Chairmen of the Board - Under the Radar: The Documentary DVD (2010)

Chairmen of the Board
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The Chairmen of the Board came out of Detroit in the early 70s with a string of major soul hits, led by General Johnson's plaintive vocals and underrated songwriting.  Songs like "Patches," "Dangling On a String" and "Give Me Just A Little More Time" gained for the group a sizeable following among R&B fans, but not the kind of across-the-board success that their talent merited.

The Chairmen of the Board came out of Detroit in the early 70s with a string of major soul hits, led by General Johnson's plaintive vocals and underrated songwriting.  Songs like "Patches," "Dangling On a String" and "Give Me Just A Little More Time" gained for the group a sizeable following among R&B fans, but not the kind of across-the-board success that their talent merited.

For most of the US, the Chairmen were an afterthought by the mid-80s, no longer recording national hits and seemingly another in a string of soul groups that peaked quickly and faded into oblivion. But the new documentary Under the Radar, written and directed by indie filmmaker Billy Camp, shows a much different story that has largely been hidden from the popular media: that of a group that has not only survived but thrived on its own terms, as the leading purveyors of "Carolina Beach Music," a brand of good-time R&B unique to a loyal fanbase in a specific geography. 

Under the Radar is centered on a Chairmen 2007 outdoor North Carolina concert of over 12,000 fans, and it is a stunner for those who assume that all music is driven by powerful oligopolies in New York, L.A. and Nashville.  Here are thousands of people, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, wildly participating in a concert filled with songs that 95% of Americans have never heard. And the audience clearly knows by heart the dozen or so sing-along numbers like "Gone Fishin'" and "Carolina Girls." Even more of a non-sequitur is seeing a group that 30 years ago was viewed as an R&B act that couldn't "cross over" now performing for an enthusiastic, almost exclusively white, Southern crowd.

More than just a concert film, Under the Radar provides a history of an act that, out of the national spotlight, went to the South and created a sound for which the region was ready. For decades, segregation and racism had largely kept R&B an underground music in the Carolinas, but thousands of suppressed white R&B fans found their solace in the musical freedom that existed at the beach.  The Chairmen became the right group at the right time in the 80s to capitalize on this and create a very different type of "beach music" than the Beach Boys/Jan and Dean version that was known around the US.  It was instead a rollicking brand of R&B that was perfect for the regional crowd and took on the "Carolina Beach" moniker. And the Chairmen have been riding that wave now for over two decades, performing dozens of concerts in the region around the year, but especially in the Summer.

The documentary's interviews with group members General Johnson, Ken Knox and Danny Woods are fascinating but too short. The explanations of the group's history and its surprisingly successful relocation to North Carolina provide wonderful context for the music that dominates most of the film.

Under the Radar is a particularly appropriate release at a time of major label implosion and the uncertain hope of independent artists.  It shows the story of a trio written off by the music establishment over two decades ago who have created both DIY success and an unexpected legacy as they enter their sixties.  It also provides a much needed -- but previously hidden -- ray of hope for struggling young artists to grasp as they search for their own place in a changing musical world.   Recommended.

by Chris Rizik

 
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