Times they have a-changed since the countercultural 1960s. So has drummer-turned-Vista-restaurant supply company owner Lee Bittner — to a degree.
A former drummer with Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company, Bittner, 54, has toned down his personal act somewhat these days. But he maintains a lot of the core values of that youthful age which he combines with modern-day business acumen and a still-youthful approach to life.
Bittner, 72, returned to his first love — music-making — in North County as he continued to play gigs at places such as the Pala Casino with an ad hoc blues band, was a regular at the gone now and sorely-missed San Marcos Power Surge Cafe Thursday Open Mike. He also on the open mike circuit.
A colorful and amiable guy, Bittner was loving it — every second of it.
“I’ve been working with a group called Blues Denial,” Bittner said during a past interview at the Power Surge. “Joe Walsh came and sat in with us. Tonight I’ll be out with a band — I don’t even know its name — but we’re playing at the new Pala Casino. It’s pretty cool. The energy is amazing out there. I think life is great.”
An El Cajon native, Bittner played drums at military bases in and around San Diego starting at age 15. Then he got bit by a certain bug. A place natives call simply “The City.” You know: San Francisco.
“I played all over North Beach, all the clubs,” Bittner said. “Carol Doda’s club. The strip joints. Lived in Sausalito, Tam Valley, and Marin (County) for seven years.”
It was the Summer of Love. Haight and Ashbury streets: 1967-68. Hippies, acid, free love and good times rolling all around the San Francisco Bay.
“I got a gig with a band called Morning Glory,” Bittner continued, a far-away gaze in his eyes. “We did some gigs with Big Brother & the Holding Company. They introduced me to Janis. She was a great girl. They were so great they blew me away.
“The next decent gig I got was with Norman Greenbaum. We did ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ a huge hit. It went platinum around ’69. I was right there in the Haight, playing around the (Golden Gate) Park and the Speedway. They really were the best times.”
Early 1970 and the counterculture was swinging down. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison — all gone.
But Big Brother remembered a certain drummer with a big beat and asked Bittner to join the band on its last wild ride through America. Bill Graham got them gigs with groups such as The Allman Brothers Band, The James Gang, REO Speedwagon and Journey. And of course, Big Brother had a following all its own.
“Sam Andrew, Peter Albin, Kathy McDonald singing with us,” Bittner said. “That was the early ’70s. Really the best times. Of course, Janis was gone and I couldn’t work with her, which was a real bummer.”
Big Brother broke up in 1972 and Bittner continued playing Bay area gigs through the mid-1970s. But life in The City had changed and that proverbial rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle “was killing me,” he said.
“I needed a lifestyle change,” Bittner said. “I had been caught up with it all since the early ’60s. It was great being a kid from the country in the scene. I was like a kid in a candy store. But it was killing me. I had to move back home.”
So the counterculture gave way to a new lifestyle in East County, San Diego. Bittner’s mom ran several taverns and he got interested in the business end of things — the restaurant supply business. He started Bittner’s Restaurant Equipment in Vista in 1979 and has been a fixture in the local restaurant supply game ever since.
“Personally I believe in a healthy and clean lifestyle,” Bittner said. “I gave all that other stuff up years ago. … I love to see all the guys coming up around here now, really into music. It takes a lot of energy, time and desire. I would suggest they really strive to be successful in music but also go to school, get some real substance under your belt.”
Bittner became a popular mentor for members of the North County music scene. Fellow percussionist Rob Belgard called Bittner “an awesome guy. One of the greatest drummers there is …”
“He is one of my favorite people to jam with,” Belgard continued. “One of the fun people. I got to sit in with him and this group Jody and Company from Escondido and it was a great jam session.”
Mark DuBois, owner of Power Surge, said the Thursday Open Mike at his cafe became one of the most popular events in hip North County music circles when Bittner became an integral part of the scene.
“Lee is a great guy,” DuBois said. “He’s a great player. We’ve got people from 16 to 60 years old playing here now and he gets along with everybody.”