Manney started his documentary odyssey by shooting old friends like Stewkey and members of the American Dream. Then he made a long wish list of people he wanted to talk to, and he thoroughly researched each person’s career so he’d come across as knowledgeable as possible to his subjects. “I was nervous, it was awkward for me,” he says. “I’m not a reporter. Some people wanted to know who the hell I was.”
He managed to convince lots of notable names to chat candidly, at length, on video: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Chubby Checker, Larry Magid, Linda Cohen, Larry Gold, David Ivory, Dee Dee Sharp, Joel Dorn, Tommy Conwell, Charlie Gracie, Robert Hazard, and over 100 more. “He really knew his history, and he was a hell of a nice guy, not a schmuck like some others—what more could you want from a fella?” the 75-year-old Gracie, a rock ’n’ roll pioneer from South Philly, says of Manney. “I was happy to talk to him.”
Manney says he’s got members of Gamble & Huff’s MFSB house band saying the real reason most of them didn’t play on the Young Americans sessions, rather than “scheduling conflicts,” is because they thought Bowie was “queer as a three-dollar bill and they didn’t want to give him their sound.” He’s got Dorn (the last interview he did before he died) talking about how he’d regularly smoke at least five joints before going in to tape his “Masked Announcer” commercials that were ubiquitous on Philly TV stations in the ’60s. And he’s got the Orlons’ Stephen Caldwell talking about how Dick Clark—reviled by some to this day for keeping African-American dancers off American Bandstand —quietly supported scores of black Philadelphia musicians financially and demanded equal treatment for those artists, particularly when they played the segregated South on Bandstand ’s “Caravan of Stars” tours. “There’s controversial stuff, funny stuff, really interesting stuff that no one’s ever heard, from the people who lived it,” says Manney. “I’ve just gotta get it out there.”
But, he says, “it’s turned into an even bigger monster than I thought it was gonna be.” Indeed, after more than a decade of steady work, there’s no end in sight. Much of the footage has yet to be logged. He’s had to teach himself, slowly, the software and techniques to properly edit video. The scope of his idea is so large, he’s having trouble developing a cohesive narrative, and he frets over having to leave so much as one good clip on the cutting room floor.
He’s struggling in other ways, too. Money’s scarce. On disability since the late ’90s, Manney gets a small check every month; his wife Su supports the couple with voiceover work. “I know he’d do the same thing for me,” she says. “We do the best we can. It’s like that for a lot of people right now.” Forget about funds to pay for help logging and editing his footage, or for pricey music licensing fees—Manney’s had to sell off cherished parts of his collection (an ultra-rare Syd Barrett autograph, an amp that belonged to the Beatles circa Magical Mystery Tour, some of that precious vinyl) just to put food in the fridge and keep their electricity and phone from getting shut off.
And aside from his friends and a handful of local music industry folks, few people these days seem to know or care about Manney’s remarkable collection. He says he’s reached out to Temple University and some Philadelphia arts organizations about housing or exhibiting his archives, but so far he’s been rebuffed. “I guess some people think it’s just a bunch of junk,” Manney shrugs.
During the time he’s been working on the film, Manney’s sidetracked himself with two shorter documentaries, made partly in the hopes of attracting the attention of potential financial backers for “the big film.” There was 2007’s Pipes of Peace, a profile of late, eccentric Philly jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley. And his new Meet Me on South Street—an hour-long look at J.C. Dobbs that’s packed with great music, interviews and archival goodies—screens at the Franklin Institute on June 23 as part of the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival. Manney says both projects—while time-consuming and difficult to craft in their own right—have been labors of love. “After I interviewed him, he became a very good friend of mine,” Manney says of Harley, who died in 2006. “And Dobbs, that was our CBGB’s—that history’s got to be celebrated.”
Su, who’s sitting nearby, believes in her husband’s vision and she thinks he’ll finish the big documentary someday, but she worries about how his long, stressful hours down in the Bunker are affecting his health. “He works all day and all night. I’ve seen him fall asleep at the board, with his hand on the controls. He’ll go without eating. I’ll call him on the phone from upstairs—‘You comin’ to bed?’ And because of the accident, if he sits too long in one position he can’t walk when he stands. It’s not good.”
She also fears that if something happens to Manney, she won’t be able to properly maintain his collection. She hopes that some university or museum will eventually see its worth and give it a home. “Even though it’s housed here and George dotes over it like a mother hen, you can’t take it with you. It would be great if it stayed all together in a place where people could go and learn from it and say, ‘This was the collection of George Manney.’”
She looks over at Manney and smiles and, bashfully, he returns the gesture.
He’s been playing the drums more lately. Ex-Replacements and current Guns N’ Roses bassist Tommy Stinson, who Manney met through a mutual friend, came to the Bunker earlier this year to cut some tracks, and Manney played a gig with Stinson at the North Star. Manney will also spend his 60th birthday drumming with Charlie Gracie during a live appearance on WHYY-TV on June 4. Outwardly, he seems cheerful and upbeat. But inside, he admits, he’s hurting in a lot of ways.
Each time he plays drums, it takes him a few days to recover physically.
He still gets panic attacks whenever he crosses an intersection, and has nightmares about oncoming headlights.
He hasn’t been able to bring himself to watch the footage of his mother in the hospital since he shot it.
Worst of all, perhaps, he’s beating himself up over missed opportunities and bad fortune.
“I dunno, sometimes I feel defeated,” says Manney with a heartbreaking half-smile. He’s quiet for a moment. “Maybe that’s not the right word. I just feel like I never really got anywhere. I feel very unsuccessful sometimes. But I’m not gonna stop trying. I guess I’d just like to do one really good thing before I die.”
“There’s no way George Manney is a failure,” says Humphreys. “I think he’d like to be recognized for contributing something to this world, like we all do. He’s a sweet soul. He’s gone the distance but maybe he didn’t break the tape at the finish line. I think he’d like to do that just once and say, ‘I won this race.’”