Matson on Music
Thoughts on "Wheedle's Groove," old-school Seattle soul/funk documentary at Seattle International Film Festival
Posted by Andrew Matson
"Wheedle's Groove" profiles Seattle's once-thriving now-forgotten soul/funk scene of the 1960s and '70s in entertaining and highly educational fashion. The Seattle Times' movie critic Moira Macdonald wrote about the documentary as part of our coverage of this year's Seattle's International Film Festival, during which "Wheedle's Groove" plays at Everett Performing Arts Center 05/28 and SIFF Cinema 05/30. Here are two things that caught my attention about it (besides the music):
"Wheedle's Groove" is sympathetic to and yet unapologetic about the fact its subject is obscure
Director Jennifer Maas uses a few techniques to make her movie more accessible to an entry-level audience.
Star Seattleites Quincy Jones, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Ben Gibbard appear as talking head historians and music experts, with Jones explaining the momentum preceding Seattle's soul/funk scene was Jackson Street jazz, which he famously figured into along with Ray Charles and Ernestine Anderson, saying "Seattle was the hottest city in America in World War 2"; Mix extolling the cultural vitality of the Central District, home of Seattle's black music; Gibbard noting the premise for "Wheedle's Groove" isn't just a cute "Didja know?" type story, but that the music was "actually really f___ing good."
Maas also uses Jones, Gibbard, and Mix-A-Lot (who narrates most of the film) as recognizable life preservers in a story about local music history that until now has been so unsung until, it's almost like it didn't happen.
Indeed, for many adult and younger Seattle-area dwellers with no direct connection to local black music history, the names of bands at the heart of "Wheedle's Groove" ring no bells: "Cold, Bold & Together," "Black on White Affair," "Robbie Hill's Family Affair," "Cookin' Bag," "The Soul Swingers."
Maas finds another entry point into those bands via DJ Mr. Supreme, a pioneering local hiphop figure and obsessive "digger" for old records. He co-compiled the original "Wheedle's Groove," an audio release for Aurora Avenue record label Light in the Attic, which Maas' husband Matt Sullivan co-owns. The audio "Wheedle's Groove" features re-issued songs by the same bands as in the movie, so Supreme figures into Maas' creation as a musical expert and archivist. Maas also uses him to represent how, in a world without her movie and Light In the Attic's releases ("Kearney Barton," a 2009 follow-up, reunites many "Wheedle's" musicians), today's generation might get into old-school Seattle soul/funk/R&B: Supreme's path was blind chance intersecting with his own curiosity and hardcore nerdery.
He kicks off the film explaining that the name of Black on White Affair's "Bold Soul Sister, Bold Soul Brother" jumped out at him while sifting through a shoebox at a record convention, and after listening to the 45 on his portable player (because people who go to record conventions carry portable record players), he took it home. "The drums were crazy," he says, and as the opening credits roll, we hear what he means: After a few ragged organ stabs, "Bold Soul Sister" goes into a clanging drums-only breakdown, hiphop ore requiring only basic looping to become an instant rap song or b-boy soundtrack.
Supreme's subsequent stories — he noticed an address printed on a record and then drove there, only to find bushes in Lynnwood — show a level of dedication most music fans just don't have. Nevertheless, he embodies the audience in "Wheedle's Groove," a second-hand fan intrigued on many levels by an old, dead scene, humbled by how little he knows.
Maas addresses the obscurity of her subject courteously and cleverly, but also doesn't shy away from the "why" behind it. Why doesn't Seattle know its soul/funk/R&B history? "Wheedle's" musicians explain racism factored into making it so.
Patrinell (now Pastor Pat Wright) Staten says when it counted, local radio support just wasn't there, no matter how hard she tried to pitch local black sounds (besides KYAL, the black station). Jamar Jenkins, guitarist for Cold, Bold & Together, says felt like the music scene was "like Jim Crow," with black bands kept in black clubs (more than 50% black musicians equaled "black band") and away from much bigger paychecks in white ones despite the quality and hyperlocal popularity of their music. Kenny G, who was also in Cold, Bold & Together, says there was even an all-white version of his and Jenkins' band called Push who played the same soul music, and "they were playing all the gigs, making all the money."
"Wheedle's Groove" highlights a pre-gentrification Central District with a cracking nightclub music scene
I live in the Central District right now, and let me tell you: There is nothing to do here at night, musicwise.
OK, that's not true. I can sometimes find a band or solo performer at Waid's Caribbean Restaurant, Thompson's Point of View, Watertown Coffee, Hidmo Eritrean Restaurant, 20/20 Cycle, or a house party. Some Ethiopian places have DJs. There's enough energy in the neighborhood — and overflowing from Seattle's current nightclub music epicenter, Capitol Hill — to at least make trace amounts of nighttime music activity.
But that's not the C.D. in "Wheedle's Groove," where solo performer Ron Buford says, "five blocks in any direction, you run into a club." During a montage in the movie, a man I believe is Tony Gable, percussionist for Cold, Bold & Together, says, "People wouldn't go out until 11 o'clock. And there were after hours places. Sometimes we'd play until 4 o'clock in the morning. Thursday through Sunday: packed."
Unless I have completely overlooked some aspect of Central District life (let me know in the comments), none of that is happening today.
Image from Light in the Attic
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