Son of Soundstage

The precursor of Soundstage was a local WTTW program called Made in Chicago, which put folkies, bluesies, and other rootsy performers in a famously unadorned hour-long format that let the music do the talking. When Jim Croce died in 1973, just months after taping an installment, the show drew national attention, and with a name change it went national on PBS the following year. It ran for more than 100 shows. Among other things the show was credited with yanking public television’s age demographic healthily downward. In its heyday, pantheonic figures (Al Green, Ella Fitzgerald) and journeymen (Croce, Harry Chapin), the famous (Barry Manilow, Muddy Waters) and not so famous (Michael Smotherman? Bruce Roberts?) were given a chance to present their wares to a thoughtful public. Not every show featured Americans (the Aussie Little River Band had a spot), but the program did seem to have an implicit commitment to indigenous performers who in one way or another had been overlooked–Soundstage presented Tina Turner, for example, before her comeback.

But in the early 80s, stations started dropping out. “They were pressed financially, and they had to shell out for Sesame Street; there was no money for Soundstage,” recalls Dick Carter, a ‘TTW vet who directed more than half of the original episodes. Nearly ten years later a new version is about to hit the air. The new show, Center Stage, will be less grass-roots in both its origins and its talent: it’s being done as a coproduction deal with VH-1, the adult sister channel of MTV. WTTW never forgot Soundstage; VH-1 wanted to do an older version of MTV’s successful Unplugged series, but didn’t have a studio. “It sounds corny,” says Carter, “but it really was, ‘Well, we have a barnÉ’ ” The result will be a genuine partnership. VH-1 will muscle in the talent from a pool of names agreed to by both institutions, and WTTW will tape the shows in Chicago. VH-1 will combine some of the tape with footage of a celebrity host to create a half-hour show; ‘TTW will use more of the performance, add a sprinkling of artist interview (as certain Soundstages did), and fashion a celebrityless one-hour program for PBS syndication. Neil Young will start things off next week; plans are already set for K.D. Lang and Lindsey Buckingham, with the likes of Keith Richards on the way.

Center Stage, Carter says, will be shot in good old Studio A–with some Soundstage camerapeople back in their old positions. Only the equipment will have changed. “We had four cameras then, generally,” says Carter. “Now we’ve got seven. Back in the old days we had what was then a state-of-the-art audio board, with 24 inputs; two weeks ago we got a brand-new one with 60. I think we were the first studio in Chicago with a 24-track recorder. Today 24 isn’t enough, and we’ve got 48. Next week, Neil Young is performing by himself and we’ve got 32 microphone inputs. Things have changed over the years, but we’re keeping up.”

If you were a fan of the original Soundstage, or if you missed it altogether, you should know that the Museum of Broadcast Communications, in the Cultural Center, has a complete collection on tape. You can drop in any time the place is open and check out an episode to watch in one of the museum’s viewing booths. My suggestion is to start with the Al Green show; proceed to the steamy Tina Turner concert, shot at Park West; delve into the two-part “World of John Hammond” tribute, complete with an in-studio performance by Dylan and archival footage of Billie Holiday; check out Cheap Trick at ChicagoFest, and then Martin Mull with Flo and Eddie, and then Muddy Waters backed up by Dr. John, Buddy Miles, and Willie Dixon.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Imponderable No. 2

Hitsville recently inquired as to the pronunciation of the Led Zeppelin title “D’yer Maker.” The first word is often made to rhyme with “higher,” particularly on the radio. However, as Hitsville correspondents Ken Fall, James F. Crowley, “Ariel Joy,” David McCabe, and Phil Stevens perspicaciously point out, it’s supposed to be “Jer-maker,” with the accent on the second syllable. It’s a Cockney pun on the song’s reggae beat and the question, “Did you make her?”–the latter descended from a hoary joke. (Family version: “I took my wife for a Caribbean vacation.” “Jamaica?” “No, she wanted to go.” Bawdy version: “I went to visit my grandmother in the Caribbean…. No, she’s my grandmother.”)

Tidbit: Penn and Teller will be at the Old Town Barbara’s next Thursday, November 19, at 7:30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.