Saturday, December 4, 2010

DVD Reviews: Two of the America’s Music Legacy Series: C+W; R+B

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet

Part 1: This is just two of a series of DVDs that have been released to promote a collection of television specials from the 1980s that highlight specific genres of music, with each disc focusing on a one at a time.

America’s Music Legacy: Country and Western
Directed by Gene Weed
Cube International / Century Home Video, 1981 / 2010
115 minutes, USD $16.95

The program itself was originally titled Countrystyle. Considering the wide range covered, that seems pretty appropriate. This show, mounted at the Knotts Berry Farm Theater in California, is externally hosted (he’s filmed at various park spots and then spliced inbetween) by Gene Weed (d. 1999), who did the same honors for the short-lived television series Shiveree, and was director for ABC’s coverage of Live Aid (he was part of Dick Clark’s company).

Starting with the young and fresh, the show opens with Sylvia (Kirby), who is one of the first “new country” artists (similarly along the lines of Juice Newton), when country starting becoming as much about pop music. She performs two of her early hits (well, I guess then-current), starting with “Drifter,” which went to No. 1 on the country charts. She follows up with the really awful “The Matador,” a pandering audience sing-along mess, which is due more to the song than the singer. However, she is apparently enjoying herself up on stage, though now nearly 30 years later, she’s a life coach rather than a performer. Heck, this disk did not even list her in the bios section!

The first to unofficially represent the ‘70s period, the last bastion before the rise of “country pop,” is Razzy Bailey, whose style reminds me of the likes of Larry Gatlin, with “Lovin’ Up a Storm” and “She Left Love All Over Me.” He also does the classic “Nightlife,” a Willie Nelson boogie blues ballad.

Eddie Dean (d. 1991) has been around since the ‘30s, first making appearances singing in Roy Rogers westerns and the like. He certainly stands out in his bright yellow two-piece outfit. I swear, C+W musicians have the loudest clothes of all music genres, and I won’t even go into the tassels (or tzitzit, as my parent may have called them). Anyway, Dean sings some songs he has been known for, such as the traditional cowboy tune from yon, “Wagon Wheels” (which has a similar feel to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”). He follows this with the (I’m) cheatin’ hit of his, “One Has My Name (One Has My Heart)”, written by Dean and his wife. This song is so classic and timeless. Then there’s another Dean-penned number, Hillbilly Heaven,” which is a bluegrass ballad that reminds me in theme of the Righteous Brothers’ (worst) song, “Rock and Roll Heaven.” It takes us on a name dropping tour of all the people in hillbilly music that died, and even those to follow! Dean is definitely ol’ time country, and is fun to watch.

What can one say about Doug Kershaw, the “Ragin’ Cajun”? He is pure entertainer, with his fiddle in hand (but rarely under neck); he plays nothing but toe tappin’, foot stompin’, yeeee-haaaaaw Cajun-style bluegrass. Considering the way he handles the fiddle, could one call him the Hendrix of the instrument? Well, maybe that’s overstepping, but the cat can play. He performs two of his big hits, “Diggy Diggy Hi, Diggy Diggy Low” and “Louisiana Man,” as well as Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” Or should I say, of course he does that song, considering he comes from the bayou (his dad was an alligator hunter). He is obviously having fun, with the audience, about the previous performers, with the cameras, and especially the music. He is quite comfortable dancing around the stage while playing, and it’s catching.

Sadly, one of the few real disappointments on this collection is the wonderful Clara Ann Fowler, better known as (Miss) Patti Page. Oh, the woman can sing, and even though her big hit, “Tennessee Waltz” was recorded in 1950, she still has the pipes that made her famous, without missing a note. Great voice. The problem for me is the presentation. He puts absolutely no soul into most of the songs, such as Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” “Please Release Me” (made famous in the US by Englebert Humperdink), and a bizarre cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” where she takes the position of the woman he left behind, presenting it in a classic hetero-normative stance (yes, I know C+W is conservative, but…). She sings these songs both bouncy and flouncy, like she’s barely present, or as a lounge singer may. Absolutely no stage presence at all. However! She does a pretty good job on a new song for her at the time, “No Aces,” and actually has a nice tenderness for her classic “Waltz.”

Moe Bandy started out in the rodeo, and after moving into music it’s a topic he still comes back to often. In fact, his first big hit, played here, is “Bandy the Rodeo Clown.” He also does the like-minded “It’s a Cheatin’ Situation” and “Cowboys Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” both of which are rodeo related. His milieu is the weepy storyline of heartbreak and sadness, and he continues that theme with “Take Me Back to Yesterday Once More” (why do C+W titles tend to be so long?). His music has lots of steel-string wah-wah.

The next performer is the only person who could comfortably fit on most DVD categories in this series, without changing his material all that much. Jerry Lee Lewis moved comfortably into C+W and gospel after his rock and roll career was cut short in 1959, with his influence felt both from and to the varied genres. And, as always, he does not hold back. Whether blasting through the rock and roll boogie of “I’m Rockin’ My Life Away” and “Great Balls of Fire,” or the more traditional bluegrass boogie of “I’m Walkin’ at the End of the Road” and “I Trusted in You” (the flipside of the “Great Balls” 45), he covers all the bases. It’s also interesting that he invokes himself in third person in nearly every song. Do I really need to tell you ‘bout the Killer, one of the more exciting entertainers in the last 50 years?

Once in the rock band Fire and Ice, Terry Gregory brings that energy to country (well, new country) with the silly “Marie LaVoe” (a swamp witch who likes to make “another man done gone”). She moves around the stage, strutin’ and squattin’ as if she was still rockin’, but it definitely works for her. Her second song, “Can’t Say Goodbye,” is a break-up ballad that’s more pop than country. She is nicely expressive in her presence, and has a decent voice.

He’s now a legend (his list of awards in the bio area go on for pages), and it’s clear to see why. Ricky Skaggs is the final new performer here, and he covers a bunch of his traditional-influenced country crooning with the (again) heartbreakers “Get Your Heart Broke,” “You May See Me Walking,” and “I’m Cryin’ My Heart Out Over You.” Skaggs has been a major fixture in both the country and rock (e.g., the White Stripes, Bruce Hornsby) scene for decades now.

For some reason, we return to Terry Gregory, though it’s obvious this clip is actually from the earlier set, where she covers Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” Terry does have a good voice and charm, but she is no match for Wynette’s version, when it comes to pacing, intonation and inflection.

And then, again, there is Jerry Lee (also from the earlier set), where he brings down the house with the history of rock’n’roll, covering Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” his own “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and as an encore, an abbreviation of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Covering traditional, neo-traditional, bluegrass, Cajun, and new country, among others, this wide covering makes this a nicely handled package.
[see video at end of blog]

* * * *

America’s Music Legacy: Rhythm + Blues
Directed by Kip Walton
Cube International / Century Home Video, 1983 / 2010
95 minutes, USD $16.95

This was a potentially very scary DVD for me to watch. I love early R+B, but from 1974 through 1985 (aka the dreaded disco years), R+B became a nightmare (ass it would again with the advent of hip-hop and rap). Fortunately, most of what is covered here is from the earlier incarnations of the sound, which it broke off from jazz in the 1940s. Perhaps that explains why many of the people here have passed on since its airing.

This release is actually two separate television shows (specials?), both taking place in a studio made to look like an intimate club (a perfect setting for this style). The first is hosted by actor Brock Peters (d. 2005), who has a deep, rich speaking voice (like James Earl Jones). Between musical acts he explains the history of Rhythm and Blues in short spurts, and one old film clip of Slim Gaillard. He is thankfully non-obtrusive, and his presence is actually a nice pace-setter.

The first artist is Brook Benton (d. 1988), who sings the metaphoric tune, “Boll Weevil” (about trying to find a home), and a bluesy “Thank You Pretty Baby.” Let me add right here, that because these are two shows pasted together, to save time they edited out some songs, which remain listed on the cover; this quite frustrating. Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” is among those; a far superior tune to “Boll Weevil,” it is not here. Surely there was enough time to put this on, since the cover states this is two hours, and it’s actually 25 minutes shy of that.

He is followed by the ever-lovable native of Terre Haute, IN, Ben Scatman Crothers (d. 1986), of whom I’ve been a fan for years. You may know some of his acting work, such as the mailman on Chico and the Man, the guy who gets killed by Jack Nicholson in the last reel of The Shining, and the title character voice of Hong Kong Phooey, but he’s been a musician (starting as a drummer) since the 1920s, eventually getting into guitar and said scat singing. Strumming a guitar uke style, he is obviously having fun with a rambunctious “Ain’t She Sweet,” the slow ballad “Mean Dog Blues” (which he co-wrote), and the Louis Armstrong styled “End of the Road.” Scatman is always a joy to watch, even much younger as a drummer in the above-mentioned Gaillard clip.

Moving up to Motown, Mary Wells (d. 1992), one of the first artists to have a hit on the label and helped define the sound. She does her classic Smokey Robinson-penned “My Guy,” and then a disco-ized “Gigolo” (this seems to be a kind of ‘80s trend: when I saw Martha Reeves play at Zappaz in Brooklyn during this period, she did the same treatment for “Dancing in the Streets”). I was not happy, especially since her “Two Lovers” is listed by not presented.

After that disco terror, there came the polar opposite style in the form of O.C. Smith (d. 2001), who had a big hit with “Little Green Apples” (1968 song of the year). I would be hard pressed to call this R+B, but more like lame pop. While there is a slight pick-up with “Stormy Monday,” in which the band easily outshines Smith, he drags it right back down with the turgid Bobby Russell-penned “Honey (I Miss You)” (that Bobby Goldsboro had a bigger hit with, for some reason, perhaps a deal with the devil). Ironically, Russell also wrote “Little Green Apples.” Smith’s R+B-lite is not exactly exciting performing, rather looking like he phoned it in. Throughout, I kept thinking that it’s a shame they didn’t get Bill Withers to do “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a much better artist and song in the contemporary R+B genre.

There is a rise in spirit, though, when Sam Moore hits the stage. His version of “Soul Man” is as exciting as ever, even without Dave Prater. It’s definitely rousing, and a fine way to end the first program (though “I’ve Been Loving You” and “Hold On, I’m Coming” are, again, listed but not shown).

Without any announcement, the second program is started by a jump cut, and we are introduced to its host, Billy Eckstine (d. 1993), who, like Brock Peters, gives a bit of a history lesson between artists, showing a few b+w clips such as Louis Jordan and Amos Milburn. A singing contemporary of Sinatra, Eckstine actually gave blue eyes a close competitor, especially among the African-American demographic.

Eckstine starts out with a solid proto-rocker, “Little Mama,” the kind of song Elvis would take and add in his own spin. This only makes sense, as the first guest is Ruth Brown (d. 2006). There are some who will know her from her appearance in the original Hairspray film, but she is considered one the first queens of rock and roll (though I would place her in the proto- area as well). She is so much fun to watch as she careens through her 1953 “5-10-15 More” and “Teardrops From My Eyes.” And as joyous as it is to see someone this present in their music, she is obviously having a blast as well.

To exemplify soul, they call in “the fifth Beatle,” Billy Preston. Like Brown, he is obviously having a good time, setting proverbial fire to his two-level keyboard electric organ. He starts off with a lengthy, raucous cover of the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess). While most of it is an instrumental, he jumps in about half-way through and plays the piece as “Bach would play it,” and then as Ray Charles would, including a vocal impression. Then he really gets down and goes through one of his bigger hits, “Will It Go Round in Circles.” Even I was singing along on parts (“…Let the bad guy win / Once in a while!”).

Getting back to more a traditional sound, Gloria Lynne sings the torchy “I Wish You Love,” and is then joined by Eckstine for a jazzy “Call Me Irresponsible,” a 1962 standard. While her voice is a bit rough in spots, one can see where she was coming from, and admire her work.

And speaking of irresponsible, the last act is Sheer Delight, a ‘80s post-disco girl group performing “Getting to the Good Part.” Solid top-10 schlock, this type of material was handled so much better by the likes of Lady Flash. This is one time when I was just fine with a couple of songs that were listed on the cover but not performed.

To close the show, Eckstine commanders the stage, and performs Duke Ellington’s “Mr. Saturday Night” (which has the line “Don’t get around much anymore”), “In My Solitude,” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” He finishes up with the slow boogie blues of “Jelly Jelly Blues.”

So, mostly my fears were unwarranted, and this was actually a really nice collection. Yeah, there’s more I would have liked to see, such as some of the artists I’ve mentioned, and others, such as Aretha, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up on a later part of this collection.

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