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Monday, January 2, 2012

'Unsung' producer shares recipe for TV One's soul/R&B show

A new season of Unsung starts this week, kicking off with the life story of the late singer Vesta Williams
  • A new season of "Unsung" starts this week, kicking off with the life story of the late singer Vesta Williams.

If you’ve got cable TV and are even a casual fan of soul/R&B music, chances are you’ve watched the show “Unsung.”

The program, which airs on the TV One network, is sort of like “Behind the Music” — except it focuses mainly on African-American singers, musicians and music industry personalities … especially those who weren’t necessarily crossover acts. We’re talking about artists like Shalamar, Klymaxx, Zapp, Rose Royce, Minnie Riperton, Donny Hathaway and many more.

With a new season of “Unsung” starting this week (featuring, in the first episode, the life story the late singer Vesta Williams), we thought now would be a good time to share a “behind-the-scenes” conversation with one of the show’s original co-executive producers, Mark Rowland. Check it out …

Creative Loafing: Let me start out by saying, in a very fan-boyish way, that "Unsung" is one of the best black-oriented television shows of all time. Seriously.

Mark Rowland: Thanks. I think [the quality of the show] just naturally flows from the subject matter. Because it puts the songs and the music in a larger context, and a personal context [and] also in a kind of musical history context … it touches on social, cultural, and sometimes even political history.

Totally. So, what was the original concept behind the show and how did it land on TV One?

All props to TV One there. It was all their idea. The series began in 2008 with sort of a mini series for four episodes. And they came to us. We [A. Smith Productions] are a production company, and as is the case with most television, especially on cable, [networks] generally look for production companies to do the work. So I guess some people there that had the idea and knew our star track record. I ran the “American Gangster” series; you know, coming from a different angle. So [TV One] sort of knew about that. And before that, there was a biography series called “Beyond the Glory,” which was a sports series that ran for several years on FOX Sports network. I’m sure [TV One] probably went to other production companies too, but maybe because of those two series, they liked what they saw … and they decided to give us the shot. I loved the idea. Myself, I feel really lucky to be involved.

Who picks the artists to be showcased for each episode?

Ultimately, TV One chooses, but we definitely have sort of endless back and forth conversation with them about it. I put a list together and the producers come in with their suggestions; and I’ll talk to my counterpart at TV One, and he usually has a whole list — and I would say about 80 percent of our names tend to be the same names. But then sometimes they’ll say: “Well, we really want this artist.” And if they say that then we go after them — because it is TV One’s show. On a couple of occasions, I think I kept pushing a particular artist towards them to the point where they’ve seen enough. So it’s collaborative, but ultimately TV One does make the final decision. But I have to say, this is about the most pleasurable experience I’ve ever had of working with a network. I feel we are really simpatico in terms of our feelings about what we would like the show to be and who we would like the artists to be that are on it.

Did you ever find it difficult to convince artists to talk to you when there is bad blood between them and, say, former bandmates or record labels?

(Laughs) Yeah, and sometimes I have not been able to convince them to do it. I am kind of hesitant to say any particular band that we haven’t been able to get because I am always hopeful they’ll change their mind. But, you’ve hit a tough subject. I mean, a lot of these bands in some ways [are] “unsung” in part because they fell apart due to internal strife; so, the grudges have ended up having a longer shelf life then the careers. And sometimes even years have gone by and there’s two different bands now touring with the same name, you know. So yeah, there’s that.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of these bands have no real experience with television, so they kind of view the whole thing with suspicions. It’s almost like: “Why are you coming? Why are you knocking on my door after 35 years? No one else has knocked on my door with this.” [The band] Klymaxx was one example where they were clearly still not very happy with each other. Rose Royce was one where it wasn’t a devastating split, fortunately, but there was definitely a split that went on there between some of the … band members and that was detailed in the show. And, like I say, there’s a few that I just keep doing a tug of war with, you know, hoping that we can convince them — but we may never be able to because it gets kind of gnarly. It’s too much, you know. I have to respect that.

And then you get a case that’s a little different, like Zapp. There you’ve got this tragic family — crime, tragedy — that’s at the center of the story and something that they’ve never talked about to anybody before. Lester Troutman, who we talked to literally for two months regularly on the phone, just trying to establish a kind of rapport. I think in that case, at some level, he kind of wanted to do it from the start to be a cathartic experience, to really finally tell the story from [the family’s] view. But at the same time, he really worried about the way it would be handled. He kind of said he had been approached in the past by people [and] he could feel that they really just wanted a quick, kind of shallow, sensationalist angle to play off. So it took a long time.

Shalamar, I guess, was another one where they were not really as pleased with each other. [Jody Watley] is still complaining. I’ve seen her say some stuff on the Internet and trying to amp it that we held something back from what she said. Why would we do that? We threw everything out there, you know. I think she was just upset that we gave the other two members as much time on screen as we gave her, you know — and they were just more gracious. (Laughs) so what can you do?

Are there any rules when it comes to putting together a show? Does anyone, for example, ever say: “OK, we will never do this type of artist”?

That’s a good question; I have never thought of it that way. No, there is no rule. We’ve never written down rules, like we’re not going to do this particular kind of artist. I mean, we are looking for artists whose music, as well as their story, is relevant with the audience. But if there were artists that something about their personal lives just made them really kind of repulsive. It’s not a tabloidy kind of program … I don’t want to slam anybody, you know. But I think it would be harder to do somebody who just had like a raw reputation in some way … The whole point of the show too is to show multifaceted sides of people … [it’s] celebration of their artistry and of themselves.

The new season of "Unsung" premieres Mon., Jan. 2 at 10 p.m. EST.

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