Thunder Soul: Kashmere Stage Band Rumbles Onto Big Screen

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Photos courtesy of
How many high-school bands can you name that had their own publicity shots?
It's hard enough to believe that a single high-school stage band could win 42 out of 46 competitions entered throughout the '70s. It's even harder to believe that the same band that won those competitions did so by playing nothing but the rawest renditions of "Super Bad" and other classic funk songs of the era.

Band Director Conrad "Prof" Johnson came to the impoverished Kashmere Gardens school in and built a contest-decimating army of musicians from neighborhood kids called the Kashmere Stage Band. Many would go on to college with music scholarships, some became professional musicians, but all remember Prof and the life lessons he taught them.

Director Mark Landsman caught wind of the Kashmere Stage Band and Conrad "Prof" Johnson and set out to make a documentary to tell their story. The result is Thunder Soul, produced by Jaime Foxx. The film opens in Houston today.

Rocks Off: How did you initially discover the Kashmere Stage Band?

Mark Landsman: I was listening to NPR in my office in L.A. and I heard this huge wall of funk come across the radio. I just assumed it was one of the monster bands of the day, like the JB's or Bar-Kays, and the reporter came on and said these are 15- and 16-year-old high-school kids from Houston circa 1972, if you can believe that.

No, no, I can't believe that because they sound like professional musicians. Then Conrad "Prof" Johnson came on the radio and was telling the story of the band and how they were the only black high school band at the time, and I was just blown away.

So I Googled every Conrad Johnson that I could find in the Houston phone book and called the first one and said "Hi, I think I'm listening to you on the radio right now" and he said "Well no, this is Conrad Junior, you're listening to my father, but who are you and what do you want?"

I told him that I was a filmmaker and really inspired by his father's story and he said, "Why don't you take my father's phone number and call him up." I was so freaked out that I had Prof's phone number and it took me a week to work up the courage to call him.

He picked up the phone and said, "Who is it?" and I said "Prof, this is Mark Landsman the filmmaker" and he replied "Mark Landsman, what's wrong with you L.A. people? I've been waiting all week for you to call." That's how it all started. I was on a plane a couple weeks later to talk with him and start the process of making the film.

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The Prof: Conrad Johnson in the '70s.
RO: Why is the story of the Kashmere Stage Band important to Houston?

ML: This is a legendary music educator who created a powerhouse program from essentially nothing. He built this thing from the ground up, by the strength of his spirit, determination, perseverance and passion. Not to mention his career and musical talent.

He made such an influence on the lives of his students when they were teenagers and 35 years later, they had the inclination to come back from as far away as Portugal to honor him. It's the story of how someone can change lives and the power of music education, how that can affect a young person at a very critical moment of their lives.

Prof was like a father figure to these young people. They went on to become a powerhouse; they won 42 out of 46 competitions. They won most outstanding high-school band in the nation twice. First in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 while segregationist George Wallace was the governor. Here comes this all-black high-school band from Houston, Texas, and they take that competition by storm and they win.

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