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Music DVD Review: America’s Music Legacy: Soul

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Sometimes the DVD’s in the America’s Music Legacy series remind me of nothing so much as one of those PBS oldies broadcasts only without the pledge drive breaks. There is a collection of fond memories of youth, some grown old gracefully, some not so gracefully, but all aglow with nostalgia. The Legacy presentation of Soul is no exception.

Basically a concert recorded sometime in 1983, it features performances by the likes of James Brown, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Tyrone Davis. The one advantage this has over the PBS shows is that since this is a concert from the eighties, the singers still look pretty darn good. More importantly, they sound darn good, too.

Host for the concert is Leon Isaac Kennedy and while he is certainly a personable young man, the introductory material written for him leaves a good deal to be desired. It smacks of ad copy smarm, rather than the raw power associated with soul. This is especially true of the attempt to articulate some sort of definition of “soul.” Too often, the only point the writers seem to be making is that soul draws from so many musical influences it is really not possible to define it. Certainly there are elements of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz, as well as a good many others, still one would think that a more or less cogent definition of the genre would not be impossible. Introductions to the individual acts are often labored as well.

The music is another story. James Brown opens the concert with characteristic high power performances of “Rap Payback” and “Jam.” The latter featuring really excellent trombone and trumpet solos by unnamed musicians. Brown returns later for a dynamic turn on “The Man Understands.” Sweat pouring down from his brow it is clear that this is, indeed, the hardest working man in show business.

Ben E. King does “Spanish Harlem,” and there is a cut in from an interview where he describes his discomfort with the Spanish feel of the music and the ruse that was used to make him comfortable during the original recording. This is one of the few interviews on the DVD. In the other, the lesser known Tyrone Davis talks about advice he was given by B. B. King that it was always essential for a performer to give his all. Davis, who is from Chicago, sings “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and comes back later in the show to do an interesting jazz version of a song called “In the Mood.” (This is not the more famous Glen Miller tune.)

Rufus Thomas of “Walk the Dog” fame shows up, unfortunately he doesn’t do “Walk the Dog” even though the back notes on the DVD box seem to indicate that he does. Instead he sings “Do the Push Pull,” which does manage to get the audience up on their feet, either because of the suggestive repetition of the lyric or else Thomas’s colorful costume: bright yellow shorts and shirt topped with a yellow cape. High white boots complete the outfit. Unlike Thomas Jerry Butler steps out in a traditional tuxedo, but unfortunately after Kennedy introduces him with a long list of all the great songs Butler had been associated with, he sings something called “Hey, Western Union Man.”

The same thing happens with Percy Sledge who sings “You Had to be There” instead of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Freda Payne at least sings a lively version of “Band of Gold” and looks beautiful while she does it. There is also a black and white film of Otis Redding dancing with a crew of children to his “Satisfaction.”

The highlight of the concert is Gladys Knight and the Pips. This is a woman that commands the stage. She exudes warmth. It is clear she loves what she’s doing, and no matter how many times she has sung some of these songs, she still manages to make them fresh and exciting. “I Will Fight,” “You Are the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me,” “Save the Overtime” and of course “Midnight Train to Georgia” show her in top form and justifiably get members of the audience up on their feet before she’s through.

While the sound on the DVD is good, the picture does show its age. Images are not always as sharp as we have come to expect from modern technology. Also cuts from the concert to the host are not always managed as seamlessly as one would like. The DVD does include biographical information about the performers and a convenient track listing to play individual songs.

In the end it’s the music that counts, and there is some mighty fine music here.

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