Like a Fallen Angel

839587-martin-bolduc-producteur-steven-morrisLa Nouvelle, April 11th, 2014

Dominic Tardif

The First edition of the “Sherbrooke World Film Festival” gets under way at “La Maison du Cinéma” and the “Salle du Parvis” this weekend from April 10th to the 13th. Forty features, sixteen documentaries and twenty-three shorts will be shown, including Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B, a vibrant tribute to one of the pillars of American secular music. Director Steve Morris and producer Martin Boluc recall the man.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012): the bright story about the curious destiny of Rodriquez, an unknown singer in his homeland, the United States, but a cult figure in South Africa. J’m’en va r’viendre (2011): portrait of Stephen Faulkner, revered Quebec singer, who can hardly pay his rent. A Band Called Death (2012): film about an Afro-American trio that preceded punk music, which no one, absolutely no one, can recall. Documentaries exhuming marginal figures as unique as they are fascinating seem to be coming out of the woodwork these days and are taking part in the writing of the alternative history of popular music. An alternative history in which those who were unjustly removed from our collective memory are finally being treated like the heroes they really are.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B, a tribute to the late pianist of the same name who experienced glory as house piano player and band leader at Atlantic Records from 1949 to 1955, before marrying and settling in Montreal, and sinking in to oblivion for more than forty years, falls in to this category of film that works to make a wrong right.

“It is true that the timing is good,” admits producer Martin Bolduc, all the while making the point that Mr. Morris has been working on the documentary since 1990, thus taking more than twenty years for it to finally see the light in a dark cinema. “Vann had been messed over for copyright so he was suspicious, he thought I was going to exploit him,” adds the filmmaker.

Session musician to some of the biggest names of his era (including Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner), piano teacher to the legendary Dr. John, pioneer at one the biggest labels in the western world, Vann was relegated to second fiddle by the advent of Rock and Roll, the big wave breaking over North American youth.

“He set down roots in Montreal for love and also because his kind of music was suddenly less popular. R & B was usurped by white musicians: once Elvis Presley arrived in 1956 the blacks were tossed aside. Pat Boone’s music in the fifties was a carbon copy of the black originals, measure by measure. The film allows one to understand a large slice of American popular music as well as understand how a lot of those black musicians were taken advantage of,” said Morris.

In Montreal during the sixties, seventies and eighties, Vann Walls is reduced to tinkling the ivories in taverns and motel lounges to make a living. “He was never a bricklayer or a dishwasher and always managed to make a dignified living as a musician even if it meant playing Samba,” added Monsieur Bolduc.

Steven Morris crosses paths for the first time with the great forgotten one in a classroom and discovers to his surprise that he knows, more or less, the man in question. “I had enrolled in a class on the history of the Blues and the professor invited Vann as a guest toward the end of the semester. He played the piano like a fallen angel. I realized that not only did I have Vann’s music in my collection, on Blues compilations, but also that I had music by Vann backing up other artists as musical director, arranger and session musician.”

The record collector persevered with a Mr. Walls who was proving to be recalcitrant until, after an interview for the project, asked to see the studio control room. “Vann took one look at the forty-eight track console and at that moment admitted that he would like to make a new album, that he had one last album left in him. I said to him,’ I’ll produce the album but you must let me film it.’ I had something on which to hang the narrative line. It was at that moment that I understood how the film was going to be made.”

In the Evening, ultimate Vann Walls album, of which the documentary records the creation, will receive a Juno nomination in the category of best Blues album and will note a certain return to a state of grace. “He was so proud. I hung out with him for ten years and it was always I who took the initiative to call him. The only time he ever called me was the day he listened to the album for the first time. He’d had a few drinks and said, ‘Son, I am really proud.’ He was really pleased.”

Link to original article (translated from French)

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B

Saturday April 12th, 8 PM

La Maison du cinéma (63, rue King Ouest)

Information: www.fcms.ca