San Francisco meant a never-ending variety of musical attractions. Some bands, like Journey, were still playing bars. Or we’d visit Mooney’s Irish Tavern on Grant Ave., where Elvin Bishop would often sat in. Deep Purple and Johnny Winter’s band would stop by. One day 38 Special blocked traffic with their limo while they shopped on Grant Street, looking for the jackets East West produced with “stash pockets” sewn into the underside of collars.
During the months and weeks leading up to a New York trade-show, Norman worked on designs in his Maui studio. Then, armed with piles of paper patterns and sometimes rough prototypes, he showed up in San Francisco. Color selection, texture and types of leather decisions were made and cutting and sewing began. We had to ship sale samples a week ahead so completing all these tasks in time was difficult. But the East West team was amazing and the samples were nearly always finished by deadline.
Another aspect of the shows was being “knocked off” (copied) afterward. Norman was always a step ahead. It was not unusual to see our products from the previous show hanging in the showrooms of competitors three months later.
Writing the orders on the floor of the trade show was hard intensive work. After a couple days we’d met hundreds of buyers, our hands were cramped, and we needed sleep. But New York City was terribly exciting. and Time Square was only blocks away. After hiking the hilly streets of San Francisco, the level wide streets of New York were easy. It was fun to sidewalk cruise and look at hookers, pimps, barkers, and places like Dempsey’s or CBGB’s. One night I stood outside Dempsey’s and observed the Champ on the other side of the glass, in a classy white dinner Jacket.
Back in San Francisco, we sometimes spent evenings with Ellen, our secretary/office manager and her husband Henry Carr, near Noe Valley. Henry was a music producer with a gold record for publishing “Bye Bye Baby” for Janis Joplin, his friend from Texas. From members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to Johnny Winter’s band, you never knew who would be hanging out at their apartment.
But not all was fun and games. The 3rd Street factory was often the target of vandals. The crooks somehow knew when our sales team went to New York because the night they left, we were frequently broken into. The building had skylights and we often walked into a late night burglary scene and found ropes still swinging through the broken glass. It turned out the kingpin of the burglary team had Viet Nam era US Army jungle training. Now he recruited underage kids to commit the crimes. If caught, they would go to juvenile hall and be out in a couple weeks. One night we decided to turn off our outside audible alarm and the crooks stayed too long and we caught them in the act.
As the only manager who would answer the phone after 10pm, it became my job to show up at 3rd Street, after the remote alarm went off and the alarm firm called in the cops. The cops sometimes said, “You know where the light switch is, you go in first.” This quickly got old. Sometimes, there were several uniform officers, other times a couple guys on motorcycles. Once it was two guys dressed like Starsky and Hutch, wearing army jackets and driving a Dodge Duster painted red and white.
In 1974, an event changed the day-to-day fun of East West forever: The death of Bill Webber.
Bill was the fun loving rouge of East West. He was our production manager, a friend of Norman’s, and one of the company figureheads. Bill loved to party. We’d go out bar hopping and half the time Bill went home with the girl of his choice. One night he made a fatal mistake and was found in the morning dead in his car, near Marin City, a seedy community across the Golden Gate Bridge. We soon had homicide detectives investigating. Web’s death appeared to be an accidental overdose of heroin, but some things didn’t add up. Bill Webber was left-handed but he had a needle mark in his left arm. The cops were investigating a murder. As far as I know, the case was never solved.
By 1975 I was tired of The City, late that year I moved back to San Luis Obispo. I continued to paint leather jackets until a minor recession ended production about 1976. East West went back to selling primarily tan and brown leather jackets in a more conservative economic climate.
In more recent years, interest in the East West brand has increased. The products have proven to be very durable and long lasting. Some East West jackets now sell on EBAY for thousands of dollars, especially the painted ones. There are page after page of East West clones, or “East West Style” jackets. Every so often, someone tracks me down to paint a few jackets. My years with the East West Musical Instrument Company were rewarding, and have added flavor to my life ever since. To Norman Stubbs, Tony Sugden and all my other friends I say thank you for those wonderful memories!