by W. Kim Heron
"He was a great guy, a wonderful spirit and he had a great love for the music," an old friend of recently deceased Lyman Woodard told us the other day. Bud Spangler, a presence on the Detroit scene in the days of Tribe and the Strata label and Kenn Cox's CJQ, Spangler told us that his first meeting was something of a revelation.
Seems that Spangler was in grad school at Michigan State University at same time as Woodard's mother.
They'd found a mutual appreciation for jazz; she sometimes frequented the campus jam sessions where Spangler hung out. And one day she asked if Spangler could put together a band for a post-prom party for Owosso's high school.
"She said you don't have to play for dancers, I just want you to play. And she said, 'I just have one stipulation.' She said, 'I want you to let my son sit in for a few tunes on piano.'"
No problem, Spangler told her, while considering the prospects of a teenage novice at the keys. "Oh, boy, here we go," he said to himself.
"We went and played the gig, and I had a great tenor player from Jackson who is still around named Benny Poole and Ron English [on guitar] and a bunch of other people. And Lyman sat in, man, and I had never heard anyone play Ray Charles-style piano authentically before. I mean, he just grooved his fanny off." So much for underestimating the kid The two exchanged numbers and a musical relationship quickly ensued.
Spangler — for many years now a producer-musician in the Bay Area — recalled Woodard's style of yelling about the subjects of his enthusiasm, a quality shared with John Sinclair. Spangler described them as one-man cheering leading squads.
A later screwball Woodard story came to mind as well. He recalled that Woodard, who grew up amid considerable family wealth in Owosso and retired there in recent years, once became involved in programming Owosso's outdoor fair — and got Martha Reeves declared the queen. Imagine a crowned Reeves waving from the back of convertible in mid-Michigan, a region never known for its hip quotient. "'Jesus, I scored big time,'" Spangler recalls Woodard saying. "'I was a hero in Owosso!'"
You can look forward to plenty of stories like that next Monday, March 9, when drummers Leonard King (formerly of Woodard's Trio and Organization) and RJ Spangler (who played with Woodard in the Sun Messengers and is Bud's nephew) put on a tribute at Cliff Bell's. John Sinclair will be the yelling MC and poet-in-residence.
In another set of Woodard memories, Amir Abdullah, who runs the Wax Poetics label, called us talk about his experience some 15 years ago first hearing the Woodard Organizations' LP Saturday Night Special. "I got it, I loved it," he said, and summed up the disc in one word: "Mind-blowing." Original copies can go for hundreds of dollars, and the only reissues have been unauthorized bootlegs, compounding the production shortcomings of the original. It was widely assumed that there'd never be anything better because the masters were lost or destroyed.
But Abdullah tracked them down, working through friends of friends who eventually led him to the Strata label and the Workshop's key "cultural workers," such as Kenn Cox, Ron English and Woodard in trip to Detroit last June. "I'm looking at them right now," Abdullah said over the phone from Brooklyn, in reference to the tapes.
Sadly too late for Woodard to celebrate, the disc (with the sound "cleaned up as much as possible"), which will be reissued March 23 on 180-gram vinyl and digitally through iTunes and other channels. The title track is here for the listening, thanks to Abdullah. And there's more from that period and label to come, he said. A never-released Ron English disc called Fish Feet, featuring art by Pedro Bell, later of P-Funk cover fame, is to be released next in May or June.
Finally, another of Woodard's oldest friends, Leni Sinclair shared some pictures with us.
Among them there's a shot that features Woodard from the Cobb's Corner era. He's over in the corner, with Marcus Belgrave and Ron Jackson on trumpets, Allen Barnes on saxophone and Robert Lowe on guitar.
The other picture is from a November event at Cliff Bell's. Woodard is with poet James Semark (a contemporary from the Artists Workshop, and currently the keeper of detroitartistsworkshop.com) and Lyman's namesake son, Lyman. Leni Sinclair noted that the elder Woodard was in considerable pain that night having broken a number of ribs in a recent fall.