Production Notes

From Montreal to Florida, from Boston to New York City, from 1990 to 2011, filming of the feature-length documentary Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B, has taken more that two decades, spanned analogue to digital technology, covered tens of thousands of kilometres on the road, and exhausted the patience of more than a few fans of the musical form known as rhythm & blues, the precursor to rock & roll.

Director/producer Steven Morris met Vann “Piano Man” Walls in 1990 and first filmed him in a small club in downtown Montreal. The quality of the footage was so bad that Morris immediately discarded it. Two years later, in 1993, a professional film crew with two super 16mm cameras and a 24-track mobile sound unit in tow recorded the first proper images of Vann Walls for this project — this time at the legendary club L’Air du Temps, in Old Montreal. That was the start of the journey that would become the film Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B.

The next major step was filming Vann with piano legend Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. Vann had given him piano lessons when the Dr. was an up-and-coming artist in New Orleans. In 1994, Dr. John was performing at Place des Arts as part of that year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival. Vann wanted to meet up with his old buddy, “to chat,” as he explained it to Morris. Festival employees were more than accommodating, and as 2,800 people waited in the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier theatre for the show to begin, Morris and crew filmed the two great musicians seated in front of the piano in the green room.

“The concert at L’Air du temps was a success in Vann’s eyes, as well as the meet-up with Dr. John at the Jazz Fest, so Vann opened up to me a bit, started to have faith in me, and finally agreed to be interviewed in a formal setting — something he had been resisting since I’d met him in 1990,” Morris recalls.

That interview took place in a recording studio with a grand piano. Afterwards, on his way to the door, Vann asked to visit the control room. Looking at the 48-track console he announced that he had “one more album left in me.”

As it turned out, this interview would be the pivotal shoot of the project. Years later, in the editing suite,  it became clear that the film’s narrative structure would hang on the making of Vann Walls’ album In the Evening.

Director of photography John Sleeman looks back on the shoot. “It was a golden opportunity to film an album in the making, something that is rarely documented. And I felt that Vann and the grand piano he was playing were made for one another visually. It was as if Vann did not know that I existed — so he allowed me total access as I hovered over him, and around him and the piano.”

Seasoned recording engineer Louis Hone was so pleased to work on the album that he actually took time off his summer vacation to capture all the music. “It was an honour to record an R&B pioneer, so everyone involved made a determined effort. The Stephen Barry Band — a fine bunch of musicians — was backing Mr. Walls, so I knew it was going to be a fantastic session musically. Later I was given the opportunity to mix the album too and the entire process was a delight.”

All this activity led to Vann Walls being granted a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in New York City in 1997. Aretha Franklin was the master of ceremonies during an evening that saw Vann honoured along with Smokey Robinson and The Four Tops. Morris says, “A terrific guy at Montreal TV station CFCF-12, the late Bill Merrill, gave me some funding to film the NYC event in return for a license for a television hour. Without his support we would never have picked up that footage. It was in New York that we interviewed Ruth “Miss Rhythm” Brown, an Atlantic Records star, Ry Cooder, who was part of the house band, and many others.”

A few years later Vann — now well into his eighties — became gravely ill with cancer. He died in 2000. In addition to the personal loss, it also threw the project into abeyance, as potential investors wanted nothing to do with a documentary about a musician now referred to in the past tense.

Undeterred, Steven Morris continued to film people important to Vann’s story, including influential Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler and entertainment lawyer Howell Begle. “There was no way I could make a film on R&B and not have Jerry Wexler in it,” Morris says. “Besides, not only had Wexler coined the term R&B, he had also produced Vann back in the day at Atlantic Records. After ten years of turning me down, he finally granted me an interview at his home in Florida. When we walked into his living room to set up, there were photos of Wexler with Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Sam Philips on the coffee table. For some reason this put me immediately at ease.”

Asked about lawyer Howell Begle, Morris says, “Howell was a guy like me, a fan. But he had forced the creation of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation while working pro bono on behalf of R&B artists. So he had to be in the film too. He made every gesture to accommodate me and the crew in his home in Boston.”

More than a decade after Morris first turned the camera on Vann, there was all this footage — hours and hours of remarkable interviews and performances — gathering dust in a professional vault.

Enter two essential players: executive producer and independent Toronto businessman Peter Dowbiggin, and producer Martin Bolduc.

Dowbiggin says, “I’d known Steven since 1966. After we’d finish our newspaper deliveries we would go out and buy 45 rpm records together. From a young age the red and black Atlantic Records label — Vann’s label — appealed to us. Neither one of us came to know Vann Walls until years later, but it was exciting to learn about a guy who helped establish the Atlantic sound living in Montreal.”

“I’d met Steven at radio station CKRL in Quebec City,” Bolduc remembers. “That would have been around 1986. Morris spun rock & roll on his show and I played jazz on mine. We just kind of gravitated to one another.”

Bolduc, a Grammy- and- Emmy-winning Montreal producer, created a 20-minute promo in 2009 with some of the existing footage. “Steven and I had lunch one day and I discovered that R&B, as we were calling the film in those days, was in suspension, so to speak. I looked at Morris and told him straight out that the content was important and that it had to be finished.”

In 2010, after screening the promo, Peter Dowbiggin decided to invest in the project. Lengthy discussions ensued as Bolduc, Dowbiggin and Morris talked about the film as a musical time capsule: a film about respect and a man finally finding respect.

Armed with these and other concepts, the production entered the editing stage, which took over a year because of complications regarding music rights and the rights to use essential archival footage. But it slowly came together. Veteran editor Heidi Haines says, “It was the fist time I had ever cut a film in my home office. I loved being free to work when I wanted as well as sharing some of that musical history with my teenage son. Everyone falls in love with Vann. It fascinated me that this frail, elderly man was transformed into this energetic powerful artist the moment he sat down at the keyboard. He entertained me throughout the whole process. The first assembly was long and we took our time to cut it down.”

The last crucial stage was the music mix, essential for this kind of film. The very experienced Daniel Toussaint, long a Bolduc collaborator, was chosen. “Like a lot of people working on this project, I knew the history of Atlantic Records — that this small, independent label in the 1940s became a corporate mega-house that signed the likes of the Stones, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. After an invitation to an early test screening in 2012 I just knew I had to be part of this film.”

In March of 2014, after years of countless meetings, discussions and endless hours of work, the master was finally struck and the film became a reality. The rest, as they say, is musical history.