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On TV: Soundstage's greatest hits



Shhh! Al Green is talking. "I can't see peace of mind," he says. "I can't hold joy in my hands. I can't grab everlasting life and hold it like that." He's sitting on a Chicago TV stage clad in what looks like a jeans jumpsuit and a stunning fur coat. His face flashes with extremes, a shit-eating grin alternating with that patented beatific smile.

He's discussing the twin appeals of the secular and the divine. "I used to sneak Jackie Wilson records into the house," he says. "But my father was a Baptist. He didn't want to hear worldly music, so to speak. But I liked it." The smile. The Green household, however, was divided: "My mother would say, 'Play 'em.' And I'd say, 'Are you sure?' And my mother would say, 'Play 'em!'" The grin.

The scene is part of a lengthy reminiscence by Green that took place between songs during a 1978 broadcast of Soundstage, the heralded public-television live-music series that gave dozens of artists an uncluttered hour in which to present their work. The show originated in Chicago at WTTW; today, four years after the series ended, the Museum of Broadcast Communications is presenting three weekends of Soundstages, the cream of a complete set of the series recently acquired by the museum. While shows often included short interviews, Soundstage's chief virtue was its unadorned presentation of music: with no variety-show hoopla or vacuous "hosts," the artists--most of them American, and most having some roots in country, folk, or blues--were treated with a tacit deference and respect. While this sometimes resulted in incongruity--with, say, Barry Manilow--it more often resulted in good to spectacular television.

"We wanted to be current, of course," recalls Ken Ehrlich, Soundstage's producer. "But we also wanted to do what no one else was doing, which was give perspective to the music you were hearing. I've always loved black music, and we really wanted to let the generation that grew up with rock 'n' roll know about the past--that it really started in the south, it really started in Chicago."

Most of the shows were filmed in WTTW's studio A, located then as now at 5400 N. Saint Louis; occasionally special shows were filmed at Park West or the Aragon, or in Grant Park during ChicagoFest. For roots music, Ehrlich and his directors would present Muddy Waters, or Jackie Wilson (just months before the stroke that disabled and eventually killed him), or Ella Fitzgerald, or Count Basie. The show was also strong on the singer-songwriters of the mid-70s, filming John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III, and Harry Chapin. Country and folk were adequately represented as well, with shows on Doc and Merle Watson, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs, and Kris Kristofferson.

Soundstage began as a local show, produced by Ehrlich and called Made in Chicago. A tragedy gave it national recognition. When Jim Croce died in a plane crash in 1973, a recent appearance on Made in Chicago was broadcast on PBS stations across the country; WTTW applied for national funding the next year, and Soundstage was born.

The first show, which will be shown in the museum's theater Saturday, August 19, at 4 PM, was a raucous tribute to Muddy Waters, featuring Waters himself backed up by Dr. John, Johnny Winter, Buddy Miles, and Willie Dixon, among others. Soundstage quickly hit its stride with terrific shows featuring everything from the antics of Flo and Eddie and Martin Mull to the awesome virtuosity of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

A lot of people watched. "At the time," recalls Ehrlich, "public television had a very old audience, which watched Masterpiece Theatre, and a very young audience, which watched Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Soundstage was really one of the first public television shows that appealed to a more youthful, young adult audience."

After a few years, Ehrlich moved to LA, where he still runs his own successful TV production company--he's produced eight of the last nine Grammy shows. Still, throughout the 70s and early 80s he oversaw Soundstage, booking the acts in California, and flying to Chicago to produce the tapings. Ehrlich and Dick Carter, who directed 62 of the 111 shows, will appear at the museum at 4 PM Saturday to speak and answer questions.

For fans of music, there are several not-to-be-missed programs. The first, at noon today, is an incendiary performance by Cheap Trick at its height, at a 1981 ChicagoFest. The hard-rock quartet from Rockford is convincingly filmed pinning the crowd's ears back. On Saturday, a historic and mesmerizing two-part special, The World of John Hammond, will be shown. Hammond was the CBS exec who signed and produced some of the greatest stars in jazz and rock, from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan. Hammond's reminiscences are the stuff of history, and the performances--including Benny Goodman and George Benson jamming on "Seven Come Eleven" and Bob Dylan singing the hell out of "Hurricane" and "Simple Twist of Fate"--are nonpareil.

And then there's Al Green, whose one-hour special will be shown September 2 at 3 PM. Green steps delicately up onto the stage, and then leaps in the air. He sings most of his greatest hits in a three-piece suit, sweats up a storm, gives his scarf to a fan, and throws a handful of roses into the audience. He closes, smoking, with "I Feel Fine," from his immortal Belle Album. In between songs, he tells us about a talk he had with God. "After you've been so successful, Mr. Al Green, you must give back all the success you've had for the edification of Jesus Christ." Green smiles again and then grins--but a year later a brush with death took him out of pop music and back into gospel, where he stayed for nearly a decade.

The museum is on the ground floor of River City, 800 S. Wells. The free Soundstage showings will screen continuously from noon to 5, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, August 18-20 and 25-27 and September 1-3. Visitors can also check out archive videotapes for personal viewing. Call 987-1500 for more information.

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