The Key to Philly's Musical Past? It's In George Manney's Basement

By Michael Alan Goldberg 

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 26 | Posted May. 25, 2011

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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.’”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 26 of 26
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1. Jeffrey Slotnikoff said... on May 25, 2011 at 08:08AM

“I congratulate and wish for the best Mr. Manning and his life-long goal. I, too, have a relationship with music which resonates from within the very essence of my being. As a child I went to bed (figuratively!) with Hy Lit and the rest of the WIBG gang. After school ended for the day, there could have been no way to divert me rushing home and watching American Bandstand. And when The Beatles came along... well, I still have the knick-knacks from the scrapbook that I started back in 1967. If Mr. Manning is in any need of labor of love in the future, I'll gladly offer whatever blood, sweat and tears that I can.”

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2. Charlie Gracie, JR. said... on May 25, 2011 at 08:47AM

“I wish some of the so-called 'movers and shakers' in Philadelphia would get behind what George has done and take all of projects to a higher level. He has painstakingly taken the time to document and catalogue so much of this region's rich musical heritage. What gives people? In an age where our city is known more for brutal crime rates and shady abortion doctors....its time to celebrate more of the positives! LETS ROLL! Chas., JR.”

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3. Michael Fraticelli said... on May 25, 2011 at 09:21AM

“As a fellow producer, musician, filmmaker and good friend, I've known George for many years. He's one of those rare local producers dedicated to capturing the essence of one's heart and soul. He's a multi-skilled musician, writer, composer, recording engineer, and filmmaker 'all wrapped in one'. There are few of us left George. Thank you for your total dedication in telling so many interesting rich stories about Philadelphia's musical history. But most of all, thank you for your inspiration, and valuable input regarding my documentary. Sincerely; Mike”

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4. David Simpson said... on May 25, 2011 at 10:10AM

“First of all , Bravo ! I think George should be commended for sharing some of his private life with all of us. This alone is a difficult accomplishment which stirs still waters within. More importantly, is the enormous body of work he has painstakingly cataloged not only for all of the creative people in the music and arts community but especially for the benefit of all of us here in Philadelphia. It is a journey through the portal lens of a time past that leads directly to the present. Any person who is interested in the progression of ideas through music and the performing arts (not only in Philly) should support and take advantage of the world premier of George's film "Meet me on South Street" being shown at the Franklin Institute at 7PM
on June 23rd. Tickets are available starting May 26th. For a taste of George's work go to http://www.geosound.org/video.htm....”

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5. Jack Marino said... on May 25, 2011 at 10:38AM

“George, you won the race a long time ago. Your friends are your best work.”

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6. Gene Arnold said... on May 25, 2011 at 11:04AM

“George is a treasure. He has put together concerts to bring Philly groups back to the forefront like the Brotherly Love" show at the TLA which I was proud to co-emcee, the Hereo Scholarship Thrill Show, (which we were also a part of), and his "keeper of the Flame: collections. I always say "George knows and has more about me than I remember about myself."
Terry and I care for Su and George very much, and are pleased to be part of his immense "Philly Pop Music" film. Contributors towards it's completion will be greatly appreciated. Giant Gene and Terry”

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7. Anonymous said... on May 25, 2011 at 12:57PM

“Congrats to Philly Weekly on a beautifully written piece.

George Manney is a Philadelphia music treasure. All the thousands of hours he has put into documenting this city's rich musical history should indeed be packaged and made available to the world. Public broadcasting should embrace him and we ought to start a Philadelphia Music Museum.

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8. David A. Ickes said... on May 25, 2011 at 07:20PM

“I have read the other comments and couldn't agree more about George. Having known George for over 30 years, I am proud to call him my friend.
His commitment to the music scene in Philadelphia and it's documentation
is unequaled. No one can come close. He needs all of our support and encouragement to bring this documentary to a final product and what a product it will be. June 23rd will be quite a day in Phil. music history.”

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9. Pete Fama said... on May 25, 2011 at 10:29PM

“"I have worked many projects with George Manney.
He is the consummate professional who truly embodies
the compassion, spirit and soul of the music community
in Philadelphia. I am honored to be his friend !"

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10. Mary Frances Connelly said... on May 26, 2011 at 12:47AM

“This is just a perfect article. My first concert was Hendrix at the Spectrum. Keith Moon kissed me at The Electric Factory. Saw The Cure at The Hot Club, and the Bloodless Pharoahs Brian Setzer's first band (with his brother Gary). Saw U2 at Ripley. Alanis Morissette at the new Factory. I performed in the Wild Women of Wongo along w/ The Vels and No Milk. (I was the Bird Queen Goddess.) On and on. Philly rocks. And George has all our memories for us! Thanks George.”

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11. Susan Roth said... on May 26, 2011 at 09:47AM

“Thank you George, for all you have done to preserve the era of music that reflects my own life. From everything I have read above, I am sure I have met you or have seen you play. You have been handed some rough crap in life, but do not let it ever make you think that you have not done enough. Maybe I will be lucky enough to catch you at one of your rare gigs one of this days.
Peace Brother!

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12. mutual friend said... on May 26, 2011 at 03:27PM

“Never ending job.... but we've got the BEST man for it.
Great stuff George!!”

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13. Nik Everett said... on May 26, 2011 at 05:55PM

“With you and stand by you all the way George!

Best, Nik”

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14. Ed said... on May 26, 2011 at 07:19PM

“How can I contact George? I have some items he may be interested in.

Ed”

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15. jj said... on May 26, 2011 at 08:38PM

“i would love to see his collection where did he ever get a syd barret autograph”

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16. John Travis said... on May 29, 2011 at 07:41PM

“George
If not for your effortsthe story of Dobbs would never have been told. Take you, from the bottom of my heart. JT.”

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17. Robin Corsino said... on May 30, 2011 at 10:31PM

“George, this is a wonderful article. Just want to say that some of my favorite memories is being in the basement of your mothers house. I loved watching your mother when she performed and I loved being a little kid upstairs hearing your band play.

You deserve the better best.
Robin Corsino”

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18. Ace Filipini said... on May 31, 2011 at 10:33AM

“Pretty clear to me that this guy has been a success for years. One need simply listen to the story itself, filled with his love for music and the love of friends.”

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19. Anonymous said... on May 31, 2011 at 01:02PM

“In addition to his other contributions to the Philly music scene, George is also a first-class audio engineer. He recorded a CD for a band I was in about ten years ago and made us sound much better than we deserved to!”

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20. Anonymous said... on Jun 7, 2011 at 04:48PM

“Maybe it's all the years, maybe just the friendship, but I find George's story uplifting. After all, he gave me the chance to record with his mom. I was hard wire retro'd back to the '50's, the golden age of the electric guitar. It wasn't George's basement anymore, it was Les Paul's. The tubes on his new Ampex 4 Track were glowing. You could smell the heat. There I sat, Howard Herbert's eager apprentice, and there before me, guitar in hand...one of the best. Thanks George...Thanks Madeline.”

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21. samthomas said... on Nov 15, 2011 at 04:54PM

“i took drum lessons at tolen and welch i wonder if you remember a drum teacher there i think last name patterson”

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22. Henry (Hank) Brann said... on Dec 30, 2011 at 03:15PM

“I interviewed 30 Philadelphia bands in '69 for an article to have been published in the Freep before I was kidnapped to the West Coast along with 'Meatball Fulton'. Happy to contribute anything that may be of interest.”

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23. jOHNNY HAYS said... on Jan 7, 2012 at 04:24PM

“George, thank you for all the great musical times. You were even cool enough to play on our demos back in the day. All the health & happiness to you and Su............. johnny hays st. pete fl”

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24. jOHNNY HAYS said... on Jan 7, 2012 at 04:29PM

“George, thank you for all the the great musical times! You were even cool enough to play on our demos back in the day. All the health & happiness to you and Su.. johnny hays St. Pete Fl”

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25. Rich Gorczyca said... on Jan 28, 2014 at 05:05PM

“Those of us who in anyway participated in the music scene in Philly experienced only a fragment of what was happening there. Thanks to George Manney for providing us with the big picture.”

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26. Lydia Collazo said... on Aug 18, 2014 at 05:11PM

“Hi my name is Lydia is important that u get in contact with me for Mary blank your godmother email me please ASAP.thank you”

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