One of the most popular sections in Radio Facts is our reviews of TV One’s hit show Unsung. The show just enjoyed a monumental 5th season with their highest ratings every.
I hear you are very knowledgeable of music, tell us about yourself and your history in the business?
(pictured Unsung’s Executive Producer Mark Rowland)
I grew up with a deep love of music, almost an obsession really, for as long as I can remember. We didn’t have a record player in our house when I was young, if you can imagine that, so for a couple of years I bought albums and 45 singles with money from my paper route in anticipation of the day when I’d actually have something to play them on! I dreamed of becoming a musician of course, and practiced rather haphazardly on guitar, but I realized at some point that I simply didn’t have the talent for it, but that I could write, so I became more inclined toward journalism. And I’ve since been involved with music as a journalist and documentary producer for most of my adult life. In the “˜80s and “˜90s I was an editor and staff writer for a now-defunct monthly magazine called “˜Musician’, which ran in-depth features on artists, and covered the waterfront from rock to blues to r&b and jazz, so I got to interview many of my heroes back then. I moved into tv, producing several shows for VH1’s “˜Behind the Music’ when it was getting off the ground. Since then I’ve done a lot of documentary filmmaking for television, including shows for the Fox Sports series “˜Beyond the Glory’, History Channel’s “˜Modern Marvels,’ and BET’s “American Gangster”, which I also ran as its supervising producer. All were very good experiences, but getting back to music with “˜Unsung’ has been a true labor of love.
What exactly does the title “Unsung” mean? Many people are confused by it.
Yeah, sometimes we get a little confused by it ourselves. Seriously, I feel that the title is flexible enough to encompass artists of varying degrees of popularity, who, for one reason or another, are not sufficiently regarded by the public for their contributions and talent. Often, that’s because something happened that cut short their careers, or, tragically, their lives. Maybe they self-destructed in the hot flame of fame and success. Maybe they did fairly well for awhile but didn’t get the breaks that would have blown up their careers to a greater degree. Or the business changed in a manner that threw them off course. Sometimes, as with Stacy Lattisaw or Deniece Williams, they made their own decisions to leave the popular realm at the height of success, to devote their talent to more spiritual pursuits. I’ve heard people complain that say, the Spinners, aren’t really “˜unsung.’ Well, they had a lot of hits, but they never won a Grammy, they’re not in the rock “˜n roll hall of fame, and how many people even knew they’ve been touring with original members for the last 30 years? Who knew they spent a decade unsuccessfully scuffling at Motown, doubling as chauffeurs and wearing wigs as “˜the brown beatles?’ That’s just one example. Yes, a lot of our artists are pretty familiar to our core audience, or at least their music is, but I’ve looked over the 42 shows we’ve made so far, and as far as I can tell only two of them featured artists who have ever had documentaries done on them before! For us, the bottom line is that these artists are very deserving musically, and that there is some significant element in their music or lives that hasn’t been properly explored or brought to light. We are trying to create a cultural legacy with these shows, as well as to entertain.
How did the concept for the show come up?
The concept came from TV One. They realized there had been this huge blank canvas on television regarding classic R&B. There’s a lot of reasons as to why so many of the artists in this realm”“ which to me comprises the bedrock of American popular music in our lifetime ““ have been historically overlooked by mainstream media, but the point is, with a few exceptions, they have been overlooked. TV One had the vision to believe that telling their stories from the inside out – that is, substantially from the point of view of the artists themselves – would find enough of an audience to sustain itself, and it has.
How do the stars respond behind the scenes (are they thrilled with the coverage, upset etc).
We don’t do shows on living artists unless they’ve agreed to freely share their life stories with us. With bands, that might not include everyone who ever passed through, but at least the key members. And with artists who are deceased, we proceed with the help and support of those who are essentially their “˜flame-keepers’, which usually means family and/or very close friends and associates.
Of course, once they’ve signed on, they don’t have control over how the shows will be presented. But virtually every artist we’ve profiled has expressed satisfaction with the results. In some cases, like with Lester and Terry Troutman of Zapp, they’ve told us later that finally feeling enough trust to talk about the tragic aspects of their family’s story was a kind of cathartic experience. I suspect that at this point our track record speaks for itself in terms of our tone and approach; we may broach uncomfortable subjects on camera, but it’s all underscored by admiration and respect for the music that these artists have given to us, and an understanding that doing so in the crucible of the music business was no easy task.
Have you been turned down by certain artists to appear?
Sure. You can’t win em all. But, I’m not going to say by whom, because I never say never. And indeed in some cases, artists who turned us down in seasons one and two, have changed their minds, and have since been profiled in seasons four and five!
After being behind so many episodes what would you say are the common denominators with a majority of the acts?
Well, I guess I’d reiterate some of the things I mentioned earlier about how careers often fell apart before their time, and the personal upheavals that inevitably accompany sudden fame. The music business has always been a tough place to live in, and musicians are by their nature quite vulnerable. That’s why their art speaks to us so powerfully, as they are often expressing their heart’s emotions nakedly on record and on stage. And then at the same time, to deal with a cut-throat business, while rapidly ascending from anonymity to riches and fame, usually at a young age, that kind of access to excess can provide its own share of traps. “˜Unsung’ has chronicled several tragedies, but in some ways it’s remarkable that so many of the artists we’ve profiled have survived as well as they have.
Did you expect this kind of audience response?
No, not at first. The shelf life of most television shows is a short one, and this is the kind of “˜old school’ documentary series that is going rapidly out of fashion elsewhere on tv. I did strongly believe in the importance of these stories, and of course the music, and that if we put that together in a sensitive and well-crafted manner, that we’d find an audience, at least for awhile. But the response has been overwhelming. It’s actually a little intimidating to realize how smart and caring our audience is about “˜Unsung’, and how important it is for us to keep trying to make every show as good as it can be.
So this was the best ratings season thus far, will there be any enhancements or changes to the show?
We’re always trying to find fresh approaches to telling our stories, to the extent that they make sense within the story itself. For instance, in the Ray Parker show that just aired, his story wasn’t deep on drama, so we didn’t try to contrive it to seem like it was. But Ray’s life is deep when it comes to music, so we were able to showcase some impromptu duets that we filmed ourselves, including one with Ray and Cheryl Lynn, and another with Ray and Chaka Khan. Or, in terms of style, the David Ruffin story that’s airing soon is told in a manner that’s elegiac and poignant, befitting his tale, versus the Whodini episode that follows, which has more of a fast-cutting, rollicking style. We definitely want our shows to entertain; we also want each show to be true to the spirit of the artist that we’re profiling. If we can manage to do both of those things, then I think we’ve done our job.