Egon Interviews Monty Stark (2001)
- December 03, 2009
Eothen "Egon" Alapatt interviewed Monty Stark in 2001, leading up to Stones Throw's release of the Stark Reality anthology, Now. The interview is presented here in full. It is originally published at nowagainrecords.com where Egon's writes some background to the meeting. Photo by B+
Egon: First, I have to ask you about your voice. It’s most unique; I can’t place the it’s origins though.
Monty Stark: I’m a white kid from Oklahoma. I have a country voice.
Where we you born?
I was born in Vinica, Oklahoma. I moved from there. My father was teaching in high school. He went from bigger schools to bigger ones. We went all over Oklahoma, and a little over the border into Arkansas. (We ended up in) Norman, OK, in 1958 when I left.
Did your father teach music?
Actually that’s a complex relationship – the one I shared with my father… a beautiful one. It’s hard to get anything out of him. I could ask him a question, and he’d lead me in the direction, but all the answers I’d have to find for myself. That’s the way it’s been all my life. I would start myself on some path, ask him a question, he’d guide me a little on the path, or give me some sarcastic remark (laughs). He played the trumpet. And he was educated in music. I started on the ukelele, probably. Who knows? I was three or four. Then I moved to guitar. Piano was something that’s always been there. There was one in the house. I used it for writing. I started writing songs (when I was young). It’s always been there. That’s the curse. I have to keep making new music, and understanding music more. Every day. Twenty four hour a day. This has happened as long as I can remember. There were a few interruptions… life situations.
Were you formally trained?
Well, like I said, I had to discover it myself.
So, no teachers that stood out?
Teachers? On and off. In and out. I was in band. Bands were great, I hope they still are. (I was in) concert band, marching band. This was during the ‘50s.
What kind of music were you listening to at the time?
All kinds of music. I have influences from all music, from country to Bartok.
When I was eight or nine I was a child phenomenon of a square dance caller. (both laugh). Yeah! My father even has pictures.
Were you listenig to jazz?
Shortly thereafter. I outgrew country music because of the musical education. After a while you get so smart everything “else” is stupid. Rock came later.
Early rock, like Ike Turner?
That’s not rock n’ roll, that’s music. (laughs) The genres change, and they mean something else today than they did then. The genre thing is very confusing. People have to focus in on a little area, if they want to go deep into something. There’s much too much out there, to do everything.
So, Ike Turner?
Oh sure, he’s a contemporary. I was out playing the same circuit as Ike Turner. I played the Chittlin’ Circuit with Red Prysock, Arthur’s brother. I was underage. I was the 7th member of a seven-piece band, all black except for me, touring the whole country in the years of segregation. I left in ‘58 and went to Berklee in Boston. They had nothing for me. (laughs) I knew all of that crap. So I went to New York, I was there for a week and then I went on the road with Red. Arthur’s brother. I was with him till ‘60 or ‘61. Two years.
Why did you choose to attend Berklee?
I wanted to be a professional musician. I went to see Alan Dawson – he was to be my vibes instructor -and he flat out told me “I can’t teach you anything. “
You were “that” good?
Back then, I hate to admit it, I was almost as good as I am now. I’ve been working at it ever since then…
Why the vibes?
It was just a logical instrument for me to play. I was primarily a writer, arranger, orchestrator. And vibes stayed in tune, and were a nice instrument. I started (on the vibes) in Oklahoma, at about age thirteen or fourteen.
Who were your musical heroes?
Milt Jackson. The record that turned my head was one by Modern Jazz Quartet. A 10” with “Django” on it. Everybody should know that track. I heard that track when it first came out, on the original 10.” I haven’t been the same since.
What is it about that track in particular?
It’s not the orchestration, it’s just a quartet. It’s what they were expressing. The understanding of things that cannot be said in words that they were able to express musically. That’s what I’m looking for. What everybody should be looking for. If that is expressed, and understood by you, I’m not sure (trails off)…
By that time you were playing vibes?
I don’t know if that caused me to get vibes, or if I already had them. I probably had heard Red Marlowe. But maybe not.
Tll me about your time in Boston.
I worked in Boston. I worked with everybody in Boston. In fact I’m on the Berklee LP, the Jazz In The Classroom LP, the second one they did. This was the late 50s. when I went there. I was there a month… well, maybe I lived there for six months. I worked with all the Berklee musicians, I went there to play every now and again. I played gigs, sure. Ever hear of Art Van Damme? He was big, I was his Boston vibes player. When I moved to New York I picked up work immediately. I was on the road a little over the year, then I quit. I worked in New York a bit then went on the road again with Red Prysock.
What made you return to Boston?
I was in Philadelphia for a while, I was in Baltimore a while with my trio. I was leading: The Monty Stark Trio. Mostly we played my own compositions, and bebop. It was pretty out there, but there was an audience for that. A black audience.
And the band?
All black, except for me! Laughs. Yeah. I moved back to Boston to work. Phil (Morrison – bassist) was there. I knew Phil when I was there before. I met him early on, oh yeah, in the late 50s. Oh yeah, we were into several things, Phil and I. He was a little older.
You got along well together.
Yeah, that was one reason. I liked the way he played. He was a nice guy. (laughs) Well, everybody’s nice if you like the way they play. Almost everybody. That’s how it comes together.
Did you start playing together immediately?
Yeah, we got some gigs. He worked with other people, I worked with other people. You’re leading up to WGBH. I was there, practically, the entire decade of the 60s. I did all sorts of stuff there. It’s a production house. I was the guy that everybody called to do the gigs. They paid crap, but they paid. Of course there were no royalties.
You were on staff?
(I was the) on staff music man. I (had previously) recorded with Red. I don’t think any of it saw the light of day. “Say Brother” (the 45 RPM single on Big Yellow Records) was the first release. I had recorded a couple of things in Oklahoma; there are studios out there.
Why form the Stark Reality?
That’s what they wanted, (at least for) “Say Brother.” In fact, I recorded something at GBH, which was a mistake anyway, I think with the three of us. It wasn’t what they wanted, so they explained to me what they wanted. I said, “fine, that will just cost money.” I had to pay six horns and use a real studio and all that. They said “ok,” and I did it.
You coined the name? It’s quite a good one.
Probably. I think it was for that project. It was me, Phil and Vinnie (Johnson – drummer). We had done jazz gigs as the Monty Stark Trio, I guess. We called it what it was. We had six horns, electric bass with Hershel Dwellingham on drums. Phil played accoustic bass and sang. Vinnie played percussion and sang.
Do you remember the horn players?
I think Carl (Atkins – saxophone) was on that record. For the next Stark Reality, we kept Carl and we got John (Abercrombie – guitar).
So the Stark Reality wasn’t just a studio band, but a performing ensemble as well?
Yeah. We did TV stuff on GBH, which they archived. By then it was six horns, Phil on electric bass. Then there’s some stuff we did as a quintet.
Tell me about how you met Vinnie Johnson?
I met him through Phil. Everybody else (from the Stark Reality) is through Phil. Abercrombie too. I just asked Phil to get me what I needed. He got me what I needed. He knew everybody. He knew the sound I was looking for. At that point Phil and I knew each other.
But surely you had to explain your influences? Or what you were trying to do – fuse jazz, funk (or proto funk), rock instrumentation and, for lack of a better term, an “out” element into one, unique whole?
This is the way we were, the way we played. It’s still the way I am today.
But Vinnie said he had to learn funk to be in the Stark Reality…
It had to be felt. You can’t tell someone to play funk, and they’ll play funk. If they’re not funky, they’re not funky.
Were you listening to funk at the time? Or the music that would later be called “funk?”
This gets back to the cultures at the time. There were two separate cultures in this country at the time – two separate cultures. Negro, it was called, and white. The one that was beautiful and loving and everything else I wanted to be a part of was black. So of course that was the music I loved.
How did your family feel about this?
They had nothing against me. My father is a great man. He never put any feeling of “I’m better than you because I’m… (laughs) something or other. “
Tell me about On Being Black…
That was a series of dramas – that was a national show – that I did the music for. It was just me and Phil and whatever else I needed. Sometimes it was just me manipulating tapes. The budgets were very, very low.
I would lay the music down at the studios. Sometimes as the show was being mastered. Sometimes they did the show as a soap opera. They would hire people who were doing soaps in New York (and) have them come in for a week and rehearse, and then they would put the show on. They had them stacked. So every week I was working with two directors. One on the show going up, and one on the show going down. And I did that for the whole run of the show. Composing the music, arranging it, recording it and laying it in. You know, for two to three hundred dollars a week, maybe. I was making it, oh yeah.
The music that you were recording at the time. There’s an underlying tension – violence, even – in the music. Sure, some of it’s happy, some of it’s angry. But there’s something underneath it all. Did that tension come from you, and your bandmates? With what you were feeling at the time?
I can’t speak for everybody else, man.
The people you were hanging with at the time – they were conscious types?
Oh, (back then) you couldn’t (close your eyes).
Why, because of the unrest? The riots?
Yes. Roxbury burned down. In ‘68-‘69.
Vinnie was living there at the time.
Yeah, I was there. I living not too far from there. With my black wife and black son.
What lead to the recording of the first album [Released in 2003 as 1969]?
The quartet with Carl? That was from a relationship. I started it in the studio I recorded “Say Brother” in. It was in Maynard, Massachusetts, above a “five and ten cents” store. A converted theatre. It was a huge room covered with exposed fiberglass. So we were all breathing that in. They called it Big Yellow Studios. They put the record out; GBH had nothing to do with that. They asked us back so I got together the quartet with Carl. The songs we recorded were all mine songs except for one, which was by a friend of mine. “Pretty Music” – Bob Melloms wrote that one. I think he’s still living; he’s on the internet.
The recording quality of that session is far beyond that of the “Say Brother” 45.
“Say Brother” was a different engineer, and it’s in mono. (Those recordings were) a year apart I guess. There was also a better engineer.
Were all of these songs recorded live?
“Say Brother” was live, but we overdubbed the vocals. I figured this song was about black power, for a black TV show, so it shouldn’t just be me singing. So we had parts, it’s well done. (laughs) But the stuff with Carl is live – live! I lead on all of the vocals. I would just give them something to sing. For some reason, I don’t know. As I said, I’m a white kid from Oklahoma. I have a country voice.
And no one commented about that?
(Laughs long and hard) Well, yeah. I can’t think of anybody… There was nothing “against the law” in the 70s. I don’t know. I don’t even know why I sang, but there were some things I wanted to say with words because it could be done.
“Red Yellow Moonbeams” has always stuck with me. It was the first of these unreleased songs that I heard on Phil’s reel- to-reels.… What’s that song about?
It’s trying to say something that cannot be said. An easy answer would be impossible. I don’t how much of it is still about what I’m about today. (My music) goes through some changes, yeah.
The stuff I did with the quintet with Carl: the owner of the studio took it to Ahmad (Jamal) and he wanted to sign it. Then the children’s stuff came about.
The children’s record [The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop, reissued in part as Now] - all of the music was recorded on the same day. The next day I came back and did the vocals. Then I came back and mixed, and made copies the third day.
Tell me about how Ahmad Jamal approached you to broach the idea of a recording contract for the Stark Reality?
He didn’t call. The first time I talked to Ahmad was when I met him in his office in New York to sign the (recording contract) papers. Everything I heard about him I heard through Hoagy, after he got involved.
You’re referring to Hoagy Carmichael, Jr.?
He had come to GBH from Wall Street. He got hired on to the On Being Black show. He asked the Say Brother people where they got their music from, they said me, so he called me. He was like the assistant producer….
Shortly thereafter he crafted the idea for a program based on his father’s children’s music. And what happened – he told you that you’d be in charge of the music?
Well, Hoagy and I became friends over the On Being Black experience. He had these children’s songs…. And this idea he was putting together. Well, we worked on it together.
Did you know the songs?
I’d never heard them before. He gave me the book. I reharmonized the living daylights out of them and made them into music. With the harmony and the rhythm. I wrote out the parts (for the band) and we rehearsed. We went to the studio and recorded. It was professional, with real good musicians.
Some were waltzes, some were funk based, some were jazz based….
It’s a little more involved than that. I wrote out the music. I arranged the music. I know that’s a weird concept – people don’t understand it. Some of those parts might say – like on “Rocket Ship” – “Takes off, I’m going to be playing something that sounds tonal, but you establish your own tonality and stay there. Ignore me.” That would be the chart for something as spacey as “Rocket Ship”. Phil ended up playing Morse Code on that song, on bass. The bass part is a message in Morse Code. I didn’t write out drum parts, I would tell Vinnie what it was.
Like on “All You Need To Make Music?” Vinnie’s playing very specific parts on that song.
That’s all written down, charted out. I probably did write out a part for Vinnie on that one. But you don’t have to write the drums as specific as you write for other people. (It all) depended on the instrument and what you wanted.
Do you have any idea what Phil was saying with his Morse Code on “Rocket Ship?”
He told me what the message was, I don’t remember it exactly. It’s a peace and love message….there was nothing necessary for him to be but color on that song. Except where the vocal is. I had to play a tonal part that would let me know what the vocal was.
And on your vibes? What kind of effects were you using?
I had thirty seven microphones. One buried in the bottom of the tube under every bar. And I found a fuzz pedal that would work. A Fender fuzz thing that had two switches on it. The buttons were on the floor.
John plays almost the entire album through his fuzz pedal.
Yeah, whatever type of effects he was in love with at the time. Only two songs on that album weren’t Hoagy’s: “ Blue Pillow” and “All You Need To Make Music” – the instructional piece for the children’s show. These things were cut up into commercials like Sesame Street commercials (to use during Hoagy’s show) with animation. I had to do that. I animated the notes as they were being sung. I wrote a study guide for the school – a study guide with posters.
Do you remember how long the show lasted?
I don’t know how many years. It was supposed to be national, but it missed. I think it only ran in Boston. I don’t know if it ran one season or more.
Were songs like “Rocket Ship” on the show?
No, not the whole thing. We would have our commercials, and then the show was Hoagy, Sr., with three kids, one of whom was my son. That was the on camera talent. I had that going too. I would be at work – with my son acting, and me in the control room. My kid was seven or eight at the time. His name is Monty Jr.
What was the concept of the show?
Hoagy owned a music shop. He was in this store and the kids would come in after school, and Hoagy would show them things and play them songs. Each show was based around one song. So each show we did, that’s how many songs there were. An instructional series for children, to learn something about music.
“All You Need To Make Music…”
All of those sections were animated and were run, and rerun and repeated throughout the course of the series. Each section was cut into spots. I would have sixty second spots to do throughout the show. Hoagy would do a segment or two with the kids – and perform a song with them – and in between those segments with him I’d run these commercials. We’d have graphics and films and animation.
Did you ever meet anyone that, at home, watched these shows with their kids?
(laughs) I don’t know if anyone ever did, man! I have no idea.
I can’t imagine an eight year old kid having any idea of what was going on….
So? I don’t think it survived long enough to be influential. But it got a great review in the national TV Guide.
And Hoagy liked the music.
He and I had a great relationship. When I drove out from Boston to Los Angeles, I stayed at his place. He wasn’t a nice guy but he and I got along great. I’ll put it that way. (laughs) Oh yeah, I loved him. And he loved me.
He was a powerful man. He owned a lot of famous compositions.
He was a star. By this time he was older than I (currently) am. And he was still getting older.
And knocking back the scotch.
(laughs) You know about that?
After you recorded the music, how did Ahmad react?
I didn’t give him anything. It was given to him for me. I just gave a signature on a piece of paper. But he did what he could do at the time. He liked it; he believed in it. He got us a gig at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. For a week, following Cannonball Adderley. And nobody came. Who knew? We went down to LA and did, whatever they had, whatever night, at the Troubadour. It was put together for us to do, we didn’t beg anybody. It was hooked up through Ahmad and Hoagy was functioning as a manager at the time.
How were the live shows?
The Troubadour was great. We followed someone and went on, and I explained to the people who we were and what we were. What we had done and what we were going to do. And we did it, and it was killer. And I got a card from a guy named Guy Nevarian, from Chappell Publishing in California. I went back to Boston and when I decided to go to California, I had that card. That was my only contact. He got me into Sound City and the rest is history.
Why did the Stark Reality break up? A lack of work?
Right. It’s not a matter of breaking up: if there are no gigs there are no gigs. And I got interested in analog synthesizers. In ’69,’70, I actually ended up doing a lot for GBH on synthesizer too. The studio was going to go out of business, the one in Maynard. So I bought the synthesizer. I put it in the back of a VW Beetle and drove to LA. I ended up using that synthesizer on Fleetwood Mac and all types of things.
Hoagy had an apartment on the Sunset Strip. He was on the Thunderbird Golf Course in Palm Springs, but he had an apartment on Sunset. I stayed with him a month until I got an apartment.
I started working on the synthesizer, and as an engineer. I ended up making the most money I made as an engineer. You could make $50 an hour for as many hours as you stayed alive. If you were a hot engineer. And I was as hot as you could get, in 1976.
You made a living doing session work until 1976?
Yeah, for everybody. On synthesizer, engineering, or both. I came here (Arizona) in ‘76 and I was out of music until I got a call to produce and engineer a Buddy Miles thing for Atlantic. So in ‘79. I went back and did that – Sneak Attack – and that’s where I met Geordie Hormell, who owned Village Recorders. I’ve been with Geordie for decades. I would work on some things for him, and whatever I wanted to work on after hours with the synthesizers.
Why did you leave LA?
In ‘76 my wife got murdered. That was an incredible part of my life, because it involved so many things. Including the way I was viewed by people I was working with. Everything about my life (changed).
There wasn’t anymore work in Hollywood for me anymore. It was y fault, and their fault. You know.
Well, it’s hard to understand without giving an example. I was doing a disco date – I was the king of disco at this point. Engineering it, that is. The number one record I had was a Candi Staton record. I love that music. And those players. They were just doing the gigs, just like I was doing. And they were good. I mean, the best players!
I played synthesizer on that album too. Dave Crawford was my main client. I would remix stuff that was recorded in Philadelphia all the time. I had to use what was at that time illegal substances just to keep me up to do all the work. I was working fifteen to sixteen hour days at least. More energy than I could spend, even on illegal substances!
I never did describe this scene. I was doing this session. This was after the funeral. My wife had disappeared for two weeks. We finally found her in the morgue. I knew her from the 60s. It was… I met her when I was married…. and she was a great singer. One of the greatest. Mamie Lee. She was black. The decade-plus years later that we ran into each other later in California, she was divorced and I was divorced. And boy, so we started making music and the whole thing and then bam! She was killed.
I had tons of analog tape, and in about 1990 I got rid of it all. Hoagy, Jr. sent me a tape; evidently I had made him a copy.
I’ve listened to it a few times since then. It’s something I’d never let out. It’s too personal to let out. It was incredible, and the music was incredible.
But anyway I was at this session, and the contractor, who was a woman, came in and asked me how Mamie was…. ‘Cause Mamie would come by to bring me (laughs) necessary supplies- like a sandwich. She knew Mamie. I don’t know exactly what I said. But this was in the control room, in Studio A. Lee Ritenhour was in the room. I don’t remember who else. But a chill just fell over that room. I knew at that point that it was over for me in Hollywood. I knew it then. Sure enough.
That producer, Dave Crawford, did try to get me back to work on some stuff but by that point I didn’t even answer the door. He would bring me gifts and stuff. I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore because what was I doing – I was making other people sound good….
And you couldn’t record the one you wanted to record most, the woman you loved. Her murder…
Unsolved. Yeah. I know who did it. And how it was done. The people who did it are dead now too. Things happen in life. (laughs) I don’t look at it now, it was necessary. I shouldn’t have been doing that anyway. I think I’ve expressed to you – something that happened in the past, that’s it. It is what it is.
How old were you when this happened?
In ‘76 I was 36. I was born in ‘40.
When you think back, were the experiences you shared with The Stark Realty some of the key ones in your life?
Well, everything has a beginning and an ending. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Then either. This is a new phenomenon I’m getting myself educated on. This whole deep funk thing, I’m finding out I was a big part of. I’m just now finding out, from the mid to late 90s, I was being picked up on by some kids. I knew nothing about it, until you called me and I said “I better get another computer and get back to wasting all this time on line.”
What interests me most is that, at first, the people who rediscovered your music were black kids from the inner cities.
It’s an artifact from the past which is able to express something today. It’s gratifying. I’m sure no one else has made a funk record with an acoustic bass solo over an electric bass. I like to show what freedom is in music. You don’t have to be confined to a particular scale and point in time. You can depart from that and come back to it. I love freedom, and I love to use it.
Many people mention The Stark Reality in the same breath as Sun Ra
I’m not surprised…. He was a contemporary and I was familiar with what he was doing at the time. It wasn’t just an out of control riot.
Before we end, let’s go back to your voice. Specifically, the vocals you recorded for the AJP album.
I overdubbed those. I just sang each one four times. There were parts. But I sang the songs exactly as they were written.
Your approach on the AJP album was different than on your first album On 1969 you allowed your voice to go wherever you felt. On the AJP album, for lack of a better description, you choose to hit the right notes.
I sang correctly on the Hoagy children’s stuff and on my stuff I’m trying to be emotional without the equipment.
I think of “Too Much Tenderness.” That’s truly a sad, breathtaking song. And your voice bends out of tune when you sing certain – often the most painful – lyrics of the song. Your voice adds to a sublime experience.
Yeah, that’s a strange song. Really the only vocal song we did, I guess. There’s no instrumental soloing at all. Well, there’s a bit of Carl on the flute.
And now? What are you doing?
I’m playing gigs on the piano. And practicing and studying every day and trying to get better. I play the way I play, the way I’ve always played. Melodically and harmonically I’m the same now as I was then. Trying to express the same understanding of time. You know? I don’t record unless there’s a reason to record. But I’m playing everyday. I’m working on myself.
Through books, thought. Concentration, Mediation. Sleeping on it. Working things out. That’s how people learn. Oh, all of you went to college. I’m sorry!
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