This letter was originally posted on Stones Throw’s website.
Conrad O. Johnson, bandleader of the Kashmere High School Stage Band from 1968-1978 and owner of Kram Records, the label that issued the Band’s legendary eight albums and three 7” singles of Texas jazz, funk and soul music, died in Houston yesterday at 92 years of age.
He received one hell of a send off. On Friday, the Kashmere Stage Band reunited for a performance at the High School’s auditorium. Filmmaker Mark Landsman, who is producing and directing a documentary on the Band, worked with Johnson’s foundation and Kashmere High School to set off the event for his crew’s cameras. But the reason that the Band’s members, many of whom left the music field after their departure from Kashmere High, reunited and rehearsed, daily, for a month prior to the concert, was to give Johnson the respect he deserved and had fought for, for so long.
Johnson, known by those close to him simply as “Prof” took the reins of the Band in the late 1960s and worked with his charges to perfect the idiom that they understood most: funk. Heavy funk at that. By the time that the band recorded their third album, “Thunder Soul,” they were funking like a mini-JBs. And, by the time they won “Best Stage Band In The Nation” in 1972, they were funking as hard as the JBs themselves.
Yet the Band was relegated to the annals of funk lore, largely due to the fact that the records they released were so rare and, when a collector did get his hands on an original copy, he usually wanted to keep that power for his own ears. A few people did bootleg a song or two in the mid 90s, and, by 2000, the band’s name heated up then fledgling chat rooms when DJ Shadow sampled their namesake track “Kashmere” for the Handsome Boy’s Modeling School cut “Holy Calamity.” With Stones Throw, I reissued “Kashmere,” the first legitimate reissue of a Kashmere Stage Band track, on The Funky 16 Corners in 2001.
The band that performed on “Kashmere” as teenagers back in 1973, including Gerald Calhoun on bass, Earl Spiller on guitar, Bruce Middleton on tenor sax and the indomitable Craig Green on drums, performed the anthem and other Johnson-penned classics like “Zero Point” at the auditorium on Friday. It was overwhelming to say the least. I’m not the kind of person easily impressed by a funk band, and I’m especially critical of those bands that played intensely in the late 60s and early 70s reuniting and performing as a shadow of their monstrous selves. But the Kashmere Stage Band funked like their lives depended on it. By the time they reached the climax on Bubbha Thomas’s modal jazz classic “All Praises To Allah,” and Craig Green rode the uptempo breakbeat like Clyde Stubblefield and Gerald Calhoun plucked those same staccato notes that danced along those same rhythms nearly forty years ago, I stood breathless.
After the event, I mentioned to Prof’s son that there were still some Kashmere albums at Prof’s house on Rosewood Drive that I needed to transfer, for the possibility of assembling a compilation of Kashmere’s ballads. He told me that the family had moved Prof out of the house he’d lived in for nearly sixty years, and that he had moved all of Prof’s records into a storage unit on the side of the house. I made my way over and sorted through everything on Saturday, becoming more inspired as I went through the stacks of vinyl. The man’s recorded output with that stage band was just tremendous, and the fact that he had kept such meticulous archives of his music, well into his 90s, blew me away.
On Sunday, I drove out to Conrad Jr.’s house to catch up with Prof before leaving for Los Angeles. When I arrived, vinyl in hand for safe delivery, I sat and talked with Prof… we had one of the best talks we’d had in months. We talked about the band, and how good they sounded (“Doggone! Man, could they have sounded any better?” he asked), about Bubbha Thomas and his Youthful Musicians Summer Program and the 45 that they released in the mid 70s – a cover of Prof’s “Lost Love,” about future performances of the band, and, of course, about future anthologies of the band’s recordings. He was most excited about that. Smiling, laughing, and gently prodding me with the same types of questions he did over the first years of our musical courtship (“Look here man, how are you going to do it? With what songs? From where? With the reel to reels?”) – and, of course, making sure his business was straight.
He was so thrilled, so happy, so with it… I left feeling uplifted. I hadn’t just spoken with a sick man, a man recovering from the heart attack that had confined him to a hospital bed just days before. I had spoken with a peer – a man who was going to be with us forever – carefully stewarding the next steps of his legendary Band, the band whose legend seems to grow greater by the day.
In a way, he will be.