Blues crusader Bill Bowker retires from Sonoma County radio

Longtime local blues DJ Bowker will step away from the mic at KRSH on Dec. 15.|

On the air, then off

What: Bill Bowker’s final KRSH broadcast, followed by a special live music set by Nina Gerber and Chris Webster

When: 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec 15

Where: HopMonk Beer Garden Stage, 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol

Admission: Free

Information: hopmonk.com/livemusic

His hair and beard are snow white, but deep inside, Bill Bowker, one of Sonoma County’s most beloved and enduring radio personalities, is all about the blues. It shows in his piercing blue eyes, and you can hear it in every song he picks to play.

His voice, both on and off the air, is kind and intelligent, with a dash of gravel added for texture, which only enhances his charm.

Come Dec. 15, on his 78th birthday, Bowker will step away from the mic at Santa Rosa’s KRSH, where he has worked for the past 27 years. It will be a significant downshift in a career that he says is not entirely over, but retirement is as good a word as any for his departure.

“I’ve been kicking around the idea of retirement for a while, then I just thought, ‘Yeah!’ It is with mixed feelings that I’m doing this, but it’s time to ease up,” Bowker said.

Bowker has worked at half a dozen local radio stations since he moved here from Southern California in 1979. He’s racked up 42 years as a Sonoma County broadcaster, usually working afternoons and taking his weekly “Blues With Bowker” show with him from station to station. He settled at KRSH in 1994.

“Bill Bowker is legendary and iconic,” said John Duran, who employed Bowker as his program director at the KAFE nightclub and cable radio station in the late ’80s.

“He has represented the best of the local blues and music scene as long as I’ve known him,” Duran added. “A lot of people are radio personalities, but Bill has always been about the music, and the musicians respect that.”

Bowker’s determination to put the music first, and himself second, also won the respect of his colleagues in local radio.

“I had the pleasure of working with Bill at KRSH for six years, where his passion for local artists as well as the blues was infectious.,” said Brian Griffith, music director at KRCB Radio in Rohnert Park.

Individual sound

Bowker’s musical influence isn’t limited to his radio work. He’s been active as a concert promoter, band booker, agent and the force behind the Sonoma County Blues Society, now only a memory.

“Within the community, radio has the responsibility to present things that are useful to locals,” Bowker said.

He has most enjoyed mentoring young musicians, including guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, singer-songwriter David Luning and rising blues star and Alligator Records artist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

“Bill always had a knack for spotting the talent in young and up-and-coming musicians and would take them under his wing,” said fellow KRSH deejay David “Big Dave” Gross.

Bowker stopped short of making his side projects his entire career and stuck with radio as his main pursuit.

“I got into management briefly, but it wasn’t for me,” Bowker said. “I like to promote and advise, but put a contract in front of me, and it’s not my thing.”

As a deejay, Bowker has bucked the fads and trends that station consultants obsessed over. He reveled in conjuring up his own musical mix.

“No matter what the radio promoters suggested he play, he would always find the songs that spoke to him on an album and usually avoided playing the recommend singles,” Gross said.

For his final KRSH Radio show, Bowker will broadcast live from the beer garden at the HopMonk Tavern in Sebastopol, starting at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15, followed by a special live music set by Nina Gerber and Chris Webster.

At 7:30 that evening, Bowker will be honored at an invitation-only show in HopMonk’s Abbey concert venue, featuring live music by The Pulsators, Volker Strifler Band and special guest John Allair.

Bowker has been steadfast not only in his career, but in his marriage as well. He and his wife Lavonna will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in June. The couple plans to remain in the West Santa Rosa house they bought 23 years ago. Their daughter Krista and their two grandsons also live in the area.

‘I knew I loved the blues’

On a recent morning, the sun shone through the French doors of Bowker’s living room, making a cozy lattice pattern on the white rug, while he lounged in his favorite chair and talked about his life in radio. He wore faded gray jeans and a light blue shirt bearing the logo of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.

Bowker was born in 1943 in Passaic, New Jersey, and grew up in suburban Glen Rock, New Jersey, not far from New York City. He describes himself as an upper-middle-class white kid who discovered the gritty sound of the blues when it was still considered taboo by some.

“When I was 12 years old, I heard ‘Evil’ by Howlin’ Wolf on WNJR, a rhythm and blues station in New Jersey, and that was it. I knew I loved the blues,” he recalled. “Nothing concerned me then about it being ‘race music.’ Maybe I was just too young to care about that. I guess I just totally ignored the race issue.”

In 1961, when Bowker was still in high school, his father — an aerospace contract coordinator — moved the family to Ventura, California.

After high school, Bowker attended the Don Martin School of Radio & Television Arts & Sciences, where he earned not only a diploma but a license to go on the air.

His first radio job was at an all-night country music station, KUDU, in Ventura. When that station went to an automated format, Bowker moved to KBBY, an underground, “free-form” FM station. That set the tone for the rest of his career.

“Free-form is playing whatever strikes your fancy without following a format,” he explained. “I felt my mission was to make listeners aware of honest music by dedicated musicians who were not just trying to make a hit. I’ve been blessed to be able to spend 95% of my time in radio doing what I want.”

Bowker moved next to KWST in Los Angeles, managed by John Detz. Detz moved to KROQ and then he and his partner there, Cindy Paulos, bought KVRE in Santa Rosa in 1979. Bowker came up to join them and soon became a mainstay of Sonoma County broadcasting.

“I had no idea about what Santa Rosa might be like, but the programming at John’s station was going to be free-form,” Bowker said.

After Detz sold KVRE in 1988, Bowker worked at a series of stations, including KPLS, KAFE and even KRVE, an attempt at reviving the KVRE format, before landing at KRSH, better known as “KRUSH,” in 1994.

Birthplace of the blues

Once he leaves KRSH, Bowker won’t be broadcasting in Sonoma County anymore. But he’ll still be heard on XRDS.fm online, based in Clarksdale, Mississippi, home to the legendary crossroads thought to be the birthplace on the blues. He’s not moving away from Santa Rosa; he’ll be working remotely.

Bowker teamed up more than a decade to help re-energize Clarksdale with downtown Santa Rosa developer Charles Evans and famed harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, who recently moved from Geyserville in Sonoma County to Clarksdale. The Mississippi town is also the site of actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero nightclub.

“We’re not working with Morgan, but Morgan shows up there once in a while,” Bowker said.

While Clarksdale and points beyond will benefit from Bowker’s musical knowledge, Santa Rosa gets to hang to the man himself.

“I’m leaving the station, but I’m not really retiring,” he said. “I’ll be around. I’m not going anywhere.”

That is good news for his fans, including KRSH colleague Gross.

“Bill has always been a great spark for me, knowing his history in the county and all the stories from when he got his start in radio,” Gross said. “I’m certainly going to miss seeing Bill on a daily basis, but I know he’ll always be around to inspire me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

On the air, then off

What: Bill Bowker’s final KRSH broadcast, followed by a special live music set by Nina Gerber and Chris Webster

When: 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec 15

Where: HopMonk Beer Garden Stage, 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol

Admission: Free

Information: hopmonk.com/livemusic

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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