|Jim Parber's poster for Moby Grape at the Merced Legion Hall, March 15, 1968|
Merced, CA is the county seat of Merced County, and has historically been a locus for the agricultural area around the city, so the city has been much more important than its modest size would have suggested. Merced is 130 miles Southeast of San Francisco by road. It is one of a series of centers of agricultural commerce up and down Highway 99, California's principal mid-state Highway prior to I-5. The major towns on Highway 99 make up the San Joaquin Valley, which has always been the agricultural center of California.
The city of Fresno is about an 60 miles south of Merced on Highway 99, while the city of Modesto is about 40 miles north of Merced, and Stockton is 30 miles further North (70 miles from Merced) and finally Sacramento 60 miles further (120 miles North of Merced). All of the Central California cities have always been essential economic engines for California, but they have always suffered an inferiority complex relative to San Francisco and the other Bay Area cities, which have in turn dismissed Central California residents as a bunch of rubes.
Whatever the Coast thought of Central California, there were teenagers there, and they had some idea what was happening in the City. Thus, San Francisco rock bands played regular weekend shows in the Highway 99 cities in the 60s, from Sacramento down to Fresno. The shows were an easy drive from the City (if you were a roadie) and offered a chance for the bands to quick up a pick payday on an unoccupied weekend. At one time or another, all the major San Francisco bands played those cities, and many of the Los Angeles-based bands like The Doors or Eric Burdon and The Animals took the opportunity to play as well. There was no Fillmore in any of these cities, so the bands played one-nighters at the Legion Halls or local ballrooms or auditoriums.
Although there was some distances between the San Joaquin Valley cities, Highway 99 is long and straight, and it wasn't so hard to go from town to town. Thus, if you lived in Merced, you probably could get to a show in Fresno (an hour South on 99) or Modesto (45 minutes North) without much trouble. As a result, teenagers in the San Joaquin Valley actually had a fair number of chances to see some hip California bands, and a lot of them have fond memories of that. There were some local heroes, too, bands like Crystal Syphon and Crazy Horse (not Neil Young's guys) who at least got to open at the Fillmore and Avalon a few times. A good snapshot of the different opportunities and adventures for rock fans in the Valley in the 60s can be found in the Merced Music blog, which is well worth a good look.
|The Jim Parber poster for the Merced Legion Hall show featuring Curly Cook's Hurdy Gurdy Band on June 13, 1968|
Jim Parber was a Merced teenager and an aspiring guitarist. It appears that the community of genuine hippies or would-be hippies was pretty small. Jim Parber did the posters for a number of Merced rock shows in the 60s, including the Moby Grape poster at the top of the post, and the Curly Cook poster just above. His posters were derivative of many of the great Fillmore and Avalon artists, but that is true of many rock posters of the time, and on the scale of things they were pretty good, particularly considering he was probably still in High School at the time.
Jim Parber was the son of John (Jack) Parber, a career Air Force officer. Castle Air Force Base was near Merced, and no doubt officer Parber (he eventually reached the rank of Colonel) was assigned there at some point. Where Parber (Sr) was actually assigned in the late 60s is uncertain, since Air Force officers could have been assigned anywhere in the World. Nonetheless the USAF association was probably the reason that Jim Parber was attending High School in Merced, even if his father may have been defending his country in some far flung outpost. Given that Parber knew someone well enough to get a chance to do the posters and was an aspiring musician, I have to assume he was a hip kid and saw all the Merced shows and probably at least some in Fresno and Modesto when the chances came, and perhaps at the Fillmore or Avalon when circumstances permitted.
Jim Parber became a professional musician, and apparently quite a good guitarist. Around 1976 or so, He was the lead guitarist for Lawrence Hammond and The Whiplash Band, when Hammond, formerly of the unique outfit Mad River, made a stab at more conventional country rock. Later, Parber played lead guitar for Billy C Farlow in the late 70s, when Farlow formed his own band after his departure from Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen. Sadly, however, Parber fell prey to a particularly vicious form of cancer and became ill in 1979, eventually dying in 1991, fondly remembered by his friends, family and fellow musicians, as a nice guy and fine guitarist who passed on too young.
Colonel John Parber, USAF (Ret)
John Parber, Jim's father, was the commanding officer at Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato in the late 1980s. Given the timeline, I assume that as Col. Parber was near retirement and that as Hamilton was being fully decommissioned, he was a good choice to finally hand over the facility to civilian authority. Col. Parber retired in Novato. Around 1996, he received a phone call from a man who said "I'm Robert Weir of Mill Valley, and I've been doing some research, and I've run across some information that might be of considerable interest to you." Col. Parber replied "the only Robert Weir I know plays guitar for the Grateful Dead."
As Joel Selvin's remarkable 2004 SF Chronicle article details, Col. Parber turned out to be Bob Weir's birth father. In 1947, college student Parber had had a fling with a fellow student, who found herself pregnant, and without telling Parber snuck off San Francisco to have the baby and give it up for adoption (thus proving Oscar Wilde's famous adage "anyone who has disappeared is said to have been seen in San Francisco"). Weir was adopted, but all he knew about his birth mother was the false name she had given the hospital. When she called Weir in the 1980s, she knew the false name, so Weir knew she was genuine, and she let on to who Weir's father was. At the time, Weir did not contact Col. Parber. In 1996, with young daughters and a considerably changed personal landscape, Weir's wife persuaded him to make the call. Weir's family reunion with the Parbers was happy and productive for all--one wishes all such relationships between the adopted and their birth parents could go so well. The only missing participant was Jim Parber, who seems to not only have shared Weir's musical ability, but not surprisingly looked just like him as well (for a photo of Jim Parber in action in the 70s, see here).
The Grateful Dead in Merced and the San Joaquin Valley, 1969
The Grateful Dead are rumored to have played Merced on March 27, 1969. The date of this show is dubious, since it comes from a misdating of a circulating tape. The accurate date of the tape was actually March 28, 1969, at Modesto Junior College. A Thursday night show in Merced isn't that likely, but it isn't impossible. In any case, Modesto is only 45 minutes North of Merced. When the Grateful Dead played Modesto on Friday, March 28, do you think Jim Parber went? I do. A guy making posters for Merced shows wouldn't be missing out on a Fillmore band playing just up the road. Even if he had a hot date, he probably took her to see the Dead. Do you think Jim Parber's date might have said "hey, the guitarist looks like you, Jim?"
Since Joel Selvin revealed the amazing story of Bob Weir's birth and his guitarist half-brother, I have searched in vain for a show where Lawrence Hammond and The Whiplash Band opened for Kingfish, or a time that Jim Parber made a poster for a Grateful Dead show. So far, I have come up empty. Nonetheless, I think it highly likely that Jim Parber saw the Grateful Dead in Fresno or Stockton, even if it turns out that the band didn't play Merced. Given the random nature of adoption, it is not only remarkable that Bob Weir and his birth father ended up in the same County fifty years later, but the half-sibling most like Weir was following his path somewhat. Parber must have met some of the bands, as the scene was so small--did any members of Moby Grape see him and briefly wonder if Weir had a younger brother?