Three key figures in Memphis music will get their close-up this week as local nonprofit film production organization True Story Pictures releases The Music Interviews on three DVDs.
Soprano and television entertainer Marguerite Piazza, folk musician Sid Selvidge, and late producer/musician Jim Dickinson are the subjects of the life-story DVDs, which will be celebrated with a public release party Thursday, December 10th, at the Memphis College of Art.
"Initially, I didn't think about doing music because that turf, so to speak, had already been claimed," says Joann Self, the founder and executive director of True Story Pictures, citing a "Living Histories" project of the Recording Academy, which had taped interviews with such local music luminaries as Sam Phillips, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes. "As a nonprofit organization in a town that's resource poor, I certainly didn't want to reinvent the wheel or go into an area where someone else is already doing it."
Self had started True Story Pictures to build a community archive of personal histories.
"The purpose of the organization was to document and share life stories. It wasn't necessarily intended to be narrowed down and focused on artists," Self says, explaining that True Story's three-part Arts Interviews series — a precursor to The Music Interviews — was driven by funding.
"Arts Memphis, at the time the Greater Memphis Arts Council, was a funder and willing to take a chance on us, because we were a brand-new organization."
The idea to follow up The Arts Interviews with a music-specific sequel came when the Recording Academy's project began to stall because of funding issues.
"I thought if I could get some funding to do some interviews, I could approach the Recording Academy about working together," Self says.
The Recording Academy is a co-host of this week's release party, and Self envisions her new interviews being paired with pre-existing ones from the Recording Academy's archives.
The decision to do three interviews for the current series was based on funding — $8,000 from the Tennessee Arts Commission and another $8,000 in organization-raised matching funds. Early funders Rudi and Honey Scheidt suggested Selvidge as a subject, a somewhat awkward decision for Self, who is Selvidge's daughter-in-law.
"I was thinking, do you know he's my father-in-law? That's kind of embarrassing," Self says. "I don't want it to be nepotistic. But Honey chose him, and that was before we got the Tennessee Arts Commission grant to do the other two."
Piazza was someone Self felt strongly should be included. And by the time funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission was secured, it became clear that Dickinson, in poor health, needed to round out the group.
"I initially didn't want to have Jim and Sid in the same series. They're not the same genre — Sid's a folk musician and Jim's a producer, really — but they overlap in so many ways. A bunch of people were telling us, if you're doing music interviews you've got to do one with Jim. He's not going to be around much longer," Self says.
The interview with Dickinson was conducted in April. He passed away in August.
"I did a five-hour interview with Jim," Self says. "He was a powerhouse."
There is no shortage of interview material on Dickinson, but Self was after something different.
"Everyone has interviewed Jim. He's probably the most quoted Memphis music person," Self says. "A lot of those interviews were focused on [what Dickinson knew or thought about] Memphis music. I wanted to do an interview that was focused on what Jim thought were his personal accomplishments ... what he thought were his most significant turning points and the things that made him what he was. People wanted Jim to be a mouthpiece, and he could talk eloquently about anything. You could always get an awesome sound bite. But I wanted to know about his life and how he lived it and why.
"These are life-story interviews. I don't call them oral histories, because oral histories have an agenda, a subject that you're trying to gather information on. Things that are beyond that scope, you're not interested in. But I'm interested in all of it," Self says.
Piazza's story, by contrast, is perhaps not as well known by many Memphis music fans.
"She was a superstar," Self says. "She was on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar. People saw her and wanted to be like her. She wasn't just an opera singer. She did supper clubs. Nobody did variety shows like that before she did them, nobody had dreamed to do Pagliacci and Cole Porter in the same set."
The Music Interviews DVDs range from two to three hours each and are supplemented with photos and performance clips, but the focus is on the subjects telling their own stories. "It's not a documentary, fast-paced with lots of 'B' roll and just a voice underneath," Self says. "It's a lot of sitting with a person."
Short documentaries — 8- to 10-minute previews — on Dickinson, Selvidge, and Piazza will be shown at the release party. The event also will include a wine tasting with paired foods.