24 December 2009

Doo Wop documentary

Having mentioned it in the previous post, this seems a good point to reproduce my review of this documentary about doo wop:

New Listeners Begin Here

A pretty good and faithful account of the rise and fall of the harmony group. Very little is said about the music's origins but you do see clearly how doo wop singing works in practice: footage of revival groups watching each other while singing bears out Ben E King's remark (in Gerri Hershey's Nowhere to Run) that singing in a streetcorner group was like "one big heartbeat ... those guys knew when you were going to breathe."

There's an impressive roster of interviewees including the late Pookie Hudson and Phil Groia, author of recommended doo wop history They All Sang on the Corner, but Canadian funding (presumably) means a member of the white group the Diamonds gets to rattle on at disproportionate length with no mention of the fact that his group covered songs by black groups and didn't take the form that seriously (though there is a telltale B&W clip where they seem to be goofing around while singing).

The rise and fall of Frankie Lymon (drawing on a PBS documentary), prejudice on the road and other aspects are covered too - some major stars are quite matter-of-fact about the way they were ripped off (though they've had decades to get their heads round it).

What unites almost all commentators, however, is a real love for the form, and the final sequence - a variegated bunch of singers harmonising on Smokey Robinson's My Girl ("Eat your heart out, Temptations!") tells you all you need to know about this singing, the teenagers (and at least one Teenager) caught up in a groundswell of simple joy - though there is an irony, unremarked and presumably unintended, about the fact that this is a Motown song - ie one of the companies who may have valued the voice but whose sophisticated production values and backing musos helped put paid to doo wop - though the British Invasion contributed too, as one DJ remembers: "Things changed," he says, simply - and again you have a sense that the afficiandos have had a long, long time to accept the fact that while this music may never go away it is unlikely ever to be a huge force again.

There are no extras on the DVD and its brevity is a little disappointing - the raw interview footage of so many artists and doo wop authorities would have been fascinating - but I'd definitely recommend it as a starting point for learning about the genre: new listeners can safely begin here.

If you can locate it, the four part Radio 2 series Street Corner Soul, produced by Owen McFadden, explores doo wop's development largely through well-chosen interviews with the composers and performers - you're taken directly to the moment when inspiration struck for the Flamingos' arrangement of I Only Have Eyes For You, for example.


The PBS documentary on Frankie Lymon, Promise to Remember, is only half an hour but very well done: the late Richard Barrett, other members of the Teenagers and Jimmy Castor are interviewed, and (I think it was filmed in the early eighties) there is still a sense of the freshness of the loss. It might have been Jimmy Castor, describing Lymon's decline, who uses the phrase "Those of us who loved him." Richard Barrett says something to the effect that he will have to live with the knowledge of Lymon's unfulfilled promise to the end of his days.

The revelation (hardly a plot spoiler now) that the new Frankie is a woman is saved till the very end, as we see film of the reformed group performing at their old school, Stitt Junior High.

As far as I know,
the only place to get it is where I got it from, as an extra on a DVD edition of the trashy Alan Freed movie Rock, Rock, Rock, from the videobeat website, but it's not cheap. You can, however get some frustrating glimpses of it if you are willing to sit through all the instalments of the "video book" of record boss George Goldner's niece, Toni Ventura, on youtube.

To be fair, those involved in the original Lymon documentary are at least named in the end credits but bits and pieces from what had been a concise and moving half hour account of Frankie Lymon's short career have been cut up to fit around the less than rivetting interview material with Ventura, "Former President of Gee Records Fan Clubs," who seems (to me, anyway) a tad defensive when pressed on the subject of whether the Teenagers were paid properly: clearly annoyed that the remaining group members are still making accusations, she maintains that all the money was given to their parents at the time so blame them, is the clear implication, although the vague legalese of her language at this point - a flurry of "what have yous" - suggests (again, to me; other opinions are doubtless available) that this may not be quite the whole story.

Technical point: when I watched it the video seemed to jump a fair amount; don't know whether it's my PC or some fault in the source material.

By way of contrast, Owen McFadden's Street Corner Soul is admirably done and, appropriately enough, is introduced by Ronnie Spector - in whose voice Phil heard the young Frankie Lymon.

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