Kashmere: A High-School Band's Staying Power Conrad Johnson made his Kashmere High School Stage Band a national phenomenon — not just at band competitions, but in the world of commercial popular music. The recordings he made of the band continue to influence musicians to this day, and are being re-released.

Kashmere: A High-School Band's Staying Power

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Here's a story about a music teacher who turned his high school band into a national phenomenon. In the late 1960s, Conrad Johnson formed the Kashmere High School Stage Band in Houston, Texas. Their funky sound was a hit not just at band competitions, but commercially, too. The recordings he made of the band became collectors' items. They've been sampled repeatedly by hip-hop artists, and they're still inspiring musicians today. Some of those records are now being re-released.

From member station KUT, David Brown reports.

DAVID BROWN reporting:

In 1967, Conrad Johnson was the 51yearold bandmaster at the predominantly black Kashmere High School in northeast Houston. Today he is 92 and physically frail, but he still remembers vividly a concert nearly 40 years ago that changed his life.

Mr. CONRAD JOHNSON (High School Music Teacher, Kashmere High School): I went to hear an Otis Redding concert.

(Soundbite of Otis Redding)

Mr. JOHNSON: When I saw what Otis Redding was doing, I was - man, I was taken away, because Red was kickin'. He was kickin'.

(Soundbite of Otis Redding)

Mr. JOHNSON: He let all of his men perform, sing, go ahead and do everything. I saw that, and I went back and told my high school band. I said, if I would get you to do a show while you're playing and teach it to you, do you think you could do it? My band said, if you believe we can do it, we can do it.

BROWN: Johnson assembled two dozen of his very best students into a group called the Kashmere Stage Band to compete at high school festivals.

(Soundbite of band competition)

Unidentified Man: Let's welcome, from Houston, Texas, the Kashmere High School Stage Band.

(Soundbite of clapping)

(Soundbite of Kashmere Stage Band)

BROWN: At first, judges didn't know what to make of the kids from Kashmere, in their platform shoes and matching crushed velvet suits, their stage moves impeccably choreographed to music more James Brown than high school big band.

Soon, the Kashmere Stage Band, or KSB as it was called, was winning national championships and a larger than life reputation as undefeatable. For ten years, even with constant changes in the lineup as kids grew up and graduated, KSB was considered by some to be not just the best stage band in the nation, but one of the best funk bands period.

Mr. JOHNSON: A band director out of San Antonio, who was one of my judges, he was a Latin American, he told me the music that you write is what is winning your festivals. When he told me that I said, well, maybe I better write more.

(Soundbite of Kashmere Stage Band)

BROWN: With scores of original funk songs under his belt, Johnson took his kids into the studio to record and over a ten-year period, between 1968 and 1978, KSB released eight studio albums. But in '78, with Johnson nearing retirement, the Kashmere Stage Band broke up and competitors across the country heaved a sigh of relief.

Before long, the band was largely forgotten. But not by everyone. A Ethan Alipat(ph) was a student at Vanderbilt University in the mid-1990s doing research on regional music when a record collector told him about an obscure LP that he just had to hear.

(Soundbite of Kashmere Stage Band)

Mr. ETHAN ALIPAT (Music Producer, Los Angeles): I'll never forget when that record arrived. It was Kashmere's 1974 album, Out of Gas but Still Burning, and I flipped the record over and I saw this picture of this ensemble on the back with Conrad Johnson standing in the corner. And I put it on the turntable and I heard the song Cash Register and I said, I've got to know everything about this band.

Alipat is now a music producer in Los Angeles, one of many in the hip hop and DJ community globally who've rediscovered a now highly prized The Kashmere Stage Band recording.

Mr. ALIPAT: When you listen to a band like Kashmere playing Dennis Coffey's Scorpio and doing it in their own way, you can hear that in a club today and it still makes people move. On top of that, it can be sampled by hip-hop producers - and it has.

BROWN: Contemporary record producers were drawn to KSB's huge horn section, influenced by the great Texas tenor saxophone players of the ‘40s and ‘50s, combined with the stuttering percussive guitar shuffle associated with Texas blues players.

Mr. ALIPAT: People can rap over it, like Percy P did. How about DJ Shadow's sampling Kashmere for the song Holy Calamity?

(Soundbite of Holy Calamity)

Mr. ALIPAT: I mean, how many 16yearold, 17yearold DJ Shadow fans bought that record? They had no idea that it was based upon a drum line that was played, at that point, you know, 28 years ago by an 18yearold kid named Craig Green, recording for his high school in Houston, Texas.

(Soundbite of Kashmere Stage Band)

BROWN: What is now regarded as something of a phenomenon started out much more modestly as a music teacher's attempt to open some doors for high school kids in Houston's historically black Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. Several of Conrad Johnson's students have gone on to careers as professional musicians, including jazz drummer Bubba Thomas, who still calls Johnson the Prof.

Mr. BUBBA THOMAS (Former Member, Kashmere Stage Band): There not a value you can put on him because he's touched so many people. Not only people that went to school under him like me, but people in the community that he's influenced. You know, kids that he's taught privately, you know. Kids in the summer jazz workshop. He's little in stature, but a giant.

BROWN: Lots of high school band leaders have tried to teach by incorporating elements of popular music, but producer Ethan Alipat says Johnson understood that the popular music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was part of a musical tradition.

Mr. ALIPAT: He said, it draws from the jazz that I grew up around. All of this can come together in a way that is not only going to teach my kids how to play music, but is going to lead to lasting, beautiful music. Which is why Conrad maintained an archive for so long. Which is why he recorded his band at every contest they played and saved the tapes for 30 years. Because he knew that there was going to be people, like me, going there trying to find it some day.

BROWN: In the studio of his modest home in the shadow of Houston's skyscrapers, Conrad Johnson is surrounded by dusty awards and framed newspaper clippings. But he doesn't talk like a man stuck in the past. In fact, with the rerelease of some of KSB's recordings, Johnson seems to be thinking a lot about the future, eager to tell others about the secrets of his success.

Mr. JOHNSON: Don't shoot for excellence only. Shoot for perfection. And when you think you've got your sound really sounding good, that's when you should go to work. Don't stop. That'll make the difference.

BROWN: As he talks, he uses his hands like a conductor, punching the air with his fingers, his eyes still sparkling with the intensity of a teacher at work.

For NPR News, I'm David Brown.

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