A Conversation With... Rob Bowman

It’s Good Friday and I’m at my desk transcribing a riveting interview with ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman drawn from my weekly radio show and thinking to myself – am I hearing the voice of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) from Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul? It’s absolutely eerie.

I remember thinking the same when Bowman sat across from me during the original radio broadcast. For me, having that bit of imagined vocal colour illuminate conversation – the enthusiasm, the vivid storytelling – those precise dates, episodes and remembered facts logged in this man’s vault-like memory, made this one rare surreal encounter.

It would take eight hours of transcription to undo the fifty-eight minutes we spent together so I’ve chosen to roll with early Bowman. I enjoy extracting motives and influences from guests and locating the instant that passion for something is ignited.  

Bowman has more projects on the go than any one person should invite and is still preaching the gospel of music at York University.

Bill King: You’re doing some writing for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame?

Rob Bowman: There’s a program that comes for the people who pay the five thousand, ten thousand, three thousand dollar table – that’s what it used to always be when at the Waldorf Astoria – a small gathering of a thousand people with stupid money in the industry camped out. Now it’s become a public event up in the stands, but on the floor it’s still all the rock stars. They get a program with that and I’ve been doing it every year. I’ve done it I think seventeen years and it’s a cool gig. I go to the darn thing every year, including all the stuff that goes with it.

We do these four-plus hour interviews with the inductees – I did six hours with Maceo Parker recently. That’s for the hall of fame archives. It’s a beautiful template to go in real depth. You don’t normally get that kind of time with people.

B.K: Let’s step back and get a read on where this connection with contemporary music began. You grew up in Toronto?

R.B: I went to Victoria Park. It was a cool school you know. It was an experimental school for a very brief period. We used to have a six day cycle of forty-eight periods of which twenty-four were spares. I started writing for magazines when I was fifteen. This is cool. I’m gigging in bands and have twenty-four free periods that I can use to transcribe the articles I’m writing and I’m also writing the articles in the typewriter room.

B.K: What ignited this passion?

R.B: That’s easy. The “big bang” for me was when I was seven. My brother was fourteen and had a girlfriend from England – this is like September 1963. She moved over here and brought Beatle records with her. The Beatles haven’t hit yet and I’m in grade two.

She starts playing Beatle records for us and I’m hearing John Lennon’s voice for the first time singing “Please, Please Me” and “Twist & Shout” and it was like the whole world changed. It’s not like my whole life had been bad before. Some days it seemed like it was kind of grey then suddenly it was multi-coloured – unbelievably bright – there was a reason to get up every morning – there were Beatle records. I wouldn’t play with my Happy Time Farm unless I could play Beatle records. Anyone who came to the door – postman or whatever, I wanted to know if they liked the Beatles. If you didn’t I wanted to know why not and if you did, I wanted to know what your favourite song was.

I’m going to school in grade two and talking about the Beatles and the others kids are looking at me like I’m from Mars; remember the Beatles haven’t hit yet – but when they did, I was a prophet. Not only a prophet but I knew all fourteen songs on that first record and can sing them. Grade two recesses, six girls are hanging out with me and I’m thinking; that’s kind of cool.

It was something in the sound of Lennon’s voice that transformed me. At seven it’s the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones - by nine its Bob Dylan – by ten it’s Otis Redding – I buy my first black record which changes everything. By twelve I’m buying blues records and by fifteen I’m interviewing T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker. By the time I’m sixteen I’m doing my first cover story and it’s Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon tour. I’d take a day off high school and kids would say, where were you and I’d say – “I’ve been interviewing David Gilmour of Pink Floyd,” – you want to talk about cultural capital?

I remember my first free promo copies. I’d been working four jobs so I could buy every record I could possibly get my hands on, I was a total junkie and suddenly they are giving me this for free?

When I was seven I would get an allowance of $.25 a week and I’d save up for fourteen weeks and have $3.50. Records were $3.20 then add in 3% tax - $.30. I would take my fourteen quarters to Eaton’s in the Don Mills Plaza and buy an album – usually a new Beatles record. Forget buying chocolate bars and crap – forget buying cigarettes.

I’m getting into shows free – getting to meet my heroes – it was like, did I just die and go to heaven? You know, I’m still in heaven!

I’m a university professor and have done 200 CD reissues – won a Grammy and a billion other things. The “big bang” started at seven but there have been a lot of big bangs along the way.

Patti Smith used to talk about rock ‘n’ roll as a religion – Pete Townsend, that way too and in some ways that’s what it’s been in my life. When I say rock ‘n’ roll I don’t mean Iron Maiden by that – I’m talking about a bigger umbrella that includes funk and soul and now hip hop and it of course all goes back to Louis Jordan and jump blues and the post war era. My listening taste keeps going further back in time – further left and further right. Dinwiddie Colored Quartet 1902, I’m there – I’ve got all six records. Standard Quartet 1894, first black religious recording – we got it. I’m working on a twelve CD box set of black gospel – that’s one of the projects I’m working on.

Then for Toronto people – a Jackie Shane reissue.

B.K: Do you want to lay down for awhile?

R.B: If you want. I have a lot of energy – kind of old now! I’m signifying.

B.K: When we talk soul music and about soul eras, I find I’m hooked on ’68 – ’70, ’71..

R.B: Cool era but ’65 and ’66 were pretty cool too.

B.K: That’s the Stax period. I’m living Super Fly at the moment.

R.B: Or ’56 – James Brown – “Please, Please” that’s where it all starts. Super Fly is cool – I did a documentary on Curtis Mayfield and adored the Impressions. Do you know who else adored the Impressions – Bob Marley! Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions were Bob Marley & the Wailers favourite group. Bob saw them once in Montego Bay and was too scared to go up to them – this was back in the ‘60s. All the Wailers – Peter, Bunny and Bob - the adoration for that incredible ethereal sound – the harmonies were so magnificent. 

B.K: That was the beauty of the “Doo-wop” era – so many could really sing – then you put rhythm to it.

R.B: Absolutely. You can trace that stuff back. A lot of people don’t understand barbershop music which they think is staid white people kind of stuff,was a black tradition. The first barbershop singers were black in the 1890s. If you think about it there’s a through line that goes pre-barbershop. Certainly from barbershop up through the Motown guys – through the sound of Philadelphia – up to Boyz11Men in the ‘80s – it just keeps going. This group singing – participatory thing in black music is one of the keys to all of this stuff I was talking about – rock ‘n’ roll in the biggest sense.

B.K: What’s the first black record you ever bought?

R.B: It was on Stax subsidiary, Volt Records – 1966 and it’s a song called, “Try a Little Tenderness.” Here’s some back story. I adored the Stones – going to see them in Cuba. I remember they cut “That’s How Strong My Love Is” – Otis Redding had actually covered it from O.V. Wright. It was an unbelievable version and I loved the way Mick sang it. I remember him talking about it in an interview and I go again to Eaton’s in Don Mills where I bought that first Beatles record and asked if they had “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and they didn’t but they had Otis’s newest single which was “Try a Little Tenderness.” Bought it, brought it home and put the needle on that ‘45 – it didn’t make the Stones irrelevant but it opened up another world – a torrent of potential music experiences I’ve spent decades exploring. This is one of the greatest records cut by any human on any planet and I’ve been to several.

B.K: You know what I always loved about that Stax sound – that cracking snare – the drums.

R.B: You know drummer Al Jackson used to tape his wallet on the snare drum and get this deep walloping sound and it’s partially the sound of the room. You know Stax was a movie theatre that had been converted into a recording studio and they never leveled the floor. So you’ve got a sloped floor – forty foot ceilings at one point and ten foot ceilings at the back. Think about how movie theaters are – left and right walls are not parallel they are on an angle. If you understand sound and vibrations bouncing off surfaces, there are no parallel surfaces, it unleashes a reverberant sound that’s so alive and so different.

You listen to Motown Records during that period – they were cut in a real small garage in the back of this house Berry Gordy converted and rented in Detroit and you’ve got everything parallel surfaces. Everything gets overloaded with sound – great sound, yet entirely different.

They were labels with identifiable sounds. You don’t talk about the sound of RCA Records. You talk about just a bunch of different music.

B.K: There are places and positions where instruments sonically work in a room and then never moved.

B.K: They never moved the drums. I was in the Stax building before it was torn down and then we actually rebuilt the whole building into a museum. We bought the land it had been on – it had been torn down in ’89 unfortunately and in 2000 we bought the land then spent three years rebuilding the building down to a quarter inch. We got the original blue prints - had people come in and replicate right down to the colour of the drapes – everything we tried to do was as exact as possible. We kept the studio completely as it was. Where the offices are now, it’s become an exhibit space for the museum. It opened in 2003.

I did my dissertation on Stax Records and ended up writing a book called Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records which in 2013 was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. We did a documentary film in 1994, then later in the States. I think I’ve done seventy-five Stax reissues.

I’ve been nominated for five Grammys and this is my first one which is interesting and ties to a guest you had on your show, Kim Cooke.

Kim was at Warner Music Canada and I’m down in Memphis doing my PHD. I didn’t know this, but Kim on his own, was putting together a two LP set on Otis Redding. For Canada, that was kind of adventurous. Kim had done an Aretha Franklin and had some success and now he was going to do Otis. A guy working with him named Randy Sharrard suggested he call this guy Rob Bowman down in Memphis - he’s interviewing everybody at Stax and he could probably share some stuff that might be useful. Kim calls me up and tells me what he’s doing and asks to send me the tracks and says, “I want you to tell me if I’m missing anything crucial that should be on there.”

Anyway, we had a long phone call and by the end of it I had turned a two record set into a four record set.  He had asked Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records to write the liner notes then decided to un-invite Jerry and hired me to write the liner notes and I also ended co-producing with him and we got nominated for a Grammy. I wrote 20,000 words based on the original research and interviewed everybody who had played on these records – all but Otis who died in ’67 and drummer Al Jackson who was murdered in ’75 in the front hall of his house.

B.K: Within the walls of the studio and the homes of the entrepreneurs and artists they had a common kinship – free association.

R.B: I always called Stax an oasis of racial sanity in an otherwise insane world. They could also go on to the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King was shot in ’68 – the Stax people would hang out there a lot – both white and black could go down there and socialize at the pool – sort of have post session relaxation parties – often writing sessions. Guitarist Steve Cropper would often meet Wilson Pickett there and write things like “Midnight Hour.” Virtually nowhere else in the city!

I often talk about Stax as being the “organic manifestation of Martin Luther King’s dream.” White and black people coming together not forced together like busing which didn’t work, but coming together with a common purpose of “free will.”

B.K: You’re heading to Cuba to catch the Rolling Stones – this is a big score – how did you pull this off – I’m terribly jealous?

R.B: I got into the El Mocambo in ’77 without a pass. I took a week off of university at that time working on getting into that club gig. I never believed I’d see the Stones in a club. I’ve now seen them in seven club shows.

They are doing a South American tour and you know I’m crazy and have a real life and teach at York University – constantly doing film and CD projects...

B.K: Quickly, how many hours a week do you teach?

R.B: I’m a full-time professor. I’m teaching two classes – three hours each and supervising ten to twelve PHD students at one time so it’s hard to quantify – I’m only in the classroom six hours a week yet it’s a full-time job – I’m working more than forty hours at it every week.

I just can’t fly down to see the South American tour – take time off but I knew about Cuba being a potential gig months ago – members of the band had told me. I thought if they do play Cuba – it’s not too far – I could fly down between classes and get back as long as they don’t play a day I’m actually teaching. It’s the last show of the tour but I hate to say this, I’ve gotten to the point and they’ve gotten to the point – what if this is the last time. They are planning on touring this fall and already have a hold on three shows at Madison Square Garden in September but at their age, anybody could die – anybody could get sick. Every time I see them, see Van Morrison or Bob Dylan or Patti Smith or Prince or Neil I think this is one more gift to be on the same planet to experience this high religious ceremony – which is what it is.

Playing Cuba is kind of special – a big show in Havana, it was a no brainer.

B.K: As long as the Stones don’t play salsa!

R.B: Dylan’s playing Sinatra tunes on the road right now – anything’s possible.




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