By Peter Lindblad
That was true even if you were The Rolling Stones and you were headlining the star-packed “T.A.M.I. Show” in 1964.
“James looked at me before [they took the stage] and he asked me, ‘Am I the last act?’” recalls Steve Binder, who directed the filming of that historic concert now available in DVD form from Shout! Factory.
“And I said, ‘No, we’re putting The Rolling Stones on after you.’ He looked at me, and he smiled and said, ‘Nobody follows James Brown,’ and he walks away (laughs).”
Not ones to back down from a challenge, the Stones went out and knocked ’em dead — Mick Jagger, in particular, and his rubbery legs, was electrifying. Still, Keith Richards is said to have once commented to Rolling Stone magazine that “ … following James Brown on ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’” was the worst move the Stones ever made.
Binder isn’t so quick to agree.
“I felt just the opposite,” he said. “I felt we would have never gotten that performance had they been in front of James Brown. And it may have been strictly an accident that Bill Sergeant (who organized ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’) … [but] I don’t know what he was taking backstage, but I thought Mick kind of transformed himself into James with all the jumping around and dancing. It was an incredible performance, and it certainly equaled, if not topped, what James had done.”
Whatever the case, “The T.A.M.I. Show” is, unquestionably, one of the most transcendent events in rock history. One after another, the greatest artists of the day, often flanked by nubile young dancers, were ushered onstage, their sizzling performances sending the crowd of local teenagers from Santa Monica, Calif., into a frenzy.
“I would have enjoyed — because Santa Monica generally is a blonde, blue-eyed, caucasian environment — I would have liked a more mixed audience,” said Binder. “Generally speaking, they all came from the Santa Monica school system.”
The list of performers that graced the stage at the Santa Monica Civic Center Oct. 28 and 29, 1964, simply boggles the mind. Along with Brown and the Stones, the show featured Lesley Gore, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and The Beach Boys, among others. Not only that, but Jan & Dean served as emcees.
“I think it was [musical director] Jack [Nitzsche] who was Bill’s right arm when it came to who should be in the film and so forth, but never, even when I spoke to Jack before he passed away, did he, in his wildest dreams, or we, for that matter, think that seven out of the 12 acts would end up in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame,” exclaimed Binder.
Of course, there was no way for Binder or anybody else associated with “The T.A.M.I. Show” (press materials of the time said the acronym stood for either Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International) to predict just how big the televised event, or the artists associated with it, would become.
“At the time, to be honest, I was making a rock ’n’ roll film,” he said. “I had no idea of the historical significance of it, whatsoever.”
While in college at the University of Southern California, Binder met late-night entertainer Steve Allen, who was launching a new show called “Jazz Scene USA” in 1962.
“He said, ‘Have you ever directed before?’” remembered Binder. “And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Do you think you could do it?’ And I said, ‘If you give me a shot, I’ll find out real quick.’”
Eventually, Binder worked his way up to directing Allen’s own late-night show. During that time, Sergeant approached him about an idea he had for a rock ’n’ roll show. And he had plans to do a theatrical release of what would become “The T.A.M.I. Show,” using improvements in film technology — it was recorded in high-definition Electronovision and converted to film via kinescope — at the time.
“Sergeant’s original plan was to do this every single year,” said Binder. “And up ’til that time, there really wasn’t much rock ’n’ roll visually to be seen, even on television.”
While America was being inundated with news of Elvis and the British Invasion, spearheaded by The Beatles, it didn’t really know its own African-American artists.
“Most of us, anyway, did not know what James Brown looked like, or the Miracles, unless you went to live concerts,” said Binder.
“The T.A.M.I. Show” helped change all that. And it changed Binder, who would go on to work on “Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special.” Today, his work on “The T.A.M.I. Show,” which resulted in a very natural, unaffected, highly visceral concert experience, is universally acclaimed. Initially, however, not everyone appreciated what he’d done.
Binder said, “I remember going in to see the print after it came out of the soup, and I was sitting at the laboratory, and there was Bill with his little entourage, and he was with technical people from the lab, and after they showed like five minutes of it, the head of the technical group of the facility leaned over to Sergeant and said, ‘Bill, your director has screwed you. This is a disaster (laughs).’
All the close-ups, they contended, were going to send viewers running for the exits. Even Binder had his doubts. He said, “To tell you the truth, I was saying to myself, at the time, ‘Did I screw up the film?’”
No, Binder did something amazing. Confirmation came when he went to a screening once in Westwood, Calif., a few years after it was distributed. It had become a cult classic.
“There was a midnight showing … and out of curiosity — I lived near there — I drove and parked, and I walked up to the theater and there was this line around the block at 11:30 p.m. or something like that,” said Binder. “And then after the first run, the film let out and I think 15 people just walked out of theater. They were blown away at seeing such a huge crowd.”
All these years later, Binder is similarly impressed. “I can look at any of my projects over the years, and I can tell you where the bad edits are,” he said. “I always cough or cringe when I know something’s coming up that I did that I could have done better, but with ‘The T.A.M.I. Show,” it was like a feeling of, ‘I did that?’”