For more than half a century, drummer Earl Watkins was a crucial element of the Bay Area jazz community, most notably serving seven years behind the renowned pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. Born in San Francisco on January 29, 1920, Watkins was the product of a musical family: his father was a singer and his mother a classical pianist. As a child he frequently snuck into the Ambassador Auditorium (later rechristened the Fillmore) to witness the touring big bands during rehearsal sessions, and at 17 he made his professional debut behind bandleader Jimmy Brown. During World War II Watkins played with an all-black U.S. Navy jazz band stationed outside of Chicago. Later posted to pre-flight school in Moraga, CA, the unit (which also included trumpeter Clark Terry and saxophonist Marshal Royal) was installed as the naval reserve band, and remained stationed on the West Coast for the duration of the war. Following his military discharge, Watkins made his recorded debut in support of Los Angeles-based pianist Wilbert Baranco (the band also included bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist Lucky Thompson) before joining a quartet led by another U.S. Navy colleague, saxophonist Buddy Collette. Around 1947, he relocated to Oakland, signing on with the house band at Slim Jenkins' legendary 7th Street Strip nightclub and backing blues great T-Bone Walker.
After returning to San Francisco, Watkins assembled his own trio and scored an extended residency at the Gay and Friskie Club. He also moonlighted with the Five Knights of Rhythm during their tenure at the Fillmore's Say When Club. From there, Watkins backed bassist Vernon Alley at the Blackhawk, then the city's most influential jazz club, before joining trumpeter Bob Scobey's traditional jazz unit at the Tin Angel. Scobey later led the group on a U.S. tour, affording audiences outside the West Coast one of their few opportunities to experience Watkins in his prime. His affiliation with Scobey led directly to Watkins joining Hines in 1955. In addition to playing Dixeland at San Francisco's Hangover Club, the group (which also featured cornetist Muggsy Spanier and clarinetist Darnell Howard) also recorded a now-classic session cut in the Bay Area but erroneously known as The Chicago Dates. Beginning in 1963 Watkins worked with the local branch of the Musicians' Union after its long-segregated white and black factions finally agreed to integrate. He was later elected to the organization's board of directors, emerging as a respected voice on local racial politics and regularly speaking at area heritage events. Watkins also continued performing until health problems forced his retirement in the fall of 2006. He lost his long battle with cancer on July 1, 2007.