'This stuff should be shown in the Smithsonian,' says David Peck, as excited as he should be. Peck is speaking about a pair of DVDs his company, Reelin' in the Years Productions, is releasing this week, jointly called The American Folk Blues Festival. Whether you're a blues aficionado or a music-history buff, the release of these two collections of rare blues footage, dating back to the early '60s, is the sort of thing VH1 archivists froth over.
'These aren't documentaries,' Peck says. 'With so many archival-type releases, [documentaries] talk you to death. There's all these talking heads putting things in context. I'm not knocking that, but when you're done with that, you can put this on and live the blues.
'It's like you're there with the performers,' he continues. 'Despite the fact that it was shot four decades ago, the footage is so clean, it's almost like the artists are still alive today. Anyone who has seen it has absolutely flipped out over it.'
I first made the acquaintance of David Peck almost two decades ago, when he would screen clips from his vast collection of music clips between acts at local concerts. At the time, collecting film clips of musicians was an obsession, but today Peck is one of the fortunate few out who have turned their hobby into an income-generator.
Reelin' In The Years Productions now represents various film archives from around the world and supplies rare, often previously unseen footage for film and television projects. Peck's company has been involved in hit DVD releases of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Jam, and is constantly unearthing more remarkable footage. He's also contributed to Ken Burns' acclaimed PBS Jazz series, and works annually on the presentations at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though perhaps the most famous footage from his company is the hologram of John Coltrane that was seen in the film Vanilla Sky.
Sitting in the front room of his San Diego office as Peck screens various clips-all with amazingly crisp quality and incredible sound-it's easy to see that his is a labor of love. Whether it's culled from a chat show in 1973 or a Swedish concert in 1998, Peck seems to have just about every clip you could ever want to see, from every genre you could love. Yet even with a catalog as vast as the one his company handles, it's clear that his two new blues titles are special.
'In 1962, German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau came up with the idea of bringing blues musicians to Europe on a package tour,' explains Peck. 'There is an interesting quote from John Lee Hooker from that first tour. Keep in mind these artists were coming from a country where to say they were treated like shit is an understatement. They couldn't even vote. And then they came to a country where they were playing a thousand or two thousand seat halls with people in the audience soaking in this beautiful music from America.
'John Lee Hooker's quote about the reaction to his performances from when he first went over there was, ‘It felt like Jesus or the president coming in.' In sharp contrast to the U.S., the artists were treated like kings and queens-they had limousines waiting for them and they had the finest hotels.'
The artists were also paid top dollar for their appearances, taking home $800 a week, plus expenses-a sum that would be princely for working musicians today, let alone the 1960s.
The tours featured in The American Folk Blues Festival DVD ran from 1962 to 1965 and featured the biggest blues names of all time. To fund the tours, the promoters arranged to have each year's artists take part in a TV special.
'I represent the TV station near the German and Belgian border. Each year they would film a 50-minute special, usually on a sound stage,' Peck says, and happily notes that this is not grainy black and white film with crappy sound. 'This was filmed with the state of the art technology of the day, and it's simply astounding. The man behind the camera was a young Michael Bauhaus who has been a cinematographer on such films as Gangs of New York, Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, etc., so the camera work is stunning.'
Peck says he compiled the best footage from the various shows for the DVD package, explaining that volume three of the series will likely be out in March 2004. When pressed for his favorite moments, Peck is unsurprisingly democratic and waffles between many.
'At the top of the list is a clip of Muddy Waters, with Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon, doing ‘Got My Mojo Workin' together,' he replies. 'But then there's T Bone Walker from 1962, which is the earliest known footage of him. And Magic Sam, which is the only footage that exists of him.'
Yet, after a few more seconds of reflection, he finally has it: 'The three-song set by Howlin' Wolf just tears the house down.'
Peck emphasizes just how important the tours in question were to the evolution of rock 'n' roll.
'The first tour played one show in England, at a hall in Manchester. Now, the significance of that is that it's October 1962 and the British R&B scene is just starting to bubble,' Peck says, his voice teeming with the emphasis-inflection of a historian. 'The Detours-who would later morph into the Who-and bands like the Yardbirds are just starting to form. A number of soon-to-be-stars attended that show, notably Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger, who even jumped on stage at the end of the show.'
Peck also points out how the tours helped branch out the blues, getting them introduced to the artists who would dominate the mainstream via rock 'n' roll. In the liner notes for the DVD, Willie Dixon's wife notes that the tours were a way for her husband to peddle his songs-to meet artists like Jagger or Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky face-to-face and get his songs into their hands.
On Aug. 26, Peck and his company will host a special release party at Dizzy's, the East Village all-ages jazz venue, with a screening of clips from the DVDs, a chance to talk to the people behind the release and live blues from local stalwarts Tomcat Courtney and Earl Thomas.
'We went with a more intimate venue than past release parties,' Peck says. 'We wanted a place where people would be able to soak in the music and images, and give the music the respect it deserves. With its no alcohol policy, all ages can experience this.'
As we wrap up the conversation, Peck mentions one specific thing that he'd like to have stressed in any story relating to the DVD.
'A lot of people over the years have ripped these artists off and never paid anybody,' he says. 'We have made it a point to clear every performance here with the featured artist. In this case, all except for three are dead so their estates get any funds, but every featured artist is getting paid an advance and royalties.'
Peck obviously takes great pride in the statement, adding, 'No one's gonna get rich, mind you, but everybody is going to get something. It was very important to us.'
Sales of the DVD set-which features extensive liner notes, remembrances from ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and The Doors' Ray Manzerek, as well as an amazing gallery of photos from the tours-will likely be modest, but it's a very commendable stance.
'When I first got these tapes, I had tears in my eyes. I could not believe how amazing the material was,' Peck concludes. 'This is my proudest accomplishment. It's just so real. I want people to know that in a world where you have your plastic music, you have your Britney Spears, you have your *N SYNC, and radio where everyone sounds the same, this is real music, from the heart, played by real people.'