In high school Arsenio Hall played drums in the marching band, orchestra and his own group. At Kent State University he was a disk jockey on campus radio WKSR.
Hall’s first big break as a young stand-up comic knocking around Chicago was emceeing for singer Nancy Wilson in December 1979. She sponsored his move to Los Angeles, where his career launched as the opening act for Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, Neil Sedaka and Wayne Newton.
Music was the beat of Hall’s career and it remains the soul of “The Arsenio Hall Show.” As a showcase for selling and promoting records, it is exceeded only by MTV and the adult contemporary VH-1.
“From the very beginning the acts we booked were just no place else,” producer Marla Kell Brown explains. “Bobby Brown was on our very first show and people said, this was such a hip, new act. But he was No. 1 on the pop charts.”
The playlist has always been an eclectic mix that reflects Hall’s own tastes. “From the way I feel from night to night I’m America’s most public schizophrenic. Because I do like Naughty by Nature and Wayne Newton. How can a guy like Reba McEntire and Whitney Houston? I do. That’s what makes the show work,” Hall insists.
This month’s mix includes Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Tone Loc, Barry Manilow, Jesus Jones, Madonna, Duran Duran. But Hall’s, Brown’s and musical producer Sharon Olson’s special delight is still in breaking new acts.
“The greatest thing that can happen to you is to sit and hear Mariah Carey’s song on the radio and now it’s No. 1 pop and Tommy, who ran the label came up to you at the Ivy and said, ‘Will you listen to this. If you like this, I would like her to break on your show,’ ” recalls Hall.
“Mariah was on the show in ’89,” Brown notes. “I don’t know if you realize how far back that was? ’89.”
In interviews, as in producing the show, Hall and Brown often play like a couple of forwards– breaking, passing the ball back and forth.
“I’m looking at this skinny little girl,” he adds. “Does she have these kind of pipes. And she comes over and we talk and everything. When I heard this tape and she later came on the show, she was ‘bad.’ And she has gone through the roof.”
“He introduced rap to the audience, where they didn’t have a place to go before,” points out Olson. “But more importantly, rather than just have a rap group on, he sat them down and talked to them so they could let everybody know what they were all about,” including Ice-T at the height of the controversy over “Cop Killer.”
Says Brown: “A lot of what’s interesting in rap is the lyrics. I think there’s a perception that we do more rap…We do more than other shows, but for people who aren’t as involved in the music world, every time they see a black musical act, they think it’s rap.”
Brown tries to book one musical act per show–Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart hanging out on a crate or Hall & Oates just sitting on the couch with Arsenio playing their old hits. Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Boyz II Men and Sheila E. have sat in with the house band, the Posse, lead by jazzman Michael Wolff.
But it is production that distinguishes the big musical numbers. The sound staff has won an Emmy. Given the pressures of getting out a show every day, exceptional creative attention is paid to the staging, lighting and art design.
Director Sandi Fullerton is a veteran of the syndicated “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert,” musicvideos for Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and David Bowie and the “Live Aid” concert.
Shooting live precludes post-production and adding special effects, “but I’ve wrung every ounce of blood out of the videotape room and switcher,” Fullerton says, switching to diffusion lenses, B&W, or sepia tones for mood and effects.
“I like to shoot acts in new and different ways that have never been seen on live television.” She whips
and zooms four cameras in continuous motion around singers and musicians, cutting from one to another with skill and musical timing.
TV viewers miss one of the great shows-within-the-show–Fullerton in the control booth directing a music number, on her feet dancing in spot to the music , eyes riveted on a half-dozen monitors, chanting commands to the four cameras over her head set to go “wide on…” or “go
get the bass,” i.e., a quick zoom and signalling cuts from camera to camera on the beat or the lyric with snaps of her fingers. She edits live what takes others hours on an editing console.
“Groups like Melissa Etheridge and Sade and Slaughter walk out of here saying , ‘I don’t know why I bother to spend so much money on video!’ ” Fullerton notes.
Singers from Prince to Dolly Parton show up to perform for scale and hawk their new albums.
The New Kids on the Block interrupted a world tour just to prove on the “Arsenio Hall Show” that they did indeed sing live. “They had been on the show, but their then-record producer said that that wasn’t a live appearance,” says Brown. “So they flew in all the way from Australia for one day and then went back just to make that point.” And Milli Vanilli lip-synching-scandal singers Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan performed live for the very first time on the show.
Who has been the most popular attraction with Hall’s audience?
“Guest-wise, Madonna,” Brown says. But she was just on the couch to chat up a film, not sing.
“Barry Manilow,” answers Hall. “Barry Manilow’s women are outside, Neil Diamond’s women are outside when I arrive in the morning. Everybody is talking about New Kids and Bobby Brown and Naughty by Nature and Madonna. Madonna don’t have no people lined up like Barry Manilow. Yeah.”
Brown: “Sleeping out. Those loyal fans.”
Hall: “There’s a group calledDigable Planet. When I left here the night before, there were nothing but men in lawn chairs lined up. They weren’t even girl fans. They were guys, ‘Yo, wasup. Wasup.’ The group had a jazz rap hit.”
What is the one thing they would like to do that they haven’t?
“I want to get Madonna to sing,” Olson says, “and Arsenio wants to get Prince to talk.”
Olson gets her request granted twice tonight on the 1,000th show, which was taped last night at the Hollywood Bowl. Madonna performs in a special production number in a duet with Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Brown’s unrequited desire: “An hour tribute to (Barbra) Streisand.”
They have already done “Wayne’s World,” an hour of Wayne Newton. “I went to Vegas with a friend,” recalls Hall. “And he wanted me to go see Wayne Newton. ‘He’s “bad.” He plays every instrument. He makes the most money in this town. That’s what everyone wants to see.’
“And I’m like, yeah, I’m a brother from the nasty, greasy ghetto of Cleveland. I don’t want to see no Wayne Newton. Is Michael Jackson in town? That’s how I was.
“I’m sitting there and by the end of three hours, not only had I had one of the most exciting experiences of my life, by the end of it I was a huge fan. I said, ‘can you get me backstage? I want to meet this guy.’ He plays violin, he plays trumpet, he sings, do all kind ofstuff. He did everything but moon-walking the night I went. And I went backstage and I talked to him like four in the morning.
“I do have an appreciation for a lot of different things. ‘The Arsenio Hall Show,’ which critics tried to say was a black show, a young show, a loud show–they tried to pigeon-hole it in many different places. It was hard for them to find the next criticism for me when I had ‘Wayne’s World.’
“I called Wayne and I said, ‘What night are you black up at Vegas?’ And he said, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘What night are you dark? I want you to have a whole hour, man. Do everything you want to do on TV. We’ll sing, talk, sing, talk, sing, sing, talk.’ And that’s what we did.”
Brown: “There’s a real clear definition about what an Arsenio Hall show is. And it’s going to stay that way. It’s young. Young at heart, not necessarily young in age. People want to know what’s going on in pop culture. And that’s a broad word.
“People used to always say the show was so hip. It’s always been my contention that it’s always been very mainstream…Since we’ve been on the air, these rap groups are the No. 1 pop groups. That really seems to be what’s going on at the top of music. But we don’t want to be a top 10 hit show. Just because they’re No. 1, we don’t book them. Hopefully, we do it a little bit more creatively.”
Hall reminisces, “In the old days I used to work with Nancy Wilson and Patti LaBelle, but mostly Nancy. We’d do small jazz clubs. The one I remember in particular is the Parisian Room. It’s a post office now on Washington and LaBrea.
“Back then, I worked with people like Joe Williams and guys likethat, OK. It was so cool when you had these clubs that held 50 people and you had an artist right there. I said, let’s figure a way to get the artist really close to the audience. There something about that intimacy that no longer exists when a person does the Forum. And what I create in the studio is what goes home. If you can create the excitement there, (director) Sandi (Fullerton) can carry it home. You’ve got to create that intimacy, that closeness, that whatever, in the studio first.
“And I’ve always done that.”