Soundies = the precursor of the music video

There’s a show airing on PBS stations around the country right about now that every music fan should check out, particularly if you enjoy history as well. It’s called “Soundies,” and its topic is stated outright in its title.

Soundies were, as the title of this post indicates, the precursor of the music video. The Mills Novelty Company created a refrigerator-sized machine called the Panoram, which was essentially a video jukebox, and these soundies – three-minute films of various musical artists performing their hit songs – could be watched on the Panoram in groups of three. (It was early technology, of course, so you couldn’t fast-forward or rewind; if you wanted to see the last soundie on the reel, you were stuck watching the first two as well, whether you wanted to or not.) The soundies began in 1940 and started off as a roaring success, but World War II caused the Panoram business to stumble – the war effort necessitated a slowing in the manufacturing of new machines – and by the time the armistice had been signed, it was too late; the era of the soundies was over by 1946.

But, wow, who knew how many video artifacts from those six years were still out there…?

Fans of jazz, country, pop vocalists of the ’40s, and even early R&B will find their jaws dropping at some of this footage. You’ll see performances from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Les Paul, Kay Starr, Fats Waller, Spike Jones, the Mills Brothers, Merle Travis, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, and even a young Liberace. The stock line about soundies is that while the most popular white artists tended to be under contract to other studios and were therefore unavailable to make soundies (there’s an interesting story about how Mel Torme’s group, the Meltones, did a soundie with another member lip-synching Mel’s vocals because Torme himself wasn’t contractually permitted to appear on camera), there were plenty of black artists who were more than willing to get in front of the camera in order maximize their exposure…and it’s so awesome that they did. Actually being able to see Fats Waller kick out the jams on the piano is pretty damned sweet.

There are also some interesting choices of talking heads brought onboard to discuss the soundies; in addition to new interviews with some of the folks who actually made them, like Les Paul and Kay Starr, we get commentary from Joe Franklin, Hugh Hefner, jazzmen George Duke and Wynton Marsalis, and…Stan Ridgway? Oh, it’s not so strange; didn’t you know that he recorded an album of standards a few years back? (If not, you will soon…when we discuss The Best Albums You’ve Never, Ever Heard. Check back at Bullz-Eye in early April!)

You can check out the official website for “Soundies,” but I’m led to understand that in addition to future airings, there’s talk of releasing it on DVD. Fingers crossed that that’s true; there’s a lot of stuff here that’s worth watching over and over again.

  

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