The ”Cinemax Sessions” concert specials that ran on pay cable in the late ’80s were both exhilarating and distressing. Exhilarating because each one rounded up the greatest players in a particular musical genre and let them wail; distressing because they inserted generally useless Top 40 ”names” as ratings bait.
Five of these ”sessions” newly reissued on video show the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. If you wonder why Paul Simon is hosting 1987’s The All-Star Gospel Session — probably the best of this whole series — it becomes clear when Jennifer Holliday, Luther Vandross, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers start biting off big, happy chunks of ”Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Similarly, Sarah Vaughan & Friends is a jazzbo’s delight: a 1986 date with the late singer backed by the broad-appeal horn section of Dizzy Gillespie, Al Hirt, Maynard Ferguson, Don Cherry, and (oh, okay) Chuck Mangione.
More problematic is 1988’s The All-Star Reggae Session. Here you get Jimmy Cliff, Ziggy Marley, Bunny Wailer, the incomparable Toots Hibbert — and Chrissie Hynde, singing a mildly horrid cover of Bob Marley’s ”Waiting in Vain.” Worse is The Legendary Ladies of Rock & Roll, from 1987: Early-’60s pop thrushes Lesley Gore, Brenda Lee, Martha Reeves, and Ronnie Spector don’t have much in common, but at least they can sing, which can’t be said for the wanly chirpy Belinda Carlisle.
Thankfully, 1989’s Legends of Rock & Roll escapes the mix-and-match treatment. A no-frills Rock 101 course in which James Brown, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis simply do what they do best, Legends is all meat, no filler, and the only tape here to fully live up to its title. C+