Filmmaker assembles documentary about Greensboro soul and funk from the ‘60s and ‘70s
Filmmaker Doug Klesch wants people to appreciate Greensboro’s rich musical history, and the human stories behind that history, particularly within the realm of soul. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the city was a crossroads on the touring circuit, and it also launched the careers of many notable players, some that went national. Beyond that, there was a thriving local scene with talented players, songwriters and producers, all working to make records that were released on regional labels, small-batch singles that have gone on to be valuable and collectible among DJs and record obsessives.
Students of funk and soul know that North Carolina, and the Greensboro area in particular, played a role in the story of African-American popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most notably, James Brown picked up some of his key band members, the brothers Maceo and Melvin Parker, from the Greensboro talent pool. In addition to the Parkers, another sibling pair that left the Greensboro area to achieve national fame were Inez and Charlie Foxx, who had a hit with “Mockingbird” in 1963.
The story of how this region fostered — or stifled — the talented individuals from around the area is one that’s worth exploring. Also of interest is a consideration of the ways that a regional playing style might have shaped wider national sounds. But sometimes that history can get tangled and hard to trace. Sometimes the history is right there in your face for so long that you never expect it to one day vanish or to recede into the unrecoverable past.
Klesch now lives in Asheville, but he lived in Greensboro for about 20 years, and he has been working to assemble his Gate City Soul documentary since 2014. For a time he spun records of Greensboro-related soul on the radio for a weekly show that drew the attention of fans and musicians from scene. The documentary project, which isn’t his main line of work, has demanded a lot of time and resources to piece together connections, and with the work has come the realization that many of the artists central to the story are either aging, dead, or difficult to track down.
“One of the main guys who is a local thread in this story is Vic Hudson, and he literally died the week I started doing this project,” says Klesch.
Hudson was the driving force behind the Electric Express, a band that had a hit with “It’s The Real Thing” in 1971. The two-part song had one side that featured an instrumental with effects-soaked sax solo that sounds like the harmonized half-robotic honking of Eddie Harris and party sounds, hand-claps and shouts, and the other side with topical vocals about the war in Vietnam and brotherhood set in front of a crisp beat, a deep beefy bass with spongy organ and wah guitar.
But Klesch did talk to a number of Hudson’s former bandmates, producer and radio host Wayman “Slack” Johnson and to Hudson’s ex-wife, singer Emanuella Quick, and others who knew and worked with Hudson. (As an initial part of his larger project, Klesch made a short 10-minute documentary on the musician called Vic Hudson: The Real Thing.) Another pioneering local soul musician that Klesch interviewed, George Bishop III, was shot by his wife later in 2014. Bishop had performed with Curtis Mayfield and Bo Diddley, and was a legend in the area. The tragedy highlights the importance of documenting the stories of who made the music before it’s too late.
Hudson’s story illustrates the fact that so many of the area’s musicians performed with each other, recorded on each other’s sessions and picked up elements of musical style and expertise from one another. Guitarist Roy Roberts says he learned a rhythmic pattern from Hudson that he’s never heard anyone else play. Quick, a singer with a gospel background, said she turned to Hudson to make her a better artists and a better vocalist. “I wanted to let him take my raw talent, to help me find my soul and become a good singer,” says Quick in the short film on Hudson.
In addition to Hudson, Roberts, Johnson and Bishop, Klesch’s film will also look into the career of producers like Walter Grady and Jimmy Cheek and others. (For more on the project, visit gatecitysoul.com. If you have photos, film footage or old recordings connected to the Greensboro soul scene, let Klesch know.)
It was a tight network, and one that was woven through the community. Bands played at a variety of venues, like the Forest Oaks Country Club, the El Roco Club, the Plantation Supper Club, the Carlotta Supper Club, and the Ponderosa Supper Club. When the musicians weren’t gigging, they were rehearsing, with Hudson’s kitchen serving as a practice space at times.
“We never stopped making music,” says Quick. She says Hudson had notebooks filled with music that they never got to record.
Even so, there’s a trail of songs that got put to tape and pressed to vinyl from the area. Klesch says he’s come across about 100 or so records from the early ‘60s to the late ‘70s that were all made by people in Greensboro. Re-issue labels have mined material from regional soul and funk scenes, with compilations focusing on hyper-local record companies from places like Ohio, Michigan and Florida. The label Paradise of Bachelors, which is out of Carrboro, released as its debut offering in 2010 a collection of soul and R&B showcasing the work of musician, songwriter, producer and entrepreneur David Lee who had a series of labels out of Shelby, North Carolina. One suspects a Greensboro-centric soul-funk compilation would help connect some of the dots. (The excellent website Carolina Soul, carolinasoul.org, compiles extensive information about soul, funk and gospel music from the Carolinas, including the Greensboro scene, gathering accounts and details from fans, scholars and musicians.)
“All these guys had these stories,” says Klesch of the musicians and producers he interviewed for the documentary project, which he hopes to finish with at least an initial edit in the coming months. “They were either related to or played with a lot of famous people.”
Klesch is a music fan, and he’s interested in the recordings, the artistry and the technique behind the songs, but he’s also keen to delve into the stories of the people who made the music.
“Some people kind of get off on the crate digging,” he says, “but the human aspect of this stuff is what these guys really related to me.”