South Side director, actor Leon hope to dramatize Chicago's blues legacy

The movie-in-progress is loosely based on the life of West Side musician Larry Taylor

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Eddie "Playboy" Taylor was born in Benoit, Mississippi, where he went hungry and felt the pain of desire that he would ultimately transmute into guitar licks. In 1949, after WWII ended, he carried his Mississippi Delta-style guitar-playing to the bright lights and big sounds of Chicago. 

Taylor grew in prominence, eventually accompanying such seminal blues figures as John Lee Hooker, Sam Lay and Big John Wrencher. Chicago's world-famous blues identity is made from the DNA of southern expats such as Taylor, whose son Larry — a Lawndale resident and lifelong West Sider — would eventually become a noted bluesman in his own right. 

The story of the Taylors is one that hasn't been told nearly enough, says veteran director Darryl Pitts. That's partly why he's currently campaigning to bring the Taylor's lives to film. The movie-in-progress is called "The Rhythm and the Blues" and it's loosely based on Larry Taylor's autobiography, "Stepson of the Blues."

"The film is really important because it deals with a music form that has really been forgotten in Chicago," said Pitts. "We've had everyone from Thomas Dorsey, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and even R-Kelly."

"I grew up in Chicago on the South Side," said Pitts. "I remember when my parents played the Blues. I always thought, 'Now everybody's going to get drunk and loud.' My opinion of the Blues was very small at that point." 

That was before he purchased his first song on an eight-track cartridge — BB King's "Never Make a Move Too Soon."

"It was a song about a man whose woman had left him with everything from a bill to an apartment that wasn't paid for," said Pitts. "I didn't realize that this was what the Blues is—the Blues is about frustration, about love, about pain. It's about all of those things." 

The South Side native's most recent production is the documentary "Reel Black Love," which "discusses Black Love on the screen from the perspective of over 60 actors/directors/producers," according to the film's website. In February, Pitts screened the documentary at Austin Town Hall, 5610 West Lake Street.

Screenwriter Bonni McKeown wrote the script for the movie. She also co-wrote Taylor's autobiography on which the script is based. McKeown said she's confident the film will be shot in Chicago "if the political climate is favorable." She also noted that the crew has been invited to shoot in Mississippi as well. 

"Darryl and I have been working on this for two years just trying to get it organized," McKeown said. "There's so much that goes into the front-end of a movie and now we've got actors attached and people who say they'll be in it if we can get the money. So, now the next step is to iron out all the kinks and get the money," she said, adding that she hopes the production process begins within the next year or so.

McKeown noted that they're currently looking to individual investors and sponsors to finance the project. A press event for the film in early March attracted the likes of local music icon and entrepreneur George Daniels and comedian George Wilborn. McKeown hopes that the film also appeals to companies looking for product placement for brands that date back to the 1960s and 1970s. 

The challenge of funding a film like this may require as much creativity as actually producing its artistic content. McKeown said there are only so many investors who can take on the risk of independent filmmaking. 

"The problem with investing in films is we have to hang on to the money for a couple of years," said McKeown "It's not liquid. There are only a certain amount of investors who are eligible to invest."

That same risk and contingency, however, doesn't apply to sponsors, who are basically purchasing advertising and public relations, she said. 

But what this incipient film — as an investment product — may lack in certainty, it makes up for in promise. And the biggest promise of the film may be that of its star, actor Leon Robinson, who has agreed to portray Larry Taylor. 

Robinson may be preternaturally suited for the role. For one, he bears a striking resemblance to Taylor. He's also a character actor who doesn't so much depict the personalities he portrays as he becomes them. 

His portrayals of other iconic black musical figures, such as David Ruffin in "The Temptations," Jackie Wilson in "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll" and Little Richard in the self-titled NBC biopic, has earned him something of a cult status in the black entertainment imagination. He's also the lead vocalist and songwriter for his own band, Leon and the Peoples.

"Most people yell the names of my characters when they see me, not my real name," Robinson said during the March press event for the film. "I love it. That's how I want to be known. I want to be known by my characters."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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