Yesterday we lost Hal Wilner to Covid-19. Among his significant accomplishments was a TV show that aired for two seasons on Sunday nights on NBC between 1988-90. Hosted by David Sanborn (initially alongside Jools Holland), the show never became “popular” per se, but it presented high quality and eclectic music on network TV for two years in a way that seems unfathomable (especially now, but even then). For me as a teenager, this was the reason to learn how to program the VCR, and in many instances (including several below) I would watch a performance over and over and over as I fantasized about someday having a gig as unbelievably cool as being in the house band for something like this. I can’t overstate how much impact this show had on my developing consciousness, so instead I’ll tread readers to a fun romp through some among the performances that particularly knocked me out.
1 ) Al Green “The Message Is Love” – one of the best examples of how the house band elevated a song and inspired the guest artist (Rev. Green also appeared on the prior season and elsewhere on this episode played tambourine with Sun Ra’s Arkestra). If you can stay on your seat while you watch and hear this then I’m impressed.
2 ) Eric Clapton and Robert Cray “Old Love” – I’ve heard many versions of this song and none holds a candle to this, which includes possibly the most inspired Robert Cray playing I’ve ever heard (which is high praise).
3 ) Katie Webster “Hoo Wee, Sweet Daddy” – I really appreciate the degree to which this show shone a light on black women who were not spring chickens and thus not otherwise obvious choices for network TV. In addition to Mavis, Betty, and Abbey below, this included Ruth Brown, Mavis Staples, Darlene Love, Judy Mowatt, Fontella Bass, Nona Hendryx, Rev. Shirley Caesar, Patti Austin, and the great and seemingly-now-forgotten Katie Webster, an utter powerhouse of a barrelhouse pianist and a heck of a singer.
4 ) Was (Not Was) “Earth to Doris/Robot Girl” – The show, not surprisingly, featured some eclectic and genre-defying groups like John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, NRBQ, and Was (Not Was). When the latter group appeared, did they do their big hit “Walk the Dinosaur” with their network TV opportunity? Heck no – instead, they opted for the quirky spoken-word piece “Earth To Doris” into the eccentric, funky “Robot Girl” with some super energized choreography (with a couple other songs elsewhere on the episode, including Sweet Pea Atkinson’s signature rave-up on Otis Redding’s “Cant’ Turn You Loose”).
5 ) Bongwater “You Don’t Love Me Yet” – speaking of quirky performance art, here we have the on-the-fringes psychedelic rock band Bongwater performing with a number of that episode’s other guests, including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. I’m simultaneously amused and grateful that at the time I didn’t know how subversive this was.
6 ) Curtis Mayfield with David Lindley “It’s Alright” – This is an early and lovely example of a totally organic collaboration among artists who just happened to be guests on the same show, as Mayfield revisits one of the classics he wrote for the Impressions, buoyed by David Lindley’s lap steel.
7 ) Miles Davis “Tutu” – Here we have a hybrid of Miles’ own band members (including Kenny Garrett on flute and Foley on “conceptual lead bass”) and members of the house band. While I’d already been exposed to Miles’ acoustic music, this was my first time seeing him on TV and it knocked me out.
8 ) Abbey Lincoln and Phil Woods “Hi Fly” – One of the amazing things about the show was how many giants of the saxophone appeared alongside David Sanborn. A partial list would include Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine, David “Fathead” Newman, Pharaoh Sanders, and Hank Crawford. Phil Woods joins maestra Lincoln here on Randy Weston’s best-loved song (in addition to performing with NRBQ elsewhere on the show).
9 ) Todd Rundgren “Can’t Stop Running” – This is another of my favorite examples of the house band elevating an already-good song and performer (with all due respect to Todd’s own touring bands). Hiram Bullock, in particular, sears with his guitar playing, and the groove that Omar Hakim and Don Alias lay down is remarkable.
10 ) Willie Dixon and guests “Wang Dang Doodle” – it’s cool enough that Willie Dixon, starting to get some attention in the twilight of his life and career, got to close this episode by singing this classic composition of his, but if you look at the band, it’s kind of nuts. Betty Carter, George Duke, Branford Marsalis . . .