I remember once when I was very young watching a rerun of Happy Days. As you may recall, the first and second seasons of that famed nostalgia sit-com played “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets during the opening credits instead of the now iconic “Happy Days” theme song. Later that day my Dad heard me singing the hook to that song. “You know, that was a popular song when I was a kid,” he told me.
This threw me for a loop. When you were a kid? I had no idea that this song was nearly thirty years old at the time, or that it was the first Rock and Roll song to reach number one on the pop charts. I just thought it was a good song (and still do).
During my childhood I would hear Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston or Madonna on the radio and liked it, but I was just as fond of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and of course The Beatles. By the time I was older and had some perspective as to the timeline of rock and roll, popular music had veered off into several directions that I just couldn’t get into. I didn’t care for thrash metal, grunge rock or hip-hop and frankly I still don’t. With a few notable exceptions (No Doubt, Bruno Mars) you won’t find much contemporary music on my playlist.
I know I may sound like a grumpy old man but I’m not a music critic and I’m not here to condemn the music of today. If you’re gaga for Lady Gaga or if you adore Adele I’m not going to rain on your parade. I just want to illustrate my affection for rock and roll from the fifties and sixties. If you too share a love for this period of music, then The T.A.M.I. Show is a must see.
Putting things into perspective, The T.A.M.I. Show is the very first rock concert film, preceding Woodstock, Gimmie Shelter, The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense and any number of “rockumentaries”. It was released in 1964; roughly a decade after “Rock Around the Clock” brought rock and roll into the mainstream. Prophesies decrying rock as just a fad proved to be woefully inaccurate. By 1964 the genre had weathered the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Rhythm and Blues artists such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard found themselves gaining the kind of mainstream success that most black performers had previously been denied. Elvis Presley took the country by storm, served his time in the army, came home and continued to perform, though by ’64 was more concerned with making a series of progressively inane movies.
From Philadelphia we were getting the clean-cut stylings of Fabian and Frankie Avalon. From New York the Brill Building sound. Berry Gordy’s Motown empire was going full force in Detroit while James Brown’s energy was radiating from Georgia. In L.A. Phil Spector was developing his “wall of sound” and The Beach Boys, those five young men from Hawthorn, California were harmonizing and romanticizing the car and surfboard culture of the greater Los Angeles area.
All of this had been eclipsed that February when the The Beatles arrived in New York and played on The Ed Sullivan Show. While they were appearing on solo bills around the country (Elvis Presley and Rick Nelson were the only other rock acts that didn’t appear as part of a variety show), other British acts crossed the pond in hopes of picking up some of the Beatles momentum. It was into this milieu that producer Bill Sergeant assembled some of the top acts of the day at the Santa Monica Civic Center for a two-day musical extravaganza.
The show was titled The T.A.M.I. Show, T.A.M.I. being an acronym for “Teenage Awards Music International”, not that any actual awards were handed out. Bill Sergeant had invented a new television process called “Electronovision”, a high-resolution broadcasting and recording process that allowed a live performance to be shown in theaters via closed circuit television (a precursor to today’s satellite distributed Fathom Events) while simultaneously recording the performance. Via Kinescope the recording could then be transferred to film. Sergeant had already used the process to exhibit a filmed version of Richard Burton performing in a stage version of Hamlet.
Sergeant hired Steve Binder, a regular director for The Steve Allen Show, to direct. Binder would later go on to direct the teenage dance show Hullabaloo, a daring-at-the-time TV special hosted by Petula Clark and Harry Bellefonte (having a white woman and black man sing together was still considered taboo) and Elvis Presley’s dynamic 1968 TV special, forever referred to by his disciples as “The ’68 Comeback Special.” On the debit side, Binder also had the dubious honor of directing the notoriously bad Star Wars Holiday Special.
The line-up for The T.A.M.I. Show included many of the top acts of the day (well, the top acts that weren’t The Beatles). The show was emceed by Jan and Dean, a California rock duo consisting of William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby Torrence. Essentially a knock off of The Beach Boys, they recorded such songs as “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve”. The later song took on a cruel irony in 1966 when Jan actually suffered a nearly fatal car accident when he crashed his Corvette on the real Dead Man’s Curve! Jan was apparently something of a daredevil. During the opening sequence he and Dean are riding their skateboards (which at that time were considered a terra firma alternative to the surf board) through the streets of Santa Monica. Jan suffers a fall but ends up doing a summersault. After his accident Jan made a nearly full recovery. He passed away in 2004.
The opening act for the show, somewhat appropriately, was the man that many consider the father of Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry. The legendary singer-guitarist who still occasionally plays today was chiefly responsible for making the guitar the principal instrument of the genre and certainly helped create the rebellious, rakish spirit that this rebellious music personified. After playing two of his biggest its, “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybellene”, he’s joined by one of the new British groups, Gerry and the Pacemakers. They take over “Maybellene” and follow up with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “It’s Gonna Be Alright”.
Next we get Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Motown’s first super group. Indeed, Smokey co-founded Motown. The incredibly handsome Mr. Robinson leads his group through “That’s What Love Is Made Of”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and their delightfully fun “Mickey’s Monkey” (“Dum-dee dum-dee, lye”). They’re followed by one of Motown’s new artists, Marvin Gaye. He sings such songs as “Pride and Joy” and “Can I Get A Witness”. He’s got a beautiful voice, of course, but Marvin had yet to pair up with Tammy Tyrell to record such standards as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Later as a solo artist he recorded some of the most soulful soul music we’ve ever heard. Yet another artist who’d be taken away from us way too early, by his own father no less!
Next came Leslie Gore, at that time arguably the biggest star on the bill. Just barely eighteen, she had a number of hits under her belt which she sang in the film, including “You Don’t Own Me”, “You Didn’t Look Around” and her signature song, “It’s My Party” (the first hit song produced by Quincy Jones). She ended her set with “Judy’s Gonna Cry”, at which point the dancers and acts that appeared thus far came out to dance. Chuck Berry seems to be having the time of his life.
Next up Jan and Dean got their turn to sing “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” and “Sidewalk Surfin”. I’ve never really believed that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I can’t imagine that the Beach Boys, who followed Jan and Dean, felt terribly flattered.
Ah the Beach Boys! I don’t even like the beach myself but I can listen to their harmonies and see myself relaxing on the sand. They were true romantics, capturing an idealized version of the Southern California beach and car culture. Here you get to see the original quintet – brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love and childhood friend/drummer Al Jaradine when they were young, fresh and new. We all know that the group would have some major problems down the line, not least of which was Brian Wilson’s schizophrenia. This is a chance to see them when they were young, fresh and golden.
Not every act was destined to become a music legend. Billy Jay Kramer and the Dakotas and the Barbarians may be well known to Rock historians but they’re certainly not household names. At the time though, they were a popular act and documenting a certain time and place is a big part of a documentarians job (not that this movie was originally considered a documentary).
For many the highlight of The T.A.M.I. Show was the appearance of a song and dance supernova named James Brown. Brown and his Famous Flames had already been performing for more then a decade at this point, but he had yet to “cross over” from the R&B to the pop charts. The T.A.M.I. Show would change all of that.
According to Steve Binder, James Brown was the one performer who didn’t want to rehearse, which meant that Binder had no time to block the cameras. Then again, as a live television director he was quite skilled at thinking on his feet and knowing when to move from one camera to the next. Brown informed him that there was going to be a moment when he was going to have to switch cameras. “When we get to it, you’ll know it,” the Godfather told him. Sure enough, when Brown’s signature cape was draped around him and he was being lead off stage like a wounded prizefighter (Brown had been a boxer), he turns around and gets right back into the act. Brown performed “Out of Sight”, “Prisoner of Love”, “Please, Please, Please” and “Night Train”, all to perfection. It’s no wonder he was dubbed the hardest working man in show business. He’d continue to defy gravity almost until the day he died.
Brown wanted to be the closing act. “No one goes on after me,” he told Binder. This might sound arrogant but Brown knew what a showman he was. Yet there was still one more act to come.
And who had the grave misfortune of following the great James Brown? Why a two-year-old Rhythm and Blues band from London called The Rolling Stones. Back home they were being marketed as the evil alternative to The Beatles (“would you let your daughter date one?” asked a newspaper article), despite the fact that the members of the two bands were very friendly. In his autobiography Keith Richards says that he and John Lennon would coordinate the release of their singles so that they didn’t butt up against one another.
At that point in time though, the Stones had just toured America for the first time and it had not gone well. Richards once said that the biggest mistake of their careers was going on after James Brown. I’m sure hiring the Hell’s Angeles to do security at Altamont must be a close second.
At any rate, James Brown certainly was a tough act to follow. Mick Jagger, having just seen J.B. for the first time even imitates his moves somewhat. They may not be fully formed yet but hearing them singing “Around and Around”, “Off the Hook” and the very prophetic “Time is on My Side” it’s clear that they had found their sound and knew how to tear up the stage. It’s over half a century later and Mick, Keith and their dynamic drummer Charlie Watts are still tearing it up like it’s no one else’s business and can blow any other act out of the water. Hell, they can blow their younger selves out of the water!
The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed over two days. Tickets were handed out to high schools in Santa Monica. Among the kids in the crowd were filmmaker John Landis (Animal House, Trading Places, Coming to America, the Thriller video) and David Cassidy. The shows musical director was Jack Nietzsche, Phil Spector’s right hand man who, among other accomplishments, would win an Oscar for writing the song “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman. Many of the musicians in the back-up band were also members of the Wrecking Crew, the legendary group of session musicians for Phil Spector (they too have recently been the subject of a documentary).
One big aspect of The T.A.M.I Show was the many back-up dancers. Most of the female dancers (among them a young Teri Garr) were recruited from the recently opened Whiskey A-Go-Go, a famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip where scantily clad young women danced in cages, thus making them the original go-go girls. The shows choreographer was David Winters. The original Baby John in West Side Story – a role he reprised for the film version – Winters has gone on to have a versatile career in both film and television as a director, producer and choreographer. He’s still at work today.
His assistant was a young woman named Toni Basil. She would later play opposite Jack Nicholson in both Easy Rider and The Five Easy Pieces, before becoming the choreographer and a member of the pioneering break-dancing troupe The Lockers. And of course she had a number one single in 1982 with “Mickey” (“Oh Mickey Your so Fine”). Personally, I found the constant go-go dancing to be repetitious, but I’m sure any red-blooded American teenage boy must have loved seeing the girls in their bikinis giggling away. You didn’t see that on American Bandstand.
The footage from The T.A.M.I Show was later transferred to film and given a wide theatrical release at the end of the year. Electronovision didn’t really take off but the picture quality is quite extraordinary, at least it is on my home TV.
A year later the producers of The T.A.M.I. Show put together another concert called The Big T.N.T. Show. Years later footage from the two concert films was later edited together to form under the title That Was Rock and released on home video. As for the actual T.A.M.I. Show, Bill Sergeant sold the rights to Dick Clark’s production company but due to a lack of clearance from the many acts the film was never given a proper theatrical re-release nor was it ever available on VHS. There were bootlegs prints, of course, some of which occasionally showed up on television. I worked at a video store once that had a bootleg. The picture and sound quality was terrible and the film was all but unwatchable. Almost all of the bootleg prints omitted the Beach Boys. If you saw the recent film Love and Mercy then you know that Murray Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ father/manager was a vindictive autocrat. He learned that after Richard Burton’s Hamlet was shown in theaters that the prints had to be destroyed and never be shown again (alas, Burton kept a print in his garage). He insisted on the same for the Beach Boys.
At one point Quentin Tarintino had allowed his personal print of The T.A.M.I. Show to be exhibited at a festival of rock concert movies. Steve Binder showed up because he heard that the print included the footage of the Beach Boys. Alas, they were nowhere to be seen and the print quality was again terrible.
In 2010 the home media company Shout! Factory cleared the rights for all of the performances, digitally re-mastered the print and released it on DVD. Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and many others) had worked with videotape during his final years as a live TV director. He would have to wait until 2007 before digital video would reach the point where it could be used to shoot a theatrical feature. This was his final film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, one of the best films of his career. Sadly, also his last.
At that time movies shot on digital video still had to be transferred to film in order to receive a wide release. Today more and more theaters are converting to digital projection. Judging from the picture quality of my T.A.M.I. Show DVD, shooting movies on video and exhibiting them theatrically was by all means possible in 1964.
The T.A.M.I. Show is one of the seminal events in the history of rock and roll and, for that matter, in cinema. The Electronovision format makes it the precursor to today’s digital filmmaking. The eclectic bill of performers, coming together at that point in time makes it an important part of American culture.