Memphis will be in the national spotlight beginning Sunday, September 28th, when PBS premieres The Blues, the long-awaited documentary series overseen by executive producer Martin Scorsese. The series consists of seven individual films, each helmed by a different director (including Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, and Charles Burnett). While many of the episodes touch on the local scene, it's "The Road to Memphis," which airs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, September 30th, that focuses on the city's reputation as a blues hub.
According to Richard Pearce, director of "The Road to Memphis," the episode is "the story of a generation -- musicians who came all the way from the cotton fields of Mississippi to this extraordinary stage."
Pearce, a resident of Los Angeles, first came to Memphis in the '90s, when he directed Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones in A Family Thing. "Memphis is a deep place with deep history and deep roots," Pearce says. "Being chosen to direct "The Road to Memphis" was a real gift."
No stranger to music documentaries (he served as a cinematographer on Woodstock), Pearce nevertheless faced some interesting challenges on this project. "We were shooting in several different mediums," he explains, "so the program could be shown in a wide-screen theater format as well as on TV." Capturing the bluesmen onstage was an added problem. "We learned that the audiences were just as important as the performers, which was another tricky issue," Pearce says. "You couldn't just put up a camera and point it at the stage."
Case in point: chitlin'-circuit star Bobby Rush, who is featured throughout the episode. "When they came to Larry's Place [in Nesbit, Mississippi] to shoot me, they weren't prepared for the Bobby Rush show," boasts the 65-year-old Jackson, Mississippi-based entertainer. "They underestimated who I was."
As Pearce tells it, Memphian Robert Gordon, who served as writer and associate producer on the project, said, "You've gotta meet this guy. He's perfect. He's not from Memphis, and he's not even a real bluesman." Pearce adds, "We met Bobby at a gas station near Jackson, then detoured up Highway 61. He swept us up in his wake."
Rush dominates whenever he's onscreen, although the episode also includes footage of B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Ike Turner, Calvin Newborn, Rev. A.D. "Gatemouth" Moore, and the late Rosco Gordon.
The filmmakers' initial plan was to concentrate on King -- "a character who could take us to the Delta cotton fields, to Sam Phillips, and to the world stage," Gordon explains. Yet in the documentary, the focus inevitably turns back to Rush.
"We didn't want to make The B.B. King Story," Gordon says. "More important was the road he'd traveled. While B.B. represents the dirt farmer who achieved world success, Bobby is the guy who succeeded but on a lower level -- someone whose drive and desire have diminished not one whit over decades in the business."
"I've prayed for this kind of thing to happen," Rush says. "My antenna went up when I heard about it. I was enthused about doing something with the other 'B's [King and Bland]. We've been friends for 50 years. God put me at the right place at the right time."
Rush, who first made a name for himself in 1952, gigging in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with the late Elmore James, has more than 240 records to his credit. He moved back south 15 years ago after spending several decades in Chicago. While his biggest hit, "Chicken Heads," was released in '68, Rush has spent the last 35 years honing his reputation as a live performer. "I can go to Beale Street and sell out B.B. King's club," he says, "or I can play for the president at the Kennedy Center or I can play for 100 people in the Mississippi Delta."
"The entire series is gonna draw a lot of people back to the blues," says Rush, who serves on the boards of the Blues Foundation and the Blues Music Association and also heads his own label, Deep Rush Records. "But if you look at this series and wonder who's talking about yesterday and today, the Memphis episode has the future. When you see my film, you're looking at tomorrow's entertainment," Rush continues. "To the public, I'm a youngblood, a crossover artist."
"I was hoping we'd make a show about jug bands, and [Pearce] was thinking that the piece would tell how blues became soul," Gordon says. "The final result was like nothing either of us had envisioned. Bobby Rush is the show's secret star, though it's hardly a secret."
The Memphis & Shelby Co. Film and Television Commission, the Blues Ball, and Malco Theatres will host the free, world premiere screening of "The Road to Memphis" 3-6 p.m. Sunday, September 28th, at the Paradiso. Pearce will participate in a post-screening Q&A. On Tuesday, September 30th, WKNO is hosting another free screening at the Hard Rock CafÇ at 8 p.m. The station will also rerun the documentary All Day and All Night: Memories of Beale Street Musicians at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 28th and the 24th Annual W.C. Handy Awards (presented in partnership with the Blues Foundation) at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, October 3rd.
The cornerstone of the 2003 Year of the Blues campaign, The Blues will also include a comprehensive Web site and education program, a companion book from Amistad Press, a CD box set, soundtracks for each episode, and individual artist CDs released by Sony Music and Universal Music Enterprises, as well as a 13-part series on National Public Radio. Locally, September 20th-27th has been declared Blues Week on Beale Street. Listen for free CD giveaways on WDIA-1070 AM and 107.5 FM The Pig.
WKNO-TV Channel 10
Airing nightly at 8 p.m.
Sunday, September 28th, through Saturday, October 4th.