The following was written by Eothen "Egon" Alapatt for the Stark Reality anthology Now, released in 2003 on Stones Throw.
More visuals can be found in Stark Reality: Photos & Documents
Last week, as I sat in an Echo Park studio re-mastering the Stark Reality master dubs with lover-of-things-funky Dave Cooley, certain phrases punctuated our work. “Amazing!” “Man, were these guys good!” At one point, Dave looked back and laughed the obvious, “Man, how would you explain this music to anyone outside of our circle?”
Our circle. Meaning there were “outsiders” who simply wouldn’t catch on to the glory of this music? I thought about it for a second or two, and came up with two replies. One – Dave had hit upon the same question I’m sure others had asked, through the years, as they discovered the wonderful music that the Stark Reality recorded. Two – when I first heard the Stark Reality’s AJP-released album, in the home of a New Haven–based hip hop producer when I was still in high school, he had summed it up in one, neat sentence: “I love this one ’cause it’s so distorted.”
Distorted. That might work! Not in the general, ugly sense of the word. Rather, in the artistic sense – as in the way a surrealist’s painting distorts his or her perception of the world. The sounds on their 1970 LP – from Monty Stark’s fuzz-toned vibraphone solos to John Abercrombie’s wah-wah fluctuations to Phil Morrison’s slipping and sliding up and down the neck of his bass guitar to Vinnie Johnson’s marching funk – all depart from the sound one might expect to emerge from a late 60s jazz quartet. Monty’s rearrangement of famed composer Hoagy Carmichael’s children’s songs certainly distorted the ideas Carmichael had originally conceived. All for the better, of course.
I have the distinct feeling that many who buy this reissue already know about the Stark Reality. That these kind of simplistic summations are wasted. That many of those “outsiders” who don’t know the group are going to react to this music like Peanut Butter Wolf did, as he heard “Junkman’s Song” pouring out of my bedroom speakers one afternoon, pronouncing “Now this is the kind of music that should be reissued!” Right on.
I’m going to spare you play-by-play commentary on the group’s work. That kind of academic bullshit always comes across as condescending anyway. But I’ll try to distill some of the history of this most-important project into a series of vignettes of the folks behind its creation and release. A magical journey awaits – and I’m happy you’re along for the ride.
In the preface to his Carmichael biography, Stardust Melody, Richard M. Sudhalter quotes William Zinsser: “Play me a Hoagy Carmichael song and I hear the banging of a screen door and the whine of an outboard motor on a lake – sounds of summer in a small-town America that is long gone but still longed for.” Even if those of the present generation might not be able to immediately rattle off a list of Carmichael’s hundreds of original compositions, one would be hard pressed to find someone unfamiliar with “Star Dust” or “Georgia on My Mind”; someone not enthralled by their timelessness. Nearly every six year old learning to coordinate right and left hands pounds out “Heart and Soul” on the piano.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1899, Carmichael studied to be a lawyer before settling his heart in the realm where it rightly belonged – music. Like Duke Ellington, Carmichael was a composer and a performer, deeply rooted in jazz. Early influences included a close friend, cornetist Bix Biederbecke. Amongst those he himself influenced included one of Beiderbecke’s peers, Louis Armstrong, who recorded Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” in 1929. A few years later Carmichael was lauded and loved as one of America’s great songsmiths.
By 1950, Carmichael had established a strong presence in Hollywood – for his acting talents as well as his musicianship. He appeared in movies like To Have and Have Not, and Young Man With A Horn, the latter alongside a young Kirk Douglas. But at the same time the emerging rock ’n’ roll culture heralded a change in popular music. Composers like Carmichael felt displaced. By the 1960s the entertainment industry that Carmichael had thrived within for more than thirty years was a different place altogether. Perhaps even foreign.
Luckily the composer’s youngest son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, was in tune with what made the kids tick, and he was determined to keep his father’s music fresh. In the late 60s, a project would emerge at Boston public television station WGBH that would change the perception of a small number of Carmichael standards forevermore.
HOAGY BIX CARMICHAEL
“I’ve spent a fair amount of my life trying to promote Dad’s music,” Hoagy Bix Carmichael states. “And to find new and unusual ways to use the stuff. Actually, we’ve been rather successful.” He’s not exaggerating – and his crusade began at WGBH.
In the late 60s, tired of a stockbroker’s existence on Wall Street, Hoagy Bix called WGBH to offer his services as a volunteer. “I said, ‘I just can’t do this,’” he states in reference to his New York–based profession. “GBH in Boston was the greatest public television station in the country. I went up there and got a job for myself.” Serving as one of the station’s on-staff producers, Hoagy Bix discovered a young vibraphonist named Monty Stark, who had just recorded the theme for the Say Brother program with his fledgling band, the Stark Reality. “I heard the jazz in (his music), of course. And they had some rhythms going there that were fabulous – Monty’s a master at that,” Hoagy Bix now reflects. “Monty has killed me, forever.” Soon Stark was working with Hoagy Bix as the music-man behind a season’s worth of one-hour dramas entitled On Being Black. Guest appearances by laureates such as Abby Lincoln, Bill Cosby, Moms Mabley, Alvin Ailey, and Morgan Freeman leant prestige to the show. But this isn’t to say that Stark produced the show’s music under ideal circumstances. “He did (the music) with the Reality – for nothing!” Hoagy Bix exclaims. “We used to do it in people’s apartments. And that’s how we really got cemented.”
Thus, when Hoagy Bix conceived of an educational television program that would focus on his father and a series of children’s songs he’d composed in the 50s (some of which found release on the 1958 LP Hoagy Carmichael’s Havin’ A Party on Golden Records), the Stark Reality was called to give the songs a contemporary workout. “I thought, ‘Kids are into this rock stuff. I can hire the Lawrence Welk Quartet, but I don’t think that’s what they want,’” Hoagy Bix offers about the thought process behind hiring Stark’s group. “I think I have a great marriage of a guy who has a great band, and some wonderful songs, and an idea to use the songs to educate kids to the elements of music. It was pretty simple.”
Delivering Stark’s masterpiece to his father, however, was anything but. On May 11th, 1970 – nary ten days after recording the Stark Reality’s 15 Carmichael covers – Hoagy Bix rushed them off to his father in Palm Springs, California. “Your music has turned a lot of people on here,” he cautiously wrote. “Have a listen and tell me what you think (Sudhalter 324).”
The elder Carmichael’s reaction, tempered by a few scotch and sodas with Hoagy Bix’s brother Randy, is captured in his liner notes on the AJP LP. “Out rolled some of the damnedest music either of us had ever heard. This is children’s music!?…I say, ‘Stark mad,’” Carmichael wrote. “Monty’s voice?…somewhere between the filings on the edge of a pie pan, and the singing of a guru during one of his most exalted moments.” In other words, Carmichael acknowledged a job well done.
“Dad wasn’t out there trying to understand what made Jefferson Airplane work. He tempered (the music) with a lack of cutting-edge understanding,” Hoagy Bix clarifies. “But he heard the musicality, he heard the chops. And he bought into the chops. He liked the way these kids were playing his children’s songs.” He liked the Stark Reality enough to bring the group onto the Dick Cavett show to perform their seven-inch single “Junkman’s Song.” Enough to co-write a composition or two with Stark. Hoagy Bix colors the cross-generational meeting of the minds: “Monty sorta lays back there and those wonderful wheels are going like mad. Dad’s got a drink in his hand and Monty’s smoking something weird. They were communicating without saying a lot. And, they’d talk a little, and play a little, and do nothing.”
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Carl Atkins found himself in Boston in the late 60s by default. After starting on the clarinet at age 8, moving to the saxophone at age 10, and completing undergraduate studies in music in the Midwest, he moved to New York to audition for the role of clarinetist in a touring opera company. He ended up in Boston in January of 1968, and he stayed with the company for five months before accepting a job at the New England Conservatory of Music. He was 24 years old.
“I don’t recall how I met Monty, I may have known Phil Morrison first,” Atkins states. “When Monty first started, he wanted to have a big band.” Atkins was part of the group that recorded Say Brother for WGBH. “Say Brother was one of those shows that was designed to deal with the issues of the black community. ’Cause up to that point the black community had been left out of all the TV stations,” Atkins recalls. “GBH was making a big effort to do something.” When Stark scaled the band down, Atkins was asked to join on saxophone.
In this early incarnation, the Stark Reality primarily played Stark’s all-inclusive compositions, which ran musical genres back, forth, and center. Atkins couldn’t have been happier. “…Rock, country-western, there was a whole lot of stuff going on in that band. I think we all got off on the fact that it was such an eclectic thing,” he offers. “My thing about music – then, as it is now – is that I like to play a whole lot of different kinds. A lot of it was right there.”
And Stark’s lyrical codings? “You know, a lot of it was Monty’s view of the world. They didn’t really tell a story per se, or necessarily need to mean anything,” Atkins states. “When I listen to those songs again, the thing that still struck me about it was that the words – I won’t say they made sense – but they brought a kind of imagery that represented a happy time for me. The times I spent with those guys were some of the happiest times, because they were just good people and we enjoyed playing that music.”
Six representations of “that music” were recorded, due to the location of the Stark Reality’s weekend rehearsal space in a recording studio. Ahmad Jamal, upon hearing the mix-downs of their album-demo, was so impressed with the material that he bankrolled the recording of their Hoagy Carmichael covers – recorded after Atkins left the band to lead his own group, the New Music Ensemble. Atkins, although conceding that “some of it was a bit, uh, smokey,” wisely maintained copies of the group’s unissued master reels, three songs from which, “Roller Coaster Ride,” “Too Much Tenderness” and “Sunday’s Song,” are included here.
Born in Portchester, New York, John Abercrombie was a young guitarist, well into the rock ’n’ roll of the 50s, before he discovered jazz through a Barney Kessel record. In 1962 when he moved to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music, previously known as the Schilinger House, he “was into jazz, but couldn’t really play it.” Great instructors, practice, and hard work ensured that by the time Abercrombie left Boston, he “was pretty much playing the best commercial gigs in town.” It started with a gig lead by Prestige-signed organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith. And it continued on, as he honed his chops with Monty Stark and the Stark Reality. “I remember receiving a phone call from Monty to do the music for Say Brother,” Abercrombie recalls. “The Stark Reality was actually a quintet – I think I became the fifth member.”
As the youngest member of the group, Abercrombie had to put up with some well-placed ribbing. Especially coming from saxophonist Carl Atkins. “I remember playing at My Apartment Lounge ‘cause I had just got my fuzz tone,” Abercrombie remembers. “And I plugged it in and I remember Carl looking at me and saying, ‘What are you doing, I’m the sax player here!’ Making fun of me in a nice way, but that’s what I wanted to do.”
When asked about Stark himself, Abercrombie states, “He was a real bonafide genius of a jazz musician. I remember being completely mesmerized by the guy and how deep he was. He was technically well-equipped, but the music wasn’t about that to him. He was going for a sound.” A sound that collaborator Phil Morrison helped bring to the table as well. “Phil would randomly find places to slip and slide and then come back to playing the rhythm. It created this effect – you felt that the band was gonna explode,” Abercrombie explains. “It suspended the band, and kinda set us apart from a rock band in that the rhythm was steady, but what was going on around it was pretty bizarre. I think Phil was the main culprit in that!”
Now, Abercrombie is regarded as one of the finest jazz guitar players. But 30-something years ago in Boston, he was but a hungry young man, eager to play with a dynamite group of musicians. “I loved the band. And listening to that music again brings me back to how brilliant Monty was,” Abercrombie states, echoing the comments of his Stark Reality band mates. “I think of that again, and again. He had something that was so unique – in the way he played and put things together, that I think was very profound.”
Vinnie Johnson was born in Boston in 1937. His father, a military man with a knack for the drums, “was more of a mentor than an instructor,” Vinnie remembers. “One day, out of nature, it just happened,” he states, of his first encounter with the instrument that would come to define his life. “I just picked up some sticks, and started tapping a little bit.” Shortly thereafter, he would study with famed educator George Lawrence Stone, and join the drum corps. His time in the corps honed his chops, and defined his sound. “With the drum corps, it’s very disciplined – I didn’t mind that,” Vinnie states. “As time went on, I saw it was a good way to have gone.”
Johnson attended the Lieutenant Norman Prince Drum Corps before enrolling at Berklee, in the late 50s. He studied drums, vibes, and “a little bit of writing” with Alan Dawson. In his off time, he listened to jazz radio stations, marveling at selections played by DJs like Symphony Sid.
He was drafted into the army in 1961 but luckily he shipped off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to play in the 77th army band after basic training. Nine years in the drum corps ensured that Vinnie was a league ahead of his military instructors, and he emerged from the army – in Boston again – a veritable drumming machine.
In Boston and on the road, he played straight-ahead jazz with a group lead by organist Ernie Goldsmith and, for a time, backed singer Tommy Hunt. Later he signed on to back singer Mamie Lee with pianist Carl Schroeder and bass player Phil Morrison. “Phil was playing upright; we got along rhythmically,” Vinnie fondly recalls. “Phil is the one who brought me into Stark Reality.”
His first recording with the Reality would be the theme to Say Brother, on which he played thumb piano and tambourine. The record hinted at the direction that Stark – and frequent collaborator Morrison – were leading the group toward. “Some of it was gonna be funk, so I had to get it together,” Vinnie states. “Doing some ’shedding helped me, and going to hear groups.” Though Vinnie was an accomplished jazz drummer, attending concerts by the likes of Wilson Pickett and James Brown (with the mighty JBs) helped inform Vinnie’s developing funky drumming. By the time the group recorded their six song album-demo, Vinnie was ready to tie together Stark’s outward-leaning compositions with a heavy backbeat just begging to be hugged by Morrison’s slippery bass lines. “That’s the beauty of Stark Reality, we took a lot of the shit that was around at the time and made it ours,” Vinnie argues. “People like to categorize things. But they couldn’t categorize what Stark Reality was doing. A vibes player, from Oklahoma – with that twang – playing with some funk oriented shit. It was great!”
Born in Boston in 1934, Phil Morrison “appreciated” music before he decided to give it a go. He took his sweet time – after 19 years of listening to bebop records by such giants as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie, Morrison finally picked up some drum sticks while serving in the armed forces in Japan. But it would be with the upright bass that Morrison would make his name. Upon retuning to Boston in the late 50s, he discovered “there weren’t too many bass players around. But there were some great drummers!” Morrison decided against competition, and began playing bass in a group with Sam Rivers and a young Tony Williams in 1960.
And although this might come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard his amazing chops, Morrison never learned how to read music. “You get by – and chord changes I can read,” he states. “But you know the main thing was playing, and being creative. Sam was a very free type player, with some serious background. Fortunately, by osmosis, I learned a lot of it.”
After an ill-fated attempt to play free jazz for vacationing mainlanders in Hawaii, Morrison returned to Boston in the mid 60s and hooked up with Monty Stark. “He had this gig at a small nightclub, called The Crossroads, near Berklee. I had heard about him, so I went down and met him and we hit it off,” Morrison remembers. “Someone had told me there was a good vibe player there and, you know, you’re local and you want to see the jazz cats out there.” So did Stark live up to his expectations? “He was just a genius,” Morrison replies. “I admired his spirit, and definitely his playing. Here’s this Oklahoma country boy, playing these sophisticated vibes! He was very hip, you know what I mean?”
Stark and Morrison went on to become the nucleus of the Stark Reality. Morrison’s upright skills were featured prominently on “Say Brother,” and – if Stark’s memory is correct – it was his electric bass solo on the previously unissued “Pretty Music” that convinced Ahmad Jamal to sign the band to their AJP deal. On the Carmichael covers, Morrison’s uncanny ability to stretch the funkiest notes from his bass guitar strings shines bright. (He’s playing a morse code message on “Rocket Ship.”)
Speaking of which, how did an out-song like “Rocket Ship” fit into the Music Shop program? “Well, the meat of the show would be Hoagy singing that song like it was originally done,” Morrison laughs. “You can rest assured that Hoagy didn’t do ‘Rocket Ship’ the way the Stark Reality did! But there’s probably a segment of our ‘Rocket Ship’ which was a little palatable – maybe 30 seconds – and they’d play that behind credits.”
Morrison sums up the zeitgeist of the times in three words: searching, experiencing, experimenting. “To this day, I look back with great fondness,” Morrison states of his time spent with Stark and his crew. “Monty, he was the so-called spiritual leader of the group. And with him, it was like anything goes. There was no such thing as a wrong note. And so that gave you the freedom.” He laughs, then continues, “The more wrong the better, probably!”
“It’s always been there, that’s the curse,” says Monty Stark, in reference to the passion that’s defined his life. “I have to keep making new music, and understanding music more. This has happened as long as I can remember.” This would explain why, as an Oklahoma-reared youngster, Stark would find himself a child-phenomenon of a square dance caller, a guitarist, and a songwriter before settling into the vibraphone – at the ripe ol’ age of 14. “It was just a logical instrument for me to play,” Stark remarks. “I was primarily a writer, arranger, and orchestrator. And vibes stayed in tune.”
Stark left the Midwest to attend the Berklee School of Music in 1958. But he discovered that there was little left for him to learn with his instrument of choice. “I went to see Alan Dawson, he was to be my vibes instructor,” Stark recalls. “He flat out told me, ‘I can’t teach you anything.’” Stark laughs, then continues, “I hate to admit it, but I was almost as good then as I am now! I’ve been working at it ever since.”
After paying dues touring the Chittlin’ Circuit with Red Prysock and healming jazz gigs with the Monty Stark Trio on the eastern seaboard, Stark returned to Boston in the mid-60s where he promptly found work at WGBH. “I was the guy that everybody called to do the gigs,” Stark says matter-of-factly. “The on-staff music man.” When WGBH asked Stark to record a big band–tinged theme for the Say Brother program, Stark formed a group and dubbed the ensemble the Stark Reality.
As 1968 turned into 1969, Stark slimmed down the band to a core – largely assembled with the help of Phil Morrison. “He knew everybody, and at that point Phil and I knew each other,” Stark reflects. “I just asked Phil to get me what I needed. He knew the sound I was looking for.”
That sound delved deep into the wide range of black, American music. “There were two separate cultures in this country at the time. ‘Negro,’ as it was called, and white,” Stark states. “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.” And Stark put his own quirky touch to the music. For one, he sang lead vocals in a colorful, distinctly Midwestern patois. “I’m a white kid from Oklahoma, I have a country voice,” Stark laughs. “I don’t even know why I sang, but there were some things I wanted to say with words because it could be done.” And he played his individually-miked vibes through a psychedelic series of fuzz tones and pedals that allowed him to play conventionally or in a jarring, heavily distorted manner.
It’s fortunate that Hoagy Bix Carmichael foresaw the possibility of the Stark Reality reinterpreting his father’s children’s songs, and that Stark jumped at the opportunity – though he’d never heard the songs before. “He gave me the book and I reharmonized the living daylights out of them,” Stark states. His reworkings gave the songs swinging jazz rhythms or deep funk grooves, often touched by bop sensibility and free jazz’s musical coloring. But this isn’t to say that the band noodled without direction. “I wrote out the music. I arranged the music,” Stark says. “Like on something as spacey as ‘Rocket Ship,’ I might write: ‘Takes off, I’m going to be playing something that sounds tonal, but you establish your own tonality and stay there. Ignore me.’” His reworkings, well, worked. Both Carmichaels were impressed (the elder Carmichael “loved the harmonies and rhythms I gave his melodies,” Stark remembers), TV Guide raved, and the band – with assistance from Ahmad Jamal and Hoagy Bix – journeyed west for gigs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Who would have thought? Certainly not Stark. “Everything has a beginning and end. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Stark opines. “Then either. The Stark Reality’s music is an artifact from the past which is able to express something today. It’s gratifying.”
Here’s to another beginning.
In the late 60s, Boston University graduate student Jim Bourne found himself in a co-op program with WGBH. “I was working in the film department, doing animation,” Bourne remembers. “I was also doing a jazz show on WGBH FM.” He became friends with Hoagy Bix Carmichael, and when the Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop program came about, the budding producer pulled in Bourne to create the show’s animated sequences. Soon Bourne was creating show posters for the Stark Reality’s Western Front jazz gigs, and when the band inked their deal for the AJP album, it was Bourne – naturally – who assumed the role of art director. “It was not a major production, as such,” Bourne laughs. “It was a low-key gig, with people getting together and doing it.”
Meaning that Bourne learned to use WGBH’s typesetting machines to create fonts for the album, that he layed out Mel Dietmeier’s cover art by hand, that he photographed the Stark Reality lounging in WGBH’s parking lot for the album’s back cover. It also meant that he was offered dubs of the Reality’s master reels – including dubs of the group’s AJP 7” single. Thirty years later, due to his “condition of packratism” as he laughingly refers to it, Bourne is the only member of the Stark Reality’s creative team to have maintained copies of his master dubs, not to mention his show posters and the negatives (!) of his fleeting photo shoot. “It’s a part of my life,” Bourne states, when asked why he – of all people – maintained the Stark Reality’s archives. “It’s hard for me to throw things away, particularly stuff like this. It’s one of a kind.” Indeed.