By Kelly Bell
The Unity and Diversity Committee is inviting the community to celebrate Diversity Week at the new location Mickey Melton Performance Center at Longview High School, 201 Tomlinson Parkway, Longview on October 6, at 7pm.
Kashmere High School Stage Band racked up more than three dozen awards and recorded as many as eight albums during its 1960s-1970s heyday. The message of the touring Kashmere alumni – the subject of a 2010 documentary – is less about winning and more about their hall-of-fame director, the late Conrad O. “Prof” Johnson, Sr.
“I love him. He’s still here,” said Craig Baldwin, chief operating officer and executive music director of Kashmere Stage Band Alumni. “Everything he’s ever done that I was a part of, I remember it like it was yesterday. I owe him, and I want to give it back to him any way I can give it back to him.
“I want people to know who he is, and I’m going to die trying, because he could have walked away with me.”
Baldwin joined nearly a dozen local residents at Longview Public Library on May 10 to watch Thunder Soul, a documentary about alumni of the Kashmere Stage Band returning home after 35 years to play a tribute concert in February 2008 for Johnson. Terrell native and Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx presented and executive produced the documentary about Johnson, credited with transforming the high school band into a legendary funk powerhouse.
How good was the Kashmere band? It wowed audiences around the world during a nine-year span, even claiming the 1972 All-American High School Stage Band Festival in Mobile, Ala., at a time when that state’s governor was segregationist George Wallace.
“As they say, you couldn’t write a story any better even if you made it up,” a writer described in a Hollywood Reporter critique of the film. “It’s that good.”
There are Northeast Texas connections. Johnson was a graduate of Wiley College in Marshall.
In 2006, Los Angeles, Calif.-based production company Now-Again Records compiled a two-disc album of seven years of Kashmere Stage Band recordings from 1968 until 1974. Johnson was listed as the producer and arranger of the original recordings. At least 32 songs from the band are available at 99 cents plus tax each on iTunes.
Also in 2006, a reporter for KUT in Austin, David Brown, interviewed the then-92-year-old Johnson. Brown began his article with the words, “High school stage performances often prove to be nothing more than memories, but Kashmere High School in northeast Houston has spawned a sensation that’s still drawing listeners some 40 years later.”
Johnson told Brown about attending an Otis Redding concert about four decades earlier. He had watchedReddingperform, and how he let every member of his band perform, sing, play and do everything on stage. Johnson went back to hisKashmereHigh Schoolband and asked the students if they could put on a show while playing their instruments.
“My band said, ‘If you believe we can do it, we can do it,’” Johnson told Brown.
With choreographed moves, platform shoes and matching crushed-velvet suits, the Kashmere Stage Band began a decade of dominance and influence. It won national championships, and it was considered among the nation’s best stage bands and funk bands. It recorded eight studio albums featuring at least 20 original compositions by Johnson and won 42 out of 46 contests it entered between 1969 and 1977. The students’ success led them to travel and perform throughout Europe,Japanand theU.S.
Following Johnson’s retirement in the late 1970s, the band’s recordings became prized by hip-hop producers and disc jockeys, who sampled them in other songs or played them in clubs, Brown wrote.
In 2000, Johnson was inducted into the Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame. The induction was not just for Kashmere Stage Band’s exploits, but also for his influence through more than 50 years in shaping theHoustonsound, noted for its elements of down-homeTexasblues and sophisticated jazz.
“Kashmere, at that time, was a palace… and Prof put Kashmere on the map, especially with all of these major competitions,” said Baldwin, a Channelview resident, during a recent visit to the Longview home of Victoria Wilson, who helped organize the May 10 film viewing..
Baldwin said Johnson’s discipline was firm, often unspoken and undoubtedly necessary in a northeast Houston public school filled with students from broken homes who battled going the wrong way each day. Kashmere High School became a source of community pride thanks to the award-winning stage band and other notable victories during the 1970s – the basketball team won back-to-back state titles in 1973 and 1974, when it claimed a mythical national title.
“He was ferocious when you crossed him like anybody would be, but he always told you why,”Baldwin said. “The majority of the time, it was silent. He could look at you a certain way, and you know. His gestures, it was just how he did things and how he spoke to us.”
In February 2008 – less than two days before his death – Johnson was feted during a tribute with 30 original members of the Kashmere Stage Band, who had reunited for the first time in at least 30 years. Johnson had been wheeled into the Kashmere High School auditorium, but he after receiving a standing ovation, he was helped to his feet before he said to the crowd, “All I can say is… thank you. We appreciate the fact you like our music.”
Along with the accolades,Baldwinremembers Johnson most for his fatherly influence. He recalled a time whenBaldwinrefused to play a keyboard solo in the style Johnson had written it be performed. Johnson ordered Baldwin, a talented percussionist, to leave the band, which won at least two competitions without him.Baldwindid not return until he heard an earful from his disappointed bandmates and took more than 10 licks from Johnson’s paddle.
“That man got my attention,”Baldwin said, “and if he hadn’t gotten my attention, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Information and a trailer about ThunderSoul: The True Story of Conrad Johnson & The Kashmere Stage Band is available at http://thundersoulmovie.com. The documentary won at least 10 awards prior to its September 2011 release, including audience awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, the Indie Memphis Film Festival and film festivals in Dallas and Los Angeles.