After graduating from Wiley College (of "The Great Debaters" fame) back
in the Thirties, Conrad "Prof" Johnson (1915-2008) briefly embarked on a
promising career as a jazz musician, joining big band orchestras led by the
likes of Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins. However, he decided to come off
the road in 1940, right after meeting the love of his life, Birdie.
The couple soon married and decided to settle down in his native Texas,
where for the next 37 years, Prof would teach music at Kashmere High in
Houston. There, he formed a stage band to compete in tournaments against
other schools, and as conductor taught his students how to achieve a
professional quality sound on their instruments.
By the late Sixties, Kashmere had developed an enviable reputation as a
world-class powerhouse, courtesy of a funky brand of music dubbed Thunder
Soul. But perhaps more important than forging youngsters into a competitive,
top-flight band capable of winning national championships was the fact that
Prof simultaneously served as a father figure to so many who were being
raised without a male role model.
Although he retired in 1978, Conrad Johnson had made such a lasting
impression on his Kashmere kids that numerous band alumni decided to pay
tribute to him 30 years later by reuniting to do a show when they learned
their hero was in failing health. That Herculean effort is the subject of
Thunder Soul, a reverential bio-pic directed by Mark Landsman.
Conrad "Prof" Johnson
Produced by fellow Texan Jamie Foxx, the picture features file footage of
the group performing in the Seventies when they were mostly sporting big
afros and wearing bell bottoms pants and platform shoes. That retro reminder
is deftly juxtaposed against the same individuals now middle-aged, yet
somehow still summoning up the funkified fire of old as they "practice,
practice, practice" just to please their former mentor in one glorious,
toe-tapping last hurrah.
Mixed in with those preparations are a host of heartfelt reminiscences about
how much Prof meant to each of them. And if you aren't moved by those
teary-eyed testimonials, then the floodgates will certainly open on reunion
night when their 92 year-old mentor is wheeled up the aisle from a hospital
bed to attend the magnificent concert in his honor.