Get to Know Thunder Soul

The Kashmere Stage Band was a phenomenon. Most high-school stage bands -- ensembles that played something besides symphonic music, often jazz -- of the late '60s and early '70s were stuck 20 or 30 years in the past, playing the orchestrated swing of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey or Count Basie. But the kids at Kashmere High School were lucky enough to have Conrad "Prof" Johnson, a band director who was hip enough to understand that that kind of music wouldn't fly on Houston's northeast side, dedicated enough to mold them into a powerhouse that blew away their rivals at any competition the KSB entered, and kind enough that his students thought of him as a second father even more than 30 years after they were under his baton.

The tale of Conrad Johnson and the Kashmere Stage Band, who performed tours of Europe and Japan while winning dozens of competitions in their heyday -- and much later became a highly sought-after act by sample-hungry DJs -- is easily one of the most remarkable stories in Houston music history. It's also the subject of Thunder Soul, the 2011 documentary directed by Mark Landsman. Jaime Foxx was one of the executive producers.

The film also offers an invaluable portrait of Houston in the '70s, when "Super Fly took over Kashmere." one KSB alumna says in the film. Girls would put herbs and berries in their hair, competing to see whose miniskirt was the shortest, while boys would wear butterfly bow ties with their leisure suits and drive to school with their windows down, bumping James Brown; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Sly & the Family Stone on their 8-track players.

Under Prof's meticulous direction, the KSB were invited to perform at prestigious events like the Mobile Jazz Festival in Alabama as well as overseas, with Texas governor Dolph Briscoe once personally handing Johnson a $10,000 check to foot the group's travel expenses. The group's heyday lasted until about 1977, when HISD administrators began harassing Johnson and cutting his music budget until he eventually retired; In the film, one former student says that he simply didn't tell anyone he wasn't coming back the next school year.

But years later, the KSB's vintage records began showing up in the hands of people like Eothan Alapatt, founder of Stones Throw and Now Again Records, labels that specialize in re-releasing rare funk records. Now Again released the double-CD/DVD anthology Texas Thunder Soul in 2011. Another connoisseur was California turntablist extraordinaire DJ Shadow, who says of KSB, "To me it was like, 'Yeah, this is the kind of groove I like.'

"It was rugged," he goes on. "I just thought it was a funk band. Never in a million years would I have assumed that they were just music students."

Besides the human-interest angle of Prof and his students, what makes Thunder Soul an unusually compelling documentary is the dramatic tension that centers around the KSB reunion concert held at the school in February 2008. Some of the players sound pretty ragged at the outset, and it's up to KSB alumnus/fill-in director Craig Baldwin to get them well-enough rehearsed in time to do Prof proud. But it's not the concert that frames Thunder Soul -- it's Johnson's funeral. Prof died two days after taking one final bow on the Kashmere High stage. Remembering the days when Prof and the KSB took on the world, one member says, "It was time for us to shine."

As a preview of Record Store Day 2015, Thunder Soul will screen 7 p.m. Friday at Cactus Music, following a 5 p.m. Q&A by the Legacy Group, featuring original members of the KSB. Saturday, the group will perform at 5 p.m. Should be a special weekend.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray