Al Green, age 62, won two Grammy awards last week — Best R&B Performance by a Duo for “Stay with Me (By the Sea)” and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for “You’ve Got The Love I Need” — and of course out-classed Justin Timberlake on the televised award program singing his 1972 classic “Let’s Stay Together.”
Mugge, an independent director and producer who not long ago ended two years as filmmaker-in-residence at Mississippi Public Broadcasting, specializes in American vernacular music, having creating fascinating films about Sun Ra, Robert Johnson’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Reggae Sunsplash 1983, among other topics. His films are deceptively casual — he spent 13 months just getting Green to face him, back in the day, and went to Japan to document Rollins’ little- known “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra”– and engagingly journalistic.
“Sonny is rather shy and reserved,” Mugge recalled, “and only did the movie because Lucille [his late wife] pushed so hard for him to go along as a way to get people paying more attention to what
he was doing in that period. He’s just the sweetest guy
in the world and so easy to work with — except for his reservations about doing
things. I was in touch with Sonny recently about using a complete version of the
concerto audio as a historical artifact.” Mugge had left two of the concerto’s movements out of the film.
“Well, he mulled it over and finally told me there were too many
mistakes in that version, because it was the first time it had ever been
played, and he’d rather we not put it out. He told me that years later the concerto was performed it in Italy, and he liked that version better, but
unfortunately nobody recorded it. He and Lucille talked for years
about doing it right, reviewing the score and mounting it again. But I wonder if
anybody today would be ready to pay what it would cost to record him with a symphony orchestra.”
“I felt incredibly fortunate Sonny created such a tremendous work
for us that day,” Mugge said, specifically referring to “G-Man,” a 15-minute tour-de-force, “and it was quite bizarre that he jumped and broke his heel. It gave an additional level to the film, to capture something like
that. It was so interesting to me, too, what that said about his sense of
“I learned he’d recently had the sax laquered, and apparently that can change
the tone of an instrument. When he was playing at Opus 40, his horn would sometimes just
squawk a note — he told Lucille it was like playing a vowel and out comes a
consonant. Being a great artist, Sonny can’t play a wrong note, he builds on what comes. But he was getting
more and more enraged by it, and finally jumped because he felt he was having a
“When I saw him do that I told the cameras to keep shooting but ran
around the structure to ask him if he was ok. When I got to where he was he started
playing ‘Autumn Nocturne,’ lying there. I wanted to use the whole
song, but they didn’t want me to because the other musicians were so
traumatized . . . “
Rollins’ leap seems to flow from musical logic, not a breakdown, though you’ve got to hear and see it to judge for yourself. Which is one reason motion pictures were invented. Thanks to Robert Mugge, we have that scene — as well as Al Green in Memphis, Sun Ra navigating the spaceways, a host of blues people including Robert Jr. Lockwood, Roy Rogers, Rory Block and Honeyboy Edwards interpreting Robert Johnson’s music, portraits of Gil Scott Heron, Ruben Blades, New Orleans’ Music in Exile and several films that have not been issued in any form.
Look at what Mugge’s done. Is there a better way to thank him?