RIDIN’ WITH DENZEL: Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?

Director Denzel Washington had hired me as a music producer on his film The Great Debaters...

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Videos by American Songwriter

Walking into Ardent Studios in Memphis in June 2007, I was filled with anticipation, trepidation and exhilaration. For more than 40 years, the venerable studio has been the temporary recording home for everyone from Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Staple Singers, and REM, to Leon Russell, The White Stripes and Cat Power.

Walking into Ardent Studios in Memphis in June 2007, I was filled with anticipation, trepidation and exhilaration. For more than 40 years, the venerable studio has been the temporary recording home for everyone from Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Staple Singers, and REM, to Leon Russell, The White Stripes and Cat Power.

Director Denzel Washington had hired me as a music producer on his film The Great Debaters and needed musicians to play in the 1935 northeast Texas sharecropper’s juke joint portrayed in the opening of the film and several subsequent scenes. Suffice to say, it was a daunting task.

I had always wanted to work at Ardent Studios and thought this might be the chance. My only connection to “Soul City” were the songs from the East Memphis catalogue, full of soul gems, which I had used many years ago as Music Supervisor in Alan Parker’s The Commitments.

I inherently knew Memphis would provide me with a recording sanctuary that could not be found in Los Angeles, Nashville or New York. Through intensive research, my partner Adam Swart and I found musicians that we felt could recreate the authentic sound and feel of a pre-World War II Texas juke joint. One of those rare musicians was Alvin Youngblood Hart, arguably the best living artist to replicate the pre-War blues idiom.

Alvin lived in Memphis and had recorded one of his albums with engineer Jeff Powell at Ardent. Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons-known as The Carolina Chocolate Drops-possessed an all-important fiddle/banjo combination, prevalent at that time in African-American music. We knew they would be perfect in illustrating a true slice of rural life in the juke joint. Both Alvin and the Carolina Chocolate Drops were led our way via blues aficionado and former editor of Living Blues magazine, Scott Barretta. I had conversations with Jeff about his recording technique and the importance, first and foremost, of delivering an authentic live sound for the on-set playback tracks, and eventually for a soundtrack album. After those productive talks, I put the studio wheels in motion.

The next step was finding a singer for the role of Lila; Lila is the female juke joint singer who is seen in the opening sequence of the film, who later interacts with two of the main characters, Henry Lowe and Samantha Booke. Although this scene ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, you can see its uncut version on the DVD as an extra. [Ed. Note: The DVD, complete with interviews and extras, was released May 13 and can be found at Amazon.com.]

Every time I would see or speak to Denzel, he would say, “Where’s my Lila?” Finding her became our paramount concern. Fortunately, Adam had seen Sharon Jones and her band The Dap Kings at South By Southwest, and after watching her video on YouTube, it was clear she smoked the competition and was our number one choice. We presented Denzel with a myriad of choices, not only for the role of Lila, but also for the blues singer and musicians in the juke joint. Denzel knew what he was looking for, and it didn’t take him long to pick out this stellar group of artists.

1930s African-American music was a rich tapestry of big band, jazz, ragtime, boogie-woogie, rural blues, spirituals and slave-era music. We mined the spiritual field recordings of Austin Coleman and Reverend Utah Smith, the gospel/blues songs of Blind Willie Johnson, the blues of Bukka White and Kokomo Arnold, the double entrende songs of Bessie Smith (a.k.a. Lucille Bogan) and the string-band songs of the Mississippi Sheiks. We also had other “on-camera” scenes in the film that required a big band at the Wiley College school dance, a boogie-woogie piano player in a Boston club, “slave-era calls” (half sung by Lowe in a drunken state after witnessing a lynching), as well as a number of source songs-which included opera heard on an old phonograph player in a professor’s study and jazz at a celebration party.

We also needed to find the perfect background song for a mid-film montage, a few choice cues, country and hokum, and traditional gospel songs as end title possibilities.

Denzel’s instincts regarding song selection, musicians and actors were always spot on-and our collaboration was open, truthful, challenging and fun. He always had my back with the powers-that-be at the studio, which is very important in the political minefield of music and movies. But make no mistake, Denzel is an exacting filmmaker, and he expected everyone on his team to bring their A-game.

Once Denzel signed off on the musicians and the songs, it was a go! It was a little intimidating heading down the halls to Ardent’s Studio B glancing at the album covers on the walls-American music royalty.

Sharon Jones flew in from New York and had not met any of the other artists. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who had met Alvin Youngblood Hart briefly at a blues festival, came in from South Carolina. When we were finally all together in the studio, I wanted to be able to clearly communicate Denzel’s overall musical vision for his film. When the time came, I was relaxed and inspirational keeping Denzel’s clear directive in mind.

From the first downbeat of the rehearsal in the studio with Alvin and The Chocolate Drops playing “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You” (Traditional, originally performed by the Mississippi Sheiks), we knew it was working. Jeff had set up the studio like a living room in the round, and once the recording started, the sound was authentic, musically energetic and thrilling!

It was a good omen that Scott Barretta came up from Oxford, Miss. He was good friends with Alvin and the Chocolate Drops. The songs that we recorded and mixed in the wicked two- day sessions were Blind Willie Johnson’s “City Of Refuge,” “Busy Bootin” by Kokomo Arnold and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Sharon sang on Louise Bogan’s “That’s What My Baby Likes,” “It’s Tight Like That” by Thomas Dorsey, “Wild About That Thing” by Spencer Morris, and finally, Austin Coleman’s “My Soul Is a Witness.”

“My Soul Is A Witness” was Denzel’s passionate pick for the opening song in the film. It was a difficult task because we were re-creating a trance-driven, spiritual field recording by Alan Lomax-with energy to burn.

Late at the end of the second day of recording, I jumped on a plane to Dallas, rented a car and headed for the set outside of Shreveport, La. Since I didn’t really have a concept of the true distance between the recording and rehearsal studios, and the set locations around Shreveport, the next 12 hours proved to be a wild ride.

I started the morning with an hour drive to meet Denzel and producer Todd Black on the set. I drove another 50 minutes back to a small studio in Shreveport to record a large group from the Grambling Band for a scene where the school marching band is sending off the young debaters to Boston. Then it was another 40 minutes back to the pick up David Berger (arranger of the previously-recorded on-camera swing songs) at the hotel. We then drove over an hour-and-a-half to drop him off at Grambling’s rehearsal room.

I had been with David in New York City a few weeks earlier to record the two on-camera songs for the Wiley homecoming dance-Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines’ “Rock and Rye” and Duke Ellington’s “Delta Serenade.” We had cast the 14 members of the Grambling Band to play the on-camera Wiley College musicians, and David was there to rehearse them for the scene. David, being the consummate New Yorker, doesn’t drive, and I couldn’t afford to have him get lost. It was 6:30 PM, starting to rain and I had an appointment in Denzel’s trailer at 7:45 (an hour-and-a-half drive away!) to discuss the recordings in Memphis and all the other upcoming on-camera scenes.

I was in the car virtually screaming at myself for driving too fast, not recognizing the time factor and the possibility of missing Denzel for a meeting that had only one shot of happening. Though it sounds like a cliché, failure was not an option. Add to all of that that I hadn’t eaten all day and my phone was out of juice, so I couldn’t call to say I was late. Miraculously, I made it.

When I walked in the trailer, as cool and collected as I was trying to appear, Denzel sensed I was a bit off. He noticed me noticing him finishing off a juicy chicken breast. He poured me a bowl of cereal and all was good; that’s Denzel. He showed me some of the raw footage, which is always thrilling, and we listened to the songs from Memphis.

A few days later, I got call from Denzel saying that he liked the Alvin Youngblood Hart and Carolina Chocolate Drops collaborations but wanted me to take another shot at “My Soul is a Witness” and the Sharon Jones/Lila songs. He felt that they weren’t hot enough for the live feel in the juke joint. A bit of panic set in. Fortunately, Ardent had an opening, and Sharon was available-although I almost lost her to a European tour with Lou Reed. Alvin was still in town, but about to go on the road. I can only imagine how a conversation with Denzel would have gone telling him I couldn’t deliver his juke joint songs, and the recording artists were not available.

But fortunately, Jeff moved us to Studio A, his favorite. We started with the revved up “My Soul is a Witness” (Alvin on solo guitar and lead vocal, Sharon on vocals with back up singer Susan Marshall, Kevin Ricard on the cajon, Harry Peel on djembe). We kicked it in and got busy.

I was in the studio willing it to fruition, conducting parts of the song, making eye contact with Alvin and Sharon, encouraging them to hit certain choruses or simply extending the song, knowing it would need to cover the long opening sequence of the film. This had to be a one-take moment; we nailed it, and everyone there knew it. There was no doing it again, and everyone was exhausted. When you hear the track-and see the film sequence it underscores-you’ll understand this rant.

For the Sharon/Lila tracks, we put Alvin on guitar and added Teenie Hodges (the inimitable guitar player for Al Green, who wrote “Take Me to the River”), as well as cajon player Kevin Ricard. Sharon’s singing on top of Alvin and Teenie’s stellar guitar playing was sublime and smokin’ at the same time. I was also able, after recording these four intense songs (and about killing everyone), to convince Alvin and Teenie to take a stab at the traditional “Step It Up and Go.’ I had to coax Kevin back in the studio with barbecue drippin’ off his fingers. I knew it could work as our montage song in the film, and it did. We mixed the tracks, got them to Denzel, and he-fortunately for me-felt the love.

A few weeks later, Denzel sent “gospel Gilly” (as he referred to me) back to Memphis again to record the gospel end-title tracks: Sharon on vocals, Alvin on guitar/vocals, Susan Marshall and Jackie Johnson on backing vocals with overdubs by Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith. Our all-star Memphis band included Teenie Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy on bass, Lester Snell on piano/organ and Steve Potts on drums.

We recorded the traditional “Two Wings,” “Up above My Head” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” I arranged these and many of the other traditional songs with the artists, giving the songs a unique resonance in the film. The bonus for having all the choices for each of the juke joint scenes, the source songs and the end-title songs, is that we were able to put together an amazing Atlantic Records Soundtrack album; the finished product is a unique combination of rare songs from the mid-1930s sung by some of the most talented African-American artists on the scene today, a “soul brother where art thou?” in some respects. Working with these artists and producing these tracks was a true blessing.

From my first few exciting meetings with Denzel-where he passionately moved around the room showing me his production stills, acting out various actors’ parts and making clear his specific intentions of what he wanted for the music in his film-and the endless hours of research and song selection, complexity of clearances and the recording at Ardent…to the long days filming the on-camera scenes, and finally, to the last days of the film mix, working with Denzel Washington was truly a wild ride-one that was well worth every minute.

For more info on music in The Great Debaters, check out www.myspace.com/thegreatdebatersmusic and
www.35sound.com.


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