In Thunder Soul, a new documentary on Kashmere Stage Band, the legendary ‘70s era Texas high school group funk and soul ensemble, director Mark Landsman gives a history lesson for funk and soul enthusiasts while documenting a touching reunion and tribute for the band’s charismatic leader. Under the tutelage of Music Director Conrad “Prof” Johnson, KSB brought new life to an old format, mixing jazz with funk and soul and adding elaborate, choreographed routines to their set. For a genre dominated by Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, it was an audacious and unprecedented move, but helped Kashmere win national competitions and international acclaim.
Thunder Soul finds the band reuniting 30 years later to pay tribute to “Prof” with one final show. Landsman captures Johnson at 92; frail and infirmed, but still cognizant and appreciative of his students’ dedication and aware of his own influence on both his classes and the genre. With shows like Glee and American Idol as well as indie-rock blogs filling high school students with dreams of musical stardom, we can learn a few things from the KSB experience on how this can actually be accomplished. Hive asked Musical Director and Kashmere Stage Band graduate Craig Baldwin for some tips.
1. Record Albums After Class
Under the tutelage of Johnson, the band cut a series of albums in Houston that became national and international hits, including Zero Point 1972 and Out of Gas But Still Burning 1974. Many of the recordings would go out of print for decades until Stones Throw head Eothen “Egon” Alapatt resurrected them, releasing a series of the band’s music on Now-Again Records.
2. Anticipate the Competition
Kashmere was one of the first high school bands to record their music to vinyl and the first to record soul and funk songs. When you’re at the top, though, it means deflecting shots from the bottom. “We’d go to these contests and everyone knew we were cutting these albums,” said Baldwin. “So these other bands would get our albums and try to play our music against us. We’d still win, though.”
3. Destroy the Competition
Baldwin remembers one competition in Reno, Nevada that exemplified many of the band’s shows. “When we got on stage the first time, the 2,500-person auditorium was nowhere near full,” said the former keyboardist. “When we got to the quarterfinals, that place was packed to capacity with everyone cheering us on. We hadn’t even played a note yet in the round. They opened the curtain and you could hear a roar and thunderous applause. We walked down the halls and everyone wanted to touch us and get our autographs. We won pretty easily.”
4. Tour Europe
As the band’s name began to grow, so too did the distance traveled for gigs. In the early 1970s, the group was invited on numerous European tours. “Going abroad had to be the highlight of any kid’s life,” said Baldwin. “They played 4,000-person venues and then couldn’t go to certain places because people were mobbing them. Word of mouth spread quickly and everyone wanted to see who this band was. These are 16-year-old kids being treated like the Jackson 5 or Mick Jagger. No one in the band wanted to leave.”
5. Keep Your Ego in Check
One of Johnson’s strengths, according to Baldwin, was his ability to keep dozens of students level-headed each year despite the growing fame. “It’s surreal looking back, but it was no big deal because ‘Prof’ chilled us out and never allowed us to get a big head. He always kept us grounded. Before certain competitions, he would say, ‘Look at me,’ and everyone knew that meant to focus on the job at hand.”
Thunder Soul is in theaters now.