Visitors to Seattle, and people who talk about us on TV and stuff, have a certain stereotype of Seattle as white, latte drinking liberals, fish throwers and Space Needle polishers, Bill Gates personal assistants and sasquatch poachers standing in the rain talking about Nirvana doing a cover of Jimi Hendrix doing a song about Bruce Lee’s posse being on Broadway. All of it is true, but do they also know about our past as a hotbed of soul and funk music?
Alot of people didn’t until 2004 when the great local label Light in the Attic Records released Wheedle’s Groove, a compilation of songs by forgotten Seattle groups from 1965-1975, many of them with corny names like Black On White Affair, Robbie Hill’s Family Affair or Cold, Bold & Together. A cratedigging DJ named Mr. Supreme had discovered a few funk 45s with Seattle addresses on them, did some research and learned that a whole scene of talented musicians had thrived in Seattle’s Central District in the ’60s and ’70s, only to be forgotten because they never quite hit outside of our isolated encampment here. This documentary extends their story into a visual medium.
It’s mostly an interview movie. There’s a tiny bit of vintage footage, and plenty of old photos and hand drawn flyers to spruce things up visually. Mr. Supreme tells his story of driving to addresses he found on dusty record labels and publicity stills, finding nothing but bushes or knocking on doors of people who had no idea what he was talking about, eventually meeting people who knew people out of pure coincidence (the lady at the post office who randomly strikes up a conversation about the funk band her boyfriend was in).
Grammy Award winner and guy-I-once-saw-leaving-a-Thai-restaurant Sir-Mix-a-lot narrates and also is interviewed in the role of guy-from-Seattle-people-know-about-besides-”grunge”-bands. They also keep showing musicians from white rock groups: a guy from Soundgarden, a guy from Mudhoney, a guy with a beard and a large scarf. These little parts kind of annoyed me because they imply some kind of importance to these people vouching for the quality of the music being discussed. The movie doesn’t make it seem like they know jack shit about soul music and doesn’t seem to draw very strong parallels between the two scenes, so it’s not clear why I’m supposed to care what they have to say about it.
But don’t worry, most of the interviews are with the musicians from the compilation. We see them in their normal houses, their UW t-shirts, sitting on their couches or in restaurant booths, talking about the old days, what the different clubs were like, what they dreamed about accomplishing, who they met. They talk about the Black Panthers and trying to put messages in their music, about not being able to get the gigs the white musicians got. They show a funny picture of an all white band called “Push” that got to play all the good gigs – man, I wish they dug those guys up for an interview!
Eventually they all figured out that Jimi and Quincy had to leave Seattle to make it big, so they tried that too. But of course nobody really pulled it off. Quincy Jones is actually interviewed too and some of the people talk about meeting him and almost getting a deal or something, but of course he doesn’t remember them. Turns out his brother ran a black radio station here that was very influential, though.
Of course the movie’s got kind of a sadness to it, because you know they’d rather be on camera talking about their long music careers than about the one that got away. And alot of us can relate to this feeling. I’m not a musician but I know what it’s like to juggle what you really want to be doing with punching a clock, your dreams of what you want to accomplish seeming less achievable every day older you get. But also you start to appreciate what you have and the reality that most people don’t get a bunch of money for having fun so you gotta do it for yourself. It bummed me out to hear one musician saying “It wasn’t my dream to be a teacher” and not following that up with “but I never could’ve imagined how fulfilling this would be” or something like that.
But also you can’t feel too sorry for them. They had fun while it lasted. I bet they can tell some stories the other guys in the teacher’s lounge couldn’t. They have this impressive thing in their past that some of the young people want to hear about. Or at least DJ Mr. Supreme. Good for them.
It’s kind of funny, they show these old photos and then cut to the people now, it shows you how badly we white people age. The black people and the Chinese guy look good, and you think “Yeah, he looks like a funk guy,” but the white people look like old grandpas. One exception is Kenny G, the epitome of smooth jazz horrors and a member of Cold Bold & Together. He actually seems really nice and humble. And there’s a funny scene about the rest of the band debating over whether him supposedly playing like Grover Washington Jr. made it okay to have a white guy in the band.
I enjoyed this movie because the subject is interesting to me. But it doesn’t have that lucky spark that makes a great documentary, which I think usually comes from having interesting people on camera. I mean these people are interesting, but they’re not the kind of fascinating people you would want to watch even if they were talking about something else. One possible exception is this guy Kearney Barton, who it turns out is a legendary Seattle sound engineer. Light in the Attic brings the Wheedle’s Groove musicians to Barton’s house to record a new album. His house is filled with chaotic piles of boxes and recordings and the motherlode of vintage recording equipment, including a soundboard with hundreds of wires coming out of it like the aftermath of a noodle factory explosion. Barton doesn’t say much on camera, but seeing his house makes me think an interesting movie could be made just about that guy.
I feel like alot of the stuff isn’t explained very well, for example Mr. Supreme keeps mentioning “Golden Oldies” but I don’t know if people outside of Seattle will understand that he’s talking about a record store. But maybe they will. It also looked like they weren’t gonna explain where the hell the title comes from, but then there’s a scene during the credits that explains it pretty well. (“The Wheedle” was a children’s book character created to promote the Space Needle who used to be the mascot for the Supersonics before they switched to a sasquatch and before they left town. “Wheedle’s Groove” I guess was the name of a song a radio station used during their coverage of the ’77-’78 NBA finals.)
If you watch the trailer below it shows a touching story of rebirth or something, and that’s there. One of the highlights for me is late in the game when Robbie Hill plays drums for the new recording they’re doing and holy shit, I didn’t expect him to be as good as he is. But to me the movie doesn’t go deep enough or have a strong enough story arc to be great. The interviews start to get repetitive at times, showing multiple musicians saying the same sort of thing in different words, and there’s not a whole lot of surprises. But it’s only 87 minutes so it’s not that big of a problem.
Some of the more interesting aspects of this story I wasn’t sure if the filmatists were being subtle or hadn’t noticed them. The racial component gives you some things to think about. The movie describes a racially segregated Seattle, with the vast majority of Seattle’s black population living in the Central District at that time (something that hasn’t changed that drastically I don’t think). This was definitely caused by racism, but the movie argues that it was a good place to live culturally and even for its view of the Puget Sound. Mix-a-lot compares it to Harlem. It seems like all these bands and clubs could not have risen outside of that culture, and these bands wouldn’t exist.
But in order to make their dreams come true and live off of doing the thing they loved they would’ve had to succeed outside of that neighborhood, and that wasn’t happening. The movie recognizes the irony of the nerdy white guy who had to fight to get into one of the bands being the only one to go on to huge success as a musician. Out of respect, though, it doesn’t mention that in order to do that he had to alchemically alter jazz into the whitest, least soulful style of music imaginable.
The record label that made this rediscovery and documentary possible is of course run by a young white guy, because honestly that’s the profile of most of the people that are into this type of music today. Why is that? And bringing in the white musicians from the ’90s raises some questions too. I honestly don’t know, do those guys still make a good living off their music, or are they starting to be in a position like the funk guys? The funk guys talk about “grunge” as if it’s something that’s still going on, that you can be nationally successful if you play that type of music, but I don’t think that’s been the case for a good 10-15 years. They probly got more money in the short run but I think most of those record deals fell apart pretty quick.
Whatever the situation is there is one good moment that justifies the inclusion of at least one of those musicians, when he discusses the gospel version of one of his songs recorded for the new album. That’s a good moment. I gotta get that Kearney Barton album, I guess.
Of course the movie made me dig out the first album to listen to again, unfortunately the disc was not inside the case. I’m gonna have to get DJ Mr. Supreme to do his detective thing and figure out where my CD is, or maybe somebody at the post office will tell me. It’s a good album though – like the scarf guy says in the movie it’s exciting not because it’s a forgotten chapter in Seattle music history, but because the music is actually good. There are definitely some corny lyrics on there about sisters and brothers getting together and what not, because alot of these guys were really into Sly and the Family Stone. In fact, Robbie Hill’s Family Affair does a song called “I Just Want To Be (Like Myself)” and I’m pretty sure they knew about Sly’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” But there’s some good shit on there, my favorites from what I remember being the great “Little Love Affair” by Patrinell Staten and The Overton Berry Trio doing “Hey Jude” live at Seattle’s Doubletree Inn where they must’ve been the bar band. The former is heavily featured in the movie, the latter discussed on a deleted scene but not played (I don’t blame them for not wanting to pay for the publishing).
Anyway, I’m glad they dug this stuff up, it’s interesting to a guy like me. I wouldn’t say I highly recommend this movie, but I regularly recommend it for people interested in funk and soul music or Seattle history, and if you’re into both like me obviously you got no choice but to see it.
APPENDIX: Alphabetical list of Seattle things I’m proud of, with optional notes (because I want you to know there are other things here besides Starbucks and Amazon).
Allen, Paul – he’s a Microsoft millionaire everybody hates, but I like that he produced TITUS, kept the Cinerama in business and built a ridiculous rock and sci-fi museum
The Cinerama – home of giant screen, chocolate popcorn and Blade’s costume
Cupcake Royale – people get snobby and try to say other lesser known cupcake joints are better. Might be true but I just had a 2-day old Red Velvet and that shit was still delicious stale.
Dick’s Burgers – I actually don’t go there, but I like how in the parking lot it just says “DICKS” with an arrow pointing in
Elliot Bay Bookstore
Elvis was here – he led a marching band past the Seattle Center fountain. It’s on film.
Gates, Bill – not for the computer shit but because he’s building this huge headquarters just for charity work, that’s pretty cool. It’s hard to hate some of our rich people we got here.
Jones Soda – well, not anymore. They stopped making their excellent cola and I think they got sold to out of towners
Lee, Bruce – somebody build a fuckin statue, for Christ’s sake
Mighty-O Donuts – I guess these are vegan but you wouldn’t know it because they’re so soft and light
Molly Moon’s Ice Cream - I guess as long as I’m acknowledging donuts and cupcakes I should give it up for one of our ice cream geniuses. There are other good shops too such as Full Tilt.
Mystery Books – this is how I find out when a Charles Willeford book I don’t have has been reprinted, it shows up at Mystery Books, which is all mystery/suspense/crime type books
Rat City Roller Girls – geez, what does Reanimateher gotta do to get MVP?
Scarecrow Video - gigantic, independent, awesome and requested in the comments
Seattle Public Library, downtown branch - I bet you guys don’t have a library that looks like this. And I’m told they have both of my books
Top Pot Donuts – I’ve heard of fancy donuts in Portland and NYC, I’d love to try them but Top Pot excels at the fundamentals such as the old fashioned glazed
Watts, Reggie – I left him off because he moved to New York, but I’m claiming Jimi and Bruce so what the hell. By request, I’m adding him to the list!
I realize this list makes me sound like a fat guy eating cupcakes and donuts all day, this is not the case, it just happens we got some good bakers around here I guess. We are a sweet pastry town. Maybe that’s why McQ wanted to be a cop here.