The TAMI Show was already a well queried, rare oddity topic to music obsessives in the 1980s when bootleg VHS tapes of this classic concert footage started making the collector rounds. Filmed in 1964 on a legendary TV set in Los Angeles, this amazing time capsule features major acts (Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes) who’ve gone way beyond dish-detergent commercial, background-music status. Brief clips of this movie have popped up frequently over the years on VH1 specials, Biography episodes, Time Life 30-CD collection commercials, and the like. Even the most powerful performance here—James Brown and the Flames—probably can’t surprise anymore, so encoded are the simple op-art sets, black and white cinematography, Vox guitar, sharkskin suits, go-go dancers, and bouffant hairdo-speckled scenes.
But the film in its entirety has never been available, only cobbled together with its lamer sequel into a quickie cut-out VHS in the Reagan years, and never seen in any format since. It was all filmed, mixed, and edited live with primitive digital camera technology called “Electronovision,” giving the whole thing an amazing clarity and a jaw-dropping editorial rhythm, given the technical limitations of the day. It breezily moves from act to act, starting with the corny Jan and Dean introducing a still sprightly Chuck Berry as having “started it all way back in 1958,” six years earlier.
As with any such baby-boomer musical exhumation, it’s most interesting to dig deep into the proceedings to notice the way in which rock music and its burgeoning culture morphed so quickly back then (in opposition to our self-important assumption of a “simpler” time compared to our more sophisticated present day). The commentary tracks and the info-packed booklet, especially, let you in on some bizarre connections. Like musical director Jack Nitzsche, who would go from laying down the backing for Lesley Gore to sing “It’s My Party” here to creating the soundtrack for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest leather-boy sleaze flick atrocity, Cruising, about 10 years later. Or Toni Basil—she of the ’80s hit “Oh Mickey”—being the 20-year-old assistant choreographer for the hordes of dancers bouncing all over The TAMI Show.
The Stones’ hair was just starting to get long and their duds just breaking away from the skinny suit-and-tie look of seemingly every band of the day. Well, not the Barbarians, who somehow slipped their sloppy asses onto the set, just before becoming garage-rock cult figures, if not hitmakers. The extremely blah Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas’ limp Merseybeat got $25,000 to do the show, while James Brown only received $15,000. And this same stage would host the new-wave wackos of the Urgh! A Music War flick less than 20 years later.
Twenty years is a long time, of course, but the gulf between the mostly button-down audience and bands here and the long locks and LSD-gulping that would fuel the rock music community in like two years time is incredible to imagine when you see the whole cast—Rolling Stones, Jan and Dean, Smokey Robinson, James Brown, the Beach Boys, and loads of peppy fresh-faced beach goers, with a Glen Campbell–led back-up band pounding along—jumping around onstage together at the end of the show, the crowd in a never-ceasing scream ’n’ shout, glowing and transcendent in the midst of the civil rights struggle. The miscegenation of American popular music may never have been more purely unified.
All that said, we are not here to bury Ceasar. The performances, no matter the truncheon welts absorbed from boomer marketing over the years, are mostly incredible. The Beach Boys make you wonder why it supposedly took them months to nail harmonies in the studio, when they knock them out effortlessly here. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles dish up perfect vox action too, then surprisingly truly get down, like “rolling around on the ground” style dance mania. The Rolling Stones’ five-song set, during which they were apparently quivering at having to follow James Brown’s Dionysian ritual, proved they had little to worry about, as Mick was in the midst of perfecting his little leaps and rooster head-bobs for all the girls to liquate to. Yes, the Supremes were bland (the Ronettes or Shangri-Las would’ve made this flick near-perfect). And Lesley Gore helps define early notions of “square,” but damn if that girl doesn’t have pipes to nearly rival Dusty Springfield, and she was crying “You don’t own me” long before girl was spelled with three R’s. Chuck Berry offers a different sort of gore with his leering at the surprisingly buxom bikini babes bouncing around the set. It’s clear this was not meant to be a TV show, as it’s doubtful they would’ve let so much bared skin on the tube in ’64.
The film itself cost more than $1.5 million to produce, with scant distribution and other obstacles finally netting the producers about $40,000. Money well lost. Thankfully, The TAMI Show has finally been found.