1984 documentary THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN is being shown at CALS Ron Robinson Theater tonight

Gospel According to Al Green PosterJoin CALS for a rare screening The Gospel According to Al Green, Robert Mugge’s 96-minute portrait of soul singer, gospel preacher, and Arkansas music legend Al Green filmed at a concert in Washington, D.C. and a church service in Memphis, TN.

The 1984 film delves into the tension between the singer’s secular hits and his sanctified calling. As noted in DECIDER: :The film is unobtrusively directed by Robert Mugge, who’s made a career out of documenting the greats of American roots music, and presents Green in a variety of different settings playing music and discussing his life.”

Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Film starts at 7:00 p.m. Beer, wine, and concessions will be available!

Back to School Cinema: TO SIR, WITH LOVE

tosirwithlove1967’s To Sir, With Love is a bit formulaic.  Following in the footsteps of Goodbye, Mr. Chips; The Corn Is Green; and Blackboard Jungle, it tells the tale of a teacher who seeks to educate “problem” students and show them a brighter future.

There are several reasons this movie succeeds.  One is Sidney Poitier. He is polished and understated exuding a genuine humanity without being beatifically noble.  The obvious wrinkle this movie presents to the formula is that the teacher is black, while the students are not mainly white.  While that is an added layer to the challenges “Sir” faces in teaching the students, neither the screenplay nor Poitier’s performance seek to make this a message movie.

The students also keep this movie from slipping into cliche.  They are a motley crew.  Filmed in the East End of London in 1966, these actors embody the time and era. These are not pristine, scrubbed faces – they are ruddy, with stringy hair. While they may be a bit older than their characters, it works in this movie.  These characters face hard lives and have had to grow up too quickly.  But, as Poitier’s character uncovers – they really are like schoolchildren who just want someone to care about them.

Several veteran mid-level British actors fill out the other adult roles.  Patricia Routledge makes her movie debut as one of Poitier’s colleagues.  For those who have only seen her as Hyacinth Bucket, her performance is a revelation here.

The cinematography, direction and music also aid the movie.  It has a dark, grimy look, more akin to a documentary. Director James Clavell working with cinematographer Paul Beeson and editor Peter Thornton, makes use of the realistic look while throwing in occasional quick cuts and varied angles. The iconic trip to the British Museum is accomplished by using only still photos over the score.  This was borne out of necessity because the museum would only allow still photos not filming.  But it is more powerful, and the photos are stunning.

The film was largely overlooked at awards time.  It was released the same year as Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  He received no nomination that year at the Oscars — his three films probably all cancelled each other out.

The title song, which was sung by Lulu in the movie, was nominated for a Grammy.  Written by Mark London and Don Black, it has been covered by everyone from Al Green to Soul Asylum to 10,000 Maniacs with Michael Stipe.  Lulu’s version spent five weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard chart.

Black History Month Spotlight: Lenny Williams

Lenny Williams possesses one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music. 

Leonard Charles “Lenny” Williams was born February 16, 1945 in Little Rock, Arkansas. At a young age he moved to Oakland, California.

His interest in music was initially fueled when he learned to play the trumpet in elementary school, and his skills as a vocalist were nurtured by singing in gospel choirs and groups around the Bay Area. Lenny participated in numerous talent contests and after winning several, he signed his first recording contract with Fantasy Records. He cut two singles for the label including “Lisa’s Gone” and “Feelin’ Blue.”

In 1972, Lenny joined the emerging funk band Tower of Power. A string of hits followed. During his time with Tower of Power the group also recorded three albums: Back To Oakland, Urban Renewal and the gold LP Tower Of Power. Lenny and Tower of Power toured throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

At the end of 1975, Lenny returned to his solo projects. Initially signing with Motown Records, he later moved to ABC Records in 1977 (later purchased by MCA Records). Over the next four years he scored ten chart hits, including “Shoo Doo FuFu Ooh,” “Choosing You,” “You Got Me Running,” “Love Hurt Me Love Healed Me,” and “Midnight Girl”. Lenny recorded four more albums from 1977 to 1980: Choosing You, his first gold LP; Spark Of Love; Love Current; and Let’s Do It Today.

Over the past few years, Lenny has continued his solo career, touring the US, Europe and South Africa. Lenny Williams’ style has transcended into the new millennium, influencing many of today’s newest R & B and Pop vocalists. He has recently shared stages with such notables as Aretha Franklin, The Whispers, Rick James, Boney James, Bobby Womack, Ohio Players, Al Green, Usher, K-Ci & JoJo, Alicia Keys, Anthony Hamilton and Frankie Beverly and Maze. Lenny has also expanded his multidimensional career to include acting, starring in several stages plays including “Love On Lay Away,” “What Men Don’t Tell” and “When A Woman’s Fed Up.”

He continues making music today. In 2012 he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  To learn more about Lenny Willams and other inductees, visit the exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.  

Arkansas at the Grammys – A Little Rock, a little country, a little soul, etc.

One of Johnny Cash's Grammy Awards

One of Johnny Cash’s Grammy Awards

The 57th annual Grammy Awards are tonight.  There are several nominees with Arkansas connections.

The documentary Glen Campbell, I’ll Be Me spawned nominations in three different categories.  The Band Perry is nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for their take on Campbell’s hit “Gentle on My Mind” from the film’s soundtrack.  Campbell himself is nominated for co-writing the song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” in the Best Country Song category.  The song is also nominated in the Best Song Written for Visual Media category.

Former Arkansan Smokie Norful is nominated for two Grammy Awards tonight.  For his song “No Greater Love” he is nominated for Best Gospel Performance/Song. His album Forever Yours is nominated for Best Gospel Album.

John Waters, who will be headlining at the 2015 Arkansas Literary Festival, is nominated for Best Spoken Word Album for Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Though not an Arkansan, Roseanne Cash comes from Arkansas stock and has been an active supporter of efforts to establish a museum in Dyess, Arkansas. She is nominated for three Grammy Awards: Best American Roots Performance (“A Feather’s Not a Bird”), Best American Roots Song (“A Feather’s Not a Bird”), and Best Americana Album (The River & The Thread).

The Grammy Hall of Fame contains several recordings with Arkansas connections.  The 1969 album The Band by The Band, which featured Levon Helm, was inducted in 1999.  Louis Jordan has several singles inducted: 1946’s “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” 1945’s “Caldonia Boogie,” 1946’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” and 1946’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” Charlie Rich’s 1973 single “Behind Closed Doors” was inducted as was Conway Twitty’s 1970 hit “Hello Darlin’.” Patsy Montana is included for her 1935 song “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”  Al Green is included for 1971’s “Let’s Stay Together” and 1974’s “Take Me to the River.”

Glen Campbell and his family at the 2012 Grammy Awards

Glen Campbell and his family at the 2012 Grammy Awards

Glen Campbell has three recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame: 1967’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” 1967’s “Gentle on My Mind,” and 1968’s “Wichita Lineman.”  Johnny Cash has four entries: the singles “Folsom Prison Blues” from 1956, “I Walk the Line” from 1956, and “Ring of Fire” from 1963. In addition his album “Johnny Cash at San Quentin” from 1969 was inducted.

The 1949 musical cast album from South Pacific featuring a heroine from Little Rock was inducted. Another Broadway-themed inductee is “Lullaby of Broadway” featuring former Little Rock resident Dick Powell from 1935.

Here are some past Grammy winners from Arkansas:

  • Bill Clinton, 2004 Best Spoken Word Album – My Life
  • Bill Clinton and others, 2003 Best Spoken Word Album for Children – Peter and the Wolf
  • Hillary Clinton, 1996 Best Spoken Word Album – It Takes a Village
  • Evanescence, 2003 Best New Artist, Best Hard Rock Performance (“Bring Me to Life”)
  • Al Green has 11 Grammy Awards spanning from 1981 to 2008. In 2002 he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Johnny Cash won 13 Grammy Awards spanning from 1967 to 2007. In 1999 he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Glen Campbell received 5 Grammy Awards in 1967 and 1968. In 2012, he was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award. That moment is captured in the documentary Glen Campbell, I’ll Be Me.
  • As part of The Band, Levon Helm received a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award. As an individual artist he received Grammy Awards in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
  • Conway Twitty received a 1971 Grammy for Country Duo or Group for “After The Fire Is Gone” duet with Loretta Lynn.
  • Charlie Rich won the 1973 Grammy for Male Country Vocal Performance for “Behind Closed Doors.”
  • Smokie Norful won the 2004 Grammy for Contemporary Soul Gospel Album for Nothing Without You.
  • Maya Angelou won Grammy Awards in the Spoken Word Album for 1993’s On the Pulse of Morning, 1995’s Phenomenal Woman and 2002’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

14ish Cultural Highlights of 2014

2014 was a busy year.  Here are 14 cultural highlights. In no particular order. Except maybe once in while.

The Rep's Bob Hupp and Catherine Hughes flank NEA Chair Jane Chu

The Rep’s Bob Hupp and Catherine Hughes flank NEA Chair Jane Chu

Dr. Jane Chu visits Arkansas. Former Arkadelphia resident Dr. Jane Chu was appointed as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. In October, she paid a visit to Little Rock and northwest Arkansas. While in the Rock, she participated in a discussion at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and toured the new Creative Corridor spaces under construction for the Rep, Ballet Arkansas and Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Chu was also the guest of honor at a reception hosted by the Arkansas Arts Council. While here, she had the chance to renew old friendships as well as make new ones.

Carroll Cloar exhibit at Arkansas Arts Center. The Arkansas Arts Center featured the works of Arkansas native Carroll Cloar. Much as the Biblical prophet who is ignored in his homeland, Cloar has long been better recognized outside of his native state.  The Cloar exhibit (which included a painting of future Little Rock mayor J. V. Satterfield playing football, a personal favorite of the LRCV) and the outreach by the AAC staff made great strides towards raising Arkansas’ consciousness about the works by the American treasure.

DSCF0011Robinson Center Music Hall closes for renovation. Opening in February 1940 as the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium, the City’s prime venue for performances and civic gatherings needed an external and internal facelift at 74. The building closed in July 2014 for a two year renovation which will see the reconfiguration of the performance and audience space in the music hall, the creation of a new special events venue overlooking the Arkansas River, and the restoration of this historic main lobby and front façade to 1940 appearance. During this closure tenants such as Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Celebrity Attractions have temporarily relocated to other venues including the Pulaski Academy Connor Performing Arts Center and the Maumelle Performing Arts Center.

Ron Robinson Theater opens. Shortly before one Robinson closed, another opened.  The Central Arkansas Library System’s new Ron Robinson Theater opened. This multi-purpose venue has quickly become home to lectures (by the library, the Clinton School and others), films (in partnership with Arkansas Times, Little Rock Film Festival and others) and music (including the Arkansas Sounds series).  Named for famed Little Rock adman Ron Robinson, the public spaces pay tribute to his love of movies and music about Arkansas.

Music Music Music

  • As noted above, Arkansas Sounds has switched from a concentrated music festival to instead offering a variety of music styles and genres throughout the year at the new Ron Robinson Theatre. The music has ranged from Big Band to Klezmer to Country to Rock to Rap.  This is only one of the new music offerings in Little Rock.
  • South on Main completed its first full year of the weekly Local Live free music series sponsored by the Oxford American and Landers Fiat. South on Main also started a Jazz on Main series as well as increased their bookings of other musicians ranging from Rodney Block to Rodney Crowell.
  • Meanwhile, The Undercroft completed its first full year of (mainly) acoustic music offerings at the corner of Capitol and Scott Streets.

New Works of Art.

  • New sculptures were added to the Vogel-Schwartz Sculpture Garden and Riverfront Park as well as the Bernice Gardens.
  • In what may be the first for any symphony in the US, the musicians of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra commissioned a new piece in honor of the ASO board of directors. The work, composed by Christopher Theofanidis, was entitled The Wind and Petit Jean.  It was well-received by audience and musicians alike.
  • Ballet Arkansas sponsored a choreography competition “Visions” which featured five choreographers competing to be selected for a full-scale commission.  The winner was Hilary Wolfley whose work will be seen at the spring Ballet Arkansas presentation.
  • Finally, in conjunction with the 175th anniversary of Christ Episcopal Church (the oldest church in Little Rock to be at its original location), a new choral piece was commissioned. Daniel E. Gawthrop’s “Haste the Day” premiered on December 7.

mod delaneyThe Tonight Show with Kevin Delaney. Because Jimmy Fallon is really just a big kid at heart, he wanted to include periodic “cool” science experiments when he took over the “Tonight Show.”  After being contacted by a producer of Fallon’s show and an audition process, the Museum of Discovery’s Kevin Delaney was booked to appear.  He debuted on May 5 performing experiment with Fallon and returned on November 7. When not a guest of NBC, Delaney performs the same types of “Awesome Science” experiments for tens of thousands of children and adults at the Museum of Discovery.

New Festival of Arts. Acansa, a new multi-discplinary, multi-venue arts festival, debuted this year in September.  Over a five day period, ACANSA Arts Festival brought together audiences and cultural resources to present unique and exciting visual and performing works which celebrate the unique influence of the south and champion excellence and innovation in artistry.  There was theatre, dance, instrumental music, choral music, puppetry and visual art.

14 14 4Gridiron Returns. The talk of the return of the Star Wars movie franchise was not the only welcome news of returns. Gridiron, the biennial attorney fundraiser which spoofs politics, current events, sports and everything that is “sacred” to the general populace, returned after a hiatus.  Once again this effort was under the watchful eye of producer Judge Mary McGowan, the creative leadership of Jana Beard, and the writing prowess of the anonymous committee.  As has been the case in the past, many of the targets of the show good-naturedly showed up and laughed along in the audience.

Sculptures Returned.  Gridiron was not the only welcome return. Earlier this year several sculptures were stolen from the Vogel-Schwartz Sculpture Garden in Riverfront Park. After a media blitz about the theft, some people strolling through the park stumbled across a bag containing the missing sculptures. The pieces are in the process of being restored and will be reinstalled soon.

14 14 3Clinton Center turned 10.  Proving that you can come home again, quite a few of the people who were present for the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center in 2004 showed up again in 2014 to take part in celebratory festivities.  Among events included several lectures; a day of service benefiting the Arkansas Food Bank; a barbecue picnic; and a concert featuring Nick Jonas, Kool & the Gang and others which was hosted by Kevin Spacey.  The Clinton School also celebrated 10 years of lectures and innovative programs.

Preservation Concentration – The Quapaw Quarter Association marked the 50th Spring Tour this year. The event was co-chaired by First Lady Ginger Beebe and lifestyle expert P. Allen Smith.  Later in the year, the QQA hosted its first Mid-Century architecture tour highlighting some of Little Rock’s buildings from this style. They ended the year with the news that they had purchased the William E. Woodruff House in east Little Rock. One of Little Rock’s oldest houses, it was built by the founder of the Arkansas Gazette.  They will shore up the building to try to ensure no further decay as the building is readied for its next phase.


  • 14 14 2Reese Rowland, architect and principal at Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock, was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, awarded to fewer than 4 percent of AIA members.
  • Little Rock native Will Trice earned his third Tony Award in three years, this time for producing All The Way, the Best Play of 2014. His previous Tonys were for Porgy and Bess (Musical Revival-2012) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Play Revival-2013).
  • Arkansas native and frequent Little Rock performer Al Green was one of the 2014 Kennedy Center Honorees.
  • Little Rock’s Creative Corridor continued to rack up honors. The UA’s Community Design Center, which includes faculty and staff members from the school, won a 2014 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for its work on the Creative Corridor, on which it collaborated with Marlon Blackwell Architect of Fayetteville. The project also received the American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award for Analysis and Planning.


  • 14 14Sharon Priest, a longtime cultural advocate as a City Beautiful Commission member, Little Rock City Director, Little Rock Mayor and Arkansas Secretary of State announced her retirement after 12 years as Executive Director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.  Over the past dozen years, she has continued her cultural advocacy.
  • One of Priest’s successors as a member of the Little Rock City Board, Stacy Hurst, was named by Gov.-Elect Asa Hutchinson to be his choice to lead the Department of Arkansas Heritage. She will oversee seven agencies including three Little Rock museums: Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Old State House Museum and Historic Arkansas Museum.
  • Following the closure of Starving Artists Cafe, the weekly Tales from the South program (which originated from there) had to scramble to find a place.  After several weeks of a completely nomadic existence, it is now settling into a rotating list of locations. The Arkansas Arts Center’s Best Impressions restaurant has been designated a “permanent” site for the first Tuesday of each month.
  • The free outdoor Movies in the Park celebrated its 10th season this year. Founders Blake Rutherford, Heather Allmendinger and Ben Beaumont were honored at the start of the season.  A few weeks into the season, the series screened the film Frozen and set a new record for attendance by logging over 7,000 attendees.
  • After the closure of the Riverdale cinema in 2013, the space sat vacant.  In June 2014, Matt Smith moved the Market Street Cinema operations into the Riverdale space. He upgraded the equipment at Riverdale (which was also a vast improvement over the equipment at Market Street).  The new Riverdale 10 shows a mix of first-run blockbusters as well as the independent films for which Market Street had been beloved.
  • The Studio Theatre was launched adjacent to the new Lobby Bar in downtown Little Rock.  In addition to producing its own performances, it is also the new home of the Community Theatre of Little Rock and Precipice Theatre.
  • Weekend Theatre founder Ralph Hyman retired as the Artistic Director of that group. He will continue to direct productions from time to time.