Review: ‘What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?,’ starring David Clayton-Thomas, Bobby Colomby, Jim Fielder, Steve Katz, Fred Lipsius, Donn Cambern and Clive Davis

August 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

An archival photo of Blood, Sweat & Tears in “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” Pictured from left to right David Clayton-Thomas, Bobby Colomby, Jim Fielder, Jerry Hyman, Lew Soloff, Fred Lipsius, Dick Halligan, Steve Katz and Chuck Winfield. (Photo by Lee Friedlander/Sony Music Archives/Abramorama)

“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?”

Directed by John Scheinfeld

Culture Representation: The documentary “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” features a nearly all-white group of people commenting on the career of North American jazz rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose career peaked in the late 1960s.

Culture Clash: Blood, Sweat & Tears became a controversial group, after the band was hired in 1970 by the U.S. government to do a “cultural exchange” tour of Eastern European countries that were Communist at the time.

Culture Audience: “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in watching documentaries about how music and politics intersect, for better or for worse.

Steve Katz, David Clayton-Thomas and Jim Fielder at a 1970 Blood, Sweat & Tears concert in Warsaw, Poland, in “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” (Photo courtesy of Steve Katz/Abramorama)

“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” is not a “where are they now” movie, as the title might imply. This documentary is a fascinating look into a rock band vilified by left wingers and right wingers because the band did a tour of Communist countries to promote cultural amity. It’s a cautionary tale of how good intentions can be twisted for agendas.

Directed by John Scheinfeld, “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” features interviews with several of the musicians who were in this jazz-influenced rock band in 1970, when most of this story takes place. Those interviewed include singer David Clayton-Thomas, drummer/percussionist Bobby Colomby, bass guitarist Jim Fielder, alto saxophonist/keyboardist Fred Lipsius and multi-instrumentalist Steve Katz. All except Clayton-Thomas are original members of the band. In addition, the documentary has a treasure trove of previously unreleased archival footage.

“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” begins by giving a brief origin story of the band, which was formed in New York City in 1967, with lead singer Al Kooper. Blood, Sweat & Tears made a name for themselves for blending jazz with rock, as their songs prominently featured a horn section, and their live shows often had long, instrumental jams. Blood, Sweat & Tears signed with Columbia Records, which released the band’s 1968 debut album, “Child Is Father to the Man.”

That first album was a middling success. Creative difference led to Kooper departing as lead singer. He was replaced by Canadian singer Clayton-Thomas, who brought a soulful voice and charismatic stage presence to the band. Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album, also released in 1968, would be the band’s breakthrough and has what are still the band’s best-known songs: “Spinning Wheel,” “And When I Die” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” The “Blood, Sweat & Tears” album was a chart-topping hit and went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1970.

Sony Music Entertainment chief creative officer Clive Davis, who was president of Columbia Records at the time, says of Blood, Sweat & Tears in their prime in the music scene: “They weren’t fitting into it. They were leading the way.” Music writer/critic David Wild adds, “In terms of influence, you can’t imagine a world of horn rock and roll happening without them. They were just great. But even their greatness may have been problematic for them.”

It was during this peak period of the band’s commercial success that Clayton-Thomas got into some legal trouble that was the catalyst for the band’s controversial Iron Curtain tour. In late 1969, he was arrested at JFK Airport after a former girlfriend had accused him of threatening her with a gun two days earlier. Police investigated, and Clayton-Thomas was cleared of the accusation, which he says was a false accusation. In the documentary, he comments: “It was a nasty moment.”

Around the same time, U.S. State Department’s Cultural Presentations Program was looking for a way to ease the tense relations between the U.S. and “Iron Curtain” Communist countries in Europe, such as Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland. Danielle Foster-Lussier, Ohio State University professor of music, explains: “At the time, there was a concern that the United States looked like a country of brute force power, military power. And there was the idea that the arts could make us look like we had soul.”

According to the band members, because of Clayton-Thomas’ arrest record and past visa issues, he was threatened with deportation by the U.S. government if Blood, Sweat & Tears did not sign on for the Iron Curtain tour, which was scheduled to take place from June 17 to July 7, 1970. Clayton-Thomas comments on his bandmates and then-Blood, Sweat & Tears manager Larry Goldblatt: “I was going to be deported … They were going to do everything they could to keep me in the band.

As part of the deal, the band’s usual fee ($25,000 per concert) was waived, but the U.S. government funded the tour. The Iron Curtain Tour was controversial from the start, including within the band. Katz, who was the band member who was against the idea the most, put it bluntly in the documentary on why the band did the tour: “We were blackmailed.”

Clayton-Thomas says in the documentary: “We were the No. 1 band in the world, and it turned into a political rat’s nest.” Fielder shares a different perspective: “We were excited about doing it. It seemed like a great way to expand the band’s popularity to a whole new audience.”

With the Iron Curtain Tour, Blood, Sweat & Tears became one of the first rock bands to tour in these Communist countries. The tour went to the cities of Zagreb, Ljubljana, Belgrade, and Sarajevo in Yugoslavia. Then it was on to Constanta and Bucharest in Romania. And the final stop was Warsaw in Poland.

The problem was that the Iron Curtain Tour alienated people on both ends of the political spectrum in the United States and elsewhere. Left wingers who had considered Blood, Sweat & Tears to be part of a left-wing counterculture movement were angry that the band seemed to be willingly working with the U.S. government, which was paying for the tour. Right wingers were against the idea of any North American band trying to become friendly with Communists.

Katz, who a self-described counterculture radical at the time, comments in the documentary about the Iron Curtain Tour: “I was horribly against it … I was political, but the guys in the band weren’t political … They were musicians first.”

Clayton-Thomas agrees and comments on Katz: “He was very radical and very much into radical politics. Me? Not so much. I’m Canadian. But we [Blood, Sweat & Tears] were very involved in the counterculture movement of the day, mostly based in the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement.”

“I think we were naive,” Clayton-Thomas says. “I don’t think we realized how it would bounce up and bite us. To his credit, Steve did.” Tim Naftali, founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, comments in the documentary about the political climate in the U.S. at the time: “There was a national divide. And the national divide is defined in terms of [the war in] Vietnam.”

The tour was filmed for a documentary directed by Donn Cambern, in what was his first feature-length film. Much of the Cambern’s “long-lost” footage from the documentary (which was never released) has been restored as in “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” In addition, the documentary includes archival audio from the tour. The concert footage is electrifying with very good sound quality.

Cambern comments, “This was my first real directing job. My vision was to make a concert film. When we arrived in Zagreb [in the country then known as Yugoslavia], things changed. It was nerve-wracking but very exciting.”

The tour was a very eye-opening experience (both good and bad) for Blood, Sweat & Tears. On the one hand, they audiences were welcoming at almost all of the concerts. On the other hand, the band was constantly under surveillance while in these Communists countries. Band members tell stories in the documentary of being followed and having their photos taken by men who obviously worked for the country’s government.

Things got very ugly when aggressive security officers would brutally assault audience members. Fielder almost breaks down and cries at the memory of a male fan being severely beaten backstage, just because the fan asked band members for an autograph. There was violence in other ways at a few of the concerts, such as dogs being sent to attack concertgoers. A fire that was believed to be arson happened at a concert in Romania.

And it wasn’t just the audience that was disciplined by authorities. In Romania, Clayton-Thomas banged a gong as part of the concert before performing “Smiling Faces” and got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd, which began flashing peace signs with their hands and chanting, “USA! USA!” That was too “radical” for the Romanian security officials, who threatened to shut down the next concert if Clayton-Thomas did it again. The documentary shows if he and the band heeded that warning.

Tina Cunningham, an assistant to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ manager at the time, remembers in the documentary that the Romanian officials didn’t like the crowd’s reaction to the concert because it showed too much political support for the United States: “It was too much for the Romanian authorities. This was too chaotic to deal with. It was a repressed desire for freedom.”

“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” gives wonderfully vivid descriptions in its retelling of this fateful tour. The documentary also interviews several people who were audience members at that tour. They include Aurel Mitran, Doru Stanculescu, Mike Godorja, Mircea Florian, Ion Dimandi, Jan Adamski and Krzysztof Dowgird. Kudos to the filmmakers for tracking down these fans for their much-needed perspectives.

Mitran says of his memory of the Blood Sweat & Tears concert he attended in Romania: “The feeling of freedom it exuded was extraordinary.” Gordorja, another Romanian concertgoer, says, “The Blood, Sweat & Tears concert came on like an earthquake.” Adamskie, who went saw the concert tour in Poland, remembers: “I traveled 12 hours by train to attend the concert.” Dowgird says his concert experience in Poland that it was “an event on a cosmic scale.”

“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” gets a little bit unwieldy in the middle of the movie, when it takes a deeper dive into the history of the band. This band history breaks up the flow of the story of the tour and should have been placed near the beginning of the movie. However, the documentary gets much better in the last third, when it tells a riveting story of how Cambern’s film footage had to be smuggled out of Europe.

The documentary also responsibly shows the aftermath of what happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears after they came back home to North America. Because of the backlash against the band for doing the Iron Curtain Tour, the band’s career never again reached the same heights. Blood, Sweat & Tears would go on to break up and reunite over the years, with various lineup changes. Famous musicians getting involved in politics was not new at that time of the band’s Iron Curtain tour, but “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” shows how mixing music and politics is a risk that can backfire if done for the wrong reasons.

Abramorama released “What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” in New York City on March 24, 2023, and in Los Angeles on March 31, 2023. Veeps premiered the movie for streaming on August 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,’ starring Dionne Warwick

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over”

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” a group of African American and white people (and a few Latinos), who are celebrities, historians or philanthropists, discuss the life and career of entertainer Dionne Warwick.

Culture Clash: In her long career, Dionne Warwick battled against racism, misogynistic rap music and prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Dionne Warwick fans, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographies of entertainers who first made their mark in the 1960s.

Dionne Warwick in “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” is both a retrospective and an uplifting story about one of America’s most treasured entertainers/activists who is both celebrated and sometimes underrated for her breakthroughs. This documentary doesn’t uncover new information, but it’s a thoroughly engaging and comprehensive look at the life and career of the talented, sassy and outspoken Dionne Warwick. It would be a mistake to think that this movie won’t have much appeal to young people, because “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has meaningful themes and life lessons that can relatable to people of any generation.

Directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Warwick also participated in the making of the 2018 PBS documentary “Dionne Warwick: Then Came You,” which focuses mainly on Warwick’s music, whereas “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes not just her music career but it also takes a much deeper dive into her personal life and her activism. Warwick’s 2010 memoir “My Life, as I See It” also covers a lot of the same topics as these documentaries. In other words, there’s no shortage of Warwick’s first-hand accounts of her life story.

Fortunately, Warwick is a great raconteur with amusing wit and candid self-awareness. There could be dozens of documentaries about her, and she’s the type of person who will give something unique and different every time in her documentary interviews. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” which unfolds in chronological order, has the expected telling of her experiences with fame and the challenges she’s encountered when people pressured her to be something that she wasn’t but she stayed true to herself.

Born in 1940, in East Orange, New Jersey, she describes her childhood in East Orange and nearby Newark as being in a family that was “middle-class and working.” Her father had various jobs, including being a Pullman porter, a music promoter and an accountant. Her mother was an electrical factory worker who also managed a gospel singing group called the Drinkard Sisters, which consisted of relatives on her mother’s side of the family. Warwick’s maternal aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney Houston) was a member of the Drinkard Sisters. Cissy Houston is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

With all this music talent in one family, it was inevitable that Warwick would pursue a music career too. She says her first performance was at the age of 6, when she sang “Jesus Loves Me” in church. Warwick also says that it was also the first time she got a standing ovation. “Gospel will never be far from what I do,” Warwick comments.

Warwick grew up during an era when much of the U.S. had legal racial segregation, but she says in the documentary that East Orange was a very integrated city. “It was like the United Nations,” she quips. It might be why she didn’t want to be confined to doing music that was labeled as being for any particular race. During the early years of her career, racial segregation also extended to the music industry, which marketed pop music as “music for white people” and R&B music as “music for black people.” Radio station playlists also followed these narrow-minded race divisions.

It didn’t take long for people to notice her talent. In 1957, she performed with the Imperials during Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. They won that contest. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” includes archival footage of that fateful performance.

She then became a backup singer, with credits that include the Drifters’ 1962 songs “When My Little Girl Is Singing” and “Mexican Divorce,” as well as Jerry Butler’s 1961 hit “Make It Easy on Yourself.” She stood out as a backup singer and was eventually signed to a record deal with Scepter Records as a solo singer. Warwick comments, “Thank God for my daddy, who negotiated my contract.” Warwick’s debut album, “Presenting Dionne Warwick,” was released in 1963.

The documentary repeats a fairly well-known story about how Warwick told the music producers of “Make It Easy on Yourself” that she didn’t like the results. That experience later became the inspiration for her 1962 song “Don’t Make Me Over,” which is a statement of Warwick’s refusal to be anybody but herself. It was an issue that would come up many times when people questioned her choices in songs, performing style or even her hairstyles and clothing.

For example, Warwick says in the documentary that when she was on tour with Sam Cooke, she ignored his advice to never turn her back to a white audience when she was singing. At shows where white people and black people would attend but would be racially segregated inside the venue, Warwick says she made a point of turning to sing to the black people, which meant that sometimes her back would be turned to the white people in the audience. It was Warwick’s way of telling the black people audience that even though they were being treated like second-class citizens by racist laws, the black people in the audience mattered to her.

Warwick also tells a story about the touring party going to a racially segregated restaurant, where a waitress took their menu order, but refused to let anyone in touring party sit in the restaurant. When Warwick cancelled the order because of this racist discrimination, the waitress then called the police on the touring party because Warwick didn’t talk to the waitress in a subservient way. Warwick says that Cooke got angry at Warwick because he thought Warwick defending herself from racism would get the entire touring party arrested.

Later in the documentary, Warwick says of the civil unrest and bigotry problems in the United States and elsewhere: “All of this craziness that happened in the ’60s, unfortunately, is happening again. What has changed? Nothing. But there is hope. Love is the answer.”

Warwick’s hit collaborations with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David are duly noted in the documentary. Bacharach is one of the people interviewed in the film. David passed away in 2012, at age 91. The collaborations between Warwick, Bacharach and David resulted in Warwick’s biggest hits in the 1960s, including “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

In the documentary, Warwick talks about how her first major international success happened in Europe, but even her introduction to European audiences was marred by racism. Scepter Records put a photo of a white model on the cover of Warwick’s 1963 single “This Empty Place” when it was released in Europe, because the record company didn’t think European music buyers would respond to the song as well if Warwick’s photo was on the cover.

Warwick remembers European audiences being surprised and accepting when they would see her perform live for the first time and find out what she really looked like. She comments in the documentary: “Yeah, I ain’t white. I’m a tempting, teasing brown.”

Warwick adds, “My career really blossomed in Europe. It was exciting. I was treated like a little princess. It was a lot of fun.” She also talks about how actress/singer Marlene Dietrich became a mentor when Warwick spent time in Paris. Warwick says that Dietrich introduced her to haute couture fashion and encouraged Warwick to wear these types of designer clothes on stage.

With success comes inevitable criticism. Warwick often had to contend with people who would accuse her of “trying to be white” or “not being black enough” because her songs didn’t fit the expected R&B mold. (It’s the same criticism that her cousin Whitney Houston experienced when she became an instant crossover hit artist in the 1980s.) Not for nothing, Warwick became the first black artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal performance, for 1968’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” It was also the first of her six Grammy Awards.

Any major entertainer whose career lasts for more than 10 years has ebbs and flows. Warwick says that in the 1970s, when her career was in a slump, Arista Records founder Clive Davis (one of the people interviewed in the documentary) convinced her not to quit the music business and signed her to a record deal. In 1979, she had a huge comeback hit with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” which earned her another Grammy Award.

“Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” also includes a big segment on Warwick’s activism for AIDS causes. Several people in the documentary credit her with being one of the first celebrities to become an AIDS activist. Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John—her song partners in the 1985 mega-smash hit “That’s What Friends Are For” (another Grammy winner and a fundraising song for the AIDS charity amfAR)—share their thoughts on the experience and the impact that the song had for AIDS causes.

John says of Warwick: “She’s a hero of mine. She was one of the first people in the music business to speak up about [AIDS].” The documentary also shows Warwick meeting with amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost and designer/philanthropist Kenneth Cole at amfAR headquarters in New York City. Frost says that Warwick’s AIDS fundraising (including donating all of her royalties from “That’s What Friends Are For”) made a crucial difference in improving healthcare, research and other assistance for people with AIDS.

In the 1990s, Warwick spoke out against rappers having misogynistic lyrics in their music, even though she got some backlash for it. Snoop Dogg talks about how a meeting that he and other rappers had with Warwick in her home made such an impact on him, he decided to no longer have degrading lyrics about women in his songs. Snoop Dogg says the turning point was when Warwick got him to really think about how he would feel if someone used those misogynistic words on her or any of his female family members.

“Not much scares us,” Snoop Dogg comments on that pivotal meeting, “but this had us shook! We were the most gangsta you could be. But that day at Dionne Warwick’s, we got out-gangsta’d.” Warwick says of that experience of having a group of gangsta rappers in her home: “My sons thought I was out of my mind.”

Warwick also talks about her personal life, including briefly dating Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s (whom she also calls her “mentor” when she first performed in Las Vegas), and having a volatile marriage to actor/jazz musician William Elliott. The first time they married in 1966, they got divorced less than a year later. They remarried in 1967 and then got divorced again in 1975.

The former couple’s sons David Elliott and Damon Elliot are interviewed in the documentary. David mentions that his mother would sometimes divert her tour, just so she could go to one of his Little League games. “Those were special times,” he comments. Damon adds, “She’s the everything of the family.”

Friends and relatives say Warwick was devastated by the deaths of Whitney Houston (in 2012) and Whitney and Bobby Brown’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown (in 2015), who both died of drowning-related causes in a bathtub. The documentary includes a clip of Warwick’s speech at Whitney’s funeral. In a documentary interview, Warwick says she misses Whitney and Bobbi Kristina tremendously and thinks about them every day. Warwick is philosophical when she says that whatever time people have on Earth is best used in service of others.

Warwick also opens up about filing for bankruptcy in 2013, which her son Damon says happened because of “having an accountant who screws you over.” Warwick comments, “If General Motors can file for bankruptcy, why not Dionne Warwick?” There’s also acknowledgement that Warwick’s 1990s stint as a spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network was a low point in her career.” Her son David says of her association with the Psychic Friends Network, “Unfortunately, it overshadowed her as a singer.”

As expected in a celebrity documentary such as “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” other notable people in the film have nothing but praise for the celebrity. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton mentions that when he was courting his wife Hillary during a trip to Northern California, he wanted to visit San Jose, because of Warwick’s song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” He also says that when he was president of the U.S. in the 1990s, Warwick always pushed him to approve more federal funds for AIDS causes, and he appreciated how she always told him that whatever was given was “never enough.”

Barry Gibb talks about how he and Arista Records founder Davis had to work hard to convince Warwick to record the Gibb-written song “Heartbreaker,” which became a big hit for her in 1982. Gibb says, “If you want to make a great record, make a Dionne Warwick record.” Former U.S. congressman Charles Rangel gives the type of gushing comment that many of the other interviewee say in the documentary: “She is truly one of the greatest ambassadors of good will.”

Other interviewees in the documentary, whose screen time is really just reduced to sound bites, include Jesse Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, Carlos Santana, Melissa Manchester, Chuck Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson, Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell, radio DJ Jerry Blavat and National Museum of African American History director Lonnie Bunch. Because of this over-abundance of praise, the movie often veers into looking more like a tribute. However, because the documentary doesn’t gloss over some of Warwick’s low points in her life, and she talks about these low points, it’s saved from being a superficial, fluffy film.

Even when Warwick makes a self-congratulatory statement in the documentary, such as, “I am a messenger. I am carrying messages of love and hope,” it’s not too grandiose in the context of this film. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” has plenty of evidence of Warwick’s lifelong actions for worthy humanitarian causes. Most of all, the documentary is testament to Warwick being an example of someone who can have staying power in showbiz without having to invent any personas and without compromising who she really is.

CNN will premiere “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” on January 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York,’ starring Scott Shannon

February 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Scott Shannon in “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

“Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York”

Directed by Mitchell Stuart

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Secaucus, New Jersey, the documentary film “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” features a nearly all-white group of people (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy and discussing the first decade of pop radio station Z100 New York, which launched in 1983.

Culture Clash: Z100 started off in last place in New York City’s radio ratings, but in just two-and-a-half months, it became the top-rated station in the area, largely due to radio personality Scott Shannon and his then-unorthodox methods of increasing an audience.

Culture Audience: “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in radio success stories, but the documentary leaves out a lot of truths about the radio business and the music industry.

A 1980s archival photo of Scott Shannon in “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

WHTZ, the New York City pop music radio station better known as Z100, is arguably the most influential pop-music radio station in the United States. (It can be heard on the FM frequency at 100.3 in the New York City metro era.) “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” is a documentary that takes a look at back at the origins of Z100 and how it went from “worst to first” in the radio ratings for the New York City metro area. “Worst to First” is really a tribute to Scott Shannon and his Z100 reign in the 1980s, rather than a comprehensive look at all of Z100’s history. The movie has flawed editing and diversity problems, but ultimately it’s lightweight nostalgia with entertaining stories.

“Worst to First” director Mitchell Stuart has a history with Z100, since he has directed footage for some of the radio station’s star-studded Z100 Jingle Ball concert events. (Stuart occasionally appears on camera in this documentary when he’s talking to Shannon.) Elvis Duran, who is currently the most famous on-air personality at Z100, is a producer of this documentary. Duran is also interviewed in “Worst to First.” If you know that information when watching this Z100 lovefest, you’ll have a better understanding of why this movie looks very biased in talking about things that only make Z100 look good, and not anything dirty or sordid that went on behind the scenes.

Still, “Worst to First” (which has a brisk total running time of 64 minutes) capably achieves its intent to show fondness for Z100 and how the radio station started off as an underdog that many people thought would never reach the heights that Z100 reached. One of the main reasons why the documentary is watchable is because of Shannon, who is a very engaging raconteur with a sense of comedic wit that can be a little cocky and rebellious. Shannon is clearly intended to be the star of the movie, because he gets the most credit for bringing Z100 to the top of the ratings in 1983, the year that the station launched. He left Z100 in 1989, and he has continued to work as a radio DJ.

Shannon, who was one of Z100’s original staffers, was the leader of the radio station’s morning-show team. Born in St. Louis in 1947, and raised near Indianapolis, Shannon came from a military family (his father was in the U.S. Army), so all the moving around that a military family has to do helped prepare him for his career in radio. Almost all radio DJs who are serious about making radio a long-term career have to frequently move from job to job and city to city to pay their dues and try to advance to larger radio markets.

Shannon was no different, and he eventually landed at WRBQ (Q105) in Tampa, Florida, where he and co-host Cleveland Wheeler led “The Q Morning Zoo” show. This “morning zoo” concept (one to three hosts who lead a team of sidekicks for a morning show) has been copied by hundreds of radio stations, but WRBQ is credited with being the first to have this concept. In “Worst to First,” Shannon says that he quit WRBQ around the same time that Milton Maltz, CEO of Malrite Communications, recruited Shannon to be part of the start-up team at a new radio station called WHTZ, nicknamed Z100.

At the time, Z100 was headquartered in Secaucus, New Jersey, which was considered a suburban void (compared to New York City) for the media and music industries. However, Z100’s radio signal (just like other radio stations in the New York City area) came from New York City’s Empire State Building, for a reach that extended from New York City to Long Island to parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Not only was Secaucus considered out of the way for people in the entertainment industry, but Z100’s first office space was also drab and less-than-impressive, according the former Z100 staffers in the documentary.

Shannon says that he almost didn’t take the job because the unnamed executive who interviewed him was very condescending when asking Shannon during the interview: “What makes you think that you’re ready for the biggest [radio] market in the country?” Shannon’s response? “I got up, I threw my little booklet at him, and I walked out.”

According to Shannon, just as he was about to leave in the elevator, Malrite Communications CEO Maltz saw Shannon, who told him why he was leaving. However, Maltz persuaded Shannon to take the job. Shannon quips in the documentary: “Then, I realized I didn’t know anything about New York.” (Maltz is not interviewed in “Worst to First,” but the documentary has an interview with Malrite Communications vice president of programming Jim Wood, who essentially confirms this story.)

Duran comments on Shannon’s arrival as a DJ in the New York City metro area: “Scott came in not knowing anything about New York City, and I think that gave him the edge. He wasn’t scared by the city. You could tell he wasn’t from around these parts. I think that’s what made him stand out. He surrounded himself with a lot of caring, trusting people who not only communicated well with the audience, but they elevated him.”

Among the former Z100 staffers interviewed in the film are original “Z Morning Zoo” cast members Prof. Jonathan B. Bell, Ross Brittan, Claire Stevens, Anita Bonita and Cathy Donovan. Bell comments on the first time he heard about Shannon: “He had been described to me as a nutcase from Tampa, Florida, who walked around wearing shorts all the time. And somehow, he was going to revolutionize New York radio.”

Also interviewed are former Z100 DJs/hosts/personalities Sean “Hollywood” Hamilton, Patty Steele and “Magic” Matt Alan. And these former Z100 DJ/hosts/personalities are mentioned, although they are not interviewed in the documentary: Mr. Leonard (the alias of John Rio), J.R. Nelson, Jack the Wack, Janet From Another Planet and Dr. Christopher Reed. Mr. Leonard and his high-pitched voice persona had the reputation of being an eccentric who rarely went to the studio and called into the station instead when he was on the air.

Former Z100 employees who are interviewed in the documentary include Gary Fisher (Z100 director of sales from 1983 to 1987 and Z100 vice president/general manager from 1987 to 1992); Fank Foti (Z100 head engineer from 1983 to 1987); Michael Ellis (Z100 music director from 1983 to 1984); Ken Lane (Z100 promotion director from 1983 to 1989); Steve Kingston (Z100 program director from 1989 to 1996); and Tom Poleman (Z100 program director from 1997 to 2005 and currently iHeartMedia president of national programming).

Nile Rodgers (Chic co-founder, Grammy-winning producer and New York City native) says that radio in the early 1980s underwent this transition in a post-punk and post-disco world: “Basically, what was happening at radio, the way I saw it, was they could extract one lane that they thought was really working, and they would just format a whole show or station like that.” In other words, radio formats were becoming increasingly fragmented.

John Sykes, iHeart Media president of entertainment enterprises and a co-founder of MTV, comments on the state of New York City radio at the time that Shannon arrived on the scene: “There was a segment of New York radio that had gotten lazy.” Some of the heavy-hitters in the New York City market at the time include WPLJ (which changed from rock to pop/Top 40 in 1983); news/talk station WOR; WNBC, which had star hosts Don Imus and Howard Stern; WBLS, a longtime R&B/urban music powerhouse; and WKTU, whose specialty was dance music.

Z100’s biggest competitor at the time was obviously WPLJ. Shannon came out swinging in this fight. One of the first things he did to shake things up was announce to the audience that Z100 was in last place and that they needed help in getting to the top of the ratings. It was unheard of at the time for any radio station to publicly admit how bad its ratings were. Shannon encouraged listeners to make Z100 posters and other merchandise and to tell their friends about Z100.

Audience members were given incentives and rewards if they gave Z100 the names and contact information of people whom they told about Z100 and who pledged to listen to the station. It’s exactly the type of viral marketing that’s commonplace today on the Internet and social media. But, of course, the Internet and social media didn’t exist in 1983. Z100 also used some tried-and-true promotional gimmicks, such as giving away cash to listeners in sweepstakes and contests.

Shannon also did what was considered taboo in radio back then: He began personally insulting Z100’s radio rivals on the air. Perhaps the biggest target was WPLJ program director Larry Berger, whom Shannon began to call Larry Booger. Ironically, Shannon later worked at WPLJ, from 1991 to 2014. Berger, who left WPLJ in 1988, died in 2018.

Former Z100 VP/GM Fisher comments on Shannon’s tactics to get to the top of the ratings: “Scott is the best radio attack dog. He does his best work when he had a target.” The Z100 irreverence didn’t just come from Shannon. Kingston says that as, a prank, he went to the WPLJ studios with boxes of bumper stickers that said, “I Brake for Larry Berger.” He put several of these bumper stickers all over WPLJ vehicles and inside the WPLJ offices.

Even though people might think Shannon had a somewhat rude approach to surpassing his rivals, some of his past and present colleagues say that this brashness was all part of his radio persona and that his real personality was much more laid-back. Donnie Ienner, former CEO of Sony Music, remembers that he first met Shannon in 1972, when Shannon was DJ at WMAK in Nashville. At the time, Shannon was going by the DJ name Supershan and had his hair styled to look like early 1970s Elvis Presley. Ienner adds, “Privately, Scott is very demure and very quiet. And as soon as that microphone goes on, he’s on.”

Shannon is also praised in the documentary for his genuine passion for music. (What the documentary doesn’t mention is Shannon’s short-lived stint in a pop/rock duo called Wildfire, which had a minor hit song called “Here Comes the Summer” on Casablanca Records in 1977.) Shannon says he got into rock music when he was in his mid-teens, and he was hooked ever since. He also mentions in the documentary that he also grew to appreciate pop, R&B and other music genres.

Sony Music Entertainment chief creative officer Clive Davis says that Shannon’s genuine love of music set him apart from many other DJs who seemed to care more about crafting comedy personas: “Love of music allows you to be different, to not be totally predictable, and for that contagious spirit to come through.” In the documentary, Jon Bon Jovi also says that he appreciated the Z100 team for being true music fans, and for not making him feel like “a cog in the wheel” when it came to promoting his music at radio.

Shannon and other people talk about how Madonna (before she was famous) kept pestering Z100 to play her 1983 single “Holiday.” She would frequently call the station and would sometimes show up unannounced, in an effort to get Z100 to play her music. One day, she demanded to speak to Shannon on the phone. Shannon remembers that Madonna told him in that conversation that if Z100 played “Holiday,” she promised to do something special for Z100 when she became famous.

Z100 then played “Holiday,” and the rest is history. Madonna kept her promise, by giving Z100 exclusive radio access to the Times Square premiere of her 1987 movie “Who’s That Girl,” where Z100 did a live show. Shannon calls it one of the “greatest days” in his time at Z100. No one in the documentary mentions that “Who’s That Girl” was a huge flop at the box office, although Madonna did have some hit songs from the soundtrack.

Because of Z100’s headquarters location in Secaucus (which Z100 hosts cheekily tried to underplay, by saying they were broadcasting from the top of New York City’s Empire State Building), Z100 initially had a hard time convincing celebrities to go to the station for in-person interviews. Tony Orlando, who’s interviewed in the documentary, was Z100’s first celebrity guest, who was booked almost by a fluke, because a junior Z100 employee just happened to be a volunteer at a charity event hosted by Orlando. In the documentary, Geraldo Rivera and Joe Piscopo also weigh in with their thoughts on Z100.

The antics of the Z100 team and the free promotion and publicity that Z100 was getting from its rapidly growing fan base led to Z100 going from “worst to first” in the ratings in just 74 days. It was an unprecedented feat in New York City radio. Jim Kerr, who was a WPLJ morning DJ from 1974 to 1989, remembers after WPLJ switched to a pop/Top 40 format in 1983: “We were ready for our climb right to the top. And then, out of nowhere, came Scott Shannon.”

Shannon soon became a national celebrity. In 1984, he began hosting the nationally syndicated weekly series “Scott Shannon’s Rockin’ America: The Top 30 Countdown” on Westwood One. (This series was on the air until 1992.) National TV shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Entertainment Tonight” began featuring the “Z Morning Zoo” team in stories about why Z100 had such a meteoric rise to the top.

It’s undoubtedly an inspirational story, but it’s told from a very calculatedly safe bubble designed to shut out some harsh realities about problems in the radio industry and the music industry. There’s no mention of radio payola scandals in the 1980s. There’s no mention of racism and sexism. There’s no mention of rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol. In addition, “Worst to First” has some editing and sound mixing that are rough around the edges and a little bit amateurish.

An example of an edit that does this documentary a disservice is a disjointed interview segment with manager/producer/Blackheart Records co-founder Kenny Laguna, who’s best known for his association with rocker Joan Jett. (Jett is interviewed in the documentary too, but she doesn’t say much except generic comments about how happy she was to hear her music on the radio.) Laguna tells a story about a botched promotion for one of Jett’s 1980s singles, which he does not name. Laguna says that he hired a plane to fly outside the Z100 studios with banner that read: “Dear Scott, Please play Joan Jett. Love, Ken.”

The problem was that the pilot “flew the plane over the wrong part of Secaucus. And Scott didn’t see the plane,” says Laguna. And then that’s the end of the story. Why put that story in the documentary if there’s no follow-up answers to these questions: “Did Laguna do another plane stunt to correct the mistake? And if so, did Shannon see the message, and what did he think?” The story is just left to dangle with no follow-through or conclusion.

Another out-of-place edit is having Gavin DeGraw as one of the artists interviewed in the documentary. DeGraw was a child in the 1980s, he didn’t grow up in the New York City metro area, and he didn’t become a famous artist until his 2003 debut album “Chariot.” What is he doing commenting about Z100 in a documentary about Z100’s 1980s history? It makes no sense. The documentary even shows DeGraw expressing surprise when he says says that he didn’t know that Shannon was one of the original members of the Z100 team. It’s an irrelevant interview that should have been left out of the documentary.

In addition to some questionable editing decisions for content, some of the technical editing decisions don’t flow smoothly at all, with a few cringeworthy jump cuts. And considering that “Worst to First” director Stuart has experience in directing music shows, it’s disappointing that the sound mixing is uneven, with the volume on some interviews jarringly louder than others. It’s not too much of a distraction, but it’s noticeable.

However, one of the best things about “Worst to First” is the archival footage, much of which hasn’t been seen in years. In addition, the filmmakers interviewed people from various aspects of the media and the music industry outside of Z100. Other people interviewed include author/former New York Daily columnist David Hinckley; journalist/historian Jimi LaLumia, Columbia Records senior vice president of adult radio promotion Pete Cosenza; and Scott Shannon’s wife, Trish Shannon.

A significant flaw in the documentary is how it completely erases women of color. No women of color are interviewed in the documentary. That’s partially because no women of color were on the Z100 decision-making team. But former Z100 staffers aren’t the only ones interviewed in the documentary. Artists and music executives were interviewed for this documentary too, but the filmmakers chose not to include any women of color from these parts of the industry either.

In an era when Grammy-winning music superstars Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Gloria Estefan were riding high on the pop charts and on Z100’s playlists, these women of color are not even mentioned in the documentary. The filmmakers probably wouldn’t be able to get Turner, Jackson or Estefan for interviews, just like Madonna (who’s mentioned quite a bit in the documentary) wouldn’t be available. But if the filmmakers bothered to include faded pop stars such as Debbie Gibson and Taylor Dayne for the documentary interviews, then they could’ve interviewed some women of color who were pop stars in the 1980s too. The filmmakers probably didn’t even make the attempt.

Surely, the filmmakers could’ve gotten at least one of these women of color artists for interviews: Salt-N-Pepa, Jody Watley, Jeanette Jurado from Exposé, Ruth Pointer from the Pointer Sisters, Lisa Lisa, or sisters Kathi Wolfgramm, Elizabeth Wolfgramm and Moana Wolfgramm from The Jets. Surely, the filmmakers could’ve interviewed women of color who’ve been influential music executives in the 1980s and beyond, such as Suzanne de Passe (formerly of Motown) or Sylvia Rhone, who’s been the president or chair/CEO of several record companies in her illustrious career, including Epic, Motown/Universal Motown, Elektra Entertainment Group and EastWest Records. The bottom line is that women of color were excluded from this documentary. When people talk about women of color being overlooked or sidelined, this documentary is an example of how it happens.

The documentary also completely ignores the obvious prejudices that women overall have to deal with in radio. Male radio hosts are allowed to be overweight, have gray and white hair and/or a lot of face wrinkles and jowls, but female radio hosts usually are not given this leeway in their physical appearance. Just look at the lineups of commercial radio station talent if you don’t believe this sexist double standard exists. (Non-commercial radio, which isn’t a slave to advertisers, tends to be more inclusive regarding what female radio hosts look like, but non-commercial radio has bigotry issues too.) Some people might say that when it comes to hiring people as radio hosts, audiences aren’t supposed to care what radio hosts look like. In reality, this belief only applies to male radio hosts, who benefit the most from this double standard.

The one token African American on the original “Z Morning Zoo” team was Bell, a light-skinned man, who had a “sidekick” job and was never put in charge of making the programming and hiring decisions. Because no one wants to admit on camera that they’ve been racist and sexist in employee decisions, these uncomfortable and truthful topics are kept out of a documentary designed to be a tribute. People who benefit the most from these prejudices are also the ones who tend to ignore this bigotry, condone this bigotry, and/or practice this bigotry the most. It’s not the 1980s anymore, when these issues were more likely to be swept under the rug.

It’s why “Worst to First,” for all of its jovial stories, looks like a whitewashed film made from a fan-worship perspective, instead of a documentary made by people with journalistic or truth-seeking standards. “Worst to First” is entertaining enough if people want a relatively short and fluffy breeze-through of 1980s nostalgia. However, there’s a lot more to the story that braver and more honest documentaries would have mentioned or included.

Gunpowder & Sky released “Worst to First: The True of Z100 New York” on digital and VOD on February 11, 2022.

Aretha Franklin dead at 76; Queen of Soul passed away from pancreatic cancer

August 16, 2018

by John Larson

Aretha Franklin, known by many as the Queen of Soul, died of pancreatic cancer at her home in Detroit on August 16, 2018. She was 76. Days before her passing, her family had revealed that she was gravely ill and close to dying.

According to the Associated Press, the family released this statement after Franklin’s death:  “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world.”

Music mogul Clive Davis, who is Sony Music’s chief content officer, is organizing a tribute concert that will take place on November 14 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Live Nation is the concert promoter, according to the Washington Post.

Franklin, who got her start singing gospel music and later transitioned to R&B, was one of the most celebrated singers in modern history. She had 18 Grammy Awards, and received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement honor in 1994. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1987, she was the first woman inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Among her numerous hits were “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Freeway of Love,” “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (her duet with George Michael), “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”

In 2017, Franklin announced her retirement from touring. Franklin, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by her longtime partner Willie Wilkerson and her sons Clarence, Edward, Ted and Kecalf.

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