With movie attendance in a freefall in the late 1950s, Hollywood producers were trying everything to draw television viewers back into theaters. The number of moviegoers dropped roughly 70 percent in the years following World War II, from a high of 90 million a week in 1946 to 27 million a week in 1960. The producers hoped to attract teenagers through rock ‘n’ roll music: Elvis Presley starred in over 30 feature films during his career, and movies like The Girl Can't Help It boasted appearances by musicians like Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. But most of these films were made by Hollywood veterans, who tended to look down on rock music and packed their films with established stars in hopes that they would mask the outdated production values. Their plots recycled old musical formulas, with singers lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks instead of performing live. And the distribution system set in place often meant that performers would reach the screen months after their hits songs had faded.
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A concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on October 29, 1964, not only changed Hollywood's attitude toward rock music, but helped define how rock would appear on screen and television in the future. The T.A.M.I. Show was photographed in Electronovision, a new process that enabled filmmakers to have a finished product in less than a month, and to get their prints into theaters while the acts and their material were still fresh.
Crucially, The T.A.M.I. Show was not just a vibrant cross section of Top 40 radio, it was made by industry newcomers who loved rock and its performers and understood how to capture the music on film. The associations forged during the making of the film lasted for decades. Director Steve Binder, musical arranger Jack Nitszche, choreographer David Winter and their crew members brought the T.A.M.I. Show style to television series like “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig.” The camera setups and editing schemes here were imitated in music documentaries like Monterey Pop and Woodstock. To a surprising extent, what we picture when we think about 1960s Top 40 radio came directly from The T.A.M.I. Show.
Electronovision was the brainchild of H. William “Bill” Sargent Jr., a self-taught electronics wizard who held some 400 patents for tape heads, amplifiers, camera components and other devices. Born in 1927 in Oklahoma, Sargent moved to Los Angeles in 1959. There he started the Home Entertainment Company, which specialized in closed-circuit screenings both in movie theaters and on television. In 1962, he produced a boxing match shown in theaters featuring Muhammad Ali (known then as Cassius Clay) that prefigured the sports pay-per-view market.
Sargent developed Electronovision, which promised high-quality video-to-film transfers of live performances. His cameras could capture 800 lines of registration, more than double the limit for home television reception. (In later years the cameras approached 1,400 lines of registration, the equivalent to today’s high-definition capabilities.) Sargent’s first production, Richard Burton's Broadway production of Hamlet, reputedly earned millions of dollars in theaters.
Sargent met Steve Binder while working together on a benefit broadcast for the NAACP. Twenty-three at the time, Binder was already directing two television series, “The Steve Allen Show” and a series on jazz for CBS. According to Binder, musician Jack Nitzsche first approached Sargent about filming a rock concert. A producer and arranger, Nitzsche co-wrote the hit “Needles and Pins,” and worked behind the scenes with songwriters and performers. For The T.A.M.I. Show, he assembled a house band whose members would later be known as the Wrecking Crew and could be heard on singles by everyone from the Monkees to Bing Crosby.
When it was released nationally in late December 1964, The T.A.M.I. Show was a chance for suburban teenagers everywhere to see acts that characteristically were confined to limited tours, as well as R&B acts that might never appear nearby. James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” became a tremendous hit a few weeks after the film hit opened, broadening his audience immeasurably. It was also a turning point of sorts for The Supremes, under Berry Gordy’s guidance an extremely polished singing trio. They were soon to become two singers backing up Diana Ross, due in part to her remarkable connection to the camera.
T.A.M.I. stood for either Teen Age Music International or Teenage Awards Music International, depending on whom you ask, described in a souvenir pamphlet as “an international nonprofit organization” that was going to help teenagers “establish a position of respect in their communities.” In a foreshadowing of today’s “American Idol,” teens were supposed to vote for their favorite musicians who were competing for awards. But Sargent's plans for both the organization and the voting fell apart when he lost control of the project because of mounting expenses.
As Binder remembers, “Sargent and Lee Savin, who got a producing credit, didn't have a clue about rock ‘n’ roll. They didn't know one act from another.”
So it was up to Binder and Nitzsche to persuade musicians to join the project. Binder shared his manager with popular surf act Jan & Dean, who became the show’s hosts. As they did in the film, Jan & Dean would later open for the Beach Boys, arguably the most popular rock group in the country at the time (As well as the number one hit “I Get Around,” the group had five separate albums simultaneously on the charts in 1964). The Beach Boys’ performance was one of their last major public appearances with Brian Wilson; within two months of the concert, Wilson, the band’s creative force, would famously retire from the stage for almost two decades.