Monday, 13 August 2012

Street Corner Soul Episode Two now on BBC iplayer

The second episode of Street Corner Soul has now been broadcast and will be available on BBC iplayer for one week. If you haven't heard the series and are even vaguely interested in doo wop I strongly recommend it.

Click here to be taken to the BBC Radio 2 page which links to iplayer. (Click here, here and here for earlier posts about Episode One.)

Amid other interesting titbits along the way (Alan Freed had been presenting a classical music show and had to be talked into doing a programme about R&B) the Swallows, the Clovers and the Five Keys are discussed, as is the fate of the pioneering Orioles, subject of the first episode.

A car accident - they had been on the road too long and their guitar player Tommy Gaither fell asleep at the wheel and was killed - led to their cutting back on engagements and they never fully recovered their position, despite the later success of Crying in the Chapel which crossed over from the R&B charts to the pop charts, almost making the Top Ten, unheard of at the time: it meant that white people were buying the record in droves, even though it was only one of several recordings of the song in different styles: a tailored product, in other words, whose wider appeal simply could not be denied.

But it wasn't just that accident which lessened the Orioles' hold on audiences. I referred in an earlier post to the comparison made in this series between Clyde McPhatter and Sonny Till - though what I remembered wasn't quite accurate, so here are Marv Goldberg's words verbatim:

[Sonny Till] was pushed off the front stage by Clyde McPhatter. Remember that guys became singers because of Sonny Till, not to sound like him but to be like him with the girls. Once Clyde McPhatter came along the guys took a look at him and said we want to sound like that. That's a big difference.

In other words, it wasn't about Clyde McPhatter's looks but a different sort of singing style. Marv basically says that he had a high tenor lead which had previously not been seen as masculine, but McPhatter, in such songs as Have Mercy Baby, made it sound virile:

You can read Marv Goldberg on Clyde McPhatter's career here. The show closes with that recording, with the promise of two more episodes to come, taking us up to the time of the British invasion.

This is also the stopping point for Life Could Be A Dream: the Doo Wop Sound, a documentary about doo wop available on DVD. It's the logical place: as one DJ says, "Things changed."

To be frank, I prefer the Radio 2 series, but the documentary is decently done. The real trouble is it feels like it could be a lot longer, that perhaps it's been cut for a timeslot (though I don't know whether it was initially televised), and has a slight air of the educational about it. No raw interview footage or other extras. Anyway, for those who might be interested, here's a fuller review I wrote earlier:

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.

Incidentally, that 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 the recently deceased 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. 

There is also a Channel Four documentary called The Voice (nothing to do with that talent show) which has an episode devoted to doo wop (above). This was a three part series which aired in 2004. I remember it as being reasonably good, but you have to sign up to Channel Four's website and endure lots of adverts to be able to watch it again - and I'm not sure whether access is limited to the UK or not. I'm inclined to say stick with Street Corner Soul, and monitor the BBC website so you don't miss the final two episodes.

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