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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Fair
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'80s wonders the Producers bring their latest album In the Blues to Madison
Good, old-fashioned new wave
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Today Henderson is a blues crooner.
Credit:Robert M. Wydra

It's hard to imagine the 1980s without visualizing early MTV videos by new-wave bands like Devo and the Buggles. A video stuck on repeat back then was "She Sheila" by the Producers, a group that sprang from the same Georgia music scene that spawned the B-52s.

Though the Producers never achieved Blondie-level stardom, they came painfully close with a string of MTV hits and substantial radio play in the South and Midwest. They also toured with some of the era's most recognizable acts, including Cheap Trick and the Motels. So, as VH1 might put it, where are they now, and what's the story behind the music?

As it turns out, Madison is an integral part of the answer. Singer and bassist Kyle Henderson, who now fronts Kyle Henderson's Modern Blues Band, has lived here since 2007. He and the rest of the Producers will perform at the High Noon Saloon this Friday, Jan. 4. They'll unveil a new album called In the Blues, which was produced by blues heavyweight Tab Benoit.

The show's date is significant for Henderson, who joined the band on the cusp of 1980.

"I was in a band in the late '70s called Whiteface, a funky Billy Joel sort of thing. Whiteface got a record deal, but then the Knack and the B-52s and the Cars came out. It was a tectonic shift. This new, great stuff was having an influence, and I knew I was changing, too," he says.

Meanwhile, Henderson became enamored of a friend's Beatles cover band. As luck would have it, the band needed a new bassist on New Year's Eve 1979. They hired Henderson immediately, then changed their name to the Producers and started writing Beatles-inspired powerpop with a modern twist. A new era had begun.

The band gained recognition quickly thanks to producer and A&R man Tom Werman, who was a Whiteface megafan.

Werman agreed to listen to the Producers if they could get themselves to New York City.

Henderson recalls how Werman's body language changed as the band played: "He was polite but clearly busy, bordering on impatient, when we started. Then, three-quarters of the way through the first song, he moved forward on the couch and started bopping his head. Then he leaned over to our manager and said, 'I want to sign them.'"

Before the end of their first year together, the Producers found themselves in L.A., recording their Portrait Records debut at the Record Plant and rubbing elbows with celebrities.

"We hung out with Rod Stewart and Kiss and Cheap Trick and the not-yet-famous Quiet Riot, all sorts of people who would come say hello to Tom," Henderson says.

Though the end of 1980 was a happy, magical time, it was punctuated by sadness and loss, especially following the murder of John Lennon. Fortune and misfortune often converged at the same moment, Henderson notes. A case in point is the band's performance at MTV's second annual New Year's Eve Rock 'n' Roll Ball, during the final hours of 1982.

"Here we are at Radio City Music Hall, on national TV, and MTV is in its glory days, and then the low point happens," Henderson says. "[VJ] Martha Quinn, 60 seconds before we're supposed to start, says, 'It's the Producers!' We aren't ready to go yet, so we rush and then think it sounds bad."

A shouting match with their manager ensued.

Henderson says this fateful evening sums up the band's journey: "a really high level of talent and good opportunities but constant fuckups."

Though Henderson left the Producers in 1985, he stayed in touch with his bandmates. This came in handy nearly 25 years later. At the time, Henderson was reeling from the death of his oldest son. He needed a support network, but face-to-face conversations were too difficult.

"I didn't leave home for six months, but Facebook was a way to connect with people without constantly having to talk," he says.

He found comfort from the many Producers fans reminiscing about the band on its Facebook page. In the process, he realized that the group could still fill sizable venues. He contacted his bandmates, they booked some shows, and soon the band had sold out clubs in Atlanta and New Orleans.

Now they just needed some new songs.

The answer arrived in February 2012, when new-waver turned bluesman Tab Benoit called Henderson during a trip to Madison. Before long, the Producers were in Benoit's studio in Houma, La., recording songs in the least new-wave way possible: sans click track and nearly live.

This year, Henderson will take his blues band to Benoit's studio. The trip is a sort of thank-you to Madison.

"I went in this direction, modern blues, because of Madison," Henderson says. "There are some killer players here, and the music spoke to me in a special way that hasn't happened in a long time."

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