This first in a series of half a dozen or more DVDs from Bear Family Records constitutes the German label's first venture into 1960s American rock & roll (or in this case, more specifically, R&B) television. The !!!! Beat was a 1966-vintage soul showcase that came out of Nashville by way of WFAA-TV in Dallas, hosted by DJ William "Hoss" Allen and shot in color, no less. In a period when Shindig and Hullabaloo! made only carefully calculated and "balanced" ventures into soul, blues, and R&B, The !!!! Beat featured a house band led by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, with David "Fathead" Newman leading the horn section and a who's who of '60s soul around them, in the band and at center stage. It only ran for two seasons, and it broke ground in a lot of places, musically and in terms of programming. Although it was a hit in some of the dozen or so cities in the Southern and border states where it aired, there was also at least one instance of a cross being burned at a local Alabama television station in response to its being scheduled. The show was videotaped in color -- a true rarity for a syndicated music series in the South in those days -- and never got re-run after its initial syndication ended in 1967-1968.
Looked at today, the series gets a lot more right than wrong. The first show, from January 31, 1966, opens with Little Milton with a compelling live rendition of "We're Gonna Make It," his microphone live (as are all the others in sight) and the band's instruments all plugged in, and the result is that the first four minutes of this DVD are worth the price of admission, in what is the best archival video release to date to come from Bear Family. Esther Phillips' "I Could Have Told You" features a prerecorded backing track, although her vocals seem like they're live -- on the other hand, her second number, "Just Say Goodbye," and Milton's last song, "Who's Cheating Who," are definitely mimed to the records. Phillips and Milton are the two featured guest artists, but also showcased on each of the programs are some superb guitar pyrotechnics by Gatemouth Brown, who, for all of his dexterity, shows that he understands the notion of restraint and the value of leaving them wanting more. Show number two offers Joe Tex and Etta James, plus Milton and Gatemouth Brown. Tex is miming to "A Sweet Little Woman Like You," but James is really singing on "Only Time Will Tell" and "Something's Got a Hold on Me."
Show number three opens with Phillips miming to a beautifully understated "And I Love Him" (the Beatles' "And I Love Her"), followed by Lattimore Brown in a rousing live rendition of "I Got You." James is featured on the ballad "I'm So Sorry for You" and Roscoe Shelton on "Money" and "Easy Going Fellow" -- all live -- and the entire cast (led by James) performs a finale of "What'd I Say." Show number four stars Lee "Shot" Williams and Gerri Taylor miming to "Tighten Up Your Game," and Carla Thomas in a live performance of "Comfort Me." Similarly, Art Grayson does a live rendition of "When I Get Home," while Cleo Randle mimes to "Big City Lights" and Mighty Joe Young similarly mouths to a recording of "Sufferin' Soul" -- and for whatever reason, Thomas mimes to "Move on Drifter." Show number five opens with Jimmy Church doing "The Duck" live -- he looks to be really singing and is more than a little charismatic. Randle turns in a real live vocal this time on the raw, bluesy "The Best Man I Ever Had," making up for the disappointing showing on the previous installment, but Tex is reduced to miming on "Fresh Out of Tears" and Thomas mimes on "Another Night Without My Man" and "Baby Let Me Be Good to You." The finale, however, a singalong to "If I Had a Hammer," is really live and just about makes up for any prior shortcomings, especially in the power of Randle's and Church's work.
The disc runs over two hours and is nicely programmed, with chapter markers for each program and song, although the selection doesn't advance automatically as each show finishes. All of it is accessible through a simple, easy-to-use menu. The sound is excellent -- far better than one would expect for a show of this vintage -- and apart from the occasional line of dropout and some washed-out segments, the image is beautiful, and never more so than in the actual performance clips. And to top it off, the disc comes with one of the best annotated booklets ever found in a music-related DVD, with enough information on the series and the musicians involved to keep a reader busy for a big chunk of a night.