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New Documentary Confirms Garland Jeffreys’ Legacy as ‘One of The American Greats’

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The music documentary Garland Jeffreys: The King Of In Between, which premiered Wednesday (Nov. 8) during the DOC NYC film festival, reintroduces audiences to a masterful musician whose commercial success may never have matched his critical acclaim — but whose rich legacy is worth celebrating.

“People that know him cannot believe that other people don’t know him,” says documentary director Claire Jeffreys, the singer’s longtime manager and spouse, speaking in the opening moments of the film over the backdrop of the Brooklyn-born singer’s performance of “Coney Island Winter.”  The documentary can be viewed online via DOC NYC through Nov. 26 and is seeking distribution.

Despite the director’s close connection to her subject, Claire Jeffreys has maintained a filmmaker’s distance — while letting a cast of sources speak to her husband’s long history of musically adventurous, socially aware songwriting.

Among those who offer testimony here are the music critics Robert Christgau and David Hajdu, longtime friend and actor Harvey Keitel, and fellow musicians including Graham Parker, Alejandro Escovedo, Vernon Reid, Laurie Anderson—and Bruce Springsteen.

“He’s in the great singer/songwriter tradition of Dylan and Neil Young; one of the American greats,” says Springsteen.

Garland Jeffreys, 80, raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, was shaped by his Black, white and Puerto Rican heritage — “father of coal, mother of pearl,” he once sang — absorbing early musical influences from doo-wop to jazz to 1950s rock’n’roll. “My background, my racial mixture, my past, the music that went through my house, it all comes out in my music,” says Garland in the film.

The documentary takes its title from Garland’s 2011 album The King of In Between. “It’s Garland’s phrase and he really related to it because of his growing up biracial,” Claire Jeffreys told Billboard in a conversation before the premiere. “His way of relating to the world was shaped by being neither fish nor fowl, black nor white. He mentions in the film that radio wouldn’t play him on the white stations and he wasn’t being played on the Black stations. [But by] saying `the king,’ he was claiming that he was still standing and still feeling like he had something to offer.”

What Garland Jeffreys had to offer, with all his charm and intensity, was clear from the start. Laurie Anderson appears in the film because, when Garland left Brooklyn to attend Syracuse University, he became fast friends with Anderson’s husband-to-be, Lou Reed.

“Lou really admired Garland, as well as loved him,” says Anderson. (On his 2017 album 14 Steps to Harlem, Garland covered the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For the Man” in tribute to his longtime friend.) 

In 1970, Garland made his recording debut as part of the group Grinder’s Switch, with its musical echoes of The Band. But it was his own self-titled solo debut album on Atlantic Records three years later that signaled the arrival of a singular musical force.

Writing in The Village Voice, Robert Christgau described the debut album’s musical ambitions (“Stonesy blues shuffles rubbing elbows with reggae from Kingston”) and declared that “this man should be given the keys to every city whose streets he walks — ours first.”

The film captures the edginess of New York in the 1970s, an era that defined Garland’s songwriting, from the “heat of the summer” threat of “Wild In The Streets” (arranged and recorded with Dr. John) to the hometown romanticism of “New York Skyline.” Both came from Garland’s 1977 album Ghost Writer, a collection that prompted Rolling Stone to name him the most promising artist of that year.

Two years later, American Boy & Girl contained the enchanting, reggae-tinged single “Matador,” which became a top five hit in several European markets but failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100. Success abroad, however, planted the seed for support Garland needed for a landmark album he released in the early 1990s.

As Garland tells the story in the film, he was at a New York Mets game at Shea Stadium. “I was in left field, absorbed in the game, and a guy from behind me said, `Hey, buckwheat! Get the f–k outa here!’ It was a shock. It was very personal. And I really said to myself, `Don’t call me buckwheat.’”

Don’t Call Me Buckwheat arrived from Garland Jeffreys in the U.S. in April 1992, heralded in a Billboard feature as “a significant concept album that musically crosses gospel, doo-wop, rock, reggae and rap, in songs that describe a lifelong struggle with crossing color lines.”

Notably, the album had been released the previous fall in Europe by BMG International (a corporate precursor to the BMG of today) after Garland was signed and championed by a German executive, the company’s senior vp of A&R, Heinz Henn.

Don’t Call Me Buckwheat “came out 30 years ago, it could have come out 30 minutes ago,” says Springsteen in the film. “I don’t know of anybody who was writing about race as directly as Garland was in the early 90s.”

Told by an interviewer at the time that the record could make listeners uncomfortable, Garland replied: “This to me is an album of hope, it’s a vision of hope.”

But Don’t Call Me Buckwheat from failed to chart in America. Musical “categorization is the reality and tyranny of the music business,” critic David Hajdu says in the film, “and he’s been a victim of it.” Beginning with The King Of In Between in 2011, Garland began self-releasing his albums, but the documentary does not depict this journeyman artist as a victim of the music industry, nor of life.

The film is, in part, a love story. In a charming scene filmed in the hallway of their New York apartment, Claire and Garland Jeffreys describe their first meeting after one of his shows. Claire describes their mutual goal of achieving sobriety. And their daughter Savannah is featured both as a teenager, resisting her father’s invitation to sing with him, and then in a beautiful duet in the studio with her dad, recording “Time Goes Away.”

In 2019, Garland Jeffreys announced he would stop touring. The documentary includes the celebration of his career which took place on June 29, 2019, at the original City Winery on Varick Street in Manhattan’s Hudson Square neighborhood. The night’s performers included, among others, Laurie Anderson, David Johansen, Chuck Prophet, Vernon Reid, Willie Nile, Suzanne Vega, and Savannah Jeffreys, who took the mic and deadpanned, “So I met Garland in 1996…“

“I wanted to show other people’s affection and respect for him,” says Claire Jeffreys of that night. “So it was overwhelming.” Now her documentary has succeeded, in part, by redefining what it means to be a successful musician. “In today’s world, we’re so caught up in mega success or failure, there’s no humility, there’s no just being a working artist,” she says, reflecting on her husband’s rich body of work, created over nearly five decades.

“Sometimes Garland would get very discouraged about where he stood, so to speak, in the pantheon of the music business. And I would say, `Garland, you’ve made a living as a performer and a songwriter. You’ve raised a family. That’s a huge accomplishment.’ I said, `I think you’ve gotta claim that and own that.’ And he really did get to that place in the end. And that was what I was hoping.”

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