Bowlful of Blues began in 1983 as a benefit concert for the Ojai Art Center. It was co-founded by the late Clarence “Cary” Sterling, musician and Art Center director, and fellow musician, Michael Kaufer, music branch chair on the Art Center board of directors at the time. The two friends volunteered to produce an event to help the struggling arts facility. Both blues lovers, they decided it should be an outdoor blues concert, with neighboring Libbey Bowl the desired location.
By hook and by crook, Clarence and Michael, along with like-minded community members, were able to receive permission from the City of Ojai and Ojai Music Festival to use the bowl. In that landmark year, with the help of blues musician, Tom Ball, they were able to book prominent, old-school artists Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Pee Wee Crayton, and Margie Evans. The dynamic R&B Bombers joined the cast as house band, with popular groups the Pontiax and Ball & Sultan rounding out the show. What a momentous occasion it turned out to be, a great concert from start to finish. When the Bombers backed up “Cleanhead,” closing the show, it was a sight to behold.
The success of the first Bowlful of Blues, meant to be a one-time event, led to a second year. Featured in ’84 were Mose Allison, Charlie Musselwhite, The Bombers, The Pontiax, and New Orleans piano genius, Henry Butler. That year, the Ojai Festival and Lynford Stewart presented a jazz concert on the same weekend, starring the great Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith.
Now on a roll, the third year featured John Hammond, Johnny Copeland, Margie Evans, Ball and Sultan, and the Bombers, along with a growing audience. At that point the Ojai Art Center decided it had other concerns than an annual blues festival and Bowlful of Blues took on a life of its own under Michael’s direction with Clarence’s support and with some assistance from Michael’s brother Lanny. Joining forces with Ojai cultural gem, Betti Ridenour’s Illusions Theatre, proved to be an alliance that would benefit all involved for years to come.
One particular highlight occurred in 1986 when Louisiana zydeco powerhouse, Rockin’ Dopsie (pronounced “Doopsie”) and His Zydeco Twisters rocked Ojai to its core. On the same bill was the Johnny Otis Revue, featuring Shuggie Otis. An awesome night, to be sure!
Over the next 20 years, Bowlful of Blues presented dozens of national, regional and local blues acts (see commemorative poster below). Michael’s special interest in Louisiana music led to rare appearances by New Orleans legends Snooks Eaglin, John Cleary, Tommy Ridgely, and Charmaine Neville, among others. Numerous touring zydeco bands from the Lafayette area of southwest Louisiana, such as Beau Jocque, C.J. Chenier, Fernest Arceneaux, Lynn August, Nathan Williams, Jude Taylor, and Rosie Ledet filled the bowl as well with their authentic sounds.
After co-founder Clarence Sterling passed away in 2005, and in addition to other extenuating circumstances, the blues festival was not held for several years. Now in 2016, with the help of Michael’s brother, Lanny Kaufer, a jazz concert promoter in his own right, and Shane Butler, proprietor of the Ojai Concert Series, the 23rd Bowlful of Blues is making a return to the newly refurbished Libbey Bowl as a presentation of California nonprofit organization Ojai Mardi Gras Wake-Up! Krewe.