Rock on: Documentaries tell the stories of Mama's Pride and Pavlov's Dog
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2009 - Editor's Note: Frequent Beacon contributor Thomas Crone was co-director of two documentaries that played at the recently concluded St. Louis International Film Festival. They tell the stories of rock groups Pavlov’s Dog and Mama’s Pride. A large part of "The Pride of St. Louis: The Story of Mama's Pride" will play at the Pageant this weekend along with the annual Mama’s Pride concert. So, we asked Crone to write about his experience as a movie director.
In the mid-1970s, a pair St. Louis bands released two records apiece on major labels. They were both big bands, with six or more members, and each were favorites of both the fans and DJs of KSHE-95, the "real rock radio" station championing the groups to the point of making them household names in the region. In time, record company indifference and changing musical tastes reduced the chances of each group attaining lasting fame, but for several years in the 1970s, well, the members of Pavlov's Dog and Mama's Pride certainly emerged with stories to tell.
Two-years-and-change back, documentary filmmaker Mike Steinberg and I decided that those stories were worth pursuing. And we enlisted a former student of ours at Webster U. (and the son of one Pavlov's Dog member), Jon Scorfina, to work with us on the emerging project, originally entitled "STL: AOR," a nod to the album-oriented rock format pioneered by KSHE and other progressive radio outlets of the 1970s. Steinberg had just come off of two documentaries detailing local music, in one form or another: a touching tribute to Fox Theatre legend Stan Kann, entitled "The Happiest Man in the World"; and a highly personal piece about his father, Phil "Phooie" Steinberg, a radio DJ and record store owner, in "How it is with Phooie."
At first, our thought was to touch on the interwoven stories of Pavlov'sDog, Mama's Pride, Head East and KSHE-95. Though Head East was a Champaign, Ill., group, it had had enough of a close relationship to St. Louis that it was included in the mix ... at least until we met a brick wall in contacting members of the group. Also, we were finding the same problem occurring with KSHE-95. While the classic DJs (folks like Ted Habeck, Joy Grdnic and Jim Singer) were more than willing to talk, the current administration wasn't even returning calls.
So, the project began to naturally settle into a dual documentary on Pavlov's Dog and Mama's Pride. And while the opening paragraph here might suggest a world of parallels - of which there are many, true - the groups had gone very different directions since 1970s. The Dog would see multiple comebacks, with a laundry list of different lineups and attack plans, including a couple of scuttled releases that are finally on the market in non-bootleg form today, as well as a touring group that does much of its live work in Europe now, rather than Stateside.
Mama's Pride, on the other hand, released one small-scale comeback record, before returning to a period of dormancy. A few years back, however, the group achieved something that's eluded Pavlov's Dog: peace and unity in the ranks. This weekend, the group will perform its annual holiday-season show at the Pageant, a gig that achieves near-sellout status every winter. And during the intermission of the show, the group will be playing one part of the two films that emerged from our "STL: AOR" concept: "The Pride of St. Louis: The Story of Mama's Pride."
In the piece, we tell the story arc of the group, primarily through the sub-stories of the Liston brothers, the singing/songwriting guitarists of the group, who've each gone to perform and record under their own names. And, yes, once a year as centerpieces of the still-beloved Mama's Pride.
The Pavlov's piece eventually became centered on guitarist and sometimes-songwriter Steve Scorfina, who'd lived a pretty remarkable life even before Pavlov's Dog: He'd been a member of teen town favorite Mike & The Majestics (with another teen, Michael McDonald) as well as the stellar British Invasion-leaning The Good Feellin', before winding up in Champaign, Ill., as a member of a nascent REO Speedwagon.
He'd leave that group to become, of all things, a farmer, a short-lived career change, before returning to St. Louis to join the in-development version of Pavlov's Dog, which would eventually release their major-label debut on not one, but two, separate majors. This may've seemed impressive, but it really augured the management problems that would eventually kill (for the first time) the hyper-talented, but creatively fractured group.
Scorfina's story, told as "Old Dog, New Trick," sums up Scorfina's life as a antiques dealer by day, who spends nights rehearsing his compositions with a battle-tested group that bears his name. The story follows him through a period that sees the release of an album, as well as renewed desire to make a living (or something close to it) as a musician. While he's not playing with the old gang, the same sort of redemption feel runs through his film - along with heady doses of humor, intended and unintended, by the film's star.
As a first-time filmmaker, it was enjoyable to work with both a steady hand (Steinberg) and an enthusiastic youngster (Jon Scorfina). And to study a series of interesting characters, who were all willing and able to open up on their lives, as interesting as any fictional subjects you'd care to encounter. That access to people, on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis is the stuff that allows a film (or, in this case, two) to come together. It's the raw materials of documentary filmmaking.
It was all fun, darned near every minute of it, even when mistakes occurred. (Memo to self: Gotta remember to turn on those microphones.)
That said, it's not any less fun to think about standing in the Pageant this Saturday, as Mama's Pride leaves the stage for half-an-hour set-break, while a story you helped tell plays in front of 1,700 people on a big screen, those 31-minutes going by in a flash.
Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.