Splat the Movies, Episode Four
Time and Place
There’s a disease spreading in music documentaries causing boring films to be made about some of our most interesting icons and obscurities. Director Simon David takes creative turns to swerve away from the typical pitfalls like talking heads and indignant meditations on the elusive nature of success to tell the story of soul singer/guitarist Lee Moses. I first heard Lee Moses cover of the Mamas And The Papas hit “California Dreaming” from his little known album Time and Place. It’s a brooding cover of an already dramatic song.
Moses was an Atlanta-based musician active from the late ’60s to the early ’80s; a regular in bars and clubs. He was a great player who never quite made it on a large scale. Moses made soul music with a heavy-handed guitar sound—an approach generally associated with rock and psychedelic players. Soul and rock radio during the ’60s was largely segregated. Experimentation with rock or soul formulas often meant less airplay and less airplay often meant fewer sales. He made a somewhat typical pilgrimage to New York where he tried to make a name for himself in the Harlem soul scene among playing-to-survive legends and soon-to-be stars (among them a young Jimi Hendrix). Along the way self-produced Time and Place, an obscure album which soul enthusiasts still revere. It was a unique album. The album has enjoyed some new life having been re-issued several times since 2007.
What went wrong in New York is a bit of a mystery. The Hendrix connection is often made in liner notes, but Hendrix eventually had to get out of New York to be discovered. Moses returned to Atlanta and played the soul and gospel scene to those who were left to listen during a time of changing trends and drugs entering the community en masse. Moses may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had he been whisked off to London like Hendrix was, we might have been treated to a far funkier Experience.
When I heard director Simon David was going to be in town showing his new documentary about Moses, I felt lucky to get an interview. David made the film of Moses’s enigmatic life with little information and a passion for research. He had little to go on when he flew from his life in Belgium to Atlanta and placed himself amidst Lee Moses’s aging cohorts. There were no magic roads unearthed. No uncovered footage from Moses’s heyday in Atlanta. No twined together letters describing a desperate situation scrimping and saving in New York. David does an excellent job of presenting Moses’s life without giving away the story.
Where this documentary is most successful is painting the corners by filling in what sort of guy Moses was and the pitfalls of being a musician in a large city in the South at the time. The documentary concentrates on what remains of the Moses family for raw data. David successfully presents Atlanta as the setting for Moses’s actions. Most importantly, the film allows you hear the music rather than have someone who wasn’t there tell you what they think of it. Some of this is self-imposed since there is little known footage of Moses playing. But the effect is a contemplative film that gets to the heart of the matter even if the facts are occasionally vague.
The bare facts are Moses was a talented songwriter and guitar player. He just didn’t make it. Sometimes talented people get derailed. When you’re done with the set up there are only two obvious conclusions: he just didn’t make it, and, sure, it’s a shame.
I got to speak to Simon David about his experience making his film, Time and Place, before a recent screening in Memphis.
Billups: You’re here in Memphis traveling and showing the documentary. Where have you shown it so far?
David: We had the world premier in London at the Doc’ N Roll Festival which went great. We played it in the U.S. so far in Minneapolis at the Sound Unseen festival. We have a few screenings coming up quickly. Korea and China and Beijing are coming up, some other festivals in the European Union. Here, it’ll be the fifth time so far.
Billups: Lee Moses is a pretty obscure musician. How did you come to be interested in him for a documentary?
David: I thought of this project for three years after I graduated in Belgium and I discovered Moses through a French movie called The House of Tolerance in English. It’s a film about prostitutes and work. And you can see all these girls very close together and Moses’s “Bad Girl” appears at the end of the film. That’s the first time I heard Moses and I kind of fell in love. I mean it’s such a vibrant song. It’s such an emotional song. And that’s where I discovered him.
Billups: There is so little information about him. How did you approach researching such an enigmatic player?
David: In Belgium I started researching. From there on I discovered Time and Place, (Moses’s one and only self-produced album) which is the name of the film. And I discovered Lee and his life and I felt like his music reflected a lot in his life. I thought about making this a feature. So I got it financed from the Belgium state, and I came here building my project around the idea it would be very personal because I was as much interested in the music as his personal life because you hear Time and Place and you wonder why he never made music again after that. And so from there on I got interested and I started contacting people I knew were around him.
Billups: You were able to find members of his family. How did that come about?
David: I found this that gave me some contacts. I got into contact with Donna Moses, Lee Moses’s only remaining sister. He had eight siblings. I contacted these families. One of the main characters of the film is Lee’s (only surviving) sister.
Billups: His sister is in the clips I saw?
David: That’s her. So in the clips there’s a sister and his wife. I started contacting people around him. She knew some who were also musicians from that time, very close to him.
Billups: That must have given you quite a base for the story?
David: Yeah. But, you know, they’re getting old and they don’t remember it as historians or specialists. It was funny because they don’t even see Lee as a musician. They see him as a brother. They were kind of mixed up with dates and there are some things I wish I had talked about also.
Billups: That must have been challenging.
David: It was satisfying to take so little information and build an accurate story around it.
Billups: Did you find it difficult to talk to people about Lee and his legacy and problems?
David: I knew I was going to enter a world I was not familiar with. I think I was very lucky get to people who are very open to sharing about Lee’s life—and even more than sharing—for example: his wife, I found her because in America what’s great is that you can do background reports and find people’s addresses and stuff like that. So I found Moses’ wife that way. But what was interesting is that she had not seen the sister since the funeral. And the funeral is a very important moment in the movie because it was filmed and it’s one of the few archives I got from the Moses family.
Billups: What else did your research uncover?
David: The Hendrix conspiracy also because what I found interesting is he had done music with Jimi Hendrix and there are plenty of songs where Lee appears behind him while they were recording in New York, not necessarily credited on the songs when they came out.
Billups: It’s been suggested in some of the liner notes I’ve read, and you know better that I would, but his liner notes suggest the rock and psychedelic elements in his music may have been a problem for him.
David: This was also early ’70s. The disco movement came and I just think he passed his chance. But yeah, I think it’s also a reason why it didn’t work; not finding his own category because one of the explanations given in the film was that his music would be played on soul radio, which was not necessarily the right public. He wasn’t aiming for that public, I think.
Billups: Liner notes led me to re-watch the Hendrix documentary from 1973. A lot of people were interviewed on the New York scene for that film. It’s an interesting window into that time period; those interviews indicate when Hendrix was playing the scene—the soul scene was already sort of over. Passé if you will. Sort of a place to see retro acts.
David: There are a lot of conspiracy theories. It interests me. A lot of the aspects of Moses’s life I couldn’t quite piece together. It was a big leap for me from Belgium to Atlanta—how to do get around and finding people, it was quite a task. I knew New York and some part of the East, but I didn’t expect everything to be as big. When I got to these neighborhoods, it was difficult. I also talk about neighborhoods, specifically one called Bankhead, which is the center of the Atlanta hip hop scene and which has gone through so many changes. All these places Lee would play were part of a big African American neighborhood called Auburn Avenue. At the start in the early ’60s, The Royal Peacock was the largest club. He was part of that level of the scene. The club is still there actually.
Billups: The trip to New York struck me as a pretty typical trip musicians would take at the time. A lot of people ended up there. Hendrix had to eventually get out to find his success. There was a glut of players with limits on what they could do because they were all working in soul reviews. I wonder if it was a similar situation for Lee Moses; perhaps he couldn’t spread his wings.
David: Well, what’s interesting about the Moses—Herman Hudson talks about it—is that they all met together in Atlanta before the journey. They all met this common producer, Johnny Bradley. But I’m not sure. I think also part of why Lee didn’t work is because he went to New York and I don’t think the scene gave him as much freedom as if he were here, for example. I think he would have fit much more in the ’60s in this more bluesy rock atmosphere in Memphis than in New York.
Billups: Did you find anything about his time in New York?
David: Harlem was a big thing. Lee played the Apollo. I’m not going to speak for him, but for me I think he thought it would be the place where it would launch and start everything. But it did not. And I don’t have any specific answer. Why leave? Some music will never work. The documentary doesn’t give an answer. When he came back the (Atlanta) scene, things kind of changed. Drugs were brought in these neighborhoods. And for me, what was interesting to see of the evolution of the neighborhood through the years, which later became the hip hop scene.
Billups: This would have been the late ’70s-early ’80s? A lot of drugs were being pumped into African American communities at this time to weaken the neighborhoods and increase control over the residents.
David: I don’t want to give the movie away. I’ll tell you the facts. He went to jail for selling drugs in the late ’70s, and there’s a gap between the moment he stops playing and the moment where he gets out of jail. So it was also to be rebuilding the timeline—and I tried to do that in an interesting way—but we don’t know every single detail about it.
Billups: That’s a very typical story from that time. The government was imposing pointed and long prison sentences for drugs offenses, and the drugs were being systematically moved in and out of large African American neighborhoods. The effect of this put African American males in his age group at high risk for going to jail for a long time for minor offenses. With this part of his life being a bit shrouded, did you have trouble wrapping the film?
David: Well, I think the turning point was the archives which were all from the 1990s. So it’s a moment where you can see it on him, his face does change. I mean, he’s in this little club and he’s almost alone.
And of course having also the funeral footage. So for me having this kind of private and personal footage just made sense for me. I was going to do something on his life where his life would be as present as his music. And having this personal footage led me into that direction. And also the quality of the footage: it’s VHS. So it was kind of crappy. Having this secret footage and intimate details about his life drove the approach. We don’t have as many surprises like Lee playing at The Apollo because, unfortunately, there is no footage of it.
Billups: That’s really a shame.
David: I’m sure there is more out there. Not in the public, because I went to the Apollo archives. I’ve searched the archives in Atlanta. I’m sure there are some people, but you wouldn’t know how to find them. I’ve had a lot of luck having people trust me because having archives where we see an image of the funeral limos, it’s so personal. I mean it’s very—I didn’t use that footage: of course not. But it led to a more a personal film on his life than I started with.
Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor and has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. (cramholezine.com, [email protected])