In The Soul Kitchen's DJ Harry Duncan on Working With Bill Graham, His Show at Amoeba, and the Battle to Save KUSF
DJ Harry Duncan
Harry Duncan has filled a lot of roles in his 61 years: Independent producer of black music for Bill Graham Presents; manager of artists like the Meters and Ornette Coleman, to name just a couple; original talent buyer at Slim's; and, currently, a consultant at Bimbo's 365 Club.
Just a year ago, you could catch Duncan on any Tuesday, about 7 p.m., walking into a non-descript building on the USF campus with a stack of wax and CDs -- an arsenal of roots music to cook In the Soul Kitchen, a show that he produced and hosted every week since 1984.
Then, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, as Duncan was mulling over his show, staffers and DJs were escorted out of the building, and KUSF went silent. "I felt upset, violated, angry, and anxious about what the hell was going to happen," Duncan tells All Shook Down.
In the Soul Kitchen is now back on Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. -- on KUSF In Exile, rather than 90.3FM -- and Duncan now spins the monthly Roots and Rhythm Series at Amoeba Music SF, including tomorrow, Nov. 26, from 2 to 5 p.m.
All Shook Down caught up with Duncan at his Bimbo's office, as well as in the aisles of Amoeba Music in Berkeley, where he kept handing us records and saying,
You got this one, right?
Slim's Shout, the Blues of Sunnyland Slim. No, I don't have it.
I wouldn't be here talking to you if it weren't for this man.
In '71 I started Chicken Little and Company, a blues production cooperative [in Madison, Wisconsin]. The first thing we did was the Benefit Blues Revival, and later there were shows with artists like Howlin' Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, and Sunnyland Slim.
I began playing harmonica with him in '72, and it was very apparent to me he didn't have management. I was at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, and I literally [slap!] bumped into guitarist Mike Bloomfield. We got to talking, and he said, 'You work with Sunnyland Slim. Sunnyland is the first person that ever got me up on a stage. I'd love to do something to pay homage to him and put some money in his pocket.'
Then he called his agent and we put together a tour of Northern California. We played every place from the Opal Cliffs Inn in Santa Cruz to Winterland, on a bill with Steve Miller, Mike Bloomfield and Friends featuring Sunnyland Slim, and a then-relatively-unknown Roxy Music.
So that's how I got here.
Then what was it that kept you here?
I didn't want to go back to the tundra of Madison, and the music scene here was incredible.
Did you first meet Bill Graham at the Winterland show?
Yes. January of '73.
Did you already know about his shows?
Yeah, I was well aware of him, his history and his accomplishments and his, you know, complex persona.
Care to elaborate on that?
There's no question that he could intimidate people. And, in those days, he got some of what he wanted by yelling at folks and pounding the table. But I had a unique relationship with him. Because I wasn't an employee, I was an independent producer. He gave me a lot of encouragement and leeway with the blues, jazz, soul, reggae, and African music shows that I put together from '80, through the time he died in '91, and on until '95.
He respected me. I respected him. In his own fashion, he cared about me. I cared about him. Some think he was evil, greedy, and ruthless. I got to experience the very giving, very politically and socially aware and adept [side of him]. When he put himself behind a worthy cause, like Blues for Salvador or the Welcome Celebration for Nelson Mandela that I worked on with him, it was exhilarating to be part of the effort.
When did you start working here, at Bimbo's?
Started doing shows here in March of '95.
So you bring in a band whenever you want to?
No, I stopped doing shows. My role here is as an experienced consultant for booking advertising, publicity, radio promotion.
Why did you stop?
It was taking too much out of me. I think you earn the right after 35 years of producing shows to say 'I need to take a break.'
At the Roots concert you played, you had gotten the audience going crazy over some funk, and then you turned some heads with a Sun Ra record.
That was deliberate -- we're all from Philly, and I wanted to play some Philly-centric music for The Roots before they went onstage. And after the show, I said hello to Tariq [Black Thought], and he said, "You were the DJ? Man, you scooped us. You played the tune we were gonna open with!"
Could you talk a bit about DJing live in the flesh, versus, radio?
I want to raise people's consciousness by having them hear some great roots and rhythm music that they've never heard. I have a lot of respect for the artistry of DJs that are dropping beats and sampling and using effects, but that's not what I do. I'm more like a musical curator. The music's the message.
The Roots and Rhythm Series is even more immediate than radio, because Amoeba customers will say, "Who was that?" And I'll say, "That was Dyke and the Blazers, and the track was 'We Got More Soul.'" And they'll come back, "Well, is it on this CD?" "Yeah, that's the one." Everyone wins in that situation.
You mentioned you're lining up special guests to DJ your Roots and Rhythm Series.
[No one's confirmed yet], but people are going to hear musicians that they know and like [as well as] folks that aren't musicians, so they will be able to experience [them] in a creative context totally outside of what they know them as.
Where does the struggle to Save KUSF stand today?
Over the summer the FCC came back to USF and USC. They said, "Hold on a minute. Not so fast." They asked some hard questions and requested some backup documentation and emails. Ken Freedman [program director of WFMU, which hosts the KUSF in Exile stream] told us at Save KUSF that this was unprecedented.
So it's an ongoing investigation...
It's not an investigation. The FCC is under no mandate to be on a specific timetable to make their ruling on whether to approve the sale and transfer of the license from USF to USC (or not). It could be next week. Or it could be in a year. [In the meantime], we're trying to look ahead and see how is it that the best possible, most diverse and inclusive community radio station can take shape out of this. And how it can be paid for.
With an Internet-wired audience, what's wrong with just moving the left side of the dial online?
As long as it's available and as long as it's good, I am always gonna want to hear terrestrial radio. It isn't just some kind of cornball nostalgia -- it should be an option whether you want to listen on the terrestrial dial or online. Or both. That's an important part of what the Save KUSF struggle is about.