Make It Funky: 'Thunder Soul' Celebrates a High School Impresario
by Ron Deutsch
1969 was a watershed year in America. Richard Nixon took the reigns of the US presidency. It was the year of Woodstock, the Chicago 8 trial, the Stonewall riots and Charles Manson's murder spree. Sesame Street debuted, and the Beatles played their last concert, on a London rooftop. It was also the year in which 55-year-old Conrad "Prof" O. Johnson went to Kashmere High School, in a rough section of Houston known as "the Bloody 5th" Ward, to teach music and lead the school stage band. Johnson needed to reach these kids, and it wasn't going to be through teaching them Tommy Dorsey or even Duke Ellington tunes. So he began incorporating funk and soul arrangements. The experiment worked. Not only were his students inspired, but they won national awards, played internationally and continued to do so until Johnson retired in 1978.
But Prof's legacy didn't end there. The recordings Johnson made of his award-winning stage band found a new audience two decades later when DJ Shadow sampled the namesake track "Kashmere" for a song on Prince Paul and Dan The Automator's Handsome Boy Modeling School CD. Other DJs and music fans began digging through thrift store bins to find the band's recordings. Then, in 2006, the California label Stones Throw reissued a two-disc compilation of the Kashmere Stage Band. An NPR story about that reissue convinced Los Angeles-based producer/director Mark Landsman that he needed to track down Johnson and learn more.