Johnny Cash At “Town Hall Party” Bear Family (DVD)
In celebration of his 70th year on earth, a slew of labels have Johnny Cash releases on their schedules. Sony is releasing several batches of CDs, Mercury is laying their Cash on the line, Marty Stuart has his Kindred Spirits tribute on the way, and, of course, the Man In Black himself has a new album in the works for release on Rick Rubin’s American label later this year.
In light of this happy glut of material, Germany’s Bear Family is wisely keeping out of the CD race (they already have all his seminal ’50s and ’60s studio work on four chronologically organized boxed sets anyway) and are instead opting to release this neat pair of 1950s TV appearances on DVD.
“Town Hall Party” was broadcast live in Los Angeles from the Compton Town Hall Dance Club for three hours every Saturday night on local TV station KTTV from 1952-61. “Off broadcast” kinescopes were made of the shows for rebroadcast on Tuesday nights in Los Angeles and for the Armed Forces Network overseas. These kinescopes, though somewhat soft visually, have a crisp sound quality that is comparable to the solid standards of Bear Family CDs, and therefore serve today as an invaluable portrait of the artist as a young man.
Contradicting Cash’s undeserved reputation as a somewhat staid performer, these appearances bristle with an energy that transcends both the decades and the medium. Particularly electric are the performances of “Get Rhythm”, “Big River” and “I Got Stripes”, complete with amphetamine yelps inserted into their twitchy rockabilly rhythms.
The first set, from November 15, 1958, shows Cash at an interesting crossroads. Having just left Sun for Columbia a few months earlier, he seems genuinely concerned with how the audience will respond to new material such as story songs “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” and “Frankie’s Man, Johnny” (a rewrite of “Frankie And Johnny” complete with “brand new 1958-style words!”). Certainly more personal to Cash was the gospel material that Sam Phillips never seemed too keen on, but that Columbia A&R man Don Law saw fit to issue.
The second set, from August 8, 1959 (just one year after his initial Columbia session), shows Cash and the Tennessee Two (“…plus two” — with his band augmented by pianist Jimmy Wilson and drummer Mike Fury) in a more confident mood, having just come off a string of hits for Columbia. Many of those new hits, such as “Five Feet High And Rising”, are included here alongside Sun classics “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk The Line”, “The Ways Of A Woman In Love”, and a proud “Guess Things Happen That Way”.
Perhaps most relevant about watching these vintage broadcasts is seeing guitarist Luther Perkins in, um, “action.” Looking just as deadpan as he sounds on record, Perkins’ stone-faced stage presence is second only to Buster Keaton for comedic charm, and here we see firsthand just how much the Johnny Cash Show lost in the 1968 Hendersonville house fire that claimed Luther.
Bassist Marshall Grant also provides a comic foil to Cash, not to mention an amiable, gum-chewing Bill Black-style energy to the proceedings. Not to be outdone, Cash himself clowns his way through a bizarre, cartoonish lampoon of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” — grinding, bumping, belching, throwing out his back…basically doing everything but singing. Which sheds a little light on Cash’s somewhat sour countenance in that famous Million Dollar Quartet photo — not to mention why he decided to help wife Vivian with the Christmas shopping instead of hanging around to jam with the boys at 706 Union that December afternoon in 1956.
More “Town Hall Party” footage — not just more of Cash, but also contemporaries such as Wanda Jackson and the Collins Kids — might also be released over the next few years. With such important performances by artists still in their formative stages combined with shots of the (integrated!) audience, such shows are much more than mere time capsules; they are vital documents of American roots music history.