Saturday, July 23, 2011

“Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Forgotten Soul Of The 1960s and ‘70’s (Cinewax)

It seems popular music is much more homogeneous in the 21st century than it was through much of the 20th. There used to be many more local/regional scenes than there are now. You used to be able to tell which records came from Memphis, or Miami, or South Texas, just to name a few of these scenes. Some of the old regional-music scenes going back over a half-century struggle to survive, but survive they do, such as swamp-pop from Southwestern Louisiana, or beach music from the Carolinas. A few of these scenes managed to achieve national prominence, even dominance, such as Motown (which often used singers from outside Detroit, but the Funk Brothers backup band who really defined Motown were largely local), San Francisco psychedelia, or New York-style doo-wop.

But then there were scenes which - important as they may have been to the locals - never attracted attention outside their area. Go-go music from Washington, D.C. comes to mind. Cleveland sure seemed like a hot rock town in the 60’s, provided you lived close to the Lake Erie shoreline, that is. And, as this documentary DVD illustrates, there was a lot of great soul music in Seattle in the 1960’s and 70’s. Seattle? Soul music? Yes, indeed. But hardly anyone outside the area, including myself, had any inkling that something special was happening there. The Pacific Northwest - Oregon/Washington/Idaho - had already spawned the Ventures, the Wailers, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders, etc, but that wasn’t specific to one city, and for that matter nearby Tacoma was more significant to that scene than Seattle was. Grunge, of course, came out of Seattle as the 80’s gave way to the 90’s, but that was hardly soul music, either, though a few Seattle rock musicians are shown in the film saying nice things about what happened before their era. Let’s face it, you just don’t think of Seattle as being a hotbed for black music of any kind.

Nonetheless, during the 1940’s in particular, Seattle was a jumping jazz town. Both Ray Charles and Quincy Jones spent important developmental years in Seattle. The producers of “Wheedle’s Groove” (the “wheedle” being the mascot of the Space Needle, used to symbolize Seattle as a whole) were fortunate enough to get Quincy Jones to give his insights on the Seattle scene as it was during and after World War II. In more recent years, Sir Mix-a-Lot (who also participates in this film) has represented Seattle on the national urban-music scene.

But our primary concern here is the golden era of soul and funk. Sadly, hardly any footage of black Seattle bands from this period exists, which would seem to bode ill for a documentary film focusing on unknown artists.. (There IS a brief clip of a group called the Majestics, who are otherwise hardly mentioned here.) But by combining old still photos, shots of record labels, a number of audio tracks of several of the relatively few 45’s recorded by Seattle soul and funk bands (not one of which will sound familiar to anyone from the “outside”), and extensive modern-day interviews with many of the significant musicians active on the scene, director Jennifer Maas has come up with a compelling and both visually and musically satisfying document of a scene that was ill-served by those people who really should have taken the time to document it while it was happening.

We get to hear excerpts of 45’s by such local stars as the Black On White Affair, Cold Bold and Together, Ron Buford with singer Ural Thomas, Patrinell Staten (whose “Little Love Affair”, became a British cult favorite decades after the fact), Cookin’ Bag, Robbie Hill’s Family Affair. All these artists may now be heard on Youtube, by the way, though without the context, discussions, and interviews provided by the film. Only one superstar emerged from the scene, one Kenneth Gorelick, known to the world as Kenny G, who has wonderful things to say in the film about the experience he gained by being a member of Cold, Bold and Together. Humorously, Kenny G credits the rainy Seattle weather with keeping him inside the house to practice. CB&T also featured keyboardist Philip Woo, who remains a known quantity on the international jazz scene to this day.

As the film describes, the scene was a healthy one for several years, with a lot of work for everyone, albeit not necessarily well-paying. There was also a lot of cooperation among musicians, which is always conducive to creativity. Local radio station KYAC was strongly supportive of the scene, not generally the case with local radio in more recent times. (Several excerpts of an interview with DJ Robert Nesbitt add very insightful comments on the scene..) The fan support was strong, also. So, while no one became rich or famous at the time, the consensus seems to be that it was a great time and place to be a musician. White and Asian musicians (such as Gorelick and Woo) were reradily accepted - if they could play - despite the influence of the Black Panther Party on the scene. The clubs, however, were more segregated. The lack of gigs in white clubs no doubt worked against the bands’ greater acceptance and financial rewards. Another factor working against the bands is that Seattle was not a media center, and the bands couldn’t afford to promote their record themselves outside the area.

Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix had to leave Seattle before even attempting to “make it”. In fact, Black on White Affair did manage to contact Quincy through his brother, but nothing came of it. Ural Thomas signed with Uni, once again with no breakthrough in the offing. Indeed, it seems the mere process of trying to break out of Seattle was the downfall of a few bands. Disagreements among members didn’t help, either, then disco nailed the lid on the coffin. The more people wanted to dance to recorded music, the less work there was for live bands. The fact that Seattle’s economy took a nosedive in the dark years between Boeing’s downturn and the birth of the high-tech industry led to hard times for music as well.

Several of the participants talk about what happened to their lives . Patrinell Staten Wright became successful in gospel music, others became teachers, musicians, and white- and blue-collar workers. The scene evaporated, but thanks to this DVD, it lives on in memory, in photos, and on those precious 45-RPM records. After a long fallow period, a CD compilation of a few of those 45’s sparked renewed interest in the Seattle soul and funk scene, which eventually set the wheels in motion for the production of this film. A number of the original Seattle soul musicians got together to play at the CD release party, sounding as fine and funky as they did 30-40 years earlier. We get to see excerpts from their modern-day concerts and recording sessions. If I have a complaint about the DVD, it’s that more performances, and at full-length, should have been included, if not in the film, in the extras. (I should mention that the recording engineer who has helped preserve these new performances is the same man who recorded
many of the originals, Kearney Barton, who also recorded the Kingsmen and the Sonics back in the day. He is also interviewed in the film.)

The point is made at the end of the film that the bands featured here are only the tip of the iceberg. A long list of many, many more is shown preceding the final credits. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a Volume 2!

There are a number of deleted scenes, interviews, performances, etc. in addition to the original 87-minute film. The movie has done deservedly very well on the Festival circuit, and is still bering shown on the big screen. But the DVD is available now from This is the good stuff!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” (First Run Features)

I’m always a bit confounded whenever music fans of my own (baby-boomer) generation, including many whom I feel should know better, fail to recognize the name “Phil Ochs” when I mention it. Certainly, I’ve given up expecting anyone under the age of 40 to have heard of him. But baby boomers? Come on, this man was (in my opinion, to be sure, but I’m far from alone) the greatest singer-songwriter to come out of the 1960’s following the emergence of Bob Dylan. It seems the enormous shadow of Dylan has long since dwarfed such once-vaunted figures as Bob Lind (whose new DVD will be reviewed soon), Eric Anderson, David Blue, Fred Neil, David Ackles, Patrick Sky, and the various Tims (Hardin, Rose, and Buckley), to such an overwhelming extent that even Tom Paxton and, yes, Phil Ochs do not have anywhere near the name recognition value that they deserve.

Nevertheless, Phil Ochs still has a considerable following, albeit a specialized one, but large enough that the theatrical release of Kenneth Bowser’s biographical documentary “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” in 2010 was hailed as a major event among us old-folkie types. With the film’s release on DVD taking place this week, everyone can now see what all the fuss was about. This is one marvelous piece of work, a loving, skillfully-assembled, no-holds-barred portrait of a man who was misunderstood by so many people, including himself. It’s a tragic story, a tale of disillusionment, mental illness, alcoholism, dashed hopes, unfulfilled dreams, and eventual suicide, but one with a brilliant soundtrack of poetic lyrics, memorable melodies, and a one-of-a-kind voice.

Bowser has Included a wealth of interview clips, including many of the people closest to Phil Ochs - family (Phil’s famous photo archivist brother, Michael Ochs, who was one of this film’s producers; Phil’s well-known folk-music disc jockey sister and keeper of the Phil Ochs flame, Sonny Ochs; Phil’s wife and daughter), close friends (most notably Jim Glover of Jim and Jean, who was responsible for politicizing Ochs), musical associates (including early supporter Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Judy Henske, Van Dyke Parks, Lincoln Mayorga, Joan Baez - who recorded the best-known version of Ochs’ song “There But For Fortune” - and on film, Dave Van Ronk), political associates (Tom Hayden, Fugs members Ed Sanders among them), record industry associates (Elektra’s Jac Holzman, A&M’s Jerry Moss) - an incredible array of people important to Phil Ochs’ life and career. The result is a well-rounded selection of opinions, reminiscences, and emotional responses, chronologically arranged. One might wish that some of the clips had been longer, but that’s because Ochs himself had such an engrossing life.

It would seem Bowser didn’t miss very much. We hear about Ochs’ upbringing by a Jewish father who came back from World War II mentally unstable and a Scottish mother who refused to hide her unhappiness. We see photos of Phil growing up conservatively in small-town 1950’s America - local readers of this blog may not be aware that some of this growing up took place in nearby Perrysburg, NY, and that Ochs played clarinet at a SUNY Fredonia summer music camp; there’s even a vintage still of Gowanda’s Hollywood Theater. We find him dropping out of Ohio State University, discovering his first great political cause in the Civil Rights movement, finding hope in the presidency of John Kennedy, having his illusions shattered by Kennedy’s assassination and America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam. We learn how Ochs was browbeaten by his songwriting role model, Bob Dylan, which did not sidetrack Ochs’ unrealistic but fervent determination to make it big in show-biz through the writing of liberally-oriented (yet hardly doctrinaire) protest songs. As times change, we see him expanding (as did Dylan, of course) into more personal, less purely folk-style songs, moving beyond acoustic guitar backdrops to a more “produced” type of recording. (However, Ochs was not interested in folk-rock, but surrounded his songs with classical and orchestral influences. The results were superb, but decidedly non-commercial.) We follow his increasing involvement with the counter-culture taking unexpected turns, leading street-theater-of-the-absurd demonstrations which celebrated the end of the Vietnam War years before it actual ended. We feel impending disaster as he fatefully becomes involved as a key member of the Yippies and serves as a catalyst in the catastrophic demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. We puzzle at his dressing up like Elvis Presley in gold lame for his career-destroying Carnegie Hall concert, which lost him the support of many of his long-term fans. A journey to third world countries leads to a meeting with nueva cancion icon Victor Jara in Chile, two years before the coup against the Allende government and Jara’s execution. His travels also take him to Africa. where Ochs is attacked and robbed in an incident in Tanzania that ruined his vocal cords. All this while, he is increasingly falling victim to bipolar disease, exacerbated by finding far too much solace for his depression in alcohol dependence. His growing combativeness begins to offend even his friends. Eventually, he falls off the deep end mentally, and announces the demise of Phil Ochs, replacing him with an obnoxious alter-ego named John Train. And then come those sad last days of 1976. To sum it up - it’s all here, it’s all examined in some depth, and it’s all put into comprehensible contexts.

We see short video clips and hear audio excerpts of many songs from every stage of Phil Ochs’ career. I find it particularly revealing to hear live performances from after the Tanzanian incident. Yes, his voice has suffered and has lost its consistency. But the voice and style are still recognizably that of Phil Ochs. I truly believe that, if he had been so inclined, he could have continued his career well past this point. But it wasn’t Phil Ochs the singer who had been mutilated, it was Phil Ochs the man.

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is, then, both a celebration of and eulogy for this important 20th-century artist. It would be easy to disparage him for what he became in the 1970’s, but I prefer to remember Phil Ochs as he was in the 1960’s. This film allows for both interpretations, and each viewer may take from it the Phil Ochs they wish to recall. Highest recommendation.

The film runs 97 minutes, plus a text bio of the director, and a photo gallery.