Sunday, 19 August 2012

Doo wop documentary Street Corner Soul Episode 3 now on BBC iplayer for one week

What? No, that's just a screengrab. Find a direct iplayer link for Street Corner Soul Episode 3 here, assuming you are reading this within a week of its posting. I'm going to drop any pretence of critical assessment of this radio documentary series and simply urge you to listen to it if you want to learn, or to learn more, about doo wop. Each episode is on BBC iplayer for a week and you should be able to access it in America  as well.

This week's edition is about the rise and fall of Alan Freed and the groups associated with him. We hear the Moonglows' I Just Can't Tell No Lie and Harvey Fuqua's composition Sincerely, with Alan Freed cut into the songwriting for the latter by label boss Leonard Chess - a practice which John A Jackson, Freed's biographer, says was common at the time.

I remarked in an earlier post that on the extras on the DVD of the Chuck Berry documentary Hail Hail Rock'n'Roll there is a discussion with Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry where there seems genuine warmth about Freed - yes, even from Mr Berry himself. All seem to agree that he loved the music. That's true of this programme too: talking of the payola scandal which did for Freed, Earl Carroll of the Cadillacs says
He was a sweetheart and a gentleman. He didn't do anything that the other DJs weren't doing ... I think he died of a broken heart.
As Freed biographer John A Jackson sums it up:
Alan Freed went from being the most influential disc jockey in the world to an unemployed hasbeen.

We also hear from Carroll about the early days of the Cadillacs, although when he talks about Gloria he implies the Charles Brown / Mills Brothers song was the same one, merely saying

We just put a little doo wop to it with the high tenor / falsetto.

Cholly Atkins was hired to spruce up the Cadillacs' moves for Alan Freed's 1955 Christmas show (the above may come from the programme for that show). This may have been one of the Cadillacs' appearances which got the young Ben E King's heart thumping; they were, he told Gerri Hershey, "So sharp it hurt.". In the piece about Stand By Me I quoted from Cholly Atkins' autobiography, which makes clear that he was taking this new, non-jazz, work seriously:
 Right from the beginning, my ultimate goal with the Cadillacs was to change them into a standard act. At that time, a vocal group was only as good as its last record. If it didn't have a hot record, it wasn't worth too much to the promoters. I wanted to help them make the transformation from rock-and-roll singers into versatile performers, so they would have a wide range of venues available to them.
And with Atkins' help they certainly made an impression. Philip Groia, author of They All Sang on the Corner, says:
It was the clothing that first got your attention. It was beige jackets, black pants, white shoes. Everyone in the band would be highstepping it was almost as if they were a marching band.
If you don't blink you can catch a glimpse of them in action, possibly at that very show, in the clip below - and along the way there is plentiful evidence of the frenzied excitement which Freed's shows provoked:

Here's a clip of a 1994 version of the group (still with Earl Carroll). I don't know how faithful the moves are to Cholly Atkins' intentions, and presumably Speedo himself can't get around like he used to, but you certainly get a sense of the showbizzy aspect. Incidentally, if you watch closely enough, you will see him doing a Charleston move:

Much of the programme is given over to the Flamingos, who started on the South Side of Chicago, and some more detail is added about the origins of their distinctive sound. I think it's Philip Groia, author of the above, who describes a bit of a faux pas:
The Flamingos had this churchlike harmony where they were all tenors and it sounded as if it was one person singing that high ptiched closed mouth harmony but it wasn't, it was three or four of them, with the bass. I remember saying to Zeke Carey, Hey, did you sing on the street corners in Chicago? And he had a fit. He said, What, are you nuts? We are descendants of Falashan Jews from Ethiopia and we learnt to sing like that in the synagogues of Chicago.
Terry Johnson adds:
There was a bunch of temples in Chicago, Baltimore, DC and Virginia all over the place. We would meet each other when Passover would come, you know, one big congregation, and usually it was acapella and it would be the most beautiful thing you ever would ever hear. The harmonies were something that I'll never forget and I would use what I could.
... which segues neatly into the loveliest doo wop song of all.

It's a transition which feels right, even though this gives the impression that Johnson was part of the Flamingo's masterpiece - actually, he didn't become a member of the group for another three three years (images from Marv Goldberg's site). Nevertheless, the common musical background and the connection with Zeke Carey was already there, so in a half hour radio programme maybe we shouldn't carp too much. And with Mark Lamarr gone from the station, when else is Radio 2 likely to play this record?

Incidentally, in Marv Goldberg's piece on the Flamingos in his R&B Notebooks (link at end) Johnson seems to have seen his joining the group as something almost mystically predestined: he describes how, when he saw the group perform in 1956, there was "a glow of light around them and I saw myself with them."

When he went backstage to inform them of this vision "they weren't converted on the spot", Marv says, and an audition the following day didn't yield immediate results:
Picture a cartoon with time going by: the leaves rip off the calendar; the days pass; the weeks pass; the months pass. Terry eventually gave up on the Flamingos.
But they eventually called for him - a wise decision, as Johnson was to become an integral part of the group's later success: he was the one who worked out the arrangement of I Only Have Eyes For You.

It was George Goldner who was behind the idea to get the Flamingos to sing an album of standards, but one song in particular was proving difficult. This is something I vaguely remembered from the original broadcast of Street Corner Soul, but here is most of Johnson's account:

I played with the chords and Nate [Nelson, the lead who replaced Sollie McElroy] planted a seed in my mind ... why don't you do something like that Russian boat song ... and I was laying on my bed and I fell asleep and I heard it. I dreamed it. I know it was God-inspired. I heard exactly what the doo wop choo bop, how the chords would turn around to the beautiful harmony when we got to "I only have eyes for you."

I woke up and the guitar was on my belly - I grabbed it and the chords were right there. I called the guys, I think it was two or three o'clock in the morning, I said Come to my room right now ... and I played it for them and they looked at me like I was a nutcase ... No one believed in that song. We recorded it, the musicians liked it, the way I had that piano player to stay on that one chord while the chord changes were happening.

And when they put it out the DJs heard it and flipped out.

 The programme closes with a bit of discussion about cover versions at a time when it was hard to get black artists played on white stations. You can still hear the bitterness from those whose chance were ruined as a result. One of the Chords, I think, more or less says what good is it being in the pantheon now? This is echoed by Zeke Carey in the Marv Goldberg piece, talking about Pat Boone's cover of I'll Be Home:
We got very hurt by that song. He sold many times more records than we did. We had worked so hard to get through and we knew that it was going to be a bona fide hit [...] his record came out and swamped ours. It was a devastating, painful experience.
Incidentally, in my previous dominie incarnation I remember hearing students blithely singing Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight a la the McGuire Sisters, as though there had never been a Spaniels. And it's such a brisk, empty rendition, too, in comparison to the sweet sorrow of Pookie's leavetaking. But don't get me started. It's also stated that TV star Arthur Godfrey had an interest in the McGuire Sisters which must have given them an additional leg up. At least Alan Freed played the right versions.

Next week, the Penguins, the Zodiacs and the Chantels (produced by Richard Barrett) will feature in the final episode. You have a week to listen to Episode 3 on BBC iplayer. As Frankie Lymon would say: That's all. Bye bye.

Related posts:

Post about Street Corner Soul Episode 2 here
Posts about Episode 1 here and here (inc audio clip of I Only Have Eyes ...).
Essay about American Hot Wax (Alan Freed biopic) here.
American Hot Wax revisited here.
Detailed biography on official Alan Freed website here.

The Flamingos feature throughout this blog. Examples:
The recording session for Golden Teardrops
On first hearing Golden Teardrops
Pam talks about the Flamingos in live performance
"a religious experience"
Several of the above were originally posted on the Steve's Kewl Doo Wop Shop messageboard - see  page, top, for all the available messages from this board in chronological order. This also includes a discussion of the earlier versions of Gloria.

The Flamingos' career from Chance to End Records is covered in Marv Goldberg's (highly recommended) R&B Notebooks here. Based on interviews with Terry Johnson and Johnny Carter (later of the Dells), it suggests that there was at least some singing on street corners in the earliest days of the Carey cousins' group ...

"Terry Johnson's Flamingos History" here. This is an extensive account which acknowledges the assistance of Todd Baptista, Marv Goldberg, Phil Groia and Robert Pruter.

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