It was eleven years after the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival immortalized in Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day and ten years after the establishment of the Newport Folk Festival. The blues revival was well underway, but most of the appreciative audiences for the rediscovered blues legends were up north or in college towns. However, some of the greatest real deal blues artists came together in 1969 to play the Memphis Blues Festival (and mark the city’s sesquicentennial). Adelphi Records founder Gene Rosenthal documented the festival but his footage remained unseen for decades. Happily, the Rosenthal footage has been shaped and edited into Joe LaMattina’s concert film, Memphis ’69 (trailer here), which premiered during the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.
The comparison with Stern’s classic concert film is particularly apt, because they both vividly and slyly capture a sense of the mood of the crowd and the tenor of the time. However, 1969 Memphis was considerably grittier than 1958 Newport. In fact, the festival was held in the Overton Park Band Shell, where the Klan previously held rallies. That is a point that comes through loudly in the press materials, but the film wisely focuses on the music—and what music it is.
The Bar-Kays and Rufus Thomas come out swinging and the film never slows down. Straight-up legends like Bukka White, Nathan Beauregard, Sleepy John Estes with Yank Rachell, Furry Lewis, Son Thomas, Lum Guffin, Piano Red, and Mississippi Fred McDowell get full feature spots. Frankly, Johnny Winter (arguably the biggest star at the time) sounds rather tame in comparison.
Yet, one of the greatest pleasures in Memphis ’69 is rediscovering some of the rediscoverers, like multi-genre singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk and soulful Sid Selvidge, who both kill their sets. Again, just like Summer’s Day, Memphis ’69 brings it on home with some old time gospel.
The quality, clarity, and historical significance of Rosenthal’s footage is just stunning. Blues fans will be blown away and non-fans will be converted. This film absolutely belongs on the same shelf as Summer’s Day and Monterey Pop. It is that good. Very highly recommended, Memphis ’69 screens again this Thursday (1/31), as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.