Friday, 3 August 2012

Street-Corner-Solicited Testimonials

In an effort to shame the BBC (no, I don't really think it'll work either) below are extracts from two reviews of the original broadcast of Street Corner Soul (to read earlier post about the programme, click here).

And I suppose I have to admit that the second review also hints at why this repeat may have been curtailed. Whatever doo wop enthusiasts may feel about the form, it is unlikely that there will be a worldwide conversion - or reconversion - to this form of music at this late stage.

And whatever the plaudits for Jersey Boys - a musical I saw and enjoyed - doo wop it ain't, even though doo wop songs feature early on: it's a turbocharged, brightened, poppified thing, accurately reflecting what the Four Seasons brought to the form. And good luck to it; I have just recommended it to Clarke, in fact.

No, the nearest I have got to seeing what I'd consider a a doo wop musical was Sister Suzie Cinema, almost thirty years ago; Kat and the Kings, which I remember discussing with Clarke on the Kewl Steve board (you can read it here) was a big disappointment for me when I eventually saw a revival in London; I walked out after the first half.

This is getting away from the point of the post but I'll briefly say why. The revival was at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn and I got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the performance were making it more feelgood than it might have been. Also, the instrumentation meant there wasn't much of a chance to enjoy the singing. Yes, yes, it wasn't staged for the likes of me and the rest of the audience were enthusiastic and I was probably the only walkout.

But - to link this digression to the main subject - my extreme reaction may have been caused by the thought that there are unlikely to be too many attempts at a doo wop musical produced in London, and here was a rare chance which - in my opinion; other judgements are available - somewhere along the chain of command had been blown. Which is why Street Corner Soul is so important, and demands a repeat hearing in its entirety: it's cleverly assembled, it talks to the right people, it's not overburdened with phoney enthusiasm, and it sets out clearly for those who may only know the biggest hits how this musical form developed.

Anyway, here are the two reviews by Chris Campling, the first before the series aired in 2007 and the second before the final episode:

the must-hear show of the next four weeks is going to be Street Corner Soul [...] not only for its subject -the birth and growth of doo-wop, the close-harmony R&B of the Fifties and early Sixties -but mainly for its presenter, Ronnie Spector. She's wonderful. Granted, it's hard to reconcile the voice - cracked, lisping, a lot like Estelle the agent in Friends - with the shapely glamourpuss who once fronted the Ronettes, but a lodda wodda's flowed under da bridge.

As for the content, it was wall-to-wall water-cooler stuff. There's a distinct likelihood, for example, that the first true rhythm and blues record was of Stormy Weather, recorded in Berlin in September 1933 -ie, under Hitler -and sung in German.
Listening to it, you can hear that Marv Goldberg, who nominated this unlikely recording, has a point: it sounds like the earlier, more adult R&B vocal groups groups before nonsense syllables were used in the backing and the focus shifted to a younger audience.

 I don't have it to hand, but in the book Doo-Wop: The forgotten third of Rock'n'Roll the authors provide a chart dividing the music into separate chronological categories with titles like Paleo-Doo Wop and Neo-Doo Wop. The terms are a little tongue in cheek, I'm sure,.but the distinctions are useful nonetheless - and I suppose Stormy Weather as rendered by the Comedian Harmonists must be placed in whatever the earliest category might be.

Mr Campling continues:
Also, a precursor of R&B was called coffee-pot music, because of the perception that if enough people blew kazoos into empty coffee pots it sounded like the brass section of a big band. A bit was played to demonstrate this. To be honest, Bobby McFerrin does a better brass section all on his own. 
 I agree what we heard sounded a bit feeble - though to be fair it did sound like the source was an elderly field recording - but it was interesting to learn (again, courtesy of Unca Marvy) that the Ink Spots were one of those coffee pot bands.

And it provides a link with the Mills Brothers, not mentioned in the programme: there's an oft-told tale that they were originally billed as "Five Boys and a Kazoo" until the instrument was accidentally left in a taxi before a gig, prompting them to improvise by blowing through their hands.

The Coffee Pot biz also provides a link between two routes into rock'n'roll. I have read that Louis Jordan's small group lineup was an attempt to provide a sort of condensed version of the riffing excitement of big band swing, so it's interesting to read that the coffee pot era Ink Spots, in a more primitive way, were trying to do the same. Below is Chris Campling's preview of the final episode of Street Corner Soul:

That's strange -Ronnie Spector today reaches the end of the musical documentary series of the year and yet the charts are not full of doo-wop records as the nation falls in love all over again with those close-harmony stylings. Pearls before swine, that's what it is. So, just for the fans, then, Ronnie tells of the dying of the light, as corruption and theft robbed the doo-wop bands of their due and the Beatles prepared to change pop as everyone knew it. We also hear from, among others, Maurice Williams of the Zodiacs (whose Stay is among the shortest of all No 1 records, playing-timewise) and Terry Johnson of the Flamingos, whose I Only Have Eyes For You could quite possibly be the perfect doo-wop song.
 Ah - so that's the programme with the description of the genesis of the Flamingos' arrangement of the standard.  I prefer Golden Teardrops myself, but there's no doubt it is a lovely setting. I think my preference is partly because, like the Drifters' There Goes My Baby, the record is the sound of a musical form changing. This is no longer singing plucked from a street corner and given a rudimentary backing: the voices may be integral, but the overall sound depends on sophisticated instrumentation. It's the future knocking. Here is the gist of what Dave Marsh has to say about it in The Heart of Rock and Soul.
Another resuscitation of a Tin Pan Alley standard: I Only Have Eyes for You emerged from the 1934 movie, Dames. It made number two that year, in a version by the now-forgotten Ben Selvin.

It's anybody's guess why the Flamingos revived it [but] vocal groups needed strong melodies and hoped for interesting lyrics, wrapping their vocal exotica around whatever met their criteria, no matter its provenance. And because the Flamingos were veterans [...] their influences were quite broad, encompassing gospel [...] and the silken pop harmonies of the Mills Brothers and Four Freshmen as well as R&B-oriented groups. As the split between Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building became more pronounced over the next decade, and as Southern and gospel stylings became more pronounced, fewer and fewer groups would have any idea what to do with a standard, a problem these guys never had.

But the Flamingos could hardly be described as respecting tradition. From the opening statement of the theme on a reverberant electric guitar to the acres of echo in which the background "shoo-bop-she-bops" are encased to Johnny Carter's high tenor cries, there's nothing about this record that really relates to Ben Selvin's or anybody else's. Except maybe Tommy Hunt's measured, careful lead, which harks back to the conventions of early fifties doo-wop even as the rest of the arrangement shatters them: he might as well really be blind - or deaf - to his environment. And the quiet eerieness of that disparity is a big part of what makes I Only Have Eyes one of rock's continuing marvels.


Good news: it has now been announced on the BBC website that Street Corner Soul will continue its repeat run: Episode Two will be transmitted (and therefore be available on iplayer for a week afterwards) on Sunday August 12th at 8pm. Did this blog make a difference? Who knows - but it has had several visitors from the BBC this week. 

Either way - hooray! Though it does, er, make a bit of a nonsense of the beginning of this post.

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