This week sees the highly anticipated Shout Factory release of A Celebration of Blues and Soul: the 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert. Considered lost for almost two decades, the footage of this event has been pieced together from a variety of sources and remastered for finally hitting store shelves some 25 years later. Boasting the once-in-a-lifetime lineup of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Sam Moore, Billy Preston, Percy Sledge and more, and filmed with the technological capabilities some of these legends were never otherwise seen with, it's an absolute holy grail for all music fans. We spoke to Howell Begle, one of the show's original producers and the driving force behind resurrecting the event, about how this rediscovered lost gem of a show came to be.
OC Weekly (Chaz Kangas): Congrats on the release finally hitting store shelves!
Howell Begle: Thanks! I never thought it would take 25 years. It's one of those things where the more and more invested you get, it becomes something you have to stick with no matter what. I feel really good we got it out, and I've gotten to speak with so many musicians who were involved with it and it meant a lot to them. It was a big moment in their lives. I'm very glad to have played the role I played. It was an army of people involved with this from day one, from the musicians to the post-production and restoration.
With rediscovering this footage, what began the quest to find and release the concert?
Let me clarify a bit. After the concert, because this was not something the committee planned, they were surprised. They didn't like to be surprised and, four days prior, they had no idea people like [Rolling Stones'] Ron Wood were being booked for this. When they heard it was being video taped, that raised other concerns with people in the Republican National Committee. This was something that was all of a sudden getting press attention, and they had no idea what it was going to look like. All of the copies that normally you would be allowed to keep, in addition to the master, were all rounded up by the Presidential Inaugural Committee the day after the concert. There really weren't any other copies that existed other of that stuff. I had a VHS copy of the line-cut, and the curial audio record, both of which were mixed on the fly. None of the rest of us had anything. Lee Atwater [Bush's campaign manager who had envisioned the concert for years and made it his pet project] died a year-and-a-half later and, I guess they felt a sea of black performers wasn't a message they were interested in projecting out there, so nothing happened with this stuff for 17 years.
There came a moment when I went to David Nash, whose production company it was. He did five Republican conventions after that and was the copyright holder of this stuff. I had heard in 2006 that he had had a heart attack and I figured there was no sense in waiting any longer. I talked to David and we worked out an understanding where he would be willing to give me the copyright to the performances, even though he didn't own anything with Atwater or Bush or the people who spoke at the concert like Chuck Norris. Let me just tell you, you're not missing much by not hearing Chuck Norris or Cheryl Ladd hold court on the subject of the blues for ten minutes. David was willing to sell me the copyright, but he didn't tell me that, as far as he knew, all the masters had been destroyed. Ten years after the concert, the Republicans that controlled it decided the stuff wasn't worth keeping, so David stopped paying rent on it and they destroyed the stuff at the production house he wasn't going to save. The only thing he had to give me was the reel shot of on a single betacam of the crowd, three hours of 16-year-old Republican teenagers in business suits. There wasn't a lot of grooving going on.
I'm glad the actual footage from your collection, Bose and the other sources were found and able to be touched up for this release. It's incredible to see so many rhythm-and-blues greats who really had never been filmed like that.
That's what I really think is the unique value of this. I had the good fortune seeing a fantastic group of musicians from the '50s and '60s perform over my life. I'm very conscious of how little of those great performances ever get recorded, especially of this quality. When you look at this and see a Bo Diddley or a Willie Dixon or a Chuck Jackson you know, this is as good as it gets in terms of recordings.
The other thing that sets this apart from other concerts is the sheer joy you see on the face of everyone of those artists. The camaraderie and, if you know artists, there's also competition. Each of them is laying down the best performance they can lay down [as if to say] "follow that." Most of these people were in town for a time. We rehearsed the show in an all wood roller-rink not far from the convention center, and these guys had the time of their lives. I can't tell you how excited Dr. John was to be around Willie Dixon. I think all these artists felt how special the moment was and how much they respected each other. When you realize this was shot 25 years ago, you realize how much people put into post-production. In this world, when you have people who are willing to devote their energies to it, they can take every second of 25-year-old footage and get everything out of it. This list of people to thank now are endless.
What do you recall from your first meeting with Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist who oversaw President Bush's 1988 campaign and was the driving force behind this concert?
In 1988, before Bush got elected, [political reporter] Annie Groer invited Ruth Brown (Atlantic Records' first big star who had 85 hits for the label) and to the White House Correspondents Dinner at the time when Altantic Records was caving in and paying all these artists I represented. Her real goal was to get Atwater together with Ruth. With all the important people there, he, as Bush's campaign manager, should have been meeting all the people in the room, but instead hung out with Ruth all night, swopping stories about blues. I was amazed at what an incredibly knowledgable and seemingly committed blues fan he was. I was down at the Jazz and Heritage Festival a couple weeks later, standing out in the rain a week before the primary election, and this guy comes up to me in a trashbag raincoat and says "Hi, I'm Lee Atwater."