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American Soundtrack Concert Series | BACK TO PRESS ROOM INDEX

Hitting the Right Notes
New one-time only concerts of doo wop, classic R&B and early rock surprise as the most successful pledge drive specials in PBS history.

A PBS station and its music-obsessed producer are changing the sound of music, at least on television. MTV? These concert specials featuring legends in once-in-a-lifetime performances aren't on any commercial network. They're not originating from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston either.

WQED Pittsburgh and T.J. Lubinsky are responsible for the most successful series of fundraising specials in public television history, and it's with music born decades before the CD or Britney Spears -- doo wop, classic R&B and early rock 'n' roll.

In fact, Lubinsky, only 30, isn't even old enough to have heard his favorite music when it first came out. "We've struck a chord with an audience PBS has never reached before," he says. "In a way it's recreating those famous Alan Freed shows at the Paramount with 20 of the biggest artists all on one stage. For people who heard these songs back then, we give them a personal time machine and they become teenagers again. For the rest of us, it's a chance to see what we've never seen before -- because none of those concerts were taped. And, maybe most important for us baby boomers, it's a chance to show our kids how great this music is because they sure won't hear it on the radio."

What began as a local doo wop pledge drive special in 1997 has become a franchise WQED calls the "American Soundtrack." Its first national effort, "Doo Wop 50," has grossed $24 million since its 1999 debut, overwhelming the $16 million of the #2 fundraiser, "The Three Tenors."

"Everyone was shocked," says Lubinsky. "They asked, 'How can this happen with doo wop?'" Combined with the sequels "Doo Wop 51" and "Rock, Rhythm and Doo Wop," the trio brought more than $50 million into PBS coffers.

Other specials include R&B 40: A Soul Spectacular (a gathering of R&B greats from Motown and other major labels), summer 2002's Soul & Inspiration (a gospel-centric tribute with The Impressions, Dixie Hummingbirds, Little Anthony and The Original Imperials and more) and the forthcoming This Land Is Your Land (celebrating '60s folk music, hosted by Tom and Dick Smothers and Judy Collins, and featuring the Kingston Trio, Limeliters, Highwaymen, Brothers Four, and Randy Sparks & The Minstrels All Star cast, including Barry McGuire) and Red, White & Rock (mainly American early '60s rock with the Righteous Brothers, Tommy James and Connie Francis, plus a doo wop tribute including The Chords).

In three years, this little Pittsburgh station has recorded nearly 350 artists. "Sure they're older now," says Lubinsky, "and people today may not know their names but everyone knows their songs. We are preserving American musical pop culture from the '50s, '60s and '70s before the original artists are gone forever. For the doo wop groups, maybe 10 were on 'American Bandstand' and those tapes were destroyed. When was the last time many of these artists were on TV? Never! This is doing the right thing too, for the superstars and those who were never given the proper credit. We have a real sense of purpose: If we don't do it, it would never get done."

Along the way Lubinsky's accomplished the near impossible -- reuniting groups whose members haven't spoken to each other in decades and returning to the stage artists who haven't performed in ages. For "Red, White & Rock," he convinced Ruby Curtis of Ruby & The Romantics, who hadn't sung in 30 years, to reprise "Our Day Will Come." For "R&B 40," he tracked down Eddie Floyd milling corn in Nebraska to sing "Knock On Wood," brought Ben E. King back together with The Drifters, and reunited Jerry Butler with the Impressions for the first time in 40 years.

In 1957, The Gladiolas, a seminal black act, recorded "Little Darlin'," written by its Maurice Williams. The Diamonds, a white ensemble, then recorded the song and had a major hit. Forty-three years later, Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs joined The Diamonds for the first time to sing "Little Darlin'" on "Doo Wop 51." The Diamonds themselves were performing together for the first time in 40-plus years.

Lubinsky also brought together two incarnations of The Orioles, who had splintered in 1954. As they sang "Crying In The Chapel," he recalls, "they started out mad but by the end they were holding hands and hugging."
The specials, in expanded editions, are issued on homevideo thanks to Rhino Records, who helps produce the shows. Besides being a doo wop aficionado, Rhino founder Richard Foos grew up in Pittsburgh, home to an unexpected number of doo wop and early rock acts (Del Vikings, Skyliners, Vogues and Marcels among them). An infrastructure of oldies radio, fan clubs and local artists still performing has earned the city the title of "Oldies Capital Of The World."

Lubinsky proposed a three-hour slot for a doo wop special during his first pledge drive. Offering Rhino box sets as incentives, WQED raised $180,000, eclipsing the previous record of $60,000 for 1994's "The Three Tenors." The following year, he taped a two-day concert the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh's downtown cultural district. Premiering locally in August, in one night "Doo Wop 50" gained $225,000 in pledges.

"We had tapped into something but people at other PBS stations still had no idea what doo wop was," says Lubinsky. Despite a campaign of phone calls and sending tapes of the program, only a handful responded positively to the possibility of a countrywide broadcast. But then, in 1999, the national Public Broadcasting Service gave its imprimatur -- and the results sang the praises of the show.

WNET New York had once raised $420,000 prompted by a concert of music from "Les Miserables." "Doo Wop 50" brought in more than $700,000 in one night. With a subsequent airing, the total reached $1.3 million. The next year's "Doo Wop 51" earned $12 million nationally.

"I thought we had done all we could with doo wop," says Lubinsky, "and as much as I love obscure and regional acts, it's hard to sell that across the country. There are also major artists who don't want to be labeled just as doo wop. So we took a major risk and expanded the concept to pop, R&B and rock."

With 2001's "Rock, Rhythm And Doo Wop," Lubinsky corralled the likes of Frankie Valli and Little Anthony and The Imperials. The installment, aired on some 300 stations, raised $14 million. Each of those specials ranks in the Top 10 of PBS fundraisers.

What WQED and Lubinsky discovered was that the PBS audience had changed not just in age but in attitude. The demographic had lowered to 50-and-above and this audience wanted music that was more adventurous than Yanni or John Tesh but more classic than that of '80s hair bands. This younger audience was also colorblind. Lo and behold, doo wop was both black and white, R&B and rock, and it appealed to oldies audiences as well as contemporary fans.
But who would produce a doo wop special? The music wasn't played on radio, didn't sell in record stores and its audience was much older than 18. Without those commercial pressures, WQED strode in and scored a hit. Now "The American Soundtrack" is attracting younger African-Americans with R&B, whose Motown and Philly Soul remains much-admired and -sampled in today's music culture, and younger white females with folk music.

Soon to join the American Soundtrack series is "Rhythm, Love and Soul" (a sequel to R& B 40: a Soul Spectacular) scheduled for production in November 2002 followed by "Italian Americans" and "Music Of Your Life" coming in 2003.

WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh provides educational, cultural and informational programming, products and services for local and national audiences. WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh is Telling America's Stories with the "All-American Documentary," "American Soundtrack" and "America's Home Cooking."

It is the parent company of WQED TV13, WQED-FM 89.3, WQEJ-FM 89.7/Johnstown, a publishing division which includes PITTSBURGH magazine, local and national television and radio productions, www.wqed.org and the WQED Education Resource Center.

American Soundtrack Concert Series is a production of WQED Multimedia, Executive Producer, T.J. Lubinsky and produced in association with Retopolis.
US Airways is the official airline of the American Soundtrack concert series.

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