Judge Bill Gibron is a legend of badminton.
Well, I'm ready, I'm willing, and I'm able to rock and roll tonight
Rock and Roll is divided up into two distinct eras, best know as B.B. and A.B.—that's "Before Beatles" and "After Beatles" for your neophytes. Prior to the arrival of the magnificent mop tops on the music scene, sound was defined by the Southern black R&B experience with some substantial Northern blues tossed into the mix. Elvis mined its soulful swagger, coping the muse and the moves that so many artists before him had originated. But he wasn't the only one. By the time John, Paul, George, and Ringo redefined the melodic and lyrical landscape, dozens of carpetbagging performers had raided the race roots archive to further their own farcical careers (Pat Boone as a rock and roll original? Please!).
Yet once the Fab Four wiped the old school sound off the charts, many of the most influential performers who originated the rules and rhythms of rock music were obliterated as well. Many never saw the credit they so richly deserved. Others toured as part of Golden Oldie package shows, making what little money they could peddling their wares to devotees naïve of their immense importance. By the time American Graffiti and Happy Days ushered in a new wave of nostalgic appreciation for the foundational hit parade, the damage was already done. Many of the biggest names in the birth of this sonic symbol had long been forgotten.
That's why it's refreshing to see Eagle Vision release this rare Cinemax Sessions episode from 1989 entitled The Legends of Rock and Roll. Featuring seven certified icons and some of the songs that made them myths, getting the opportunity to witness the power and the passion in their performances, decades removed from their initial influence, is staggering. As part of this 60-minute presentation, we get to hear and see this fine group of artists performing these classic tunes:
• James Brown: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I
Feel Good (I Got You)"
There is even an all-star jam featuring each one of the acts during the closing credits. With a backing band lead by ex-Rockpile guitar god Dave Edmunds and a crowd of insane Romans singing along with every song (the concert was filmed in Italy's Eternal City), this is the way rock and roll was meant to be played: loud, fast, and out of control.
Naturally, some artists are more up for the challenge than others. James Brown seems to be stuck in "going through the motions" mode, ramrodding through his two stellar hits with little grace or nuance. Still, to see him "do his thang" is a mesmerizing sight to behold. Little Richard is also a bit of a party pooper. More than happy to drink in the delirious applause he receives, Richard reneges on his promise to preen, as 1989 was still a time when he refused to revisit his heretical back catalog. So we get the retread tune "Great Gosh A'Mighty" instead. It's not the same. Yet these are minor glitches in what turns out to be an amazing set of scorching performances. Jerry Lee Lewis shows why no one can bang on a piano like him as he takes on his trio of titanic hits like a man half his age. B.B. King also gets the crowd going, proving that no one could make a guitar sing the blues like he could.
But it's the final three performers mentioned here that really tear up The Legends of Rock and Roll, and it's interesting to note that, of the trio, only one has ever truly gotten the respect and the reputation they deserved. The minute Ray Charles sits behind the piano and starts pounding out the verse for "Mess Around," we get lost in his wild, whipsmart world. As much a song stylist (ala Sinatra) as he is a rousing R&B god, Charles transforms in front of us, becoming a man not just playing music, but actually possessed by it. His two numbers are astounding—both moving and maniacal at the same time. Bo Diddley shares some of Charles shapeshifting charisma. When he appears on stage with his trademark box guitar, he seems like every other oldies act ready to rip through his hits and throw a sign of recognition to the crowd. But Diddley is determined to prove his place in the pantheon of rock originators, and when he blasts the opening chords of "I'm A Man," you can actually hear the hundred of ripoffs of said riff floating through the ether of time.
But it is poor Fats Domino that deserves the most passionate plaudits here, if only because his influence has all but faded away over the course of history. As he rambles through his selection (both "I'm Ready" and "Blueberry Hill" are executed faultlessly), you start to wonder why this perennial performer, responsible for other amazing hits like "Ain't That a Shame," "Blue Monday," "I'm Walkin'," and "I'm In Love Again" isn't up on the Mt. Rushmore of rock with his fellow piano players. While such musical mysteries are near impossible to decipher, getting a chance to see Domino perform is its own reward, and enough to give The Legends of Rock and Roll a respectable bit of redemption.
Mind you, this is not some manner of classic concert film. This is typical late '80s performance footage, filled with unreal long shots of the stage and tightly framed middle shots of the performers. There is very little interaction with the bands (only Brown and Diddley move around with any real purpose) and when the final jam occurs, you can tell there is a desire to get everyone involved, no matter how interested they actually are in participating. The greatest hits mentality keeps the flow frantic, with each act coming onstage, performing, and moving on without a great deal of audience interaction. The crowd is perfectly crazed, responding to every sound as if it was the voice of God Himself, and keeps the energy level up, even as some of the aged musicians struggle to keep the beat. Though it may not be definitive, The Legends of Rock and Roll is a great deal of fun and highly entertaining.
Eagle Vision presents this pre-digital videotape title in a very nice 1.33:1 full screen transfer. While there is some flaring (live lights love to play havoc with old recording devices) and a minimal amount of ghosting (ditto), the image is still sharp, with decent color correction and lots of detail providing contrasts. Aurally, the aspects are equally mixed. Presented in PCM Stereo, the sonic situation here is still pretty good. Though both Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard complain about the lack of piano in the bombastic blend, the actual elements we get to hear are nicely combined. The channels do very little except present the same sound package per speaker, but you probably won't be disappointed by the lack of immersion or true separation on this disc. What will make you mad is the horrible lack of extras. We get a nifty insert featuring screen captures of the different acts (and a song list on the back), but that's it. No biographical information or selected discography. Devotees may not mind the lack of additional content, but it's hard to sell older acts to a younger crowd without some manner of marketing fuel. A small amount of bonus material would have helped win over those unaccustomed to exploring rock's roots.
Overall, The Legends of Rock and Roll is a reminder and a lesson, a red-hot refresher course in the foundation and cornerstones of the most popular music of all time. Though they all deserve accolades much larger than the ones provided here, this is still an amazing display of originators and masterminds. There may be a few famous faces missing from this lively concert display, but at least we get to see rock and roll B.B., in all its celebrated sonic bliss.
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