Blue Heaven puts Salina in spotlight
By Marc Sheforgen The Salina Journal
It's tough to know what the staff of CBS Television's "60 Minutes II" news program may cram into the 11- or 12-minute feature story they're planning to air on Salina's Blue Heaven Studios.
The "60 Minutes II" crew spent Monday and Tuesday filming multiple hours of Blue Heaven owner Chad Kassem, his assistant and musician Jimmy D. Lane and four blues musicians in town this week to record at the former church at 201 S. Eighth.
Their intention, said reporter Carol Marin, is to capture a story revealing Kassem's efforts to rejuvenate blues music and the feedback from musicians who attest that Kassem is of a different breed of record producers - a man who treats them with respect and admiration foreign to them.
According to Marin and producer Don Moseley, this is a hell of a good story. But they're not the first to pick up on it. This week's media blitz, with cameras, boom microphones, bright lights and continuous commotion is just the latest in a barrage of print, radio and television media attention cast upon a blues mecca in the most unsuspecting of places - Salina, Kansas.
Moseley said he heard of Blue Heaven last fall when he was driving in his hometown of Chicago, listening to a National Public Radio feature on the studio.
"I couldn't stop listening," he said.
And after a steady diet of hard news, which Moseley said comprised most of the recent "60 Minutes II" stories he's produced, Blue Heaven offered a perfect change. And so he arranged with Kassem a trip to Salina to see Blue Heaven at work. This week the studio was scheduled to record albums of bluesmen Wild Child Butler and Jimmie Lee Robinson.
Throughout the two days of filming, Moseley and Marin said they found several magical moments that they hope will transfer into a good national news story.
Monday night, cameras rolled throughout a Cajun dinner with Marin, Kassem, Lane, Butler, Robinson and backup musicians Sam Lay and Bob Stroger. The group sat around a kitchen table in the basement of Blue Heaven, everyone seeming to enjoy Kassem's favorite delectables from his native Louisiana. Inevitably, with only a few prodding questions from Marin, Kassem and the musicians started telling the stories that had Moseley standing in the background licking his lips.
All of these musicians, except Lane, who is the son of legendary bluesman Jimmy Rogers, are in their 60s and have an abundance of stories from the days when being a black blues musician was a tough lot in life.
The guys talked about their wild days of whiskey and women, the days of being broke and hungry and the countless people they've met. They tried to explain the blues to Marin.
"The blues is the facts of life," said Butler, a harmonica player and singer whose mother, early in his childhood, started calling him Wild Child instead of George.
Butler gave an example of how a man feeling down after being dumped by his lady might express himself. Unexpectedly, Butler began bellowing a few improvised blues bars.
His voice echoed off the kitchen walls and was even a bit startling as he sang: "My baby left me this morning, and she left me feeling bad." A smile grew on the face of Moseley as he realized his cameras had just captured invaluable footage.
"That was perfect," Moseley said after he exited the kitchen.
'Without white people ...'
A few minutes later, Sam Lay, a drummer who has been inducted into the blues,jazz and rock 'n' roll halls of fame, offered interesting, if not controversial, commentary. Lay, a 64-year-old black man from Chicago, said he has not gone to a predominantly black club to play or socialize since 1966. That night, he and harmonica player James Cotton were both shot, and Lay said he has not felt safe at such clubs since, despite his confession that he now carries at least two firearms with him whenever he ventures out.
"I will not accept a job in a black club," Lay said.
That prompted a question by Marin about what these artists felt about the shift from a predominantly black blues audience of the '50s, '60s and '70s to the predominantly white crowds of today. Lay said he feels the black audiences have turned their backs on the blues in favor of rap music.
"Black is not accepting the stuff we're playing," he said. "Without white people, we'd starve to death."
Treating people with respect
And, of course, the conversation returned to what these men thought of Kassem and Blue Heaven Studios. Each of the musicians said that the word in the blues community is that Kassem is a man committed to keeping the blues alive. Also, they said, Kassem is committed to treating the musicians differently than the producers they've worked with in the past who tried to force them to play music they didn't like and often shorted them financially.
"It's a step in the right direction," bass player Bob Stroger said of Kassem's efforts. "I just want to be a part of getting it back to the top where the blues is supposed to be."
Lay said that today, there aren't many people besides Kassem investing in the blues.
"He's the only person I know that's doing anything to help it out," Lay said.
All in all, Monday's conversations produced an abundance of usable material for the "60 Minutes II" crew, Moseley said.
But they stayed for more. Tuesday afternoon, one camera recorded the on-stage activities of the recording musicians, while another followed Kassem in the sound studio at the back of the church. Marin alternated between the two spots, tapping her foot and nodding her head to the music.
It's how you play it
Between takes of a song by Wild Child Butler and Jimmy D. Lane, Kassem tried to explain to Marin what it was that he is looking for in the blues. But he stuttered a bit, searching for the right words. The essence of Kassem's operation, and what may very well be the essence of the "60 Minutes II" story, is that the blues and Blue Heaven are about feeling.
"It's not the notes they play, it's how they play them," Kassem said of his favorite musicians. "It's the soul that I'm looking for, and Wild Child's got that soul, no question about it. He may not be technically perfect, but it's real."
The equipment at Blue Heaven is technically perfect, said CBS sound engineer Dennis Dougherty.
"The bottom line is, does it sound world class? And yes it does," Dougherty said. But, like Kassem, what Dougherty said he will take from Salina is a memory not of the top-of-the-line equipment, but rather how it is used.
"Anybody can put out the money to buy a microphone, but it takes Chad and his crew to make the people feel welcome," Dougherty said.
From here, Marin said there will be hours of editing the hours of footage. Eventually, it will all be boiled down to 11 or 12 minutes, which could be quite a challenge, Marin said, considering all the good footage she thinks they will have. She said she expects the piece to air in about three months, although it could be much shorter or longer, depending on the scheduling of other stories.
"60 Minutes II" airs locally from 8 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Salina cable channels 5 and 12.