Labels get the blues

Diskeries plan CD release tied to PBS film

A collection of 17 new interpretations of songs by blues men J.B. Lenoir and Skip James is among the slate of soundtracks and compilations set for release in association with “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues,” the seven-film series that will air on PBS between Sept. 28 and Oct. 4 and is already opening in European theaters.

Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson, Los Lobos and Beck are among the performers who recorded the songs of Lenoir and James for Wim Wenders’ film “The Soul of a Man,” which premiered in the Directors Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The soundtrack for it and six other films will be released Sept. 9 as part of a partnership between Universal Music Enterprises and Columbia/Legacy. A 21-song, single disc collection, “The Best of the Blues,” which will be advertised heavily on TV, will be released Aug. 26 on UME’s UTV imprint.

5 CD set

Much like Ken Burns’ “Jazz” (2001), whose airing on PBS was accompanied by the release of albums from Columbia/Legacy and Universal Music Group’s Verve label, “The Blues” albums will include a five-CD boxed set, a single-CD compilation overview of the project and single-CD releases of key blues artists.

“The ‘Jazz’ boxed set was the big seller,” noted Andy McKaie, senior VP of A&R for Universal Music Enterprises and a noted blues expert. “There’s a considerable audience out there that goes for the whole enchilada.”

Columbia/Legacy is releasing the soundtrack to the Wenders film plus Scorsese’s “Feel Like Going Home” (tracks by Muddy Waters, Othar Turner, Robert Johnson, Corey Harris and others); Charles Burnett’s “Warming by the Devil’s Fire” (heavy on 1920s recordings plus Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker); and Clint Eastwood’s “Piano Blues” (songs by Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and other pianists).

Legacy will release the DVDs of all seven films on Sept. 30.

PBS publicity

“One thing we learned from Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz,’ ” said Sony Legacy senior VP Jeff Jones, “is that the more we do to drive (viewers) to tune in on PBS, the better off all of us are.”

Universal, which controls the famous Chess catalog, and Legacy are still solidifying marketing and advertising plans and have begun to approach retailers jointly with HarperCollins, publisher of an accompanying book. Volkswagen is sponsoring the series, and label execs have been lobbying the carmaker to use a blues tune in a TV ad. (VW has revived a number of catalog tracks with its advertising, most notably Trio’s “Da Da Da” and Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.”)

Universal Music Enterprises is handling Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” with new music from Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Bobby Rush and other Southern artists; Marc Levin’s “Godfathers & Sons,” which features a track from rapper Chuck D & the Electric MudKats; and Mike Figgis’ “Red White & Blues,” which covers Brit blues bands. Track listings are not yet finalized. Newly recorded tracks will likely be serviced to radio stations dealing with Adult Album Alternative and Americana formats.

A musical journey

Some of those new recordings are included in the boxed set “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues — A Musical Journey,” which features more than 100 songs. Universal Music is handling the set in the U.S., and Columbia/Legacy has it internationally. Set will include blues recordings recognized as some of the genre’s most important.

“The concept of the box is to reflect the history and the evolution — it’s blues, the roots and its fruits,” said McKaie, one of four A&R execs who assembled the music for the set. “We had to figure out how to mold this into a coherent picture without emphasizing anything in particular and making sure that the nooks and crannies are shown off to their best advantage.

“We wanted to rep the series, too, so we put in some key tracks and some one-hit wonders and then put it in chronological order. It got down to ‘who belongs.’ You reach a point where it’s pretty clear which songs are more important than others.”

Boxed set will include tracks by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles and other artists who, in the past, have not allowed their music to be used in multiple artist compilations.

U compilations

Universal will also be issuing single disc compilations of previously released material under the “Scorsese Presents” aegis by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, J.B. Lenoir and the Allman Brothers Band. Columbia/Legacy will do the same for Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Vaughan, Keb’ Mo’, Son House and Taj Mahal.

“It’s important as major labels that we support the artform,” Jones said. “Anytime someone can see Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Howlin Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Muddy Waters on television, it benefits everyone from a business and a cultural perspective.”

Screenings of a highlight reel have been held at several film and music festivals and continue at this weekend’s Spirit Festival in Kansas City, Bumbershoot Music Festival in Seattle (Aug. 29-Sept. 1), the Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept. 19-21) and the Toronto Intl. Film Festival (Sept. 4-13).

In Europe, Wenders’ “The Soul of a Man” is being released theatrically, having started in Italy on June 6. It brought in $81,000 and ranked 10th in the country. Film opens this month in Germany and in October in France. Exhibition in the U.K. and Japan is still being negotiated.

“Out of the seven films,” Scorsese said in a statement, “the audience will ideally come away with the essence of the music — the spirit of it rather than just plain facts.”

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