The story of the Kashmere Stage Band is already one of the best I’ve ever known: an all-Black group from Kashmere High School in Houston stuns the world in the 1970s by literally being awarded the title of America’s best high school band. In the process, the KSG recorded a slew of incredible singles and albums that helped sustain its legacy even after their legendary teacher/bandleader Conrad O. Johnson abruptly retired in the late 1970s.
However, the KSG story goes beyond just the handful of holy grail records they left behind. This much is made poignantly clear in the new documentary Thunder Soul which I caught last night as part of the L.A. Film Festival.
The KSG had an incredibly transformative impact on the high school community and especially the musicians in the band who saw Johnson as mentor, counselor and father. The film traces how many of the original band alumni regroup – 30 years later – to play a concert for Johnson (then well into his 90s and in poor health). Along the way, Thunder Soul rolls back into the history of the group but also does the equally compelling job of showing how their legacy continues to impact people, decades later.
This was capped by the fact that, after the screening, the members of the Kashmere Alumni Stage Band came out to perform a complete set of “Kashmere classics,” including a wickedly funky cover of “Shaft” and their signature “Kashmere” theme song. It’s hard to properly capture how incredible this was but let me try:
What I thought was most affecting was how Thunder Soul doesn’t simply rely on a boilerplate “glory days” fetishizing of youth. It could have easily gone in that direction, ala “look how great we all were.” Instead, I think the film subtly, but surely, is more interested in portraying how the lessons of youth (literally, in this case, music lessons) endure into middle-aged adulthood. The members of the KSB are well into their 40s and 50s now but when they get together and play, you realize how powerful a legacy was laid upon them by Johnson and the KSB experience. There’s a richness to memory and history that only becomes revealed as one ages and Thunder Soul understands that well.
Most of all, I consider it an incredible privilege to have seen the band play. It was big of the filmmakers and festival to bring them out (help with donations for their travel fund!) and it added a touching and just-plain-awesome capstone to the evening’s event. Here’s the band performing my favorite of theirs (what else but…): “Kashmere.”