Holiday Hits

Four new DVD collections showcase America's greatest musicians -- and they make great stocking-stuffers, too.



Looking for a holiday gift for your favorite music fan? It seems like every year something new is excavated or assembled from the vast reserves of Memphis-related music. This year, the highlights have come in the form of some exceptional music-related DVDS.

One of the cultural finds of the year in any medium is The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show, a four-hour, two-DVD collection of 66 musical performances selected from the 58 episodes of Cash's ABC-TV variety show, which aired from 1969 to 1971. >>>

Cash's first episode featured Bob Dylan, rarely seen on television and still considered a counterculture icon despite the recent release of his more traditional Nashville Skyline album. But it also included Cash and his standard ensemble — wife June Carter, the Tennessee Three band, sidekick Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers as backup singers — doing the Perkins-penned remembrance of family gospel sing-alongs, "Daddy Sang Bass." And that's how it went. With the Vietnam War tearing the country apart, Cash did his best to put it back together again on national TV every week, reconciling the rebellious impulses of the counterculture with the home-and-family traditionalism of older, more mainstream America.

Within the context of Cash's self-imposed musical mission, the breadth of music (and musicians) on display is tremendous. Pre-rock legends are given the showcases they deserve, including bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe doing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and, most notably, an appearance by Louis Armstrong. The true titan of twentieth-century American popular music, Armstrong is eight months from death and frail when he appears, but he's magnetic, playing trumpet alongside Cash as they duet on Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9," which Armstrong had recorded with Rodgers in 1930.

The collection also captures some of Cash's early rock contemporaries (including Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis), country stars (Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty), then-emerging songwriters (DVD host Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White), and some of the biggest and best rock acts of the day (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young).

Highlights are plentiful: Ray Charles delivers a spectacular, bluesy reinvention of Cash's own "Ring of Fire" to a standing ovation. Cash and George Jones swap vocal sound effects on a duet of Jones' "White Lightning." Cash and Merle Haggard duet on Haggard's beautiful prison ballad "Sing Me Back Home." Eric Clapton leads Derek & the Dominoes through an inspired rendition of the Chuck Willis R&B standard "It's Too Late." You sense Cash's drive to unite different audiences when he greets the British rock band onstage at the Ryman after the performance and says, "I really am proud to see that the people here love you like they do." This is followed immediately by Perkins joining Cash and Clapton on a fierce version of Perkins' Sun-era hit "Matchbox." And some of the finest moments come when the show is winnowed down to Cash and his own extended musical family, particularly on gospel numbers.

For those who weren't privileged to see the show at the time, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show is a revelation.

*****

For something more specifically local, a trio of excellent Stax Records-related DVDs were released this year as part of the label's 50th Anniversary campaign.

If your special someone is interested in Memphis music, then Respect Yourself, a two-hour label overview, co-directed by local filmmaker/writer Robert Gordon and his partner Morgan Neville, is essential viewing.

The film was broadcast this summer as part of PBS' Great Performances series, but was released in an expanded DVD version this fall. Consisting of interviews — both new and archival — with most of the key players, including a rare contribution from Stax founder Jim Stewart, Respect Yourself gives a chronological telling of the Stax story that mostly hits the obvious high (and low) points.

Respect Yourself reinforces what an amazing story Stax is: an artistic entity whose very success was rooted in racial partnership and shared/mixed culture in the middle of the civil-rights-era South; a record label whose thrilling music embodied — like perhaps no other cultural product of the time — the hope and ultimately broken promise of racial integration in the '60s and '70s.

In terms of reviewing the basic spine of the Stax story, Respect Yourself offers a neat, multi-viewpoint retelling of the Otis Redding origin story — that day Redding showed up as another artist's "valet" and pestered his way to the microphone.

There's also a great segment on the Stax family's visit to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, with Memphis Horn Wayne Jackson talking about the culture clash between the long-haired, unkempt hippie crowd and the relatively clean-cut Stax crew, who showed up with matching suits and dance steps: "We must have looked like a lounge act or something. But it killed 'em. And when Otis walked out onstage, it was over for everybody."

Even those who think they're pretty familiar with the Stax story may learn a few things: the extent to which the Lorraine Motel was used as a second home — for both work and play — for Stax artists; the revelation that the label's iconic finger-snap logo was the brainchild of later-period executive Al Bell and thus post-dates most of the classic music it's associated with; the level of violence that infected the label in the aftermath of the King assassination.

*****

But as fine as Respect Yourself is, most established Stax fans will crave more depth, and the two other recent label-specific DVD releases provide it. Released concurrently with Respect Yourself is The Stax/Volt Revue Live in Norway, 1967, which captures one set on the fabled Stax European tour. Filmed in black and white, this 75-minute concert features performances from Booker T. & the MGs, the Mar-Keys, non-Stax performer Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding.

This is a more subdued affair than you might expect, with an extended Conley performance of his hit "Sweet Soul Music," in particular, coming across as filler. But just having sustained footage of Sam & Dave performing is a revelation, even if the material here isn't as exciting as the concert footage featured on Respect Yourself. Certainly, the footage reinforces the degree to which Sam Moore outshines Dave Prater vocally. And Redding, closing the show with "Try a Little Tenderness," towers over them all.

For more Redding, check out the hour-and-a-half-long documentary Dreams To Remember: The Legacy of Otis Redding, which, for serious Stax fans, may be the most interesting DVD in the batch.

Though the interview subjects are oddly limited — Steve Cropper, Wayne Jackson, Jim Stewart, and Redding's widow, Zelma, mainly — Dreams To Remember offers the depth that Respect Yourself (charged with covering an entire label rather than just one artist) can't match.

Because Cropper co-wrote so many songs with Redding (in addition to working on the recording sessions themselves) and because Jackson, as a trumpet player, was uniquely attuned to Redding's musical instincts, these men are positioned to offer considerable insight into Redding's music. And they do not disappoint.

In addition to this insight, Dreams To Remember is packed with plenty of standout footage, including a goofy promotional video for the duet single "Tramp," with Redding wearing overalls and riding a donkey around a farm to play up the "country" character he plays on the song.

Concert footage includes an awesome rendition of Sam Cooke's "Shake" at Monterey and, most poignantly, a performance of "Try a Little Tenderness" on Cleveland television the day before Redding's death. Unlike the other television appearances here, which are lip-synched, this one is live, as is clear when Redding ad-libs the phrase "mini-skirt dress" in the opening lines. 

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