The Thunder Rolls
Kashmere Gardens, the Northeast Houston neighborhood sandwiched between the Eastex Freeway and Loop 610, has been racked with drugs and violence for longer than most people care to think about. Finding hope in, or a way out of, the tumultuous area has never been a simple task.
But at Kashmere High School, band director Conrad Johnson gave his students much more than that. Under Johnson's baton, the Kashmere Stage Band wrote and performed music like no other school band possibly could.
Starting in 1968, Johnson — to whom the community simply referred as "Prof," and who passed away in February 2008 — wound his students into a well-oiled, contest-destroying machine who played some of the meanest funk rhythms conceivable.
Johnson not only allowed them to perform such funky movements, but recognized it as a way to grab the kids' attention. Besides reflecting the sounds of the time, the KSB's covers of James Brown's "Super Bad" and Dennis Coffey's "Scorpio" allowed these fresh young students to create their own take on such music.
By adding such tunes to their repertoire, Johnson managed to harness an energy that other school bands' tired covers from the Hair soundtrack could never hope to summon. In 2006, Now-Again Records released an anthology of the group's privately pressed, rarer-than-hen's-teeth recordings entitled Texas Thunder Soul 1968-1974.
Director Mark Landsman heard a story about the group on NPR not long after and decided it would make a great subject for his next film. "I was just blown away," he told Houston Press music blog Rocks Off in March. "They were interviewing Conrad Johnson, and he was talking about the band's CD release."
While the album cracked open the door to the world for the Kashmere Stage Band, it appears Landsman's aptly named documentary Thunder Soul will blow it right off its hinges. The film has now screened around the globe, racking up awards and acclaim, and will have its belated Houston premiere November 11 at Discovery Green as part of the inaugural Cinema Arts Festival Houston.
Meanwhile, the newly revitalized Kashmere Reunion Stage Band is poised to bring the funk back to its hometown at Miller Outdoor Theatre this weekend.
"When we initially put the reunion together, we didn't have any idea we'd stay together," said KRSB organist and bandleader Craig Baldwin. "The plan was just to get up there onstage and knock Prof dead."
Thanks to these Thunder Soul screenings, though, offers for gigs keep rolling in for the group. They performed at SXSW in March and recently returned from a show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles that left most spectators in awe.
One of those spectators was Now Again Records label owner and KSB anthology producer Eothen Alapatt. "When I saw them at the Greek, my God, man, there was still that reverence," he says.
"You could tell they were doing it for Conrad, but they had transformed as a band," marvels Alapatt. "It was unbelievable to watch — they had people out of their seats dancing in front of the stage. It was mind-blowing."
Johnson cultivated a culture of respect and oversaw his flock of gifted young musicians with a father's watchful eye, demanding nothing less than professionalism. "Because of Prof, when you walked into that band room, you knew how to act and the level of excellence that was expected from you," says alto sax player Rollo Rollins.
The Prof had much bigger plans for his band than just being respectful and good, though. He wanted his students to be the best, so he kept his eyes on the prize. In doing so, the KSB won nearly all of them.
From 1969 to 1977, Johnson's stage bands won 42 of 46 local, regional and national competitions. Competing against them was akin to entering a talent show and finding out James Brown had entered the same contest. The group performed on its own level, often incorporating dancing and showmanship into its routines — something most stage bands didn't even consider at the time.
"Every time the band would play, the judges at competitions would be blown away," says Baldwin. "We got up there and did exactly what Prof told us to do and then, just like he said, 'If you follow my lead, we'll never lose.' He was right."
So what was the key? How did high school kids invoke so much strength from funk?
"We had nothing, man, we had nothing but our passion for sound," offers Baldwin. "Back in the day, when racism was so thick you had to have something to hold onto, and the people that gave us something to hold onto was James Brown and Aretha Franklin. We had that to hold onto, so we'd listen to all this as inspiration and knew we could get through this."
That same level of passion and professionalism Johnson instilled in his students shows when the group performs today.
"At one point, they were so striking because they were high school kids who really kicked some serious ass playing funk and soul music," says Eothen Alapatt. "What's so striking about them now is they're old men and woman who are still kicking ass playing bona fide funk and soul music and not the watered-down stuff that became popular in the interim."
Though Houston may have to wait a bit longer to view the actual film — the KRSB will also perform at November's Discovery Green screening — the band is already back in a big way. It took more than 40 years to get their due, but the Kashmere Stage Band and their funk-filled rhythms have finally arrived.
Former Houston Press Music Listings Editor Brett Koshkin is the recipient of a 2010 Idea Grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, and is working on a history of soul, funk and R&B in Houston.
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