What kind of fucking weekend was this? First on Saturday morning, the world finds out that beloved comic Bernie Mac has passed away from some sort of pneumonia-related “complications”. If that isn’t enough heartbreak, Sunday brings us news that the now-late, once-extremely great, soul innovator Isaac Hayes has moved on to a better place. In his final years, Hayes was better known for his Shaft-theme song and his controversial connections to Scientology, but in his time, this man was the definition of 70s soul.
We hope you’ve ascended to that great Thetan-free spaceship in the sky Mr. Hayes, we will certainly miss you.
Sad news came in this morning that Gerard Smith, bass player of TV on the Radio, passed away from lung cancer. Smith was only 34, which seems like an incredibly young age for lung cancer. TVOTR made this announcement on their site:
“We are very sad to announce the death of our beloved friend and bandmate, Gerard Smith, following a courageous fight against lung cancer. Gerard passed away the morning of April 20th, 2011. We will miss him terribly.”
A friend commented the other day that it seems the better part of her morning each day is spent watching videos on YouTube of whoever just passed away. This is defintiely true in the past week with the passing of TV on the Radio bassist Gerard Smith and just yesterday we got more sad news that Poly Styrene, front woman of the seminal UK punk band X Ray Spex, lost her battle with cancer. She was 53.
What’s strange is that Monday night I was driving and listening to an NPR Music story about Poly Styrene and her new album, Generation Indigo, that was released on April 26 (on Future Noise Music) and I went home and checked out a few YouTube videos as it had been a while since I had my X Ray Spex fix. And then the next morning—boom, she’s gone. I didn’t catch the end of the NPR story, so maybe it went on to talk about how she was sick. The whole thing left me feeling strange…
Kearney Barton - early 70s - Courtesy of Kearney Barton
Last night we got an email from Kearney Barton’s niece Patti, telling us the incredibly sad news that Kearney passed away peacefully at 8 PM. He was 81-years old. Over the last couple years, Kearney’s health had been deteriorating, but he was still sharp as a nail, hanging on and cracking jokes when we last saw him over the holidays. To say Kearney was a pioneer of the Northwest sound would be a massive understatement. Maybe he was the inventor? Whatever the tag, we miss the man. He taught us about the Frantics, the Sonics, Little Bill, Don & The Good Times, and so many more, but the one that really blew our minds was Black On White Affair’s “Bold Soul Sister, Bold Soul Brother,” recorded by Kearney in February ’70 and released on his Topaz label. It’s the tune that led me to Kearney’s doorstep in 2003, hoping to convince the wizard to let us license the single for inclusion on a comp of Seattle soul from back in the day. I quickly discovered the man had a heart of gold and a sense of humor that would make your grandfather proud. He was a genuine sweetheart who loved to work and record and record some more, making his famous cookies for guests, and watching a hydroplane race now and then. I remember him saying he’d had a bunch of calls from overseas reissue labels wanting to license the single, but he felt reluctant. Kearney liked the idea of working with a local label. Bless his soul.
The one thing that I could never wrap my head around was the wealth of material Kearney recorded since entering the business in the 1950s. It didn’t seem humanly possible. There were few, if any, bands who didn’t record at least one tune after walking through the doors of his Audio Recording Studios. And if it made a sound, he’d record it.
Kearney's "headphone tree," now proudly displayed in our Seattle office. Photo by Chris Gergley
Digging through Kearney’s archive years later, this becomes all the more evident to our eyes and ears. We discover analog reels of operas, country western, big bands, psych, advertising jingles, downer songwriters, soul, high school jazz bands, crooners, funk, classical, folk, modern rock, radio shows… and whatever else I’m forgetting he probably recorded that too.
It’s a rare thing to master your craft at any point in your life. To do it in your thirties and stick with it for another 45 years, up until almost the day you die, is a beautiful thing. RIP Kearney. We’ll miss you.
Ben Stillman wrote this blog post about his experience archiving the late, great Kearney Barton’s vast tape collection, which we took over after Kearney passed away earlier this year. Though it was surely a lot of work, looks like Ben also had some fun in the process and possibly discovered some gems in the collection. Thanks for fighting the good fight, Ben. RIP Kearney. We miss you.
I was asked during my first week as an intern at Light In The Attic to move equipment out of Seattle producer Kearney Barton’s home studio. At that time, the name ‘Kearney’ didn’t mean much to me, at least not as much as it came to mean in the following months. Kearney’s studio as we found it was a relic of the past filled with countless reels and vintage recording gear. We packed a U-Haul and dropped the cargo off at a storage unit in Ballard. There we compiled his legacy into a vast and disorganized stash, which, stacked one cardboard box on top of the other, towered over my 6-foot frame. I didn’t know it then, but his tapes would dominate the next year of my life.
After finishing my internship, I was kept on to sort through and catalog Kearney’s reels. Initially it seemed insurmountable – an overwhelming task that would only be conquered by passion and patience, I found that the best way for me to work was late at night with copious doses of caffeine and Brian Eno. I could judge a reel’s significance by how fastidiously Kearney had labeled it. The most interesting were the 1” and ½” tapes, because they usually contained recordings from serious musicians who had enough money to pay for nicer tape. The ¼” reels were much more tedious; they were often jingles, or radio advertisements. Occasionally a very interesting ¼” reel would pop up. I once stumbled across a box of NBA recordings from the 1970s, including recordings from the Seattle Super Sonics’ 1978 Championship season. Rummaging through the tapes I sometimes felt like a paleontologist sorting through the bones of an ancient creature. As the months passed, the stacks of sorted boxes grew taller and taller. It took nearly eight months and roughly sixty trips to Ballard, but I eventually sorted through all 5,000 Kearney reels.
Although he never wrote a song, Kearney was a true artist. With the tools of his chosen medium, Mr. Barton documented the time and place in which he lived. He frequently attended Seattle music festivals, church masses, political debates and sporting events, always bringing with him his portable ¼” tape recorder. Each reel is a snapshot of the day it was recorded, and the end product of organizing the stash he left behind is a meaningful portrait of Seattle in the 50s and 60s. Kearney’s Seattle was a place where roller skating was the popular weekend activity, where there were only 13 channels on TV, where Garageband referred to bands that played in garages, and where radio – rather than the Internet – was the common venue for the discovery of new music. It was also a place where in order to record audio for any purpose, one had to first win the respect of the man behind the recording console. These tapes are a lost piece of Pacific Northwest American history and they belong in the Smithsonian. Fortunately, they’ve found an ever better home at Light In The Attic.