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TV Preview: WQED's Lubinsky moves from doo-wop to rock

Sunday, August 11, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

It all goes back to doo-wop with T.J. Lubinsky, the WQED producer whose "Doo Wop 50" special, filmed in Pittsburgh, is the biggest moneymaker in the history of PBS.

Judy Collins sings at Carnegie Mellon University in May for the upcoming PBS special "This Land Is Your Land, "part of WQED producer T.J. Lubinsky's series "American Soundtrack." The special will air in September. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

He'll tell you, for example, that the Rolling Stones were heavily indebted to a lot of doo-wop acts.

He'll trace the history of rock 'n' roll in a straight line from doo-wop to "mainstream rock 'n' roll, which then allowed the birth of the Motown sound. And eventually, of course, that grew into the '60s folk scene, which, of course, eventually grew into the whole psychedelic scene, into the mainstream '60s rock and bubblegum stuff, and then later on in the '70s into the Philly soul sound and a lot of the Chicago soul sound."

And you may or may not know how right or wrong he is about these things, but one thing you will know is that Lubinsky is a true believer, a man on a mission, a doo-wop evangelist.

"I love this stuff," he'll say, as though there might have been some doubt. "I live for Motown. And I live for doo-wop."

It's Lubinsky's passion for his favorite vocal groups that drives him to produce.

 
 
"Red, White & Rock"

When: 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX. Repeat showings are at 8 p.m. Thursday and 3 and 6 p.m. next Sunday.

Featuring: Frankie Avalon, the Four Tops, the Righteous Brothers.

   
 

And the shows he produces now account for no fewer than four of the Top 10 earners in PBS history.

"Doo Wop 50" tops the list with pledges of $26 million. No. 4 is "Rock, Rhythm and Doo Wop," with pledges of $12 million. No. 6 is "Doo Wop 51." And No. 8 is "R&B 40."

His latest offering, "Red, White & Rock," premieres tonight at 8 on WQED/WQEX.

"When you think about the PBS cliches," Lubinsky says, "you think of Yanni, 'Riverdance' or whatever. But those shows are all behind four of our shows that we've done in the last two years. Two years compared to 30 years. So obviously, we're doing something right."

And that success goes deeper than the pockets of those new subscribers.

As Sylvia Bennett, PBS senior director of fund-raising programming, says, "What stations have come back to us with is they feel as though it's broadened their audience base. They feel it's increased the number of people on the younger side who've pledged. And when we say younger, a lot of times the donors for public television tend to be 60-plus. And so they feel as though it's brought the donor age down to 50-plus."

She then goes on to clarify, "It's not like 20-something."

Bennett laughs at the idea of a 20-something doo-wop fan, but that's how old Lubinsky was when he did "Doo Wop 50" -- 26, to be exact. He's 30 now, and as he's aged, his tastes have broadened.

After filming folk musicians for "This Land Is Your Land," an upcoming special, he found himself driving around with a Kingston Trio CD on the stereo.

His newest passion, though, is even stranger than the Kingston Trio. He listens to WJAS-AM (1320).

"I am absolutely hooked," he says. "I'm burned out on oldies radio, the same 200 songs over and over again. About a year ago, I made the switch to 'JAS because the music's really cool. You can go from a doo-wop song to Carole King in one segue. It's all sorts of really good music that you just never hear."

You'll hear it soon, though, in a special he'll be taping early next year.

"I wanted to do the video version of the Music of Your Life format or what they now call American Standards," he says.

But he also hoped to do a reunion of acts who headlined or were favorite guests on variety shows.

Why not do them both at once, you ask?

He will, with Music of Your Life acts introduced by the Captain and Tennille and other legends in whatever circles you'd find people discussing variety shows.

Lubinsky is thrilled to say, "You'll be the first to hear this. And I don't know whether it's gonna disgust you or excite you, but we have the exclusive rights to the Tony Orlando and Dawn reunion."

His wish list for musical guests includes Paul Anka, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., Peaches and Herb, the Three Degrees and Bobbie Gentry.

"When was the last time you saw the Three Degrees?" he asks. "Never. But they're still around."

A big part of being Lubinsky is trying to capture all his favorite artists while they're still around.

"We've lost close to 30 original artists since we've done these shows," he says. "That's a lot."

He talks of bringing country singer Skeeter Davis in to sing her pop hit "The End of the World" as part of "American Soundtrack: The '60s."

Davis is "beautiful," he says. "And she's dying of cancer. She's 74 years old. I want to get her on before we can't, you know?"

"American Soundtrack: The '60s" is one of a number of projects in the "pipeline," as he calls it.

Tonight's "Red, White & Rock" includes performances by Frankie Valli, Frankie Avalon, two of the Four Tops and the Righteous Brothers, whose involvement required a trip to Vegas.

Lubinsky explains.

" 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling,' next to 'Yesterday' by Paul McCartney in terms of living artists who are out there: It's hard for me to think of a mid-'60s group with a song that big that touches so many people. So obviously it's been a real goal of mine to try to get the Righteous Brothers on TV. They haven't done any kind of television in 20 years. So this is a situation where I wouldn't accept no for an answer."

He finally got his "yes" a day before the taping of "Red, White & Rock" here in Pittsburgh.

But the catch was that he'd have to travel.

"So I took a crew to Vegas," he says, "and we shot 'Unchained Melody,' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,' '(You're My) Soul and Inspiration' and, for the hard-core doo-wop people, they would love their first two songs, 'Latin Lupe Lu' and 'My Baby.' This is their whole library, and they said, 'Here, it's yours, take it.' These guys understood what we were trying to do. I can't think of a bigger song with an original group member for that sound of the '60s, and we got it. We did it."

He almost got Dylan for "This Land Is Your Land," a '60s folk-rock celebration with the Smothers Brothers, Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Roger McGuinn and the Kingston Trio.

"We were extremely close to having Bob Dylan, but he was in England," he says. "By the time we were able to get him to commit, we couldn't logistically get him over here in time and still do the show on the schedule that we had. I fully expect if this thing is a success nationally that we'll be back with another show where Dylan will be part of it. And to be honest, I'd rather leave room for the sequel."

That's the way Lubinsky is.

He can speak with the cocky assurance of a power broker on artists as major as Dylan or the wide-eyed wonder of a rock 'n' roll fan who's suddenly found himself giving the gig of a lifetime to the lesser stars behind the music of his life when he's discussing someone like the Knockouts, no-hit wonders from his Jersey childhood.

Lubinsky can barely contain his excitement when the conversation turns to how he brought the Knockouts back together.

But ask the man about his prospects for the British Invasion segment of his '60s show and suddenly he's Cecil B. DeMille.

Or, you know, Cameron Crowe.

"Are we gonna see the Beatles on stage again? No. But do we have a shot at getting McCartney in to do 'Yesterday'? Yeah, I think we've got a real good shot. Same for the Rolling Stones."

Whether he can pull that off or not, he got a major vote of confidence from PBS a few months back when they signed off on $2.5 million in funding.

"I've gotta say, it's amazing," he says, "'cause I fought so hard to get the initial funding for 'Doo Wop 50,' and then 'Doo Wop 51' and 'Rock, Rhythm and Doo Wop.' And every year it was, 'Well, we'll see how this show does and if it does OK, we'll come back with another one.'"

This time, he could point to four of PBS's biggest hits.

"And I said, 'Look, I'm not gonna play games here. We have a goal. We have a mission. We found a way to help support PBS but also to continue to document this stuff. So if you give me $2.5 million, we'll grow that into another $25 million for the system in terms of fund raising, but I need your money to make that happen.' And they said, 'Sure.' They blindly accepted the proposal, which was an unbelievable position to be in, to have that kind of acceptance as a producer, not to have to work really hard to sell a project 'cause they have faith in what we're doing and they have faith in the station.

"It's a wonderful thing."

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

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