New documentary looks at underappreciated NYC rocker Garland Jeffreys

New documentary looks at underappreciated NYC rocker Garland Jeffreys

The short version of New York singer/songwriter Garland Jeffreys’ roller-coaster career: His fans were often more famous than he was.

Start with two longtime friends and ardent boosters: Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Bruce Springsteen and the late Lou Reed. Add legendary reggae artist Bob Marley. The renowned avant-garde artist, musician and filmmaker Laurie Anderson. Guitar great Vernon Reid, founder of the band Living Colour. And the acclaimed actor Harvey Keitel, a fellow Brooklynite.

“He’s in the great singer-songwriter tradition of Dylan and Neil Young,” says Springsteen near the start of “The King of In Between,” a new documentary about his old friend. “One of the American greats.”

The underappreciated 80-year-old musician takes center stage in the film directed by Claire Jeffreys, his wife of 33 years, with the project premiering this past month at DOC NYC, the largest American documentary film fest. The debut came after eight years of pulling the project together, but the effort paid off: The movie received the audience award at the annual event.

From left: Claire Jeffreys, daughter Savannah, and Garland Jeffries
From left: Claire Jeffreys, daughter Savannah, and Garland Jeffreys

The documentary was a labor of love tinged with melancholy as Jeffreys now battles with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, though he endures as one of rock music’s great chroniclers of his hometown in songs like the lovely “New York Skyline,” “Wild In the Streets” and “Coney Island Winter.”

As the documentary illustrates, though, Jeffreys found inspiration in everything from doo-wop to rock and roll to reggae. He was a rocker, a crooner and a singer-songwriter, shifting easily between genres from album to album.

His 1992 album “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat” dealt bluntly with racism, with a song sharing the same title inspired by a hate-fueled heckler at a Mets game decades after Jeffreys saw Jackie Robinson break the major league baseball color line at Ebbets Field in 1947.

Musician Garland Jeffrey in Coney Island in 2011. (Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)
Musician Garland Jeffrey in Coney Island in 2011. (Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)

 

The bi-racial rocker, a child of Black and Hispanic parents, danced along the periphery of making it big: He was once a clue on “Jeopardy” (with nobody buzzing in). He was named the most promising new artist of 1977 by Rolling Stone magazine, and laudatory pieces about Jeffreys appeared in the Village Voice and the New Yorker.

Reed, who met Jeffreys when the pair were students at Syracuse University, became a lifelong supporter.

“Lou really admired Garland as well as loved him,” says Anderson, the late musician’s widow, in the documentary. “He had a great big soft spot for that kind of singing.”

The goodwill extended around the music business, as artists like James Taylor, Luther Vandross and Dr. John played alongside Jeffreys over the decades. Danny Federici and Roy Bittan, two members of Springsteen’s E Street Band, guested on his “Escape Artist” album in 1980.

Springsteen was particularly effusive in his contribution to the documentary, lauding his friend more than five decades after the two first crossed paths in 1972 while respectively chasing their dreams from Asbury Park and Sheepshead Bay.

Garland Jeffreys (left), 74, the noted singer and songwriter, with his wife and manager, Claire, on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Jefferson Siegel/New York Daily News)
Garland Jeffreys (left), 74, the noted singer and songwriter, with his wife and manager, Claire, in 2018. (Jefferson Siegel/New York Daily News)

“It’s incredible,” said Claire. “I knew other musicians thought highly of him, so it was great to do the film and hear people speak of him that way was really rewarding. You’ve heard of musicians’ musicians?

“That sometimes means he was respected by his peers but not the industry,” she adds with a laugh, noting his fan base in Europe became stronger than the U.S. audiences.

Jeffreys, in a long ago interview with late-night host Tom Snyder, offered his own pithy take on his career path: “I really try not to define it. Actually I just like to have the freedom to do it.”

Musician Garland Jeffrey in Coney Island in 2011. (Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)
Musician Garland Jeffrey in Coney Island in 2011. (Todd Maisel/New York Daily News)

The next move, says his wife, is trying to get a wider release for the film.

“Documentaries are often about very prominent individuals, as opposed to Garland, who has less name recognition,” she said. “I feel if a film has appeal, we can find its place. And we’re in the process of trying to do that.”

Check Also

Adams defense fund spending up to$743K on legal fees amid FBI Turkey probe

Adams defense fund spending up to$743K on legal fees amid FBI Turkey probe

Mayor Adams’ legal defense trust has spent more than $743,000 on lawyer fees so far …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *