The archival saga of the blues at the CBC

'Festival's 90 minute presentation of The Blues on Wednesday night was in a class by itself ­ a pure television show, entirely genuine, and as such a classic of its kind. Here we had honest people talking sincerely and singing from...

‘Festival’s 90 minute presentation of The Blues on Wednesday night was in a class by itself ­ a pure television show, entirely genuine, and as such a classic of its kind. Here we had honest people talking sincerely and singing from the heart about something they understand better than anyone else. Such forthright honesty and deep down feeling is seldom to be found in a television show of any kind and The Blues thus becomes something of an historical document. Because it has been said, accurately enough, that such a gathering can probably never take place again, this show is something that should be preserved for prosperity.’

(Bob Shiels, Calgary Herald, Dec. 29, 1966)

Not only has the show, helmed by Pady Sampson, been preserved, an additional player has joined the gathering. When cbc broadcasts Colin James Presents the Blues Masters this month, a special that repackages the original footage to better-than-original-broadcast audio quality, James will add a duo with Willie Dixon to his mc duties.

The Feb. 28 special, reconstructed from the 1966 The Blues sessions, stars the legendary Muddy Waters and such blues greats as Dixon, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Mable Hillery, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, James Cotton, S.P. Leary, James Madison and Jimmy Lee Morris performing such classics as Got My Mojo Workin, You Can’t Lose What You Never Had and How Long This Train Been Gone.

They were never to perform together again.

Colin James Presents the Blues Masters airs Feb. 28 at 9 p.m. and was produced, directed and written by Chris Paton.

Here’s how it happenedŠ

1966: Paddy Sampson, a television variety producer with the cbc, convinces his seniors to bring in an assortment of blues musicians to make an hour-long program to be sponsored by Bell Canada. Sampson is a longtime aficionado of the blues and has done previous work with Brownie McGhee.

American networks are less than enthusiastic about the blues at this point, let alone an ensemble of exclusively black musicians.

Jan. 27-29, 1966: Blues musicians Muddy Waters and his aggregation are brought to Toronto by the cbc and spend three days performing and jamming in cbc’s Studio Seven on Mutual Street.

Although many knew each other, it turned out to be the first time, and last time, these artists would work together under one roof.

Four cameras and two black-and-white quadraplex videotape recorders capture the three days of performances, retakes, rehearsals, jam sessions and conversations with Barry Callaghan, author and professor of English at York University.

Some 16 hours of 2′ videotape and kinescopes (a 16mm black-and-white film copy from the video signal) are recorded of this event. Given television practice of the day and the cost of videotape (approximately $400 per hour for blank tape) it is considered unusual to record this quantity of material for an hour-long program.

The program as edited for broadcast is mastered on 2′ videotape. The direct costs to the cbc are $12,000 including transportation, accommodation, performance fees and an unending supply of appropriate refreshments and stimulants.

Feb. 23 1966: A 60-minute program entitled The Blues, produced by Sampson, hosted by Callaghan, and sponsored by Bell Canada, is broadcast by cbc within the Festival series.

It receives immediate acclaim and over the years comes to be considered the original classic blues concert.

Dec. 28 1966: A 90-minute version of the same program is broadcast on cbc, again within the series Festival.

1966 to present: The existence of this program continues to be well known to blues aficionados and is occasionally shown privately via kinescope by Callaghan and/or Sampson upon request.

1966 to 1990: The kinescopes of the programs as broadcast are held with cbc’s film over the years at 22 Front St. and deposited with the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa in 1986.

They are recalled from the nac in the ’90s for the purpose of assembling all surviving footage of this event. The rehearsal kinescopes are collected by Sampson and returned to the cbc in the early 1990s.

The 2′ videotapes are held over the years with cbc’s videotape in various locations, eventually ending up in less than archival storage in the basement of 100 Carlton St.

The original videotapes have oxide-shedding problems from the beginning and in the late 1960s better quality 2′ videotapes are made from the originals.

In the mid-’70s, some of these tapes are dubbed onto 1′ c-format videotape. In the ’80s, cbc’s 2′ videotapes are being scheduled for erasure because they take up valuable space and because they are now considered an ‘obsolete’ format.

Such 2′ tapes are being offered to the nac before erasure, and in 1987 the blues tapes are copied onto the nac helical scan preservation format.

The tapes are returned to the cbc, but not all of the 2′ tapes are actually erased. The master 2′ videotapes of the actual program are permanently deposited with the nac in 1989 and are temporarily recalled by the cbc when assembling all footage of this event.

1966 to present: Sound transcription discs are recorded of The Blues as it is broadcast and these discs are held in the CBC Radio archives on Sumach St. until 1985 when all of the CBC Radio transcription disc collection was transferred to the nac.

1990 to present: The existence of this footage is ‘discovered’ by Peter ‘Bay’ Weyman, who is producing a documentary for ctv and tvontario on the 30th anniversary of the Mariposa folks festival.

The footage is not used by this documentary but Weyman is delighted with the material that he is able to assemble and researches the making of the original programs.

He begins negotiations with the original performers and the cbc for the production of a new feature documentary, provisionally entitled Back to the Blues: The Lost Toronto Sessions.

The project is turned down by the cbc as a primetime special in the winter of 1991/92 and as a non-primetime arts program in May of 1992.

Weyman continues to have a strong interest in seeing this material be widely seen and appreciated.

1990 to present: Roy Harris, archivist with the cbc visual resources department, continues to promote the reuse of this blues footage to anyone who will listen.

Polygram, MCA Records and a variety of other specialized companies express interest in doing an audio and/or music video release based on this footage.

1990 to December 1996: Videotapes and kinescopes are assembled and viewed to determine what footage is available. The 2′ tapes that have survived are now experiencing bad oxide shedding and they are transferred to the digital Beta format, often on the last pass that will yield a high-quality clean signal.

The 1′ c-format videotapes made in the mid-’70s, where they exist, prove to be best quality.

The kinescopes prove to be valuable in documenting the original event but cannot match the audio or video quality of the videotape. The sound is digitally edited, using all the various sources, so as to replicate the sound of the original performance, rather than the actual sound of the 1966 broadcast.

In 1994, Chris Paton becomes the producer, writer and director of the new program that is being created from the blues footage.

March 17 1991: cbc television uses a 20-minute excerpt from the original broadcast for a program on the blues entitled Shades of Blues with the series Sunday Arts and Entertainment.

1992: CBC Radio broadcasts an excerpt from this footage.

Fall 1994 to December 1996: The business affairs ­ rights and information department at the cbc is asked to research and clear rights for rebroadcast, for international sale and then for home video release.

Fortunately, all the original contracts with the original performers are held and located by rights and information. Standard archival reuse fees are paid the performers according to the negotiated general contract between the cbc and afofm.

Creator’s rights are negotiated with the composers of various songs directly or with their estates and/or publishers. All are delighted that their music will be heard again but clearances are complicated by evolving and confused titles for songs over the 30 years.

Summer 1995: Castle Communications in London, Eng. licenses world home video rights for the program being prepared, Colin James Presents the Blues Masters. It is scheduled for release on Laserdisc by Image Entertainment in the u.s. early in 1997.

November 1995: James, Canadian blues guitarist, is recorded in a cbc studio introducing the various performances and accompanying the late Willie Dixon on Crazy for My Baby courtesy of state-of-the-art digital video technology.

April 1996 to present: Launch of international sale of Colin James Presents the Blues Masters, with sales to two jazz specialty cable services in the u.s., to three inflight airline video services, to a specialty jazz cable service in Europe, and to television broadcasters in Hungary, New Zealand, Bahrain and Malta.

Feb. 28, 1997, 9-10 p.m.: cbc broadcasts Colin James Presents the Blues Masters.

ernest j. dick is a consulting archivist/historian of broadcasting based in Granville Ferry, n.s.

This article was prepared with the assistance of Paddy Sampson.