I've spent a lot of time over the past four years traveling throughout America's Southern and Midwestern states searching for seemingly insignificant pieces of funk vinyl and I've learned this much: if you go to a city and take the time to hunt down a bonafide funk musician, you'll find a hole-in-the-wall with the best fried catfish steaks you've ever had in your life. Back in April, fellow enthusiast Peanut Butter Wolf and I had a plan. We'd drive the length of this country, from New York to Los Angeles. No direct route, no waxing nostalgic on Route 66. Rather, our plan involved traveling through cities where the funk tradition lay deep. Cities in which we'd meet those artists who'd released limited quantities of a 45 or LP that, due to progressive musicianship and economic inability, never made it onto the Billboard R&B charts.
Day One: Columbus, OH to Nashville, TN
At noon we roll off I-70 and into the Capri Bowling Lanes parking lot. As I look up local drummer Dean Francis in the phone book, Wolf signs us up for a game. In quick order I bowl my first strike, before PB knocks me out 146 to 67. Dean calls Wolf's cell phone and suggests lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant, Yin Yue. We troop down a couple miles and exit on Hudson Street. We pull into the parking lot of a lemon yellow tenement that reeks of fish. Surprisingly, the eats are among the best of the trip. Over his trademark tuna fish egg foo young (prepared especially for him), Dean breaks down Columbus' late 60s funk scene and the story behind his classic Hillside 45, "Funky Disposition." Then we're back on 70 headed west towards Indianapolis. Our first stop is Herb Miller's forensic investigation company. Herb, owner of the now defunct LAMP label, released incredible funk 45s by The Diplomatics and Ebony Rhythm Band before being blacklisted for declining mafia "assistance" in establishing a Nap Town recording studio. Though he won't bowl with us, he suggests the pricey but classy Jubilee Lanes. We bowl until saxophonist Clifford Palmer returns home from his phone company day job. Once at Cliff's house, we chat about The Highlighters' brief but prolific career over a couple of Heinekens. Wolf, who'd never heard The Highlighters' monster "Poppin' Pop Corn" 7", marvels at the outfit's intensity and one of the rawest drum breaks he's ever heard. We leave Indy at 11 p.m. and roll down I-65, wearily entering Nashville, Tennessee at 3 a.m..
Day Two: Nashville, TN
No funk musicians, just drunken drama with a guy named Count Bass-D and some lax bowling at Melrose Lanes.Day Three: Memphis, TN
Two days of nigh 100% humidity have fatigued us, but a hearty meal at Ellen's Soul Kitchen does us right. Should you venture there, don't sleep on the yams - they're perfect. But stay away from the sweet tea - instant diabetes. A game of glow-in-the-dark bowling at Billy Harwick's All Star Lanes leads to my breaking the 100 mark for the first time. We roll to Walgreens to pick up some fresh-dipped gear, before heading out in search of a rumored Elvis vigil. Alas, the vigil occurred the previous night so at midnight we jump on I-40 towards Little Rock. Where is the funk? We want the funk.Day Four: Little Rock, AR to Dallas, TX
We awake to find that Lee Anthony, owner of the True Soul label and Soul Brother's Record Shop, has jetted to Chicago for a wedding. All of our other funk connections fail us, so we pick up a game at Professor Bowl before making the decision that we'll travel 40 west to Oklahoma City. A hundred miles out of Little Rock, Wolf decides that a trip to Texas would better suit our journey, so we break in Fort Smith, Arkansas to regroup. Seven hours later we arrive in Dallas, and are greeted at our cockroach-infested Motel 6 by the elegant Roger Boykin. Roger invites us to his pad, where we remain until 4 a.m., listening to a slew of funk releases on Roger's Soultex label. I try to get Roger to play late 60s gems by his Texas Soul Trio and The Soul Seven, while Wolf falls under the spell of Roger's mid-80s project, Savoir Flair. We awake late the next morning, and forego bowling in order to reach Austin at a reasonable hour.
Day Five: Austin, TX
At Roger's request, we look up the creator of the gems "Just Plain Funk" and "Power Struggle," organist James Polk. Unfortunately, we just miss him as he leaves for his job at the university, so we set our sights on Houston.Day Six: Houston, TX
In the 1970s, Houston was the black stage band capital of the nation. Due to the prolific career of big band leader Conrad O. Johnson (whose high school students, as the Kashmere Stage Band, won 42 out of 46 competitions they entered), nearly every music supervisor in the city recorded his students' take on funk music. We get an early start, collecting pictures and tales at Conrad's (June 3, 1973 was declared Kashmere Stage Band Day in sunny ol' Houston) before heading over to drummer Bubbha Thomas' day gig. There we grab one of the only known copies of the "Jazz O.D." 45 by Bubbha's Summer Program For Youthful Musicians. Night falls and we link up with K-otix producer Russell Gonzalez to swap beats before meeting middle school band director Perry Kaye for some strong-ass glasses of Cognac and videos of his kids covering Conrad's tunes. Before the night ends, we bowl at Palace Lanes. Russell comes with a wicked initial roll but lacks a thorough follow up. Thus, Wolf wins the match; I bowl my worst game ever.Day Seven: San Antonio, TX
I awake in a Howard Johnson in Houston to find that I'm sharing my bed with two half-dollar size cockroaches. We plastic-bag one of the beasts and fling it at the front desk clerk. She screams, and a manager appears. We get a complimentary stay. While in San Antonio, we pick up a game at University Bowl. I beat Wolf for the first time - 133 to 126 - but Wolf eventually bowls his best game to date, a solid 180. We drive late into the night before finally stopping in a one-horse town called Ozona.Day Eight: El Paso, TX
Traveling west of Ozona, we find mesas, tumbleweeds and a complete lack of funk musicians. But a routine stop at Freeway Lanes in El Paso leads to Wolf's best game of the trip - an astounding 204!Day Nine: Tucson, AZ to Los Angeles, CA
We wake at 7:30 a.m. to scope out Bombshelter DJ Z-Trip's recommendation, PDQ Records. Four hours later we leave the city with some relatively deep finds (Canyon Del Oro's Stage Band Project and "Mary Mary" on a cardboard 45!) and twenty bucks between us. The mercury climbs as we drive to Phoenix, breaking 110 degrees. By mid-day we hit Z-Trip for a game at Frontier Lanes but bust out at 8 p.m. - we must reach LA! We're too broke to buy batteries for the boom box, so we're forced to listen to god-awful Christian rap stations on the final stretch of I-10. When the radio finally picks up Friday Night Flavors, and we hear J-Rocc kill a classic tribute to Big Daddy Kane, we laugh. We've made it. At 2:30 a.m. El Captain Funkaho greets us as we pull into Stones Throw Headquarters. The camera falls from my neck and Wolf and I hustle the records into the house before falling out. The rest can wait 'til tomorrow. More on the tour at stonesthrow.com