FUNK INVESTIGATORS

Alberto Zanini (preface by Antonio Bacciocchi, translated by Mark Windle)

In addition to the story of a professional rebirth in difficult circumstances, this book contains everything you could ask for in a modern on the road adventure between present times and distant past. You will read words like Funk, Motown, and Philly, or artist’s names like Lonnie Liston Smith, Gil Scott Heron and The Drifters. You will meet unknown artists, wonderful characters, ordinary and unique at the same time; instruments from another era such as the Revox, magnetic tapes, Sound Burgers and ribbon microphones. Yes, there is music, but there are also Art, History, Metropolitan Ghettos, Emotions and even the Italian American mafia, in a tasty cocktail from which it is impossible to separate.

***Excerpt from chapter “Winter 2015”

I bought my first quarter-inch reel with two hundred dollars. It was sent to me immediately, and arrived in March. I remember the blossom of the cherry tree falling on the garden path as I walked back into the kitchen of a house full of joy and noisy children. A house that is no longer mine. Even today, if I close my eyes, I can hear the sound of the postman’s Vespa as he drove off down the dusty country road.

I opened the package carefully, to avoid damaging the content. Inside, there was a square box about a centimetre thick. It contained a roll of tape just a little wider than the audiocassettes with which I used to record Videomusic on TV. A few almost ineligible handwritten notes on the back of the box seemed to refer to the artist’s name and song title. Other than that, there was no date or other clue that could indicate what the style or era of music was. So then… how could I listen to it? I didn’t have any equipment that would let me hear what was engraved on that small strip of magnetic tape. Some phone calls had to be made. I knew of a few old musicians who still alive, from the dozens of small groups that used to make up the musical tradition of the area where I lived. They were guys from the Italian beat groups of the 1960s. A few were still around, now well into their seventies. Some still may have owned professional reel-to-reel tape recorders. Eventually I found Mr. Mario, former keyboardist of The Bagonghi, who was happy to help and suggested that I go and see him.

I drove to the outskirts of the city a couple of days later, where some new neighbourhoods had been long abandoned before they had even been inhabited. The banks had lost bravado in giving out mortgages, and the construction companies no longer had the money to finish building them. The end result was flat cornfields, dusty white streets and irrigation canals. Mario was there in his garden waiting for me, next to a Moto Guzzi Galletto, one of those that has the starter on the headlight. He had a big grey cat in his arms. In the distance, a rusty tractor peeked out from behind a barn. We exchanged introductions, and walked towards the old building.

“So, you were talking about a tape to put on a digital file if I’m not mistaken?” said Mario. “If it’s a regular quarter-inch tape, we shouldn’t have any problems. That’s the same size we used in my day. I hope it’s not a multi-track though – you’ll need a larger recorder. The multi-tracks were used by professional recording studios, not by us here in the barn.” “Good news” I replied, as I removed the box from the backpack. “It’s a quarter-inch tape from United Sound, in America. Detroit to be more precise. I think it was recorded in the late sixties. I ordered it without thinking I needed special equipment to listen to it”.

“After you phoned me the other day, I took out my old Revox in the rehearsal room, to see if it works,” said Mario. “It’s a miracle. It needed some calibration but the motors, keys and cables are all in perfect working order. Tell me, what storage conditions was the tape kept in? In my day we used that particular kind of tape too, it was the best we could get in Italy. Expensive and difficult to find.

” I eagerly removed tape from the box and unwound it for the first twenty inches, so I to check it over (my first beginner’s mistake). Satisfied that everything seemed in order to me, I rewound it back onto the spool and placed it back in its cardboard case.

“Mario, it looks perfect. I don’t know how it could have survived for fifty years in these conditions. But it seems fine”. We arrived at the front door of the barn, stumbling over some hens scratching around the courtyard. As we entered, it was like stepping back in time, maybe forty years or more. A large canvas, painted with psychedelic colours, hung on the far wall. A Hollywood Meazzi drum kit was perfectly mounted on a fake Persian carpet that had surely seen better times. Mario explained that his old band gathered in that room sometimes, although not as often as they once did, since some members of the original group had passed on. To the left of the drums stood an old Farfisa Matador, the iconic keyboard from the golden years of Rimini coastal dance halls. Mario’s basement was exactly how I had always imagined the rehearsal room of a sixties Italian group.

He set up the Revox on a wooden camping table. One end of the tape was inserted into the front spindle, which held an empty reel. With a quick gesture, he pressed the play button. What I experienced in that moment was surreal. It felt like the world had suddenly stopped. The slow rotations of the reels seemed to have the power to freeze time and space. Dust was suspended in the single beam of sunlight that streamed through the window. The first sound was that of a light piano riff, which filled the room with a gentle melody. “That’s a Fender Rhodes”, Mario whispered as he listened intently. He had a look of wonder about him, somewhere between mystical revelation and the amazement of a child seeing snow for the first time. The sound coming from the Revox speakers was crisp and low in bass, like it came out of a bottle with a narrow neck (a result of the quality of recording technology at the time of manufacture). Each mechanical challenge faced by the tape, as it ran through various heads and potentiometers, and my over-keen unwinding to inspect it, was affecting playback and clearly reducing the listening quality. I was on edge, waiting to hear the first words of the singer, when it happened. SNAP! The tape had suddenly split and the two ends of tape spun wildly on the Revox spindles. The spell had been broken…” ———–

***Excerpt from chapter “Pittsburgh”

The man claimed to be looking for young people to write songs and music for the artists he represented, some of whom had already released material for various labels with which he had business relationships (in fact, it seemed that several labels employed Italian immigrants, even if it was hard to track their name in the official Billboard charts). Scaglione asked the Ames brothers if that was something they might be interested in. In which case, they could move on to the financial side of things.

“We were living a dream. Roland and I would have said yes to anything to be able to get our music out there. You know, to make it heard in the right places. ” On the recommendation of Bo Miller, who had introduced the brothers to him, Phil offered a freelance deal for writing lyrics and composing music for third parties. He opened the drawer of his massive walnut desk and flipped through random paperwork until he came across a copy of a blank standard contract. The wording stipulated a work for hire, as composers for unspecified artists represented by Scaglione & Sons. The relationship between Bo and Phil was very close, and it seemed that the two had conducted this kind of business together many times in the past. The secretary typed their names into the contract, and the Ames brothers signed it immediately. Frederick stared at Roland in stunned silence, with their copy of the contract in his hand. Phil Scaglione opened the huge green safe with a brass crank, which was built into the wood panelling behind his desk. Two small wads of twenty-dollar bills were removed and passed to the boys. This was their ‘advance’ payment. The contract stated that the agency would recover the sum by deducting it from any future payments.

“It’s a done deal. Congratulations! Guys, I need to get on with my things here. If you wanna celebrate, there’s a place downstairs that makes good fried chicken. I’ll touch base with you soon,” said Scaglione, hurriedly dismissing them. Almost forty years had passed and Frederick still remembered the exact words Phil, alluding with a tone of superiority to the most popular dish among the African American population, had used to dismiss them at the end of the meeting. Bo Miller got up and shook hands with the brothers, commenting he needed to stay to discuss some other matters with Phil. That was all and now, if they didn’t mind, he could leave them to their business and let them celebrate on their own…” ———–

***Excerpt from chapter “Detroit”

“I have a strong imagination and often fantasize about things that others would find of little importance. If have an indefinite amount of tequila boom boom and take two shots at a cannon of good weed, that aspect really takes over. And that’s exactly what happened that night. I closed my eyes and teleported myself to the sidewalk in front of Motown HQ on West Grand, to witness the frantic comings and goings of drummers with sticks poking out of their trouser pockets, and guitarists rushing about with cases on their shoulders and scores under their arms. And producers, with their train of secretaries and assistants. Smokey Robinson got out of a taxi, out of breath and late for a recording session.

I imagined Berry Gordy arguing in his office with a now famous and powerful Marvin Gaye over the release of What’s Going On, the socially controversial album that Marvin had just written and that Berry did not want to release. He just didn’t get it, and had put it aside for months without giving it the slightest consideration. I saw Marvin get angry with him because he was convinced that the social awareness theme of the album could open the eyes of the youth, an audience who, until then, were accustomed only to songs proclaiming everything was rosy and that life was simply a matter of complicated love and broken hearts. According to Marvin, all was not well, especially for those trudging through the desolation of every poor American suburb, forgotten by a system exclusively run by whites, for whites. The racial issue, the Vietnam War, drug traffickers decimating black communities – none of this was acceptable of course, but it was all allowed to play out with nobody trying to intervene. Marvin felt it was necessary to denounce that social unease in any way possible, including through music. If Motown refused to release his album, he had the financial resources to arrange it himself.

I also saw Berry Gordy for a moment as he returned to his desk, after the singer had left the office slamming the door behind him. He wanted to publish What’s Going On and to please his star artist with all his heart. He was aware of the earnings it had brought him up to then. But his thoughts were stuck between the millions of dollars that the sale of that record could generate, and the danger – a very real one in those difficult years– of Motown gaining a reputation as an organisation rebellious to the established order, becoming a target for white retaliation. It could be a double-edged sword; an obstacle to the future of the label. Berry didn’t want his famous slogan, The Sound of Young America, to be associated with socially controversial productions. He had tried in every way to make his singer desist. In my daydream, I saw Berry Gordy in his shirtsleeves, running his hands across his troubled brow as he poured a scotch from the bar. My fantasies continued for god knows how long. When someone opened another bottle of tequila, it was time to go to sleep. I needed to be up early the next day for the library and then set off to the east…”

***Excerpt from chapter “New York”

The Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, was all steel profiles and sparkling glass on a square plan, with an entrance and a takeaway counter like those of McDonald’s. It looked brand new, so I thought I wouldn’t find anyone there to ask about the “lost family”. I looked around and a little further up the road I saw a small brick church, from which a group of elderly black ladies was coming out, most with a bible in hand. As it was Sunday, it was very likely that they had lingered to chat after the morning service. 

If the American religious congregations resembled the Italian churches even just a little, maybe I would have a chance. In fact in Italy the churches are so numerous and scattered that there is one for each small town, and their priests know everything about everyone. It is no coincidence that the Carabinieri had cloned the distribution model, placing small barracks in every urban centre with at least a thousand souls. The Church and the Constituted Order need territorial control to be effective and long-lived. The secret of the confessional puts the priest above all. In the name of the lord, he listens, learns everything that happens, dispenses advice, guides opinions, manages business and often ends up knowing the faithful better than they know themselves. If you want to know something about somebody, go to the priest and offer him something in return, tactfully, without being too cheeky. I decided it was worth a try and cautiously approached the group of older ladies. The priest was missing, but I had to make do. “Good morning ladies. Hope I’m not disturbing you,” I asked with a shy facial expression. There were five of them. Two were talking to the others from the top step of the church steps. They whirled around together as if they were all part of the same synchronized swimming team. No one said anything – or seemed to have any intention of saying anything – so I removed the file out of my backpack.

“I’m looking for a person”, I said, addressing none of them in particular. “Well, more of a family in fact, that settled down around here at the dawn of the seventies. There’s a mother, Mrs. Rozetta Clarke Dowell, and her children Lee and Alice. To my knowledge they arrived in town from Detroit on around ’67 or ’68, and lived here in White Plains Road ever since.” Frost. The three women on the sidewalk looked at me from head to toe, while the other two began to descend the steps to get closer to look at the folder I was holding open in my hand. The eldest one took the copy of her photo and held it up to her face, lifting her glasses from her nose. The others gathered around her, exchanging questioning glances and whispering to each other, completely excluding me.

I noticed a certain curiosity on their faces, a bit like the one that comes to the elderly in Italy when they see a new obituary on the walls of the city. They approach us to check that someone they and I know is not dead, like an old school friend or the cousin of the neighbour’s sister, “because, you know, it’s been a long time since I saw you around, poor thing.” The death of an acquaintance or even that of a simple peer makes us perceive the end as a concrete possibility, especially in later part of life when we feel it approaching. Maybe for no apparent reason it makes us feel like our time is running out too. More mental saws. After a few minutes of consultation, the upper room opened and eyes began to scan me again like the metal detectors of an airport. A couple of the ladies nodded silently. It was clear they recognized the woman in the photo. The older one walked through the group as their spokesperson, handed the print back to me with her gnarled hand and said, “Tell me, why in the hell are you looking for poor sister Rozie?” Sister Rozie…Bingo!

“And what’s your name anyway, you got an accent I can’t read clear. Not even sure you are American? And in any case who would you be?”, the woman raised her voice slightly, turning to the others with an air of satisfaction as she waved the bible in small jerks in the direction of the church, almost as if to say…”

Alberto

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