Much is made in the liner notes of this long-hoped-for release about the enthusiasm and deep intuition that the late concert organizer Lee Atwater — otherwise, a cut-throat South Carolina-bred political advisor — brought to R&B, soul and blues music. He was, when not playing a ruthless brand of politics, a huge fan. And, it must be noted, he leveraged that passion to bring together a stunning array of stars to appear at a presidential inauguration event for George H.W. Bush in January of 1989.
That said, they buried the lead. For all of its musical delights (including, but not limited to, Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor’s raucous run through “Wang Dang Doodle,” Bo Diddley’s thunderous “I’m A Man,” Dr. John’s lip-smackingly salacious “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd setting fire to “Knock on Wood,” Albert Collins’ absolutely scalding “Frosty” and a house-rattling closing set courtesy of Stevie Ray Vaughan), this concert would be but a footnote on Atwater’s resume if not for the efforts of producer Howell Begle.
In fact, the narrative surrounding A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert, and how it came to be belatedly released this week via Shout Factory, carries with it more lasting intrigue than any dirty-tricks rumor that ever sprung from Atwater’s fertile imagination.
It was Begle who served as coordinating producer for the original event, and Begle who brought in Joyce Moore — wife and manager of Sam Moore, who performs a randy version of the old Sam and Dave hit “Soul Man” with Steve Cropper — to help secure talent and organize rehearsals, and Begle who got the event set up at D.C.’s downtown convention center. But, alas, his work was just beginning.
Initially, it seems, copyright for the concert film was assigned to David Nash, but Nash was unable to raise the necessary funds as the 1990s dawned to complete post-production work. By 1991, Atwater had died of brain cancer, and the project lost its driving force. Soon, the audio and video masters vanished — with only a lone VHS copy, made as a momemento, appearing to have survived.
Begle, however, made a fortuitous deal at the time that ended up leading directly to A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert when he invited Bose to capture the evening on a 24-track analog tape, for future use as a retail-store demo to show off the company’s equipment. They’d also been given duplicate video masters from the event, tapes that were found in the basement of Bose’s Framingham, Massachusetts headquarters.
Begle contracted a video editor and mixer to try to save what was left, and Jef Huey and Ed Greene set about recovering the precious cargo found here. It took some five years, with assistance from Camp Street Studios’ Andy Taylor and Paul Kolderie and Rounder Records’s Scott Billington, among others. In the end, Greene and Huey were able to assemble — with the addition of newly discovered b-roll footage and a Betacam tape of the event belonging to TV executive Gerry Wurzburg — a stunning 5.1 six-channel surround mix that does remarkable justice to the music that unfolded on this night.
Over the interim, Begle’s efforts became ever more important as so many of the key figures from this night passed, including Dixon, Collins, Taylor, Diddley, Billy Preston, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Vaughan. Begle’s labor of love saved a key piece of musical, not political, history — ultimately making the story of A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert more improbable than Atwater’s having put the show together in the first place.