It lasted for only 26 episodes but it was very possibly the hippest show to ever grace a television screen. It’s been unavailable for viewing since the mid-’60s yet one glimpse is likely to render any R&B fan absolutely speechless. It’s The!!!!Beat, brainchild of the great William “Hoss” Allen, the pioneering disc jockey who’d been spinning rhythm and blues on Nashville’s 50,000 watt WLAC radio for the better part of 20 years when he decided to pioneer R&B television in 1965. Allen’s aggressive decision was a daring one for several reasons, not the least of which being that the only white face on the screen was his own. But other things set his show apart as well: its ultra-cool post-modern pop art stage set, the fact that it was filmed in glorious color, and most of all the talent, both well known and obscure, which Allen booked with nary a concession to commercialism. Therefore, it didn’t matter that Louis Jordan hadn’t had a hit in years, all he had to do was show up unannounced at the studio and voila!, he was onscreen scatting out a storming “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” complete with an alto sax solo so wild that it borders on free jazz. (Jordan returns for a later episode dedicated almost entirely to him and Willie Mitchell and his Memphis cohorts get one as well).
Since the “Old Jivin’ Hossman”—as Allen often refers to himself—is A) such an unabashed fan of all of his guests and B) inebriated to some degree on every episode, a certain loose, freewheeling atmosphere prevails. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown leads the house band to stellar perfection (he composed the catchy title theme as well) and is spotlighted on plenty of instrumental interludes—from a rustic fiddle-infused “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” to a jazzy “Twelfth Street Rag” to his own blues-blasting “Okey Dokey Stomp.”
With six DVDs (each containing four to five shows) the number of spine-tingling highlights are staggering: Little Esther and Etta James dressed in mod inspired ski sweaters swapping lines of “What’d I Say” with devastating gospel-charged emotion, Freddie King wrenching notes from his guitar like he’s tearing the engine out of a car, the Kelly Brothers harmonizing on their heart-wrenching “Falling In Love Again,” Barbara Lynn singing “It’s Better To Have It” and wailing on her Telecaster, the Mighty Hannibal in a pink and white sheik’s outfit “Jerkin’ The Dog,” six-year old Gary Ferguson belting out James Brown numbers, Art Grayson in a gold lamé suit destroying his guitar with both his fingers and his teeth.…you know, just some of the most incredible performances you could ever hope to see.
There’s plenty of New Orleans action from Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Robert Parker and Gerri Hall (as well as Baton Rouge’s criminally underrated Bobby Powell with his killer “Late In The Evening”), but Wanda Rouzan really takes the cake. Defining Creole mod cool in a lime green and white shift dress that seems designed to match the stage set, her “Men Of War,” a great “Boy From Ipanema” (a song I’ve never liked until now!) and a stomping rendition of the Supremes’ “Come See About Me” are simply stunning.
With its black go-go dancers, The!!!!Beat was truly ahead of its time and—despite the occasional lip-synch—maybe a little too real. Perhaps that’s why after only half a year it was all over. But it went out with a bang: on the final episode the Bar-Kays back Percy Sledge, Garnet Mimms, Sam and Dave and Otis Redding, who expertly MCs the entire program as Hoss, finally, has had one too many and is too loaded to bring down the curtain on his brilliant vision. But maybe he shouldn’t have had to. Like everything else about the The!!!!Beat, including the miraculous fact that it was preserved, it all worked out for the best.