If there were ever a documentary that genuinely earned the title “a labour of love” it is director Steven Morris’s film Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B.
Van “Piano Man” Walls was one of the legendary and influential rhythm and blues pianist of his era (as well as songwriter, studio musician, and professional recording artist), playing on numerous illustrious recordings before he vanished. Industry insiders had long believed he was dead until legendary musician, Dr. John, officially reintroduced him to the public during his Montreal Jazz Festival show 25 years ago.
Morris soon learned about the genius blues man’s return and befriended him, before setting out to document Wall’s unheralded career. It would take the Canadian director nearly 20 years to bring this passion project to theatres.
Prior to its NXNE premiere, I enjoyed a lively conversation with Morris where we discussed race records, talking to legends (Dr. John, acclaimed producer Jerry Wexler, the great Ruth Brown and Ahmet Ertegün, founder of Atlantic Records, among others), and, of course, the obscure and brilliant Van “Piano Man Walls.”
For music lovers everywhere, this is a must-see film! Chaka V.
TWM: You became aware of Van “Piano Man” Walls from a class with Craig Morrison?
SM: Yes. It was a night course [in 1990].
TWM: When did the idea to do a doc about Mr. Walls come to you? And why did you feel compelled to do it?
SM: Well, I can’t even recall—it’s been almost 25 years. But I had ended up in Van’s home–I had just moved to Montreal, I was starting life all over again and I ended up befriending him. It was overtime that the idea started to develop [but] Van was really inaccessible about the whole idea–he clammed right up. It took me many years to gain his trust but eventually I came to understand that the old bluesmen, they didn’t expect to talk to anybody unless they were paid, which went against all of my instincts in documentary filmmaking. But I cut him a cheque and he finally started to open up for me. You know, those old blues guys, they lived from one paycheck to the next.
TWM: Yes they did.
SM: I was foolish to not figure that out sooner, but I’m a slow thinker and a slow learner. But Van, he was a slow kind of a guy anyway. The only thing he got excited about was a gig. So trying to get him to commit to the film project was really hard. But then, finally, I earned his trust and we established a friendship, and that’s how it started.
TWM: You just answered my next question, which was how receptive to this documentary was he? Did it take some convincing? That’s interesting about his reluctance.
SM: He had been messed over for his copyright and royalty and things like that, so he was really mistrustful of me. I’m sure that he just felt that I was going to mess him over, one more guy who was going to mess him over, and that was the last thing on my mind. I wouldn’t even know how to do such a thing.
TWM: I could sense, when watching the film, your genuine adoration and curiosity towards him and his work. How many years did it take you to gather footage for the documentary? And why is it only coming out now?
SM: Well, it’s a long answer and I don’t want to bore you to death. Van was an extremely important musical figure but he was obscure. No one knew him or knew his musical history. I have hundreds of refusal letters here, no one was interested. They all said the same thing, “Come back when it’s finished.” Then I was programmed at the National Film Board of Canada and they had a change in management and the new guy threw the project out—that set me back a lot. And another thing is, two fundamental interviews that I felt I needed, neither one of them was coming up with a yes. The first was Jerry Wexler [Gerald “Jerry” Wexler], he was really difficult for 10 years –perhaps the greatest producer of his era. And the lawyer who established the Rhythm & Blues foundation, Howell Begle.
TWM: Yes, with Ruth Brown.
SM: Yes. Howell Begle was busy building a media empire, or trying to save one, as their legal counsel, and he had no time for me. And both interviews I felt were crucial, one because Jerry Wexler had established the term “Rhythm & Blues” [R&B], rather than race music. Begle, of course, was the driving force behind creating the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. So, I only got to Howell Begle in 2011 in Boston.
SM: And this is years after years of trying. And it’s not that he didn’t want to, it’s just that he never had time for me. So I had to be patient, and also, in that interim I was looking for investors, and I found an angel investor in Toronto.
TWM: It’s wonderful that you remained so persistent, because Begle and Wexler – in my opinion— illuminated so much of the history and the backstory regarding the time period Walls was making music. I never knew who created the term R&B—I knew about race records. I think for a younger generation, it’s so important to learn about these people.
SM: Well, our American premier went down in Memphis [Tennessee]. I was really chuffed that we started in the States, and there [Memphis], because there’s such a rich musical history in that city. A lot of black Americans came to the screening and they were saying, “Hey, man, we didn’t even know our history,” and they were all half my age or more. I’m quite shocked, actually, that the young people are reacting quite positively to this film.
TWM: I knew about race records because I research music quite a bit. But there’s so much important information in this film that makes it a must see for music lovers in general.
SM: You know, I’ve considered myself an amateur musicologist my whole life—I’ve read hundreds of books on music, and I have thousands of records and CDs. For years, like a book club, I’ve had a music club in my home and we exhaust a theme, [for] six weeks—I do it twice a year. It’s kind of the culture I’ve tried to create. I wouldn’t call myself an ambassador but I do hope that this film, to some degree, becomes an ambassador for all of that era of music that preceded rock n’ roll.
TWM: It’s another important piece of the music documentary dialogue we’ve had over the last couple years, which include docs like 20 Feet from Stardom [2013, directed by Morgan Neville].
SM: I loved that film!
TWM: Me too. It was fantastic! And Searching for Sugar Man [2012, directed by Malik Bendjelloul].
SM: Yes, I saw that film too. I ran to see that film the day it opened in Montreal because the British press had picked up on that film a year or two prior, and I was dying to see it.
TWM: I think 20 Feet from Stardom and your film filled in many important gaps. And both gave voice to artists who contributed so much to music but were undermined during that time. It’s great to see them get their due, get to speak and be heard.
SM: Well, you know, history is not just about famous people—you don’t have to be famous to be a hero. And Van, to me, he was a musical hero. Luckily enough, one of the reasons that I could bridge the gap between him and me, because he was…he was great about other subjects but the subject of the film he avoided. But he knew I had records of his in [my] collection, so that was perhaps the beginning of our relationship.
TWM: When you were at the National Film Board [in Montreal] watching Walls play–now in his eighties but still so nimble, agile and passionate on the piano–what was that experience like for you, because you knew that he was making his final album and you were documenting it?
SM: Ah, it was so exciting! It had taken me years to get to that point and…I have a little secret to tell you, Van got absolutely plastered, and I mean dead drunk, the night before [chuckling]. But he had not been in a proper recording studio, and in a proper context, for almost 40 years. He was nervous, and I was too preoccupied to understand that. He was a difficult guy to get organized. His live was a life of chaos–that was normal for him. So to get it all together, it was really tough, so I was shocked that he would do that. You know, I misunderstood him. I misread him and he wasn’t happy with me at all.
Anyway, we finally get to the studio the next day–he’s hung over. There’s a guy there and he’s tuning the piano. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a guy tune a piano but when you’ve been riding B flats [for] 10 minutes, well, you start to want to crawl up the walls. I was very tense. But, you know, Van, he was an old pro, and when we were ready he popped right up for the occasion. He was there and he was on. It was only [later] watching all of the footage over and over again during the editing process that I started to notice that he moved with a lot of pain, he suffered from arthritis. But the second he sat down at the keyboard he was transformed.
TWM: He seemed like a young man when he played. He looked so joyous, excited, showing off and being a little cocky. It was exciting to watch.
SM: Totally! He was always up for that occasion. And I guess it’s what drove him to live to such an old age because he lived very hard. He was a hard livin man. He was on the road all the time. He was a heavy drinker. He had a really wild life [chuckles]. I heard some stories. I took he and his wife [Ruth] on a road trip, they had a gig in Toronto so somehow I ended up driving them there and back, and I spent a couple of days with them there. And there were no cameras so he was really happy, and I heard some wild stuff, man. Oh, you can imagine, a black guy with a white chick moving to Montreal in the late ‘50s [laughs].
TWM: Do you mind sharing a story?
SM: I don’t mind sharing at all.
We’re driving back from Toronto and there’s a long curve in the road at Kingston, and Ruth–Ruth was hard of hearing so she spoke very loud–she’s screaming at Van, and she’s saying, “Van, do you remember the night I was driving? We had the top down…,” because he always drove Cadillac convertibles. He and his buddy, two black guys, [are] in the back seat, standing up drunk. The two chicks are in the front and they pass a cop car, and of course the cop car pulls them over. And Van says, “Yeah I remember that.” And she says, “Remember you cried when he dumped all the whiskey in the ditch,” [laughing]. The cop dumped all the bootleg whiskey in the trunk of the car in the ditch. Who knew what he had paid for it. And then she says, “Do you remember asking me for the purse?” Now that was a euphemism, for them, for the cash because he had these strange habits, he wouldn’t touch cash. It was only his wife who could manage the cash, he only touched it under absolute urgent circumstances and he needed the cash to buy off the cops. Like, crazy wild lifestyle.
TWM: True, and when you see a man in his eighties you don’t think about their past wild lifestyle.
SM: You sure don’t. And at that age, he’s entitled to respect too. And we forget that he was once a wild young man, and I love that track of Ruth brown where she sings, “Wild, wild, young man, likes to have a good time,” and he’s riding the piano [laughs].
TWM: How did he feel when his album [In the Evening] was nominated for a Juno? I don’t recall it being mentioned in the film, but did you win?
SM: No, we lost to a guy I had once interviewed—Colin James. Colin James is a really fine man. He’s a beautiful human being. I didn’t feel bad at all losing to him. And he was with a big record company and they had the promotion budget and everything, we didn’t have that. But Van…I really wanted to go to Vancouver for the ceremony. Van didn’t like to fly but I had so many Air Miles, I said, “Van, let’s fly first class. We’ll take Ruth and we’ll just have a good time.” And he says to me, “I’m only going if I know I’m going to win,” [chuckling].
TWM: He wanted to be sure.
SM: And I said, “It doesn’t work that way,” [chuckling]. He was a likeable rogue. He was a likeable old fart—I just loved him.
TWM: It feels like a film could have been made about your friendship with Mr. Walls. You were like this odd couple, the grumpy bluesman and you. You kept championing him even after his death, which is beautiful.
SM: Well, you coined the term “odd couple,” I always thought we were the strangest friendship. But it was a friendship, and on his death bed—I used to visit him in the hospital. He loved to read the bible, and I would ask him if I could bring my prayer book, the Anglican book of prayer, and I would read him prayers—and it was the only time in his entire life that he ever inquired about my film project. He was really happy about the album but he never once expressed any interest in the film until the very end. I guess, of course, he was taking inventory.
TWM: In regards to his legacy.
SM: Yes, the legacy. And I did promise him then that I would finish the film. And then I felt maybe that I jinxed it because I was having so much trouble finishing it and I started to…I kept saying to myself, “Steven, you promised him that you’d finish the film, so you better get it done.”
SM: And I couldn’t get it done, I was having great difficulty. I think it’s the first film in the history of the National Film Board to have been thrown out. I took that as a compliment [laughs].
TWM: You mentioned reading the bible at his bedside, and that reminds me of the great discussion you had with Walls about church music. So many contemporary artists no longer use it as a foundation for their sound, how has that changed the sound of music in your opinion? Do you still hear that church foundation?
SM: Not at all. Not at all. These people, of that era, had this sense of community and it was a powerful sense of community. Whereas people [today] are making music in front of their computers, all alone, and they’re using, not artificial instrumentation but whatever the word is, drum machines…
SM: Yes. So it has an entirely different feel. I think Van’s music is timeless. I think it’s organic. Whereas, I try, I go to see a lot of shows, I’m very curious about new bands and such. But a lot of it, for me, feels derivative or imitative. But that doesn’t mean…like, I quite enjoyed your article–Patti Cake.
SM: Yeah, I liked her because she had the courage to admit that she liked Celine Dion—a lot of people won’t say that.
TWM: And Bette Midler.
SM: And Melanie. I’m 60, so Melanie was really big when I was a teenager, and I really liked her. She [singer Kritty of Patti Cake], to me, seems like she is real, like her values are maybe communal. So there are exceptions to my view of modern music being sanitized.
TWM: That’s great. She’ll love to hear that. Walls played with great heart. Are there contemporary artists that you feel are continuing that tradition?
SM: There’s a great guitar player named Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters. He’s been through really hard times. He had to give up his instruments and give up his career and then he came back. He’s on Stony Plain out in Edmonton. He’s on a Canadian label but he’s an American guitar player. He’s back at it now. He would be about my age–he’s not new, but he incarnates for me what the whole blues spirit is. He’s more blues/rock but he knew Van, he backed him up once. So I do like him. I’m very proud to see him carrying the flame—although he’s not a piano player, he’s a guitar player. But, you know, somebody said to me once that Van played the piano like a Fender guitar–I liked that analogy. To me there’s a strong relationship between the guitar and Van’s piano style.
TWM: It’s funny that you say that because I’m a guitar/drums girl—though I play neither—and listening to Walls play the piano, it was the first time that I thought, wow, I could listen to him all night. He makes you want to move. I could also listen to Dr. John talk all night! Dr. John and Walls had such a special loving relationship, which was evident in the film. Who were some of your highlights to talk to? Because you spoke to some of the greats of the greats.
SM: I did. I feel so privileged. You know, I met so many cool cats working on that film. Like Dr. John—it don’t get any better than that.
TWM: No it doesn’t.
SM: And he’s got his own joual, to me it’s so rich—and to be in his presence. You know, he was totally responsible for bringing Van back from obscurity, and I had the chance to thank him for it!
Then I met Jerry Wexler, he was a hero of mine when I was a boy. His name was on half the records I owned. You know, he was really difficult. If you ever read his memoirs [Rhythm and the Blues] he talks about his temper, and I was a victim of that temper. It took me 10 years to finally get down there to interview him, and guess what? The cameraman kept the camera rolling after the interview was over and Mr. Wexler apologised to me.
TWM: He did?
SM: He said, “You were organized. You were professional. And I apologize for giving you such a rough time over the years.” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
TWM: That’s so cool.
SM: Mr. Ertegün [Ahmet Ertegün, celebrated founder of Atlantic Records], [is] another wonderful man. I’m thinking how in the world am I ever going to get to this guy. I pick up the phone, I’m thinking that I’m going to go through a thousand gatekeepers. I get his secretary and she says to me, “Mr. Ertegün will speak to you in a moment.” So all of a sudden I’m live on the phone with Mr. Ertegün and I’m totally unprepared because I’m thinking this is going to take a year to try and get to him. He says, “Mr. Morris, when do you want to do this?” [Laughs]. It was that complicated for him! I said, “Oh, how about next week?” And then I was on the road down to meet him. In fact, I’ve never said this publicly before, when Van passed on, his widow Ruth had financial difficulties and Mr. Ertegün came to her rescue.
TWM: That’s so great.
SM: Like, he was a really cool cat too. He came from noble blood–his father was the Turkish ambassador to England and to the United States. He was a very sophisticated individual. In fact, he never spoke English to me off camera, he insisted we speak French–it was his mother tongue. After these episodes I’d just pinch myself, like, Steven, did you really just do that? These guys wanted to tell their stories too. And they were of Van’s age and era and I respected them. I hope I conveyed that respect for them.
TWM: In my opinion, you did—I felt it. Who is the documentary for?
SM: In French they say “le grand public” – it’s for the general public. But I didn’t start off that way, I’m discovering it now. I’m getting some legs in the festival world, I’m screening it for people–full houses—and this film’s for everybody. I never thought that. I thought it was for the like minded souls who like music like me, but no, we all love music. Everybody loves music! So, it’s for the grand publique.
TWM: What I love is that NXNE, which attracts such a diverse and younger crowd, and JAZZ.FM91, which brings in the sophisticated mature set, have supported this film. How does it feel to get this joint support for a film you struggled to bring to the world?
SM: I get emotional thinking about it. This is my Canadian premiere. This is where I come from. I’ve lived in Quebec for most of my life but my cultural roots are English Canadian, so I’m finally going home with this film.
Check out Steven Morris’s fantastic full hour chat with Danny Marks of JAZZ.FM91 here.
The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Sunday, June 15 @ 12:30 PM
Following the screening, director Steven Morris will be in attendance for a Q&A.