With all the running around and craziness involved in piecing together our burgeoning Fat Back Gospel and trying to cull the boring, spurious, or patently false from the juicy goodness, we’ve almost forgotten to divulge the reason why we believe the man really existed at all.
The Rev. Jenner J. Hull has traveled extensively across the South East and has amassed a motley collection of friends, dubious contacts, people who owe him ancient favors for reasons completely forgotten, and various one-time acquaintances which, somehow or another, turned into fast friendships. While visiting an old flame in the mountains of Tennessee, Your Humble Reverend met an old man named Hiram Cullen at a disreputable (but Ever-So-Groovy) honky-tonk who, after a few boilermakers, told an amazing but tragic tale.
Cullen’s son, David, was a living blues song from the day he was born prematurely and nearly died. Young David had asthma, periodic epileptic seizures, and, due to an automobile accident when he was four, a pronounced limp from an improperly-healed broken leg. Hiram confessed that he eventually came to believe that David was bi-polar, or at least suffered from a severe clinical depression. Since the Cullen family was poor and lived in the rugged TN mountains, (in the late forties and the fifties, mind you) comprehensive health care, mental or physical, was always of tenuous credibility.
Since David was rarely strong enough to roughhouse with his four older brothers or play with the other kids that lived near the Cullens on the mountain, he spent most of his time in front of the family’s radio. When he was around six or seven, one of his neighbors began teaching him how to play the guitar (Hiram always called it the "git-fiddle") and David took to the instrument with religious fervor.
David eventually dropped out of high-school, and with Hiram’s reluctant blessing, moved to Nashville and soon made a living as a studio musician. Credited as "Hop" (like "hop-along") Cullen on several hit singles, David soon formed his own band and began playing the local bars in and around Nashville until he built up a fairly wide fan base, even among the non-country/western crowd. David’s band, Appalachia, went into the studio and pressed quite an astounding record. It was stupendously innovative for the time, combining Motown-style horns and strings with traditional mountain bluegrass and contemporary country structures, possibly too innovative. The record sold poorly, even compared to the band’s modest expectations, and David never got over the disappointment.
David Cullen shot himself soon after. He was only twenty-four years old.
Oddly enough, Your Humble Reverend had come across an old LP of Appalachia’s only album some years previous and was rather taken with it; think of a more ambitious, bluesier Jerry Reed. Hiram was grateful for the glowing praise of his late son’s work and, once he learned of the Church and our Funky Mission, he gladly offered me several reel-to-reel tapes made by David, his friends, and the band during his tenure in Nashville.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Hiram Cullen provided the Church of the Everlasting Groove with our very first documented proof of Fat Back Jackson.
One section of tape, dated April 7th, 1967, consisted of a jam session wherein David (still referred to as "Hop") and his bass player, Doug Carlin, work out the kinks on an early version of what would eventually become "Down in the Cold Dale." After a few runs and some tinkering, David brings in "a guy he met a few nights back" and introduces him as "the Fabulous Fat Back."
Fat Back proceeds to lay into some righteous riffs and solo sections, David and Doug applaud, and the three talk back and forth as they cook up some new riffs. For about thirty minutes of tape, David and Doug basically quiz Fat Back on how, exactly, he became as good as he was. Being ‘67, David was only twenty-two and, though we don’t know for sure, we suspect that Fat Back was the same, possibly younger.
When asked about a certain riff (he had a penchant for naming all his riffs, mostly "for no particular reason at all"), Fat Back referred to it as "The Dead Man’s Groove;" David, who’d been hanging out with him for a few days, evidently, remarked, "You got a lot of names with ‘Groove’ in ‘em, man."
Fat Back’s words were, "That’s what life’s all about. You gotta hear the Groove. The music, that’s just the manifestation of the Groove in our world."
At this point, David interjected, "The good music."
Fat Back again, "Right. And once you hear the Groove, only then can you fully comprehend the Funk."
Doug chimed in with, "Oh yeah? What the Hell is that?"
Fat Back said, "Well, it sounds a little something like this," and began to wail on a riff he called "The Polar Bear."
Fat Back had only been developing his "Groove/Funk" philosophy for a few years (though some sources indicate he may have become enamored of the Funk as early as age thirteen) and would soon perfect it but these early exclamations offer a rare insight to a brilliant, albeit misunderstood, musical mind.
Fat Back’s central tenet was finally, as far as we know, revealed to the world for the first time.
You must first hear the Groove, only then can you feel the Funk. Fat Back would discuss the Groove from time to time; he always spoke of it as an eternal thing, something that "just is," something that cannot be invented or created, only harnessed.
He also had this to say about the Groove; "It’s something that can’t be taught, but it can be learned..."
That is why we are the Church of the Everlasting Groove. Because the Groove, the same force that found and molded the Funky Savior Himself, Fat Back Jackson, was around long before him, and it’ll be around long, long after.
Unfortunately, the tapes were stored in a friend’s garage in Florida, so when Hurricane Andrew roared through in ‘92, a dead tree crashed through the roof and allowed water damage to claim two of the tapes, one of which contained the aforementioned audio evidence. It was a great blow to the Church but, with the newly discovered evidence detailing Fat Back’s life on the fringe of international renown, we will soon have something to make up for it.
More info on Fat Back (including the priceless story of how he got the nickname) in the future...