Friday, December 17, 2010

DVD Reviews: Two of the America’s Music Legacy Series: Gospel; Rock and Roll

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

Part 2: 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: Gospel
Directed by Kip Walton
Cube International / Century Home Video, 1983 / 2010
105 minutes, USD $16.95

I did not really grow up with gospel; after all, it’s not something we sang around lighting the menorah. Gospel did not really come into my consciousness at least until the mid-1980s, through Sweet Honey in the Rock, who help me appreciate the form.

Hosting this show is a post-Kunta/pre-Geordi LeVar Burton, obviously reading the text off cue cards, but clearly into the topic as well. Most of his comments and introductions appear to be independent of the actual program and inserted in, but that’s just observation rather than a criticism.

Gospel truly is a joyful noise, full of spirituality, uplifting messages, and especially focused on two particulars: Jesus and repetition. There are a lot of both in a truly great gospel genre tune. A line in the chorus may get repeated numerous times, each one more excited than the one before. At least that is true in classic form (e.g., “Oh when the saints go marching in / Oh when those saints go marching in / Lord I want to be in that number/ When the saints go marching in”). While less true in ballads, with any kind of raver the message is going to be pounded, and again, I mean that in a positive way.

First up is the legendary Andraé Crouch, who sings a joyous “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” And as happens occasionally throughout the show, there are short interview clips of some artists, including Andraé.

Some of my favorite gospel performances are ones that use harmony, such as the Winans, who use four-part vocal inter-weavings on “I Love You.” This leads to some very moving moments. However, the group is followed by the Archers (three siblings: Tim, Steve, and Nancye), who seem grossly out of place on this collection. One of the only two white groups here, they’re more along the line of televangelist fodder than real gospel. Their sound compared to the rest of the performers represented here is like a Lawrence Welk act at a rock concert. It’s just lame.

Luckily, the slate is cleaned off with some black-and-white clips of Mahalia Jackson from an old television show of her performing a couple of songs (separated by an interview), including “When the Saints Go Marching In” (which is revived later in the show).

Back on track, we see Marion Williams (d. 1994), including an interview about her vocal range, followed by the deep-voiced Doug Miller, who has a couple of song. Repetitions are a key structure with Miller and mightily he praises the Lord.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers evolved into the Walter Hawkins Family, and they do some fine songs that have a bit of a Caribbean feel. They get to do a trio of tunes, including their biggest hit, and one of the first gospel / Top 10 crossovers, “Oh Happy Day.” This was actually one of the bigger disappointments for me, as the song is cut short. It’s a great song, and I was sorry not to be able to hear the whole megillah.

Sandra Crouch and Friends present more iconic gospel, with the choir behind her on “Power in the Blood,” on which she shares the spotlight with one of the choir. But on the second tune, “He’s Worthy,” the singing is split between two members, the first of which is spectacular (no credits are given by name).

With a deep, basso timbre, Walter Phipps (d. 1987) is obviously enjoying sharing his “Choose You Again and Again.” His style is mixing some R+B into the sound, as does the next group, the Chambers Family, including parents and (adult) children. Their tune, the appropriate “In My Father’s House” is Motown influenced and sounds really strong. This is hardly surprising since a core of the family is the Chambers Brothers, who did the infamous “Time Has Come Today,” which was even covered by the Ramones. I’m also fond of a cut by the Brothers of a gospel raver called “I Got It,” from a comp album called Greatest Folk Singers of the ‘Sixties.

The legendary Linda Hopkins is up next. She was in quite a few Broadway shows, and has a powerful voice that lay somewhere between Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. She does a bluesy gospel with “The Lord Will Make a Way.” She follows this with the classic “Thank You Jesus,” which has a bottom rhythm that is reminiscent of Little Richard during his gospel phase.

Again breaking with true gospel form, though this time a bit more successfully, is Reba Rambo and Donny McGuire. Their music is almost rock-lite with some funk flourishes. During an interview segment, McGuire says that they are occasionally called “Christian rock” or “Contemporary Christian,” though he sees it as “Top 40.” Well, they’re mild enough to be on Oral Roberts, but they are also among the first successful Christian MOR groups.

Up next to last in the live show is Mel Carter, who was also known for the ‘60s pop hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” but whose roots are in the gospel sector. His style is a bit jazzy, but there is a smattering of a reggae rhythm that creeps in on “Lift Up Jesus.”

LeVar takes the lead next in a clip that tells a very brief history of gospel as an art form, putting it into a historical context. Just long enough to be interesting, and just short enough not to be distracting.

To end the DVD is a classic-style choir raver by Sandra Crouch and Friends, “Oh Lord, I’m Glad I Found You.” One could be standing in a Baptist Church on a Sunday and hear a handclapper (and yes, happily repetitious) like this one. It is also a strong way to end the show.

No, Sweet Honey in the Rock was not represented here, but many of the top performers in the field make their presence felt. While I’m never going to go the way of Jesus, I can appreciate the music for what it is, and the spirit behind it.

America’s Music Legacy: Rock ‘n Roll
Director: Arthur Forrest
Cube International / Century Home Video, 1985 / 2010
110 minutes, USD $16.95

I actually remember when this show was on, titled Fabian’s Good Time Rock n’ Roll. Hosted by its producer, Fabian Forte, he starts off singing Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” clearly showing why his career fizzled out before the Beatles even showed up. He makes Pat Boone look like, well, Bob Seger, despite actually having charted with 11 songs. However, as a producer, he’s done a splendid job here.

If you’ve watched any of those PBS specials (usually replayed ad nauseam during pledge periods where they trot out artists from a long ago era and have them perform their songs, well you have the idea here, though this form was not a common a thing to do back then.

Taped in Baton Rouge, the stage is set for a rockin’ revival, which starts off with the Coasters doing a bunch of their classics, such as “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” and of course “Charlie Brown” (“Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?”). While I’m not sure how many of the original band is still present here, they sound true to the hits.

Next up is Lou Christie (nee Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco), who had some really big hits, as shown here, namely “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” “Two Faces Have I” / “The Gypsy Cried” (a smart medley, since they are actually quite similar),” and that great (and yet misogynistic) “Lightenin’ Strikes (Again).” His falsetto is still strong (his range is 3 octaves), as is the color of his shiny shirt (not to mention the mullet). Woof! I will add that he is actually quite the dynamic stage performer.

He is followed by the diminutive-yet-still-powerfully-voiced Lesley Gore. Yeah, she does the overplayed (and I think overrated) “It’s My Party,” and my least favorite song of hers, “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” but she follows it up with an amazing “You Don’t Own Me” (I would have liked to have also heard so many of her other great songs, like “Maybe I Know” and “California Nights”; be sure to check out her relatively recent album, Ever Since). She has great eyes, by the way.

She’s then joined by Christie, and they do a medley of “Since I Don’t Have You” and “It’s Only Make Believe” (which was released as a single; I bought it after seeing this when it was originally on). They make it into a strapping power ballad that would make a Glee! fan squeal.

Ernest Evans is next, in his nom de music of Chubby Checker. He starts off with “Pony Time” and ends with “The Twist” (duh!), and inbetween is a rambling medley of eight different songs, by the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Beatles. He’s quite a bit older than when he started, but he could still twist the night away at that point.

Bringing it down a bit is the producer pulling his power, and Fabian sings some of his hits, such as, “Turn Me Loose,” “Tiger,” and once again for some reason, “Old Time Rock and Roll.” I sat through it all the way, but next time it’ll be at 8x.

I know I’m whining a bit and nitpicking, but I need to say that the Crystals are the next act, in which only Dee Dee Kenniebrew is one the originals. And they are bad. No one here can touch Darlene Love (well, few can anyway), whose band the Blossoms released a bunch of songs as the Crystals. The three on this show take a stab at “He’s A Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” (all actually Blossoms tunes), and I could not help but wince. Perhaps it would be better if they covered the Crystals’ own hits, like “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” or “Uptown.”

Getting back to the earlier times, the next performers are doo-wopers, the Diamonds, a mix of originals and new guys (as is true with most groups from that time period). They do their biggies, “Silhouettes,” “The Stroll,” and my favorite of theirs, “Little Darlin’” (\which is overstated here as “the national anthem of rock and roll”).

Little Anthony Gourdine comes by with a run of some of his charters, including “Tears On My Pillow,” “Hurt So Bad” (my fave of his hits), and “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop” (my least fave of his hits, and apparently his: before the song starts, he’s sure to make the point by stating that he was told he had to do the song “to get the gig”). Better he should have been allowed to do “Going Out of My Head,” a much better song. Gourdine is definitely one of the more chatty artists, commenting that he’s 44 years old and has 8 kids, and that he played on an Alan Freed show in 1958. I will add that he also is in fine vocal form.

The mood completely changes when Bo Diddley takes the stage and makes it his own. He drives through some of his boastful tunes: “Hey Bo Diddley,” “I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley Put the Rock into Rock and Roll“ (he was one of the first artists in rock and roll to consistently praise his own prowess). He has that rumpa-rumpa-rumpa sound that he created, and is rightfully proud of, right up front. His influence on music was early (e.g., Buddy Holly), and still continues. Ellas McDaniel Bates (d. 2008) was a powerhouse.

What is needed is some Chuck Berry (the true king of rock and roll), and while the man is not present (perhaps they wouldn’t meet his fee), everyone gets back on stage to sing “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s a train wreck, honestly, but one that put a smile on my face.

In all its incarnations over the years, many of which are presented here, it’s true that rock’n’roll is meant to be; it will never die.

No comments:

Post a Comment