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Most of us can only imagine what it was like to catch a performance by the Rolling Stones, The Supremes, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye or James Brown back in the ‘60s.
But seeing all of these artists at one concert? That sounds almost too incredible to be true.
Indeed, a passel of musical geniuses convened at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on two beautiful, scream-filled nights in 1964. The result is The T.A.M.I. Show, a nearly flawless concert film that captures some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential performers in their prime.
In addition to all the folks above, the bill included Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Barbarians and Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas. Backed by a talented band and bouncy go-go dancers, the artists’ energy is so infectious it’s hard to remain seated while watching them onscreen.
T.A.M.I., an acronym for “Teenage Awards Music International,” was intended to jumpstart a series of concerts and awards shows aimed at the high-school set. While those never materialized, we’re left with director Steve Binder’s fast-paced vision, which clocks in at just under two hours.
Thankfully, it’s far easier to see The T.A.M.I. Show now than it used to be. Prior to a 2010 DVD release from Shout! Factory, the film only existed via bootlegs, and many of those didn’t include the Beach Boys’ stunning four-song set, which the band’s management tried to cut from the original prints. That segment features Brian Wilson onstage just two months before he ceased performing live with the group.
Record producer Rick Rubin once dubbed James Brown’s T.A.M.I. Show appearance “the single greatest rock ‘n’ roll performance ever captured on film,” and it’s easy to see why. In just 18 minutes, Brown delivers raw, sweaty and acrobatic renditions of “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love” and “Please, Please, Please.” By the time he boards “Night Train,” half the young crowd is hollering ‘til they’re hoarse, while the rest are staring with mouths agape, perhaps realizing they’re witnessing history.
The Rolling Stones famously requested they not take the stage after the Godfather of Soul, but they were handed the headlining slot anyway, and do a mighty fine job for a group with only one album under its belt. (Mick Jagger was just 21 at the time.)
Introduced as “the guy who started it all,” Chuck Berry may have been the show’s veteran, but in 1964 he was still releasing Top 40 hits like “Nadine (Is It You?),” which closes his set. Lesley Gore commands the stage solo with sing-along hits like “It’s My Party” and the empowering “You Don’t Own Me” — and her delivery is so pitch-perfect, today’s viewers might suspect her of lip-syncing (which she isn’t).
And though one could argue no set is long enough, The Supremes certainly deserved more stage time. Back in ’64, the Motown trio was having quite a year, with the album Where Did Our Love Go producing six Billboard Hot 100 singles, three of them landing at No. 1. They blaze through four tunes, closing with Baby Love and the title track.
Even the smaller acts are worth our attention, if only because they complete a snapshot of the era: Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas remind us of The T.A.M.I. Show’s slot in rock’s timeline, months after the Beatles first arrived in America. And up-and-comers The Barbarians only perform one song (“Hey Little Bird”), but drummer Victor Moulton absolutely tears it up — a particularly noteworthy feat since he’s missing one arm.
There are moments when the show is deliciously campy as well, starting with the prerecorded intro from surf rockers Jan and Dean. During the sequence, the fresh-faced duo sings about each act on the bill as we glimpse some behind-the-scenes magic, like Diana Ross carefully applying her lipstick and Brown combing his coif.
Repeated viewings are rewarded by several blink-and-you’ll-miss ‘em cameos: Actress Teri Garr pops up as a dancer. Darlene Love sings backup. The backing band, later dubbed the “Wrecking Crew,” includes Leon Redbone and Glen Campbell. Toni Basil — remember her 1982 single, “Mickey”? — is credited as an assistant choreographer. (And though he doesn’t appear on camera, director John Landis attended the show. He was 14 at the time.)
The T.A.M.I. Show was revolutionary on multiple levels, from lineup to its presentation. Performances were edited live and shot in something called “Electronovision,” a short-lived format that provided higher resolution than TV cameras. Amazingly, the movie opened in theaters in November, just two weeks after it was filmed.
And then there’s that awe-inspiring bill, made up of some of the all-time greatest rock and soul artists. Yes, 1964 was a watershed year for music, but it was a racially charged and politically significant one, too; just weeks before the concerts, race riots erupted in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. In July the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
During The T.A.M.I. Show’s final number, the entire lineup joins the Stones on “Let’s Get Together.” Watching Jagger, Ross and other future legends shake and shimmy side-by-side is quite a sight to behold, and it exhibits a collaborative spirit many of today’s chart-toppers could learn from.
When a 25-year-old Marvin Gaye stood onstage and sang “Can I Get a Witness” in October 1964, he probably had no idea we’d still be watching him 50 years later. The T.A.M.I. Show stands as one of those rare instances in popular culture when every element comes together, transcending both art and time.
Whitney Matheson (@whitneymatheson) is a pop-culture writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.