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'Thunder Soul' Brings the Funk


by Stephen Becker 9 Apr 2010

A documentary at the Dallas International Film Festival Saturday looks at a high school band in Houston whose funky sound gained an international reputation in the 1970s. The Kashmere Stage Band’s music has made a comeback of late, but KERA’s Stephen Becker reports the band director’s influence on his students has always endured:

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A documentary at the Dallas International Film Festival Saturday looks at a high school band in Houston whose funky sound gained an international reputation in the 1970s. The Kashmere Stage Band’s music has made a comeback of late, but KERA’s Stephen Becker reports the band director’s influence on his students has always endured:

  • KERA radio story (with music):
  • Expanded online version:

When Gaila Mitchell was little, she didn’t look up to the older athletes or cheerleaders.

That’s because the real stars at Houston’s Kashmere High School in the ‘70s were in the school band.

MITCHELL: “They were just like legends. As elementary and middle school kids, we would sit there and go, “Uhh! It’s the Kashmere Stage Band! Could I just touch their instrument?’ And they were like, ‘No, you little kid!’”

Mitchell eventually played piccolo and flute in the Kashmere Stage Band in the late 70s. By then, the group was recognized as one of the top funk outfits in the country.

Kashmere was the only all-black band at national high school contests. And the musicians blew the competition off the stage. Their mix of high-energy funk and coordinated dance moves was light years ahead of other bands whose sounds were stuck in the 40s.

At the center of it all was the band’s director, Conrad Johnson. His students affectionately called him “Prof.”

Johnson treated his students like professional musicians. Mitchell says he earned his students’ respect by appreciating the music they were listening to. James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone ruled the day, and Johnson wrote their popular funk sounds into the band’s repertory.

MITCHELL: “Because we loved what he was doing, he loved what we were doing. And so what he did was just mesh it together and it produced this greatness.”

Johnson had the foresight to record his bands each year until he retired in 1978. Those recordings were finally made available in 2006 on an album called Texas Thunder Soul.

That year, NPR interviewed Johnson for a story about the band and its new album. Mark Landsman, a Los Angeles filmmaker, happened to be listening.

LANDSMAN: “Prof. came on the radio, and as he spoke and told the story, the hair on my arms stood up. I said, ‘This is an amazing story, someone should tell it.’”

Landsman went to Houston to meet Johnson with the idea of making a fiction film about the band’s rise to prominence.

While there, he had lunch with a couple of former band members – now in their 50s – who told Landsman they were planning an alumni tribute concert for Johnson. Prof was 92 years old, and if they wanted to honor him, it needed to be soon.

Johnson’s former students gushed about their admiration for their band director, about how much he meant to their lives. And soon it became clear to Landsman that telling the truth would be better than fiction.

His documentary – Thunder Soul – revisits the Kashmere Stage Band’s heyday. The band toured Europe and Japan and won a slew of national high school band contests. But the heart of their success was the bond that Johnson formed with his students.

LANDSMAN: “I was much more inspired by the inspiration. I mean, the music was great, but his mentorship – the way he affected these young people at a very critical time in their lives and put them on this course that was musically driven – that’s what really drew me. The music was just this incredible vehicle to travel through the story with … The heart and soul of the story was the man.”

In the film, former band members tell stories of how much Johnson cared for his students and pushed them to be the best in all facets of life.

When Mitchell thinks of him today, the first word that comes to mind is “father.”

MITCHELL: “You felt like there was nothing you couldn’t accomplish. Even in your academics, most of us were honor roll students. I, myself, was a straight-A student. It was the same thing – you could do it in the band room, and you could reach that level, you should be able to reach that level everywhere you go in anything you do. … We felt like we could do anything. We could conquer the world.”

Johnson wanted the same success for his students that their parents wanted. But the way he guided them to that success at times contrasted the law-and-order routine they were used to at home.

MITCHELL: “There we were, going to school having a band director who actually taught our parents and saying, ‘It’s OK, do your thing.’ And we were like, ‘What? Let’s do this!’ And so when we would get to school, we would let it out. Because when we went back home, you had your rules, you were going to do your homework, everything was set and there was an order. But when you went to school, you got to be creative.”

That creativity lives on. DJs have frequently sampled and remixed snippets of the band’s recordings.

And Johnson’s influence lives on in his former students. Mitchell’s choice of careers is all the proof you need.

She became a music teacher.

Thunder Soul screens Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center. TBAAL brings the Kashmere Reunion Stage Band to Dallas for a concert on May 1.

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  • J.A.

    Wow, I had no idea my former band director had been so involved in something so historically important. Gaila Mitchell was a wonderful teacher and now there’s no doubt why. Mr. Johnson must’ve been some kind of amazing professor back in his day to cause such inspiration that could just seep thru the decades. She inspired me much in the same way he inspired her to love music.

  • J.A.

    Wow, I had no idea my former band director had been so involved in something so historically important. Gaila Mitchell was a wonderful teacher and now there’s no doubt why. Mr. Johnson must’ve been some kind of amazing professor back in his day to cause such inspiration that could just seep thru the decades. She inspired me much in the same way he inspired her to love music.