Clarence Ray Sterling, Jr. (1945-2005)
Co-Founder, Ojai Bowlful of Blues Festival
In remembrance, and with heartfelt gratitude, I salute the prominent co-founder of Bowlful of Blues and producer of the early, foundation years, Clarence Ray Sterling, Jr. Together we conceived of this concert in 1982, and were able to accomplish its manifestation on the Fall Equinox of 1983.
Putting pen to paper to describe what it was like working with Clarence and getting to know him is no easy feat, due to the remarkable nature of the man. He was many things to many people, a pillar of the community, before, during and after his tenure as Director of the Ojai Art Center where the blues festival began as a benefit concert.
His occupations and pursuits, in all of which he excelled, include environmental activist, author, historian, poet, scholar, world authority on Chumash culture, internationally-acclaimed James Joyce interpreter, authority on Robert Johnson music and lyrics, founder/producer of Ojai Bowlful of Blues, guitar teacher, multi-instrumentalist, arborist, horticulturist, naturalist, and dedicated Red Cross worker, which he considered most important of his life’s work. For that distinguished service Clarence received commendation from the governor of California, and was further honored when the Red Cross named their disaster relief headquarters in Ventura, the Clarence Sterling Disaster Operation Center.
Some early Bowlful history… When Clarence was hired as the Art Center’s Executive Director in 1981, the Center was struggling from declining membership and depleted revenue. With a considerable appreciation for the arts, a musician and poet himself, along with excellent people skills, he welcomed the challenge. Clarence knew he was in the right position to make a difference.
At one point he invited me to join the Board to chair a new music branch, adding to the mix of theatre and fine arts. After a meeting when we were informed the Center’s doors were about to be closed, Clarence and I thought of having a benefit concert in Libbey Bowl. Since we were both blues lovers, that seemed like a good idea. Here’s the rub. Not only did the Art Center not have funds for a budget, but the beautiful Ojai Bowl had never been used for other than the classical Ojai Music Festival. Getting permission to hold our blues concert there turned into a major uphill battle. I suggested maybe looking for another place, but Clarence was adamant that the Bowl was where it should be.
Prior to holding his position at the Art Center, he worked for the City of Ojai Public Works Dept. as caretaker of Libbey Park, including the Bowl. He meticulously maintained both, as was his way, using his arboreal and horticultural skills to save many older trees and shrubs, while planting new ones. He became the official Ojai Bowl Chairman (first and only) whose duties included sitting on the Ojai Festivals Board. As you can see, he was very connected to that particular venue.
Against considerable odds and after numerous City Council and Ojai Festival meetings, we were finally given permission to hold the blues concert, consequently paving the way for other cultural events to take place in the Ojai Bowl.
Clarence’s experience in the concert business and his deep connection with Libbey Park and the Bowl, helped to create Bowlful of Blues, which was designed based on Chumash ceremonial music and dance festivals. These three-day, equinox-timed events were actually held on the very spot in the heart of Ojai now known as Libbey Park and were important social functions for the Chumash, determining their political and economic guidelines for the year.
Hence, Bowlful of Blues was originally established as a sacred event in honor of the indigenous people of our area. Not your traditional, modern day concert. Clarence’s instruction to us, his staff, was, “Your main concern is quality of audience experience and quality of artist experience. Don’t think about the gate. If you make this concert the best you possibly can, that will take care of itself.”
His formula worked in the early, formative years, drawing healthy audiences along with a particularly good feeling, and continued in that way for the duration.
Thank you, Brother Clarence, for all!