What The funk?!?

What The funk?!?

Spotlight returns to Dayton’s musical legacy

By Rusty Pate

Photo: The Ohio Players; image courtesy of the Dayton Daily News Archive at Wright State University

Music helps define the places from which it springs. The mere mention of certain cities or musical styles drips so thick with nostalgia and palpable energy it seems impossible to separate the place with the art it cultivated. Detroit perfected R&B. New Orleans served up the aural gumbo that became jazz. The Mississippi Delta moaned the blues. Nashville crystallized country music. The hills of Kentucky gave us bluegrass.

And funk belongs to Dayton.

“Black people’s condition in the United States is funky, to say the least,” Ohio Players bassist Marshall Jones said. “Funky became a term of endearment for most black people.”

That’s not to say Dayton created funk. Any style of music is hard to pin down as having come from one place or one person, but there is always a vanguard that pushes the known boundaries of style and form. It could be argued the previously mentioned cities did not invent the respective musical genres their cities became synonymous with, but there is no mistaking the indelible role these places and people had upon spreading that voice throughout the world.

A proper charting of funk’s history goes back to jazz and Afro-Cuban influences, but the mainstream catalyst came in the form of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. Perhaps it is possible to use such words as “a danceable rhythm that emphasizes the downbeat” to define funk, but it would be simpler and more enjoyable to just listen to a track by Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic or The Ohio Players.

Jones said the path to the top of the charts for his band was not always an easy one.

“We kept submitting records to record companies and they kept saying ‘it’s not commercial enough’ – so we went into the studio one day and threw all the rules away,” Jones said. “We took off on James Brown’s start – ‘hey, make it funky.’ That’s what we did. We just threw the rules away and it became funky for us. That was our success story.”

FUNK IN DAYTON

The Ohio Players formed in 1959. After more than a decade together, their sound began to come together and they began to have moderate success. The breakthrough came with their 1974 Mercury Records debut Skin Tight. They would eventually chart 14 singles in Billboard’s Hot 100, including the No. 1 hit, “Love Rollercoaster.”

Despite their chart-topping success, the band returned to Dayton. They saw themselves as mentors to up-and-coming bands. 

“We had friends and families here, and we decided it was more affordable to stay at home,” Jones said. “By being at home, we mentored a lot of bands because they could see success in their own backyard. They emulated that success.”

As a result, a parade of musicians marched out of Dayton and straight into the music industry.

The list of bands in the genre with ties to Dayton reads like a who’s who of funk: Slave, Faze-O, Lakeside, Heatwave and Zapp – just to name a few. 

Despite this history, there never has been a permanent monument to this time in Dayton’s past.

Jones thinks the plans should be big. He points to Memphis as a model for how music can positively affect a local economy.

“I think Dayton should take that Wright-Dunbar area, because it’s prime,” Jones said. “That whole street should be a museum. You could have music; you could have food; you could have entertainment. In 90 minutes in a jet plane, you can be to 40 major cities. You’ve got U.S. Interstate 75 and U.S. Interstate 70 – that’s the crossroads of this country, right here in this city. I had a friend do a little research for me, and I found out that Beale Street makes a profit of $35 million a year. Come on, what are you waiting for?”

Several groups are now vying to open a museum and hall of fame.

THE DIFFERENT GROUPS

While the mission is simple, the situation, now colored by legal politics and multiple interests, is complicated.

On May 1, 2013, a press release by Brenda Curtis announced Dayton would be the future home of a funk hall of fame and museum. That document cited the “City of Dayton, Mayor Gary Leitzell, David Webb of the Dayton Funk Dynasty Group with some Legendary Funk Artists” would make the announcement, at 9 a.m. on May 3, 2013.

Currently, three separate groups are vying to open a funk hall of fame and museum: Funk Hall of Fame and Museum Inc., The Dayton Funk Dynasty Group, LLC, and Land of Funk Museum and Hall of Fame.

David Webb serves as president/CEO of Dayton Funk Dynasty. He said his group hopes to partner with anyone that wants to make this dream a reality. 

“That is exactly the scenario we are working towards,” Webb said. “We are currently speaking with a couple of local entities to determine exactly what we can do together to expedite the purchase or construction of a physical location for The Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center.” 

Brenda Curtis serves as CEO of Funk Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. Curtis refused to comment.

Webb previously served on the board of directors for the non-profit Funk Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. That organization was approved on April 29, 2013 and contains Webb’s signature. On July 5, 2013, The Dayton Funk Dynasty Group, LLC, filed an article of organization form with Ohio’s Secretary of State. 

The for-profit Dayton Funk Dynasty Group, LLC, (which was approved on July 5, 2013) currently boasts an 11-member board of directors, which includes several funk musicians: Thomas Shelby of Lakeside, Jannetta Warren of Zapp, the Reverend Samuel Carter of Slave and Keith Harrison of Faze-O. The group said they hope to break ground in the next 3-5 years and are currently negotiating for a location. Though no specific place was mentioned, Webb said they are currently looking in the Montgomery County area.

Also filed with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office are the non-profit Land of Funk Museum and Hall of Fame, Inc. and the for-profit Land of Funk Experience, Inc., both approved on May 28, 2013.

ACEDEMIA’S INVOLVMENT

Also involved in tracing Dayton’s funk history is Wright State University’s special collections department, though it claims no affiliation with any of the aforementioned groups.

“[Wright State University] is not aligned with any particular group,” Wright State University Head of Special Collections and Archives Dawne Dewey said. “Our efforts to collect the history of funk and other popular music in Dayton will proceed regardless of whether a funk museum is established. Our goal is, and always has been, to preserve and provide access to all facets of the history of the Miami Valley and we have always worked with a wide variety of individuals and groups to accomplish this goal.”

A little more than a year ago, Wright State University’s special collections and archives department began looking to expand their music history collection. They have holdings related to the Dayton Philharmonic and early Dayton music clubs, but no material documenting funk or other popular music, according to Dewey.

“We have extensive manuscripts and records related to a wide variety of topics on the history of the Miami Valley and felt collecting the music history of the city and region was a natural fit,” Dewey said. “The project is important because the history of funk and other music groups is another part of Dayton’s remarkable story – a story that reflects Dayton’s innovative spirit, its originality, its pioneering people.”

Dewey pointed out WSU hoped to not only unearth forgotten treasures from Dayton’s funk era, but any and all popular music. Funk was of particular import due not only to its storied history, but also because very  little documentation exists in any established archive or museum. Even web searches yield only scattered results on the city’s influence in the field. Dewey said collections are still in the hands of those who were involved: the musicians, artists, writers and venues.

“Sometimes, parts of our history are overlooked,” Dewey said. “The music exists, of course, and is readily available, but the ticket stubs, posters, correspondence, photographs, films and other materials that can really tell us what it was like for those who pioneered funk music have not been collected and made available for all of us to learn from. This was an opportunity for us to enrich our holdings with a history that deserves recognition.”

A LIVING AND
BREATHING ART FORM

There is no mistaking a magical thing took place in Dayton during the 1970s and early 1980s. It was not simply several bands selling a large number of albums. It represents a vital part of Dayton’s story. An important aspect is the role Dayton’s education system played in nurturing the musicians and their craft.

“We came up in the Dayton school system,” Jones said. “We got our education here. Dayton at the time was highly functional. Things were going on here. Blacks were segregated, but they had their own independence. They had their own sense of worth. They had their own ability to do for themselves. We had our own cab company, our own theaters, our own churches, our own drug stores. We were able to grow in a healthy environment musically. 

“Dayton, for some reason, has produced a lot of brilliant-minded people who have created things that have changed the world,” Jones continued. “We had no idea that we was going to go this far. It was a wonderful experience and I’m grateful I was born in Dayton, because Dayton could afford blacks more opportunities than most cities I traveled to and was able to see.”

Jones and other musicians from that era continue to inspire a whole new generation of musicians. Listen to modern hip-hop or R&B and it won’t take long to hear samples of Dayton funk. It is a form that remains relevant and vital despite the decades that have passed since it was recorded. A diverse range of artists, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish to A Tribe Called Quest and Notorious B.I.G. have brought that sound to new ears.

Those new forces will undoubtedly tweak and change the form, as artists always do. The responsibility of preserving and illuminating the original voices falls to those who remember the originators. As time passes, it also fades. Many of the pioneering figures of this era have already passed on. We have already lost not only the chance to honor those departed heroes, but to hear their first-hand accounts of how and when it all went down. These myths and legends offer a glimpse of the past, but also give us insight into what Dayton has become. It is a small but significant chapter in the greater story, and Dewey said these tales need to be told. 

“This aspect of our history adds to the rich story we have to tell about what sort of people live here and the remarkable things they have accomplished,” Dewey said. “As an archive, we want to collect materials that will tell the whole story. We don’t want to overlook or leave any part of it out. Our history connects us to who we are and what is important to us. It inspires us.”

Wright State University is looking for any memorabilia related to Dayton’s funk history, as well as any popular music from the city’s past. For information on how to donate materials, please call Gino Pasi, collections manager at Wright State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives at 937.775.3991 or email gino.pasi@wright.edu. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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