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!

No comments: