Were Ralph J. Gleason alive and still running Rolling Stone magazine with such integrity it was called the “New York Times of rock,” journalist Andrea Swensson’s tenacious grit at championing underexposed artists in Got to Be Something There: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound (University of Minnesota Press) would be a perfect fit.
Swensson (AS) recently discussed with Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) a few aspects of her book on the funk genre that made music history.
MSR: Why this book?
AS: A book on this topic was long overdue. The more I learned about the rich, influential history of this scene, the more incensed I became that these stories and names weren’t already a part of the lexicon we use when we discuss Twin Cities music.
That feeling propelled me. Names like Maurice McKinnies and Wee Willie Walker should be sparkling under the same lights as rock artists like the Trashmen and the Castaways on the marquee of our history, yet few outside the soul and blues world seem to recognize them or could name one of their songs.
There are so many untold stories hovering in the air around us; my goal was to write down as much of it as quickly as I could, while the oral historians [can] still share their experiences.
I was inspired by Secret Stash’s compilation Twin Cities Funk and Soul. Their liner notes — and help from two of the compilation’s masterminds, Will Gilbert and Eric Foss — gave me my first bread crumbs to follow as I set off on this work.
MSR: Racism has impacted since time immemorial. You indict Minneapolis for King Solomon’s Mines being unfairly raided and closed owing to corruption. That was then. What does the lack of such a place mean in this era?
It means there is still much work to do. Arnellia’s closing was a big loss, and leaves a void. My hope is that by learning about the mistakes we have made in our communities, we can become more suited to call out and correct these mistakes as they unfold around in the present and future.
The Twin Cities and our country are in a moment of reckoning in terms of race relations, and while I would never deign to have the answers, I feel passionately that we would all benefit by learning more about the harsh truths of our very recent past.
That said, there are thriving underground spaces that echo the mission of places like King Solomon’s Mines. Public Functionary comes to mind, as does Toki Wright’s Soul Tool events. But to your point, I still regularly hear from artists of color that there are barriers that exist that limit their ability to perform in White venues and be treated with respect.
Here in Minnesota, which considers itself to be liberal, that kind of thing can be hard to swallow. But it’s absolutely happening, so we need to get better at listening to our friends of color and doing whatever we can to dismantle it.
MSR: How tough was the extensive research?
AS: I spent about three and a half years working on the book, the bulk of that time researching and interviewing. The hardest part was probably juggling research with my fairly demanding day job. But the research itself was exhilarating. Listening to this music, talking to musicians and hearing these stories, falling down rabbit holes in the microfilm room at the library and stumbling onto crucial forgotten information — it was all just a joy. I can think of few things more exciting than knowing I’m documenting a story that hasn’t been captured before. For example, tracing the history all the way back to Minnesota’s first R&B band, the Big M’s, and then finding one of the surviving members of the group in the phone book and calling him out of the blue was wonderful. He couldn’t believe someone wanted to talk to him about that; I don’t think he’d been asked about that band in years.
MSR: What did Prince’s passing mean to the Minneapolis Sound?
AS: It was surreal to be working on this book when I learned of Prince’s passing, which was devastating. I had been following his work very closely in these past few years, making countless trips out to Chanhassen, meeting him and writing extensively about his parties at Paisley Park.
After the shock lessened a bit, I noticed something interesting: All of the people who Prince worked with, many of whom never met one another, suddenly found themselves disconnected from this central force that had been holding them all together.
At once, they were all in urgent need of establishing their own narratives and legacies. In some ways, that made it difficult to get a hold of people I was still hoping to interview, because many of them had plans to write books of their own and were being inundated by the press.
But it also made Prince’s peers from 1970s North Minneapolis more visible to an international audience than they’d been in a long time. In the coming years, I think we’re going to learn a lot more about the players who were going head-to-head with Prince at those Battle of the Bands (events) at the Phyllis Wheatley back in the ’70s, from the Family to Mind & Matter to Flyte Tyme to his bandmates in Grand Central like Morris Day and André Cymone — and hopefully that will spark curiosity in their mentors as well.
In that way, I think the Minneapolis Sound is going to become increasingly complex, and that it will be credited to a larger group of people than we may have named before.
MSR: How important have White artists been to the Sound
AS: The integration of White and Black artists is an essential element. One thing that surprised me during my research was that I couldn’t actually find a time when underground R&B and rock bands weren’t integrated, simply because of the small percentage of people of color who were living in Minnesota at the midcentury.
The Augie Garcia Quintet, which released the first Minnesota rock record in 1955, had Latino, Black, and White members. The Big M’s were backed by a White band on their 45. Dave Brady and the Stars were an influential crossover R&B act from the mid-’60s, and Willie and the Bees was an integrated R&B band that broke down barriers for Black artists on the West Bank. So when Prince declared that his band must have Black and White members, that may have seemed unusual for the major label record industry — but it was typical for Minneapolis.
MSR: Integrated “super group” The Truth was poised to go national but shortly disbanded. Did you enjoy them while they were together?
AS: That was such a great lineup of musicians! For my money, any band with Jellybean Johnson in it is sure to be top notch. Can we request a reunion show at Bunker’s?
The book launch event for Got to Be Something There will be at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, on October 28. A book reading and signing will take place November 15 at Magers & Quinn Booksellers. For more information, go to https://www.upress.umn.edu/press/events.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, 55403.