ONE OF the all-time best concerts of classic blues, soul and rhythm and blues was also one of the unlikeliest.
It happened during the 1989 Presidential inauguration ceremonies for George H.W. Bush, whose own tastes ran more to Frank Sinatra and Randy Travis.
But somehow it happened anyway, with a lineup that included, for starters, Albert Collins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Jackson, Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Percy Sledge, Koko Taylor, Billy Preston and Carla Thomas.
It was also filmed and recorded, and 25 years later one of its organizers, attorney Howell Begle, has finally packaged it for release.
A two-hour DVD will come out in April, but more immediately, 55 minutes will be shown Saturday on PBS, noon and 10 p.m.
It’s titled “A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Inaugural Concert,” and, yes, it’s going to be part of a pledge drive.
The music, though, is worth waiting for. The performers were on that night as they ran through their hits: Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Jackson’s “Any Day Now” and so on.
Neither the DVD nor the shorter PBS version dwell on the somewhat bizarre political backstory of the show, for which President Bush himself appeared at the end.
“The Inauguration Committee planned a show called ‘A Celebration for Young Americans,’ where major donors could send their kids while they went to their own gala,” says Begle. “We essentially hijacked it. We were a stealth event.”
This was possible partly because they had an inside man: the late Lee Atwater, Bush’s bare-knuckles campaign manager, who loved blues and R&B.
Sam Moore (backed by Duck Dunn on bass and Steve Cropper on guitar) in "The 1989 Inaugural Concert"
And so, to the puzzlement of many attendees, a bland and nebulous concert turned hard-core.
Atwater introduced the show by saying it wasn’t about politics, before playing a long guitar number himself.
Begle says some artists declined invitations because of the Bush connection, while those who did play generally accepted that politics wasn’t the message.
“And it wasn’t,” says Begle. “It was just amazing music.”
A quarter century later, it also becomes valuable history.
Not only are several of the performers now gone, but as Begle notes, “Everyone we filmed that night was still in their prime.”
The filming itself also sparkles.
“CBS had just done a huge production there,” says Begle. “So we were able to use their equipment. I’m quite sure very few of these artists were ever filmed as well as we shot them that night.”
Yet still, Begle says, “For 16 or 17 years I was afraid the film would never be released.”
Finally he was able to acquire the rights, which led to another six years securing funds and then cutting the deal with PBS.
And this crazy idea, once more, refuses to die.