Rhythm & Race Documentary Re-Airs with Al Green Footage

Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort /
Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort /

Following its debut at the Wealthy Theatre last spring, “Rhythm and Race: A History of African American Music in Grand Rapids” has had an interesting journey.

The documentary, which was created as a project for West Michigan Center for the Arts + Technology students, received attention from Al Green’s former producer Curtis Rodgers.

Rodgers expressed interest in providing additional material for the documentary.

“Mr. Curtis Rodgers came to the screening at Wealthy Theatre and could not have been more enthusiastic about participating,” explained Mike Saunders, WMCAT teaching artist. “He spoke with the students that night and the very next day we shot an hour and a half long interview, filled with great stories of the Grand Rapids music scene in the ‘60s.”

The original documentary focused on post-WWII Blues music, the rise of Al Green and the Grand Rapids soul sound, as well as the rise of the funk sound.

“The documentary also looks at the social conditions in which this music was created,” Saunders said. “It looks at the harsh economic segregation the African American community faced, the racist violence around bussing at Union High School, and the uprising of 1967.”

With Rodgers’ contributions, a 27-minute section devoted to Al Green has been added to the documentary. The updated version will air on May 10 at Celebration Cinema North, 2121 Celebration Dr. NW, in Grand Rapids. The film will also be accessible to all Comcast subscribers in Michigan through Xfinity On Demand starting the same day.

“Al Green moved to Grand Rapids from Arkansas at a young age,” Saunders said. “He attended South High School and recorded his first music in Grand Rapids. The documentary now has a number of stories about The Creations, Al Green’s first vocal group, and their tour schedule. There is a detailed account of the recording of Al Green’s first record, “Back Up Train,” as well as a first-hand account of the beginning of the Grand Land music company.”

He added, “Mr. Rodgers’ interview breaks down the process of an African American-owned independent record label getting started in the ‘60s, called Grand Land music company. I am impressed by the huge effort that went into recording and releasing the records. Driving to the pressing plant, driving around the state delivering records to radio stations and jukebox companies, marshalling all the resources to record. It’s really inspiring.”

Saunders said looking back at the history of Grand Rapids is important for the city’s future. “I think our city still faces some major challenges in racial equity. We are experiencing prevalent segregation issues that impact housing, education, economic security and healthcare. I think looking at the history of our city and being more informed can only help us overcome some of these problems.”

The free community screening at Celebration Cinema North begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be followed by a panel discussion with WMCAT students and Saunders.

*Al Green in concert at the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, California, on May 27, 2006. Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort

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