I became a hardcore record collector long before the Internet made it easy to document virtually every recording ever released, which meant that often I hauled intriguing pieces of vinyl out of the basements and attics of old Cincinnati homes without knowing what I had.
Back in the late ’80s, I brought home a record called The Grodeck Whipperjenny, pulled the disc out of the cardboard sleeve, dropped the needle…and was completely stumped. This 1970 LP was one of the strangest, trippiest, and just plain most out records I’d ever heard.
The album exuded a dark version of acid rock—but it was tricky. Sometimes the band would go deep into funk; other times, a chamber orchestra drops on by. The song titles themselves sounded like flower power jabberwocky: On “Sitting Here on a Tongue,” that phrase is sung ad infinitum over a fuzzed-out, reverb-laden funk groove so heavy it sounded like it was recorded inside the Lytle Tunnel. The longest cut is an open-ended improvisation that leaves a tang of avant-garde jazz in its wake. The record was bizarre. The record was good. It was such an odd blend of styles that, had I owned a record store, I wouldn’t have known where to slot it.
The mystery deepened when I read the credits, which stated that The Grodeck Whipperjenny was recorded in Cincinnati. Really? I recognized the names of various local jazz musicians in the lineup, but how did this bunch make an album so beyond the realm of jazz as to be part of some alternate reality?
My perplexity did not end there. The cover declared the album a “James Brown Production,” apparently the first LP issued on the People label, run by the Godfather of Soul himself. So, um, how did that happen?
Oh, and one other thing: What the heck was a grodeck whipperjenny?
Although I didn’t know it then, other crate diggers around the country were starting to ask similar questions. Over time, The Grodeck Whipperjenny’s oddity, along with its obscurity, made it an object of lust for big game hunting collectors. Now I had it, or it had me; and as the years passed I became a little obsessed trying to understand. I had plenty of questions and it became clear that to answer them I needed to contact the person who created the band more than 40 years ago in Cincinnati. But where was he?
The cover features dim black and white photographs of a young man with dark shoulder-length hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a beard. Rather than the bright colors and paisley shapes of a typical psychedelic cover of the era, this was something more ominous. Instead of a smiling face there was the brooding visage of someone looking strikingly intense.
That someone was David Matthews (and no, we’re not talking about that younger singer-songwriter Dave Matthews). He wrote most of The Grodeck Whipperjenny, arranged it, coproduced it, and played piano, organ, and trombone on it. Clearly, a figure skilled at being everywhere and out-of-focus at the same time. In photographs taken of him through the mid-1970s his hair grows well past his shoulders. Since then, Matthews, who now spends a considerable amount of time each year living on a sailboat, has taken to wearing a skipper’s hat over an even longer hairdo.
Typically, arranging interviews with a musician involves a lot of scheduling and rescheduling through third parties, but when I e-mailed Matthews’s website I got a personal response telling me he’d be available on Skype the following day. An hour before the interview was to begin the next morning, an image appeared on my computer screen that was so fuzzy I could just make out a beard, glasses, and that skipper’s hat.
Witty and affable, the 71-year-old seemed much more laid-back than the guy on the album cover. He was in Japan, he told me, where he now lives most of the time, many miles and more than a half-century removed from a boyhood in small-town Kentucky. His father had been a Methodist preacher and moved the family to some seven towns by the time Matthews was a teenager. He headed north for college, and in conversation he sounded as palpably excited about his undergrad years at the University of Cincinnati as his subsequent success.
“My parents tell me that as early as 3 years old I was fascinated by the piano,” he told me, “and by the time I was in junior high in Central City”—a western Kentucky town of about 3,000 people—“I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do.” He took up the trumpet, then the French horn, and joined the local junior high school marching band. One day at a parade the band launched into an impromptu jam that deepened his conviction. “I played a trumpet solo and I think I hyperventilated,” Matthews said. “I got a strange and wonderful feeling. I knew that what I wanted to do was become a jazz musician.”
Matthews crossed the Ohio River to attend the College-Conservatory of Music in 1960. “Jazz musicians composed spontaneously,” he explained, “so I thought if I knew more about composing it would make me a better jazz improviser.” But the classwork could seem stodgy, superfluous. “The training was very classically oriented [with] the standard repertoire from Bach to late Romantics,” he said. “My teacher spent four years teaching me the basics of composing music. At the time I got a little frustrated. I thought, ‘Why do I need to do all this counterpoint?’”
Matthews’s circle of friends at CCM included Carmon DeLeone, who went on to become the music director of the Cincinnati Ballet. The two became roommates, bonding over interests that were hardly confined to the ivory tower. “We took every gig we could get,” said DeLeone, an avid drummer. “In fact, we were so busy outside of the classroom it was almost humorous.” Often they lugged their instruments onto busses or squeezed them into DeLeone’s Sunbeam Alpine. “It was a two-seater English car,” he said, “and we would carry the full drum set. Dave sat on the passenger side with the bass drum on his lap.”
Cincinnati in the 1960s was a great town for jazz. “When I was playing at the Playboy Club in the late ’60s, I could make a right turn and there would be five or six clubs where I could sit in that welcomed you,” DeLeone recalls. “You knew all these great musicians, many with all African-American bands. The Cupboard, the Blue Angel, the Barn had some wonderful old musicians, and then there was the Penthouse, and then the Living Room. We could play great jazz, and nobody was looking over your shoulder. It was like heaven for learning to be a musician.”
Recently Jim Tarbell, politician, former restaurateur, onetime owner of the Ludlow Garage, and general gadabout, spoke to a crowd at MOTR Pub about Cincinnati’s musical history. During his talk the mere mention of tenor saxophonist Jimmy McGary brought cheers for a local who served for decades as a major player and mentor. “Even in 1960 Jimmy McGary was the bebop tenor player in Cincinnati,” Matthews told me. “We were kids and he was a professional jazz musician, and highly respected. I never dreamed that 10 years later I’d be playing with him.”
The opportunity came in 1968, after Matthews toured Europe with a six-piece band and returned broke. “I had about 150 bucks,” he said. “I went to a place in Mt. Adams. After I paid the rent I had enough to buy a loaf of bread, a big bag of potatoes, butter, salt, coffee, sugar, and some rice. Jimmy was playing at New Dilly’s. He knew me from before. I sat in with him, and he invited me to join that band.”
Performing three sets a night for six days a week with the top musicians in the city was demanding, especially considering Matthews also wrote and arranged much of the material. But he was ready. “Even then he knew more about music theory than I ever learned,” DeLeone said. “He seemed to know it all to begin with.” (Apparently those CCM lectures on counterpoint paid off.) Matthews was a fine pianist who turned an impediment—a birth defect that restricted movement in his right hand—into an asset. “What makes him great is that he’s limited,” DeLeone said. “Other musicians show off their technique. He’s a careful player.”
McGary’s quintet was playing challenging music and packing them in over an almost year-long run at New Dilly’s. “When I joined, that was when we became the Sound Museum,” Matthews said. “Jimmy McGary made that name. He was thinking that we played so many genres of modern jazz, that hearing us was like going through an aural museum of modern art.”
The popular image of a jazz elite decked out in suits and ties and sporting grave expressions does not describe this band. The Sound Museum had long hair and smoked pot and fit in well in Mt. Adams back when it had cheap rent, headshops, and a restaurant named A Fly Can’t Bird But a Bird Can Fly. Bassist Lou Lausche, who gigged with Matthews and continues to perform at The Celestial and Schwartz’s Point, remembers him as a formidable presence. “He wore a dark wool cape that was probably an antique,” Lausche says. “He looked pretty diabolical walking around with his cape, his beret, his long hair, and his beard.”
McGary was the elder statesman who both mastered bebop and readily absorbed avant-garde influences. Along with playing keyboards, trumpet, and French horn, Matthews was sometimes known to play a Theremin (the space-age instrument you hear humming madly at the end of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”). On guitar was Kenny Poole, whose straight-ahead skills were impeccable, though when necessary he could launch mind-blowing solos. So big he made his drum set look small, ex-Princeton High School basketball star Grover Mooney was a powerhouse also capable of great delicacy. Bassist John Young and alternate drummer DeLeone were also high caliber, and highlights included guest performer Popeye Maupin belting out the blues.
Word spread and eventually the music magazine Billboard took notice. “Creating considerable excitement hereabouts is a new progressive jazz group,” the article read. “The Sound Museum is worthy of a look-in from one of the better labels scouting for talent.” It was only logical, then, that the Sound Museum would end up at Jewel Recording Studios, where they put down an album’s worth of material. Why the record was never released is unclear, but it might have had to do with timing. For shortly thereafter an opportunity came along that seemed beyond belief.
The offer arrived between sets at New Dilly’s, when a short man with a dominating presence began raving about their performance. “I didn’t really know how big a deal he was,” Matthews confessed. “I was a little out of the loop.” Yet the guy made an impression: “He was extremely charismatic, filling the room with energy.” Believable enough, as their visitor was James Brown, who showed up with his manager (and perpetual talent-seeker) Bud Hobgood.
“He said he wanted to record us,” Matthews said. “‘I want to hear what you sound like in the studio.’ We made an appointment to record a demo.” The scheduled session at King Records quickly fizzled; the band made the date but someone else was using the studio. “So we’re standing in the lobby and James calls Bud Hobgood and says, ‘I need an arranger.’ ‘Dave’s a great arranger,’ someone in the band said. ‘But he’s jazz,’ said Hobgood. Still, James gave me a shot.”
His audition involved arranging six Brown songs. “We recorded them,” Matthews said, “and a month later Brown comes into the studio. He wants to hear what we recorded. When he walks in he has a big smile. The engineer plays him about 10 seconds. He turns and looks. ‘That ain’t hip,’ he says. ‘That’s straight.’”
This happened six times in a row, by which point Brown’s smile was gone and Matthews could feel an opportunity slipping away. Fortunately, though, an engineer forwarded one tape to the middle of a song, where the arrangement took a more adventurous turn.
“He played him that part and the smile came back,” said Matthews. “ ‘That’s great,’ he said.” Then Brown turned and gave his new arranger an important piece of advice: “Mr. Matthews, when you got a good one [and] you put it in the middle of the record, no one’s going to listen to it,” he said. “You got to put it at the beginning.”
Thus began a partnership that lasted five years—a lifetime in JB years. Matthews became involved in many historic Brown sessions and worked with musicians in Brown’s entourage. They made for an interesting combination: with a strong academic background, Matthews knew most of what there was to know about music theory, while Brown worked in a more intuitive manner. They clicked even when they weren’t in the room together. “A lot of the stuff I wrote for him, he wasn’t there when we recorded,” Matthews explained. When Brown took those instrumental tracks, however, and added his parts, the intensity elevated considerably. “All of a sudden the groove got heavier,” Matthews said. “When his voice got in it, it made what I did sound better.”
Matthews went on to accompany Brown on tours as an arranger and found the concerts night after night inspiring. “Possibly except for hearing John Coltrane, every single night it was the most powerful music I ever heard,” he said. “It started out hot. By the end it multiplied in hotness. It was an astonishingly heavy groove.”
The Sound Museum never did record at King; their first session, double-booked, was also their last. However, an opportunity came for Matthews to make his own music under Brown’s auspices, this time with a different band. At first the group existed only in the boss’s head. Brown was about to start People, a label primarily devoted to soul and funk artists who performed in his live revue. King would distribute it, but JB would call all the shots. But when it came time to launch People, he envisioned something so unexpected and out of character that a team of psychics couldn’t have predicted it. Brown wanted to debut with an underground rock record, and he wanted Matthews to make it.
It would be hard to exaggerate how far Brown was going out on a limb. Members of his band—Lyn Collins, Bobby Byrd, and the J.B.s, for example—could be counted upon to sell records (and eventually they all released albums on People). Matthews, on the other hand, was unknown. Brown fans were stoked for soul and funk that was black and proud, not psychedelic rock made by white dudes with long hair. And anyway, Matthews was hardly a rock guy. “I think he saw the other rock bands—the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, etc.—making money, he had a white guy working for him and decided to give it a shot,” Matthews said. “He could only release one James Brown single per month, and he saw that the future would be in selling albums. Instead of selling James Brown, he was selling people associated with James Brown.”
First, the group would have to come up with a name. “I remembered hearing that the Kodak film company decided that a name with a hard ‘K’ on both ends was an aggressive, memorable sound,” Matthews said. “In that vein, I made up the word Grodeck. Later on, while browsing a contemporary music magazine, I came upon an orchestral piece titled ‘Welcome to Whipperjenny.’” In that moment he knew that Grodeck Whipperjenny was the only possible name. “Of course, when we went onstage at the Garage, Jim Tarbell introduced us as, ‘The band who won’t change their name.’ Maybe it was too psychedelic for him.”
The one Sound Museum carryover was guitarist Kenny Poole. Michael Moore, a roommate from college, was a talented bassist, and drummer Jimmy Madison, the youngest of the bunch, was already deemed a prodigy. Vocalist Mary Ellen Bell appeared on several cuts.
“Every musician in Grodeck Whipperjenny was a jazz musician,” Matthews said. “I was fairly young, and James asked me to make an underground record, a psychedelic rock record. I put some stuff on it that sounded like rock to me.” Here, talking to me halfway around the globe via Skype, Matthews broke out laughing. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing! There’s some truly interesting things because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Yet the album had everything a psych fan would love, including fuzz guitar, heavy reverb, lyrics that are alternately ponderous and indecipherable, a dense soundscape packed with mystery, and tripped-out, what-were-they-thinking titles like “Sitting Here on a Tongue,” “Put Your Thing on Me,” and “Evidence for the Existance [sic] of the Unconscious.” That last one, the longest track on the record, featured a spontaneous, one-take instrumental that lives up to its title.
“We played free,” Matthews said. “We just listened to each other. It changes keys, changes tempos, changes meters and is totally unplanned—just jazz musicians listening to each other. It’s one of my favorite things I have ever recorded.”
Four decades later, the music still holds a special meaning to Matthews. Recently he was having dinner with Jimmy Madison, and the drummer arrived with a stack of records, including The Grodeck Whipperjenny. “We listened to it and I thought, Damn, this is some bad shit.”
True enough, but in 1970 few even knew the record existed. “There was almost no recognition at the time,” Matthews told me. “I saw a report from the King Records president. Nobody was very excited. It was a little outside of sellable.”
Matthews doesn’t even remember Brown hearing the thing. But he must have liked it well enough because he soon cut “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” with the band. The song was pressed as a James Brown single—and then quickly withdrawn. Soon it would be re-recorded with Brown and his regular group, the J.B.s, and that version became a celebrated groove. At a session soon after “Talkin’ Loud” was made, Grodeck Whipperjenny recorded music for a second album. Sho Is Funky Down Here kept the beat heavier; less intellectual and more below the belt, it was still plenty wild.
Although the cover features a picture of Brown and proclaims “James Brown plays and directs THE JAMES BROWN BAND,” Grodeck is never mentioned and Brown’s involvement on Sho Is Funky Down Here was probably limited to some in-your-face clavinet and organ playing and assorted shouts and grunts overdubbed after the Grodeck members laid down their tracks . “I’m pretty sure James wasn’t there,” Matthews said of the initial sessions. Ironically, then, what would be the final James Brown album for King only minimally involved the label’s biggest artist.
Sho Is Funky sold better than The Grodeck Whipperjenny, but it was a long time before listeners knew who actually made them. With time, however, there has been a reappraisal of both albums. Matthews’s music has been sampled extensively by rappers and turntablists. Rick Wojcik, the owner of Dusty Groove, a Chicago-based record store/mail order mecca, is effusive in his praise.
“David Matthews was one of those tastes that I had to get used to,” Wojcik said. “Then I realized it was amazing. It’s tremendous when you understand that James Brown was opening his ears up to a sound like that and that Matthews had such an opportunity to express himself. It was one of those really amazing criss-crossings. For years the record was lost between funk fans and psychedelic fans because it was sitting between genres. It lost purists because it was too weird. Then it had that rise 20 years ago where crate diggers said, ‘Hey, if it’s too weird, I want it.’”
Chris Burgan, a local record collector and DJ who also curated a 2005 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center devoted to Cincinnati’s once fertile soul scene, declares that Sho Is Funky is his all-time favorite James Brown record. “[It] kind of shows me that even without Bootsy or Clyde or Chicken he could still put out amazing records,” he says. Burgan plays the Grodeck version of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” at every DJ gig.
The Grodeck Whipperjenny has now achieved definitive cult status. It’s readily available on CD and vinyl, and is stocked by record stores across the country. However, a recording that shares much of its pedigree continues to languish in obscurity. Today out of print, it has never been released on CD and remains unknown even in an age where seemingly everything is available.
I once heard a fellow collector speak in hushed tones about a long lost Sound Museum album that was recorded in Cincinnati. When I asked around about it, nobody had seen or even heard of it, and so I figured it didn’t exist. Then, in 2008, I visited Jewel Recording Studios in Mt. Healthy after the small, vital label closed but before its contents went up for auction. Walking past a grand piano, a drum set, mic stands, cables and mixing boards, I half-expected a session to begin: everything was intact.
The room where I ended up contained thousands of 45s and LPs that had been stuffed in crates and boxes with no order whatsoever. In one box I came upon a Jimmy McGary album I’d never seen before called Two Tone Poems. The lineup was the same as that of the Sound Museum. Somehow I convinced a Jewel employee that I was the rightful owner of the record, and eventually it became clear what it was: a limited release of the Sound Museum’s Jewel recording from 1968, made before they ever set foot in King.
Two Tone Poems is a piece of Cincinnati music history. If you want to know what the buzz was about at New Dilly’s back then, listening to this recording will tell you. Good luck finding a copy, though. A 1980 vinyl reissue is way out of print, and the music never came out on CD. That’s the bad news; the good news is that most of the artists who played with the Sound Museum went on to successful careers. Although they remained in Cincinnati, McGary and Kenny Poole left a real mark on the jazz world. (McGary passed away in 1993.) Being music director of the Cincinnati Ballet for more than four decades only begins to describe DeLeone’s accomplishments. After moving to the East Coast, Grover Mooney became an in-demand drummer and led his own group, Moon Unit, which, like The Sound Museum, combined a solid jazz foundation with an experimental approach.
The members of Grodeck Whipperjenny also experienced success. For decades, Michael Moore has had an impeccable reputation, and he was the final bassist for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Drummer Jimmy Madison became an in-demand session musician logging stints with important jazz, Latin, and soul artists. The late Mary Ellen Bell was a popular singer locally, and her Mary Ellen Bell Quartet LP stands as a strong testament to a distinctive jazz vocalist. And like Matthews, McGary, Poole, Madison, and Moore all recorded with James Brown.
As impressive as those professional accomplishments are, another aspect to the story bears mentioning. The more I learned about these musicians the more I realized that this was a story about friendship. Long after everyone moved to different cities, Michael Moore and Jimmy Madison continued to appear on David Matthews records. When Jimmy McGary recorded Palindrome in 1987, Moore returned for the recording. And this year’s release of a 1986 McGary performance, Live at the Sungarden, features Grover Mooney on drums.
Sometimes a community steps up and rewrites history, as when a bunch of crate diggers redefine the reputation of one of the strangest James Brown records ever made. Other times, history shows itself in the bonds of a community of friends.
Meanwhile Matthews keeps finding fresh success in the music business. His work with Brown and other soul artists overlapped with his contributions to the CTI jazz label, where he became their go-to arranger. Like Lafcadio Hearn, he’s someone whose career was launched in Cincinnati and who went on to be big in Japan, where his recordings with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet have sold upwards of 500,000 total copies. Matthews describes his most recent project this way: “Manhattan Jazz Orchestra’s latest CD, Plays Disney, was released in Japan. All Disney songs, to which, of course I added my own twist. Walt is probably turning over in his grave. But I think it’s very hip.”
When Carmon DeLeone and the New Studio Big Band performed at the Blue Wisp last summer, they played arrangements almost exclusively from the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra projects. If you think about it, that’s amazing. Fifty years ago David and Carmon were just two freshmen at UC who happened to love music. They still do.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue.
Illustration by Sean McCabe