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The Interview: Norman Whiteside

The numbers don't stack up in Norman Whiteside's favor. But at 63, with 31 of those incarcerated, he's as fresh as they come. A fantastic conversationalist. Over a breakfast of turkey sausage and scrambled eggs, Whiteside painted a wild picture of the Columbus soul heydays—his triumphs and his harrowing downfall—with a photographic memory. Names, dates, [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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The numbers don’t stack up in Norman Whiteside’s favor. But at 63, with 31 of those incarcerated, he’s as fresh as they come. A fantastic conversationalist. Over a breakfast of turkey sausage and scrambled eggs, Whiteside painted a wild picture of the Columbus soul heydays—his triumphs and his harrowing downfall—with a photographic memory. Names, dates, locations, anecdotes, came with the clarity of a man determined  to make up for lost time.

In between tales of becoming the “neighborhood Robin Hood” scamming the “kings” under the tutelage of Bill Moss in the waning years of Capsoul Records, or the decadence that ensued in late nights at Owl Studios when recording Wee’s 1977 debut, You Can Fly on My Aeroplane, he veered from the narrative to let me know Patti Labelle would gargle Tabasco before performing, how he could make French horns sound like a “bed of clouds,” or how his melodies have been lifted by everyone from John Legend to Toto. Not to gloss over Whiteside’s dark past, but it’s a story of twists and turns that’s  been told twofold. The charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder in the 1982 death of 18 year old Laura Carter—a Denison University student who was caught in the crossfire of a gang dispute—is something for which Whiteside maintains innocence to this day. He wasn’t there, he didn’t fire the weapon, he provided critical evidence in the case. Despite his involvement, Whiteside has served his time and more than paid his debt to a labyrinthine criminal justice system. Unfortunately it was “fate smiling down on the well-prepared.” What’s for certain is the lasting impact of Aeroplane. It stands as one of the most singular R&B albums ever recorded in Columbus post-Capsoul. Filled with slick synths, honeyed melodies, sensual orchestration, and Whiteside’s conceptual storytelling, it’s a lost psychedelic soul masterpiece that found an entirely new audience after being reissued in 2008 by Chicago’s lauded Numero Group. Since then the record has been sampled by Kanye West (giving Whiteside a Grammy nomination and royalty checks), coveted by soul collectors, and started an invested interest by fans and supporters to have him released.

Finally freed in September of last year, Whiteside wasted no time un-pausing the “continuation” of his long-dormant career by recording new material with the full support of Numero as well as playing celebrated concerts in October and on New Year’s Eve with the backing of Liquid Crystal Project. Not forgotten, it’s the rare instance in which a musician is suddenly more in demand than he is a relic remembered for nostalgic want. From across the table Whiteside sings falsetto riffs on his past glories, he can expertly mimic the voices of  Al Green and Stevie Wonder,  but seems most excited  to promote his latest creation “Wish.” In his eyes, the future is bright. His star is only now rising. What brought him to this point though, the murky spots on his timeline, are best spoken in his own words.

You came up when Capsoul was starting to shutter. Did you feel like what you were doing musically was a new beginning?

Bill and Capsoul were trying to pattern themselves after Stax and Motown. They wanted that Southern sound, with plain, clear lyrics. I was listening more to Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder. I loved the story concept. Sly was a genius, he was subliminal. I understood it. Stevie said when you’re writing music you have to have another way to say, “I love you.” That’s how I came up with my fairy tale concept of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina. Instead of “I love you” it’s “you can fly on my aeroplane.” Whenever I would present a song, with those departures, they didn’t get it. They thought what I was doing was way into the future.

So when it finally came time to release your first album, did you have high hopes that it would eclipse what came before it in Columbus?

Being with Bill I minimized ego. He taught me the power of radio and the power of a studio. When I heard my first song on the radio I would call in about 25 times and make a request in different voices. In the beginning I did have a lot of ego, but by the time I had access to a studio, there wasn’t any of that. I was focused and ready to make the music I was hearing in my head.

You recorded Aeroplane at Owl Studios. Again that was a different direction than your peers. How did that influence the final product?

It was by mistake. I had first asked Jackie Hogg, from the group Timeless Legend, about where to record. He had recorded at King’s Mill Recordings, but wanted to throw me off and sent me to Owl out on Sunbury Road. Now, that Sagittarius had an ego. He used to carry around briefcases that I think didn’t have anything in them. But anyway, fortunately, I had a lot of production experience from Bill. Owl wanted $25 an hour and I only had $75. I said I just need three hours and I can do everything now. I didn’t have a bass player, so I used the bass Moog in the studio. It was Sterling Smith, who went on to play with the Beach Boys. He also did the synth strings on a track. Tom Murphy (one of Owl’s founders) came down and listened to what we were working on and immediately said the session was free. It was all white guys, and they thought they could do something with what I was doing. All of the sudden I had a new round of all white friends. I’ve never been around that many white people. What I quickly noticed was that none of those guys had any prejudice or treated me as inferior. I said “let’s do this.” Next thing I know I had a MiniKorg, a string ensemble, the Wurlitzer, and a Hohner clavinet. Sterling was showing me how to set the oscillators on the Moog. I had everything I needed. It was a real education at Owl.

The album didn’t exactly take flight, but you continued to record. The street life became a priority, so did that feed into the music, or was the music something that became an escape from that, a departure?

The music was an expression of all of the things that I felt I wasn’t allowed to say. Back then it was all about the pimps and players and the big hats and the Mack. I wanted to prove that there was more than that. I was a monogamous soul. The music was the only thing the woman I was with at the time had to compete with. Each relationship I had ended because of music. The only jealousy a woman felt was because of that Wurlitzer piano. So much so, the mother of my daughters went out to Rickenbacker Airport, where I was doing a USO show, and told them she was there to take the piano for repair. She took the Wurlitzer and hid it so that I lost the contract. That piano was how we ate. I quickly understood why musicians didn’t have families.

How did you come to find out that people were rediscovering your music?

Even as I was in prison in 2008, Tom Murphy never stopped promoting me. Eventually I got a letter from Rob Sevier [from the Numero Group] asking to put out the record. I thought it was a hoax. Soon I was learning that the original record was going for $800 and the R&B Hall of Fame called it the “unknown gem” of 1977, so I agreed to give Rob an interview. The story that’s in the liner notes of the reissue, that was told over the phone 15 minutes at a time, but Rob pieced together over a few hours. I’ve never had a formal contract with Rob, but he and Ken Shipley has done everything they said they were going to do for the record. That really started to get people in my corner.

How do you mean?

The following year, right before I was to go to the parole board, [Columbus Monthly writer] Dave Ghose comes in and does a five-page spread on me and instead of writing what is usually written about an inmate and life in prison, he called me the “talented Mr. Whiteside.” I mean it did make me sound like I was Stevie Wonder meets Lex Luthor, but I was starting to be in the news more than most superstars. I was getting mail from Japan and Germany and the U.K. One guy in England wrote me a letter that started by saying, “Dear Mr. Whiteside, I hope you never get out.” I read down a little farther and he says it’s because his wife was in love with me. Come to find out they were both big fans of the record.

You’re right about the press that you received. It almost always focuses on the tales of your criminal record. Do you think that over time that has overshadowed the music?

Some people wanted to believe that just because the woman who kidnapped me was a prostitute and after that I decided to stay with her that I had become one of those guys. You can’t beat perception. We were in a relationship while she was still a prostitute, and I learned that life from all of these women around her. There was the perception that I was this criminal mastermind. When I was convicted there was this perception that I was like Al Capone or John Gotti, that I had people protecting me. But it was never like that. Now if you wanted a new face? (from there Whiteside goes into a detailed tangent about how he would draft bogus checks and phony credit cards to take from the ‘kings’) That became my ultimate fascination. That’s where the overshadowing came in. I got so absorbed, this became as musical as music itself. I was very vindictive. That went on until music left my whole scene.

Once you got inside, when did the desire to play music return?

Immediately. As soon as I got into Lucasville I found out they needed a piano player for the church. There was a sign, “No Inmates Allowed on the Piano,” but I sat down and played anyway. The preacher stopped the service and asked me to keep on playing. Pretty soon the Christians offered me protection because God had sent them a keyboard player. After that the warden got wind of the piano player and asked me to start a music program in a maximum security prison. I was the entertainment guy. The whole negativity attached to my name in the prison system changed and I became very well-loved.

Did you have any freedom to write and record your music?

There were strict rules about recording there, but every once and awhile a staff member would smuggle in a tape recorder and I would work quickly. I would send them out to people but they didn’t know what to do with them. The two songs that I just recorded, “Wish” and “I Be F**ked Up” are both over a decade old. But somebody heard it recently and said that they sounded like “right now.”

And Kanye? Have you spoken to the man?

No. Not at all. But let me put it this way. If he wants to call himself a creative genius, then that makes Norman Whiteside a super genius. You don’t create something that’s already made. It’s the one who creates it who gets the level of genius.

Since you’ve been out you’ve been busy. Is this a comeback?

I don’t want to call it a comeback. I want to call it a continuation. Comeback means you went somewhere, second chance means you did something wrong, continuation is undefined. This is a continuation.

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The Interview Issue: Columbus Partnership President/CEO Alex Fischer

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Alex Fischer looks towards the future of Columbus.

Alex Fischer is the most connected person in Columbus you’re unlikely to have heard of. Unless, that is, you dig beyond headlines and comb through the fine print of nearly any article discussing Columbus’ economic future, its business community, or even the recent campaign to keep the Columbus Crew in Ohio’s capital city.

To the engaged eye, Fischer—President and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, an organization of 75 CEOs in Central Ohio—is everywhere, a ubiquitous presence at the intersection of city and state politics, economic development, and civic life. For the Tennessee-born-and- raised Fischer—whose versatile career includes stints in city planning, business, public policy, and the nonprofit sector— leadership means possessing the skill set to anticipate what is necessary for success, prompt action from others, or if needed, deliver it himself.

Such versatility and incisiveness is perhaps the trademark quality of an urban planner, and it’s no surprise that Fischer sought this interdisciplinary training from a young age.

Fischer came to appreciate the urban planning space as a high school student in Hendersonville, Tennessee, leading his peers in an effort to prevent the demolition of Hazel Path, an old Antebellum home in town. Through that fight, Fischer quickly learned the power of public protest and collective action.

“One individual didn’t change that development, but I think I participated in the dialogue that went from tearing down [Hazel Path] to preserving it and allowing development to occur,” he said. “In my hometown it’s still held up as a really good example of quality development that also had a historic preservation bent to it. And I can point to that and say, ‘Hey, I think I made a little bit of a difference.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Fischer spent his early career involved in a variety of business and charitable endeavors in Knoxville. The principals with whom he came into contact in those years shaped his understanding of cross-sector leadership.

“Tennessee has a tradition of public servants coming out of the business world, so I saw a lot of examples of business leaders interrupting their careers for public service,” Fischer explains. “At a young age, I got to know multi- billionaires on the community side of their passions, not the business side, and so those all influenced me to realize that now in this organization of 75 CEOs, that there’s a real opportunity for business leaders to use the strength of their businesses and their leadership for the betterment of their community.”

After several years in private industry, Fischer transitioned into the public sector, serving as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development before rising to the role of Deputy Governor and Chief of Staff to Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist in the early 2000s.

It was, perhaps, a bit of a surprise that the man with deep Tennessee roots, business connections, and a role at the pinnacle of local policymaking would transition to a similar position in Ohio. But that’s exactly what happened in 2002, when Fischer moved to Columbus to begin a position as the Senior Vice President for Business and Economic Development at Battelle, the Columbus-based scientific research and development firm.

Fischer acknowledges the transition to Ohio was a little odd—“because I was so deeply rooted in the ideals of what we’re doing in Columbus in a different state and different cities.”

He soon found his way to the epicenter of Columbus’ civic and business life—he now serves as a Trustee of The Ohio State University, and the Chairman of Nationwide Children’s Hospital—and developed an appreciation for the city’s unique professional culture.

“In the process [of moving], I found things in Columbus that I realized I had never experienced before. I’d never experienced the level of collaboration. The level of tolerance and acceptance in this city is pretty phenomenal in contrast to some other places that I’ve lived,” Fischer explains. “What’s so motivating [about working in Columbus] is this being such a perfect place to do the work. By that I mean this culture: the scale of the city, the collaborative nature, the Midwestern values, the fact that we have four seasons. All the ingredients exist here.”

At the helm of the Partnership, Fischer has vast capacity and bandwidth to influence the Columbus economy in the near-term while rallying leaders across multiple sectors behind an aspirational vision for the future. Columbus 2020, the city’s economic development plan for this decade, launched roughly 10 years ago and allowed Fischer a vehicle with which to implement his vision. He decided early on that the project would shoot for the moon.

”[Columbus 2020] was a very ambitious set of goals. All the analysis said we couldn’t meet the goals but it’s like, “OK, so what? Let’s go for it,” Fischer laughs. “And if we happen to miss the goals but in the process do some really great things, I don’t think anybody will complain. Well, we surpassed all the goals and it’s really interesting to have been accountable for it from the start until now.”

In addition to the obvious economic development successes in Columbus—the ongoing redevelopment of Downtown, recruitment of healthy corporations, and expansion across the 11-county Central Ohio metropolitan area— the region has benefitted from unexpected windfalls, such as the economic growth driven by data centers for big tech companies such as Amazon and Facebook. Fischer attributes Columbus’ successful branding efforts and continued growth to multiple factors, most specifically a uniquely collaborative culture among Partnership members and public officials, and an explicit focus on the recruitment of civic- minded companies and workers.

“I think it’s all about culture. I was not thinking this way 10 or 20 years ago. I think the future of the Partnership, the future of Columbus, is you keep preserving and teaching culture. That doesn’t mean that it has to be done exactly the same way— inevitably, it won’t because things are changing so fast. One of our cultural aspects that I’m proud of is that we’re comfortable in that very fast-changing environment [...] Continuing to evolve that culture by not just taking it for granted is really important. I think it could slip away if it’s not being cultivated.”

Columbus also stands out nationally in what Fischer calls “the talent war” as the home to approximately 150,000 college students, many of whom will be relied upon to remain in Central Ohio and continue the city’s economic momentum.

“The fierce competition for workforce is where we’re going to be leading the country [...] There’s less of a hierarchy in Columbus for people who want to get involved and make an impact.”

To be sure, Columbus’ traditional selling points remain part of the equation as the Partnership sells Central Ohio to potential clients.

“It still really does matter that we’re in the center of the U.S. population, we’re a day’s drive from anywhere, a great quality of life, a great cost of living. We’re not congested, despite challenges with the commute. All of that adds up. Increasingly, though, it’s about talent. Companies are moving where they can get the talent. And Columbus is a city that is recruiting the talent.”

The rebrand of Columbus’ economic development organization from Columbus 2020 to One Columbus coincides with the birth of a much greater ambition, of a future in which Columbus will be able to stand alone as a city, when the suffix ‘Ohio’ will be redundant and obsolete. Fischer is well aware that sustained growth will require more of the discipline and urgency that permitted success this decade.

Specifically, he stresses the importance the Partnership places on regional master planning throughout Central Ohio, coupled with what he calls “a relentless drive to the growth agenda.”

“No one should assume we’re going to continue to grow. That was the attitude 20 years ago. The last 10-15 years we have consciously built an infrastructure—of Columbus 2020, now One Columbus—of enabling that growth. There’s a science to it and we can never forget that,” he said.

“Our role is to make sure that we are continuing to grow, at the same time, can we do the best possible job of anywhere in the country at ensuring that the rising tide raises every single boat in a harbor? And can we defy the national trend of a growing economic divide?”

Learn more about the Columbus Partnership at columbuspartnership.com

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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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