by Len Lear
You might not expect an Emmy Award winner to be performing at a local church gig, but that is what you will find if you visit the Folk Factory Coffeehouse in the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration at 6900 Stenton Ave. (at Gorgas Lane) in Mt. Airy on Saturday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m., in the “Music for the New Revolution Showcase” concert. Several local musicians will perform, including Rodney Whittenberg, 55, an Emmy award-winning composer and an Emmy-nominated filmmaker. He is the founder of Melodyvision, an audio music and video production company in Plymouth Meeting.
Whittenberg, who lived in Germantown for nine years before moving to Plymouth Meeting in 2007, received a Mid-Atlantic Emmy in 2003 for outstanding achievement in music composition for the documentary, “Mother Dot’s Philadelphia,” and was nominated for Outstanding Documentary, 2018, for “Portraitures of Professional Care Givers, Their Passion and Pain.” He co-produced it with the film’s director, Vic Compher, and he composed the score for the film.
The Emmy did change Whittenberg’s life, “but not how you think it would. On the negative side, I think some of my clients thought I would be more expensive, but what it did is give me confidence to go after the kinds of projects that interested me.”
Whittenberg discovered his muse when he was still young. “I don’t know when I was not a musician,” he told us in an earlier interview. “I always credit my dad. He loved music and was always making up songs. I pretty much do now the same thing I did sitting in my parents’ basement with my instruments and reel-to-reel recorders 37 years ago.”
Whittenberg went to school for electronics and studied music at Settlement Music School, Temple University, Philadelphia Community College and University of the Arts. He left school to form his own band, “Dark Blonde,” which appeared on television’s “Star Search,” forerunner to today’s “American Idol” and “The Voice.”
His musical tastes are certainly eclectic. As a young kid in the early ’70s, Whittenberg loved AM radio, then shifted to rock. To this day, he loves the music of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. He has listened regularly to everything from hard core punk to the swing era jazz of Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian to the 20th century classical music of Philip Glass and Jennifer Higdon, from the ’80s, glam rock of Cinderella to the heavy funk of Parliament/Funkadelic and from Bluegrass to Blue Man Group.
“Melodyvison (his full-service production facility) was my response to being a musician, an African American artist who didn’t want to be limited by that. I was tired of people asking me if I was a jazz, hip hop, R&B or reggae artist. I want to do it all and do it all at a high quality. So I stated a company which took the focus off of me and put it on an entity that could be much bigger then me and could also help support other artists in making a living. And I started with the goal of composing music for Hollywood films and national TV shows.”
Whittenberg is currently producing and recording “Jazz Singer” by local vocalist Phyllis Chapell, a kids’ performing group, Ant’s on a Log; a young songwriter, Shanah Sloane; a new film with young musical performer Jonathan Sprout, a concert film of the band Cat’s Pajamas’ last performance, a documentary about children’s music and much more.
How has the business of music changed since the beginning of Whittenberg’s career? “Wow, I don’t think there is enough space in this article to answer that question. I think the biggest change is that the means of production and distribution have been democratized. And this is awesome, but the downside is that there is very little investment in developing an act, and a lot of musicians do recognize how important a good producer is. “The Beatles were amazing but were just a very, very good bar band without producer George Martin. This takes nothing away from how unbelievable they were, but what I am saying is that greatness takes a team.
“It takes a coach who knows more than you and someone who wants to succeed even more then you do. And someone who can see your flaws and your gifts and can support you in overcoming them. That is what a good producer can do for an artist or band.”
What musical worlds does the local Emmy winner have left to conquer? “Wow, it’s endless. I wish I had a patron. If I wasn’t doing client-based work, I would spend the whole day every day going after all of the music ideas in my head. It’s endless. I mean I am working on my jazz guitar playing. I would love to do a jazz CD, and I have a ton of New Age synth based music. And, of course, my political original songs, string quartets and ideas combining music with experimental film and some theater pieces. I play a lot of different instruments and would love to get better at all of them. And also study. Music is as endless as the imagination. There will always be worlds to conquer.”