American rock ‘n’ roll suffers from a sad paradox. The very thing that made it great unto immortality when it first exploded into the world — its thirst for novelty and irreverence towards the past — is what leads fans and artists continuing this legacy to ignore the very people who made everything that came after possible. Could Andre 3000 exist without Sly Stone? Well, maybe, but it still doesn’t mean that it’s at all fair for a certifiable genius like Stone to be relegated to the dustiest dustbins of history. And attempts to show some respect for our elders tend to come off as unbearably pious if not plain hypocritical. One wonders if it does any good to stick the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Clash into a hall of fame, and it’s a fair question to ask if it actually does quite a bit of harm instead.
Hence, something like Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a new DVD from the hit-or-miss squad at Eagle Rock Entertainment, should be greeted with an adult dose of skepticism. Featuring a whopping one-to-three songs each from James Brown, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and B.B. King, Legends was filmed in 1989 in Rome before a wild crowd. It’s nice to see that some places in the world still had the good sense as of the late ’80s to scream like mad for these guys, but would this bunch of oldsters really do anything to deserve these Euro-hollers? Let’s take them one at a time.
James Brown starts things off, and though his well-publicized legal troubles were just around the corner, the Godfather of Soul (mysteriously announced as “the King of Soul”) does just fine here. As erratic as he may have been since his heyday, Brown has always had a knack for assembling great backing bands, and if the one featured here doesn’t quite put Clyde Stubblefield and Bootsy Collins to shame, it acquits itself nicely, as does Brown himself, looking loads more lively than he ever did in his post-prison years.
Up next is Bo Diddley. It’s hard not to like any DVD that features performances from two of the most underrated first-generation rockers (the other being Jerry Lee Lewis), and much as it might be sacrilege to say it, I’d rather listen to Diddley than Chuck Berry any day. His recordings still sound wild and inventive today whereas Berry can come across a tad crass and calculated. And Diddley himself put plenty of fire into his performance here, even throwing in some cardio-kickboxing moves years before they became chic (no kidding!). A few complaints do come to mind, though: as many times as I’ve listened to “Bo Diddley”, and marveled at its greatness, I’ve never once thought that the one missing thing preventing it from truly launching into the stratosphere was a cheesy ’80s synth. Neither did I long to hear the drum part banged out by a guy with a mullet and a neon pink sport coat.
We’ve all been digging out our Ray Charles albums in the wake of his death to remind ourselves just what a gift to the world this man was, but the Romans didn’t need such a drastic reminder to appreciate him. They cheer him on as he runs through “Mess Around” and “I’m a Fool for You” with more than enough conviction and skill to make you forget how frail he looked when being led to and away from the piano. I was lucky enough to see him a couple of years before he died, and though he looked even more fragile, the man could still sing and play like you wanted him to. His presence on this DVD enriches it immensely.
Less awe-inspiring is Little Richard. Looking more terrified than thrilled, Richard takes his sweet time getting to the piano, and when he finally does sit down and play, he does so with none of the wildness that has forever been his trademark. Understandably so, perhaps, but it’s still sad to see the guy drenched in sweat after such piddling effort, topping his performance not with any grand musical crescendo but by theatrically tossing his shoe into the crowd.
Jerry Lee Lewis made perfect sense to follow Little Richard, and though he shares with him the unfortunate position of forever competing against a youthful standard that required mountains of energy to achieve, Lewis is, unlike Richard, one of the most amazing performers of American rock music. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” remains captivating nearly 50 years later, and the man behind it — irascible, mean, contemptuous — delivers a fascinating if not quite great performance, leaving the piano only to return and bang out some more notes with his fingers, feet, and ass as if he feels bringing this silly thing called rock ‘n’ roll to climax one more time is beneath him, but damnit if he couldn’t give it the best climax it ever had if he were in the mood.
Fats Domino. In a word: meh. Double meh for taking his fashion advice from Bo Diddley’s drummer.
Rounding out the set is B.B. King, always a seam-bursting, wide-eyed joy in his three-piece suit. Nothing revelatory, but a ton of fun all the same. He leads into the obligatory all-star jam, which is only good as the soundtrack to rolling credits. And there, at the 60-minute mark, we take our leave of these icons, letting them sink once more into undeserved obscurity.