Sunday, 22 July 2012

Street Corner Soul (Radio 2 documentary about doo wop) now on BBC iplayer

Street Corner Soul, a four-part documentary series about the rise of doo wop, is currently being repeated on BBC Radio 2 on Sundays at 8pm and can be recommended very highly indeed. Episode 1 was broadcast today (Sunday 22nd July 2012) and will be available on bbc iplayer for one week.

Over its four 30 minute programmes the series really does a great job in setting out the whole story, from doo wop's roots to the British invasion which did for it. Here's how the episodes are summarised on the Radio 2 website:
1/4. The beginnings of doo-wop, with the emergence of vocal harmony groups such as The Ink Spots, The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Mills Brothers.

2/4. Flying High. With the success of The Ravens and The Orioles, vocal groups became familiar names in the charts.

3/4. Sh-Boom: As doo wop took root in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and LA, the mainstream music industry moved in for a slice of the action.

 4/4. The Price of Fame: An invasion of British acts was about to change the music business forever.
I don't know whether producer Owen McFadden conducted original interviews or had access to a cache of material, nor do I know how extensive the source material might have been. But, having listened periodically to the series since its first broadcast, what I can say is that the selection process is an intelligent one: many of the interview snippets make you feel like a spectator, or an eavesdropper, at some key moments in the development of the form.

In the first episode, for example, we hear from Deborah Chessler, composer of It's Too Soon to Know, the song recorded by the Orioles which is generally believed to be the start of doo wop.

Did you know that Chessler had gotten into trouble with her employer for selling clothes to Ella Fitzgerald in the Baltimore shop where she worked? Or that her songwriting stemmed from her efforts to make sense of her feelings after a disastrous early marriage? It's Too Soon ... wasn't her first song, but there were others with similarly questioning titles.

The song which kickstarted the whole doo wop shebang - or shboom? - came about when a supportive male friend offered to help pay for her divorce and suddenly declared his love. Normally it's parents who counsel caution in these matters but Chessler's mother was all for it; it was Deborah who told her mother "How can he love me? It's too soon to know."

Then, going to the toilet, inspiration struck but, with no paper in the house, she was obliged to scribble down the words on toilet paper. She sang it twice to a group she had been drafted in to help, the Vibranaires (as the Orioles were originally called) at their next practice session. The group got the harmonies "almost immediately" then she gave the lead sheet (on sturdier paper, I trust) to Sonny Till who, she says,
sang it like he had been singing it all his life.

Only the first episode of Street Corner Soul has been repeated so far but I do remember that a later one has an account by one of the Flamingos of how their arrangement of the standard I Only Have Eyes for You (lovingly ripped off by Art Garfunkel) came about when one of the group was sleepily balancing a guitar on his stomach in the wee small hours - which perhaps accounts for its dreamlike effect.

Other interviews in Episode 1 include Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, talking about his vocal "trickeration", borrowing the traits of other singers, which may have influenced the doo wop style, and there is even a surviving member of the Ravens, second tenor Leonard Puzey, who is at pains to explain that they were not a streetcorner-type group but rather an "in the room" kind of group - a distinction one of the Flamingos also makes in a later episode - and that "we were singing a variety of material: rhythm and blues, pop, novelty, even in western style." This, too, could apply to the Flamingos.

There is no reference in the programme, however, to something I have seen claimed in print, that the Soul Stirrers pioneered the use of alternating leads - yes, even before the Inkspots - which influenced the doo wop blueprint. But that's the only note missing from the programme, really.

Episode 1 ends with the smash success of  the Orioles' recording of It's Too Soon to Know, establishing a new kind of singing style. The second programme will look at that first wave of doo wop groups which followed: the Swallows, the Clovers, the Five Keys and the Dominos. And I think that's probably the programme in which someone makes the distinction between Sonny Till and the Dominos' Clyde McPhatter: teenage boys wanted to sing like Sonny Till, but they wanted to be Clyde McPhatter. As Ben E King told Gerri Hershey, as quoted in an earlier blog post, "It all started with Clyde."

The series' narrator is Ronnie Spector. Her voice, at least when speaking, may no longer sound like that of Frankie Lymon, but you can't fault the logic of choosing her for the series. She idolised Lymon's singing, and Phil Spector heard in her the sound of a perma-Lymon, one whose voice would never break. In that first programme she alludes briefly to a disillusioning meeting with Lymon in the flesh which is described in more detail in her autobiography. I don't have it to hand, but I think the gist is that flesh was, for him, the operative word; eventually she retreated to her kitchen until he got the message and left.

I don't know anything about the series' producer, Owen McFadden, but looking on the net just now I saw on Colum Sands' website that he accompanied McFadden on a journey round Ireland to meet the musicians who had contributed to the first LP of Irish folk song (the subject of a Radio 4 documentary, The First LP in Ireland).

Which seems entirely fitting. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, when I was doing some research at Cecil Sharp House a few years ago and spoke of my interest in doo wop Peta Webb immediately made the connection with folk music. Which reminds me of the line in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock'n'Roll which has resonated with me: "music you or your lover could have made."

Anyway, if you want to hear about the evolution of doo wop directly from those who are - or were, a few years ago - still around to tell their story, Street Corner Soul deserves the highest praise.

Go here for a link to BBC iplayer and the first episode. Thank goodness something like this was made when enough people are still around from doo wop's beginnings.

Oh, and Unca Marvy (Marv Goldberg) is on hand in that first show to talk about the Ink Spots - which reminds me I still haven't written a review of his book about the group. I have bought a copy, Marv - honest. In fact, why don't I paste a pic of the cover below? And you can  find out more about it on Marv's website here.

To close, the Ravens' version of It's Too Soon to Know. This was the first version I heard and I remember dancing to it during the late eighties. During the day. Dreamily, with one also caught up in the dream. It's not so gospelly, not so direct as the Orioles, but it has a charm of its own: it sounds Ravens-ish, rather than an attempt to do a straight copy of the other recording . I suppose the Ravens are halfway between the Ink Spots and the Orioles: jazzier, looser than the Ink Spots, but they can cover Ink Spots songs (Bless You) without sounding drastically different.

I think when I first heard them, probably around the late seventies, I had had heard enough doo wop to know that they were old fashioned, verging on the square, and didn't quite fit in the doo wop mould. Yet Jimmy Ricks' fathoms-deep vocal on There's No You is soulful and affecting, and there are many other good moments dotted throughout their recordings - and the backing musicians are worth listening to. If you are unfamiliar with the group, let this recording of It's Too Soon ... serve as a taster:


For some reason, the subsequent episodes of Street Corner Soul have not yet been repeated. The following two Sundays had programmes about Peggy Lee in the 8pm slot. Some kind of an Olympic blip? I can only hope so.

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