You could probably be forgiven if the first time you thought of Seattle as having a vibrant music scene was when MTV first aired “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Thanks to an engrossing new documentary from first time feature director Jennifer Maas called Wheedle’s Groove that just played at the Seattle International Film Festival, you learn an awful lot about the thriving soul and funk scene from Seattle in the 1960s and ’70s. While few of the artists are remembered today and fewer broke out of this particular scene, it was thriving because there were a lot of clubs booking these bands and they were playing several nights and week to large crowds.
The Wheedle’s Groove project was first a compilation album from local buried treasure-finders Light in the Attic Records that they put out in 2004, featuring bands like Cold, Bold and Together, A Black On White Affair and Ron Buford. They aren’t household names today, but the compilation has sparked a renaissance of interest in this time and it has spawned a supergroup of sorts from this era who play and record as Wheedle’s Groove and released an album of new music in 2009 called Kearney Barton. When I interviewed director Maas at SIFF, she told me how the idea for this documentary came about. “I was doing a documentary, I was pretty new to making documentaries but I made a lot of short things, I decided I was going to find out how a music scene works behind the scenes. I started interviewing people like John Richards and Jason (Hughes) from Sonic Boom, different record labels. I was going to interview some of the Three Imaginary Girls, although I don’t know that I did. I think I planned that interview but I don’t think it ended up happening.” It changed, she said, when “I ended up interviewing Matt Sullivan at Light in the Attic. They were just about to put out this compilation of soul music from the 60s and 70s in Seattle called Wheedle’s Groove. I instantly decided that was the movie I needed to make instead of the one I had been making. There was a record release party (at Chop Suey) and I showed up there with a bunch of cameras and then here we are, five years later.” It should be noted that she and Sullivan also married in that time.
Maas said she felt fortunate to have learned of the project when she did because it make tracking down people to participate much less difficult. “I was lucky enough that I discovered the project just as the compilation was about to come out. Matt and Light in the Attic and Supreme (a record collector and DJ featured in the film who is a treasure of knowledge from the era) did all of the hard work. I think it took them two years to get everyone on board. When I was on board, everyone already loved them and trusted them and were excited about the project. It wasn’t that hard.” She added that “Kenny G and Quincy Jones were a lot more difficult. Some of the grunge-era folks weren’t super-easy but most people were happy to have been involved.”
Success, or at least in the sense of “making it big,” became elusive for a lot of musicians of this era. It is a common theme that runs through the movie. As Maas told me, “I think the sad truth is that most people just don’t get to make it. I think there is some sadness and bitterness there and I think if you talk to a lot of people, they’ll tell you that not making it is failure.” She added that “I don’t think ‘not making it’ is failure”. One example she cites is Robbie Hill, the drummer and bandleader for Robbie Hill’s Family Affair. He’s “a janitor at Seattle Central Community College and I’m sure he’d like to play music more, but I think he is good at what he does. He’s been employee of the year multiple times and people give him a high five as he walks down the hall. He loves what he does and has a great life. I don’t think there’s a lot of sadness there.” Hill is also the drummer for the supergroup that came from musicians of this era who still play on occasion together. “There is a drum break he plays and I’ve had grown men in the audience squeal when they saw him play that,” Maas also said of him.
Part of what made it more difficult for Seattle musicians from this era to break through was there wasn’t an infrastructure to support a nationally-known scene. As Maas told me, “there wasn’t a collective understanding of the industry here. Not very many musicians had managers and there wasn’t anyone here saying ‘this is what you need to do.’ They pounded the pavement and tried to make the money here and often they’d go to LA. That’s the story we saw over and over again where they’d journey to LA to try to make it and then they’d stay there for a while, but usually it didn’t happen… They could have used a little more guidance.” She added that there “wasn’t a Motown here” and wouldn’t be anything comparable until Seattle became synonymous with grunge in the early 1990s.
Most musicians from this era were able to work as musicians and didn’t need to keep day jobs. In one particular scene from the movie, Robbie Hill talks of telling his band they could make a living from playing music and they all took a leap of faith and did quit their jobs. It worked well for several years where they were able to live on what they made from playing shows nightly.
It’s not lost that the one musician from this era to become a star musician was Kenny Gorelick, a then-young saxophone player in Cold, Bold and Together who, of course, is now better known as Kenny G. “It’s a bit of a reward a few minutes into the film” Maas said. He also comes across as very likable and surprisingly cool. Maas told me, “he was really great to work with and was funny and self-effacing. I flew down to Houston to interview him before a show and he stopped his soundcheck because he wasn’t done reminiscing with us. I think people are surprised by that and it’s one of the bonuses in the film that it shows him in a different light.” Explaining further, she said, “He’s certainly villified by those of us who don’t connect to his music. The interesting thing to me about his audience is that he has a very large following of older black women who were listening to the same (type of) music that is in Wheedle’s Groove and that was what they transitioned into. One person I interviewed in the film really liked Kenny G and I asked her to explain it to someone who isn’t as familiar and she said ‘that is the music we were making babies to.’ I didn’t get to stay for his show but when you saw the crowd lining up, it was these really cool black women in their fifties and sixties. There’s a very direct lineage between the Wheedle’s Groove music and the music Kenny G was playing in the early ’80s.”
The documentary continues to play at film festivals and Maas said she hoped to partner with different local community groups across the country to show the film. “The dream is to have a small version of the supergroup that has come out of this movie tour with the film. They are really great and they can still play and it would be amazing to have them tour with this film. It’s a pretty expensive prospect, but that would be awesome,” she said. More modestly, she added “I think we’re going to have a theatrical run.” Meanwhile, the Wheedle’s Groove band continues to play shows locally, including playing a party for EMP members later this week and a free, lunch time concert at Harbor Steps on Friday, June 18 at noon. They continue to record, as well. Kearney Barton, which came out last year, Maas said “that was all new music that sounded like old music. It’s really good.” A favorite for her is “‘Jesus Christ Pose,’ which is a Soundgarden song that Pat Wright redid as a gospel song. She reinterpreted it. It’s sort of about rock stars standing up in a Jesus Christ pose acting persecuted on stage, which was probably a ’90s thing to do, I don’t see it much anymore, and Pat Wright turned it into a song about hypocrisy in the church and she’s a pastor. That was really, really amazing.” She then said “There also might be one or two more of the Wheedle’s Groove compilations, as well,” and added “there’s still a lot of music that’s not out.”