By Bill Cherry
My 43rd Year Selling Texas
"Since I Don't Have You"
There's one misnomer about story telling, and it is the thought that "minor characters" in a story are all but nonessential. I've found that without the minor characters, the story will be weak; in fact, sometimes not a story at all. Following that one lesson is what often separates good tales from bad ones.
And that's the way it is with the story of the famous rhythm and blues concerts that public television has been using for fund raisers for the past four years.
T.J. Lubinsky is a 30-year old stocky high school drop out with little boy dimples and ‘50s-fad wall to wall eyebrows. He heads fund raising for WQED, the educational television station in Pittsburgh. His 1997 concert idea and the way he's executed it since has generated more than $50 million in viewer pledges to public television, and that's by far the most successful campaign the industry has had throughout its history.
For an example, when New York's WNET ran a concert of the famous Broadway musical, "Les Miserables," it generated viewer donations of $420,000. However, when WNET played Lubinsky's first program, the donations soared to $700,000 the first night.
Prior to the advent of Lubinsky, WQED's most successful fund raising campaign had come in 1994, when it offered boxed video tape sets of a "Three Tenors" performance. It generated $80,000. Lubinsky's program's video tapes brought them $180,000 in contributions three years later.
If you're like a good portion of what's known as Aging America, you've seen at least one of Lubinsky's programs. The most recent one on PBS was called "Red, White and Rock." Before that, it was "Doo Wop 50." Another was titled "Love, Rhythm and Soul."
Even though Lubinsky wasn't around when this music first took over America, he has became an expert in the history of early rhythm and blues, what many call doo wop. His interest had to have come from a legacy, since his grandfather was Herman Lubinsky, the founder of Savoy Records, whose label recorded many of these legends.
What T.J. Lubinsky figured out was that those of us who lived through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and who love that music, are not interested in hearing someone's modern version of the songs. We want it authentic, down to the very riffs in the orchestrations. And that's the part that the minor characters play in these successful events.
Lubinsky started tracking down the old rock stars like the Drifters, Mel Carter, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, Don and Juan, the Clovers, even Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, and the Platters, to see if they would come to Pittsburgh's Benedum Center for the Performing Arts to recreate their unforgettable songs in front of live audiences. The concerts would be taped for sale by Rhino Home Video and then broadcasted over the PBS stations nation-wide. Video tapes of those shows would be offered to viewers throughout the telecast if they made specific donations to their local PBS station.
When he started contacting the performers, what Lubinsky found was not good. Advanced age and lack of constant practice and rehearsals had all but ruined the voices of any number of the old stars. After all, many of them hadn't performed professionally in 40 years or more. And then there were some groups who had had a riff along the way, so they weren't even on speaking terms.
To make matters worse, with the exception of Mel Carter ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me") and Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners ("Since I Don't Have You"), most of the acts couldn't provide accompaniment arrangements for their songs. The studio bands had just winged it when the recordings were made many years before.
So Lubinsky, even himself a minor character in this story, hired another minor character, magnet school music teacher and Pittsburgh Symphony member, my friend 53-year old Richard "Brother Rick" Mansfield. Lubinsky knew by his reputation that Mansfield is to the saxophone what Peanuts Hucko and Pete Fountain are to the clarinet - the best in the world.
Lubinsky explained to Brother Rick that he was to put together the orchestrations and find the musicians who could recreate the authentic "sounds." And he was also to perform all sax solos himself. After all, the saxophone is the backbone of most early rhythm and blues music, and Brother Rick is the best.
Mansfield conditionally agreed to the challenge, but said he'd only take it if he were provided copies of the original recordings of each of the songs that the performers would do on the show. He wanted to methodically listen to the records over and over, transcribe each instrument's part, down to the most minuscule nuance, and then score the arrangements by computer.
Brother Rick told me that in advance of the night of each performance, he invests about six months of work. He then puts together the accompaniment orchestra and begins rehearsing them. Frankly, to the naked eye, they're an odd collection of classical, popular and rock musicians, but most of them live and work in the Pittsburgh area and can easily rise to the musical occasion. They, no doubt, secretly love doo whop, too.
You've seen Brother Rick. He's a rather large white man with aviator-style glasses in front of the orchestra. He looks far more like a CPA than a rhythm and blues or a symphony musician. Nevertheless, he's the one audiences see who bends his legs and contorts his back as he breaks into a sax solo.
Brother Rick told me that when the performers show up at the Benedum, there's only time for most of them to rehearse their song with the musicians once, maybe twice, before show time. To do more would be too costly.
Finally, parked outside of the Benedum is another minor character, a large mobile recording studio that takes down each musician and singer's individual performance on a large 35-track tape deck. That way through electronics, if a singer hits a note flat, for an example, the engineer can fix it so that what we hear on the composite is to proper pitch.
"If a violinist accidently produces a squawk when she draws her bow, they'll correct it," Brother Rick told me. "If one of the old boys just comes close when he sings his song, they'll fix it so it sounds prefect. It's the magic of the authentic arrangements and orchestrations and the sound correction engineering that makes these programs successful," he added.
It's history being recreated and memorialized. My friend Richard Mansfield plays an enormous part in making it happen.
And to think that like Lubinsky, Brother Rick Mansfield wasn't even on this earth when many of the original recordings were being made.
Copyright 2002 - William S. Cherry
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