J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Big Sky ’16: The Record Man

With the passage of time, you might be ready now to admit you own some of the records produced by Henry Stone—maybe a lot of them. Initially, he mostly oversaw R&B sessions, but he enjoyed spectacular but brief success as the original disco producer. When times were good they were booming, but the bust came on hard and fast. The late, great Stone looks back on his colorful career in Mark Moormann’s The Record Man (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

After serving in an Army band that included the likes of Sy Oliver and Jimmy Lunceford, Stone made some hard, levelheaded choices as a good but not great trumpet player. He opted to move over to the business side of the music industry, a decision his future right-hand man, almost teen idol Steve Alaimo would also make. At one point, he sold platters out of the trunk of his cars (earning the nick name “Record Man”), but he quickly moved into distribution and production at a more professional level.

Stone ran an appealingly loose ship at TK Records, where eager kids like Harry Wayne “KC” Casey and Richard Finch could fool around in the studio after finishing their gopher work. Eventually, their collaborations blossomed into KC and the Sunshine Band. It took them a bit of time to catch on, but when they did, Stone was practically minting money, at least until the phrase “disco sucks” entered the public consciousness.

Through Stone’s reminiscences, Moormann gives viewers a pretty robust history of disco. Maybe you knew George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” is considered the very first disco record ever, if you are a dedicated aficionado. However, the professional rivalry he developed with his wife and fellow TK recording artist Gwen McRae could be the basis of its own film.

Moormann scored interviews with most of the surviving TK artists (including Casey, George McRae, Timmy Thomas, Benny Lattimore, and the smooth-jazzish Bobby Caldwell) who describe Stone as old school, in mostly a fun to be around, only slightly roguish way. There is also a third act triumph-over-adversity angle to the film that sort of hides in plain sight from the audience during Stone’s initial on-camera appearances. There are also some real world music business survival tips to be gleaned from his experiences, like always be leery when a cat like Morris Levy calls.

For the most part though, Record Man is a lot of breezy, nostalgic fun, even if you are not a huge disco fan. Highly recommended as a slice of American cultural history, The Record Man screens this Saturday (2/20) and Sunday (2/21) as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the following Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday (2/28, 2/29, 3/2) at the Washington Jewish Film Festival.

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