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Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues

Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues (Thurs.(20), 10-11 p.m., PBS) Filmed in Chicago, Los Angeles and other locations by the Chicago Production Center/WTTW, divisions of Window to the World Communications. Executive producer, Shelley Spencer; producer, Michale McAlpin; co-executive producer, Fawn Ring. Writers, Michael McAlpin, Geoffrey Baer, Katherine Van Tyle MacMillin, Akili Buchanan, Shelley Spencer; editor, Paul Thornton; sound, Robert Dove, Jim Mancini, Tim Boyd. Narrator: Etta James. Amilelong stroll down Chicago's South Michigan Avenue yields a tale of the familiar (Chess Records, Muddy Waters) and the forgotten (Vee-Jay Records, El Dorados) --- legendary record biz execs and musicians who attracted a national spotlight by inaugurating the mix of rhythm and the blues on the Southside. Hourlong doc hits highlights, potholes and sidestreets of the era --- essentially 1953 to 1969 --- with little depth or reflection beyond the astute comments of former Vee-Jay and Motown prexy Ewart Abner. Historical footage is the show's strength. Early photos of packed black record stores paired with the story of legendary R&B DJ Al Benson set up a promising story: the rise of a multiracial workforce driven by an urban artform. Soon the area south of the 2200 block of Michigan Avenue is a bustling home to 17 record distributors and six labels as well as the trailblazing radio station WVON. The growth of the recording industry in Chicago in the late 1950s paralleled the northern migration of blacks and before long black-oriented businesses had crossed over into white America. The crossover dreams started to die in the late '60s as the various companies lost track of what made them great in the first place --- Vee-Jay, for example, had their shot at the Beatles and lost them due to a confused agenda. Docu gets sidetracked by non-Chicago stories such as Little Richard, Pat Boone, white-black relations in the South and Motown; when it draws on the relationship of Chess with Chuck Berry and Vee-Jay with John Lee Hooker, it makes the artists appear to be locals (Berry, of course , was from St. Louis and Hooker made his earliest mark in Detroit). While Motown certainly showed how black music directed to white audiences was changing the big picture for black musicians, its direct effect on Chicago is muddled in the telling. Considering the excellent clips used during the credits, it's unclear why the producers chose to get into the Supremes at all. Narrator Etta James reads the script with a steady stiffness, instilling little emotion or candor. Aside from Abner, interview subjects are a mixed bag, singer Jerry Butler and record exec Phil Chess being the most insightful. Today 2120 S. Michigan Ave., the site of Chess Records (currently closed save for some "Blues Heaven" posters), is a tourist destination as disappointing as Hollywood and Vine. There's no sign of life or energy or even a hint of what once was. Docu exposes record row's current disrepair without assigning blame and without offering a vision for the future. It's a history that's doomed to disappear without docus such as "Record Row" but next time out a more focused effort would be an improvement. --- Phil Gallo

Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues (Thurs.(20), 10-11 p.m., PBS) Filmed in Chicago, Los Angeles and other locations by the Chicago Production Center/WTTW, divisions of Window to the World Communications. Executive producer, Shelley Spencer; producer, Michale McAlpin; co-executive producer, Fawn Ring. Writers, Michael McAlpin, Geoffrey Baer, Katherine Van Tyle MacMillin, Akili Buchanan, Shelley Spencer; editor, Paul Thornton; sound, Robert Dove, Jim Mancini, Tim Boyd. Narrator: Etta James. Amilelong stroll down Chicago’s South Michigan Avenue yields a tale of the familiar (Chess Records, Muddy Waters) and the forgotten (Vee-Jay Records, El Dorados) — legendary record biz execs and musicians who attracted a national spotlight by inaugurating the mix of rhythm and the blues on the Southside. Hourlong doc hits highlights, potholes and sidestreets of the era — essentially 1953 to 1969 — with little depth or reflection beyond the astute comments of former Vee-Jay and Motown prexy Ewart Abner. Historical footage is the show’s strength. Early photos of packed black record stores paired with the story of legendary R&B DJ Al Benson set up a promising story: the rise of a multiracial workforce driven by an urban artform. Soon the area south of the 2200 block of Michigan Avenue is a bustling home to 17 record distributors and six labels as well as the trailblazing radio station WVON. The growth of the recording industry in Chicago in the late 1950s paralleled the northern migration of blacks and before long black-oriented businesses had crossed over into white America. The crossover dreams started to die in the late ’60s as the various companies lost track of what made them great in the first place — Vee-Jay, for example, had their shot at the Beatles and lost them due to a confused agenda. Docu gets sidetracked by non-Chicago stories such as Little Richard, Pat Boone, white-black relations in the South and Motown; when it draws on the relationship of Chess with Chuck Berry and Vee-Jay with John Lee Hooker, it makes the artists appear to be locals (Berry, of course , was from St. Louis and Hooker made his earliest mark in Detroit). While Motown certainly showed how black music directed to white audiences was changing the big picture for black musicians, its direct effect on Chicago is muddled in the telling. Considering the excellent clips used during the credits, it’s unclear why the producers chose to get into the Supremes at all. Narrator Etta James reads the script with a steady stiffness, instilling little emotion or candor. Aside from Abner, interview subjects are a mixed bag, singer Jerry Butler and record exec Phil Chess being the most insightful. Today 2120 S. Michigan Ave., the site of Chess Records (currently closed save for some “Blues Heaven” posters), is a tourist destination as disappointing as Hollywood and Vine. There’s no sign of life or energy or even a hint of what once was. Docu exposes record row’s current disrepair without assigning blame and without offering a vision for the future. It’s a history that’s doomed to disappear without docus such as “Record Row” but next time out a more focused effort would be an improvement. — Phil Gallo

Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues

Thurs.(20), 10-11 p.m., PBS

  • Production: Filmed in Chicago, Los Angeles and other locations by the Chicago Production Center/WTTW, divisions of Window to the World Communications. Executive producer, Shelley Spencer; producer, Michale McAlpin; co-executive producer, Fawn Ring. Writers, Michael McAlpin, Geoffrey Baer, Katherine Van Tyle MacMillin, Akili Buchanan, Shelley Spencer; editor, Paul Thornton; sound, Robert Dove, Jim Mancini, Tim Boyd.
  • Cast: Narrator: Etta James.