Thursday, 16 August 2012

The first and last picture show: Sister Suzie Cinema on Soundcloud

Good news if, like me, you love the acapella group 14 Karat Soul: the soundtrack for Sister Suzie Cinema is now available on streaming site SoundCloud.

It's part of a two disc set called Bob Telson & Lee Breuer- Unreleased, Collaborations 1979-2002 and as far as I can tell it's not available as a CD or download but it was uploaded by Bob Telson himself.

 Click here to enjoy; tracks 11-17. Sister Suzie Cinema was the first collaboration between Telson and Breuer, although The Gospel at Colonus, revived in recent years in Edinburgh and elsewhere, is better known.

In the long-ago days of Steve's Kewl Doo Wop Shop (see page above), a fellow member was kind enough to send me a copy of a cassette given out at 14 Karat Soul gigs which had both Sister Suzie Cinema and The Gospel at Colonus, but the sound quality wasn't that great; as I write I am listening to the SoundCloud version which sounds perfect. How wonderful to have this unexpected chance to hear it in its optimal form around thirty years after that night in the Assembly Rooms at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I don't know whether this same recording of Sister Suzie ... would have been used for the video version which was shown on TV in America, but I don't think it sounds substantially different.  And unlike later commercial releases of doo wop material by 14 Karat Soul, there is clarity to the recording but there isn't a sense of the voices being interfered with (or enhanced, if you prefer) so it just sounds like noises which the human voice can make direct to the human ear.

When you start adding too many effects to voices you are really creating another instrument, which takes away from the sense of intimacy which makes those fifties records leap out at you - and as I've written elsewhere on this blog, no 14 Karat Soul CD has measured up to the excitement of hearing them live. I have been going to concerts now for about forty years and I would still say that no one else has measured up to them - the early version of the group, that is, in the mid eighties.

Sadly that first small scale version of The Gospel at Colonus performed by 14 Karat Soul is not included in this collection although the later recording of the Broadway cast, which is available on CD, has also been uploaded to SoundCloud. I personally would love to hear the 14 Karat Soul recording, although I can understand that Bob Telson or Lee Breuer might be less keen on sharing what was really a workshop version of what became a much bigger work. I will have to try to dig out that cassette and work on it with my imagination.

I suppose Sister Suzie Cinema worked so well in its original incarnation because it is so obviously a chamber piece, as I believe Lee Breuer has said: not so difficult to give it full life, and anything added might have squashed it out of shape. It is - as I was, coincidentally, saying a few posts ago - the nearest thing I know to a doo wop musical: unreal dreams, hopeless yearning married to soaring harmonies. Here's what I wrote in an earlier post about seeing it in Edinburgh:
Sister Suzie Cinema was all about atmosphere rather than plot (five young men enter a cinema, are beguiled by visions of fifties starlets, then leave). The university student in me ought to have dismissed this as the slighter piece; the burgeoning doo wop fan, however, was only aware of the most gorgeous, soaring harmonies, unimpeded by any instrumentation (The Gospel... had a piano), and a growing sense of entering a trancelike state which was partly the production's intended effect - the characters were in a place which peddled dreams - and partly because I had never imagined that the essence of those scratchy fifties recordings could be brought so vividly to life.

I don't know whether Sister Suzie Cinema was a poem set to music, although it is available as a poem in a Lee Breuer collection (above), but what's worth noting is that the lyrics, or the poetry, or whatever you want to call it, are more knowing than the "shopworn satchel of cliches" in some prime examples of the genre (Rolling Stone's description, I think, of the Del-Vikings' Come Go With Me), but they don't come over as clever-clever. More literate and clever, but still true to the spirit. Which is a pretty neat trick. And there is a choric figure to question Glenny T's purity of intent "when the popcorn's gone."

I will listen to it again and perhaps blog more a bit later. I do have access to a copy of the above book but won't have a chance to read it for a few weeks.

And there is an additional poignancy about the release of the recording at this time because several of the original group have since died, so this upload, quite apart from its intrinsic worth, also serves as memorial and souvenir for those who were around for those performances. I can only urge you to listen to it, and thank Bob Telson for making it available.

Below is a youtube clip from the TV version: 


New York Times review of TV version of Sister Suzie Cinema here.
Bob Telson's website here. Video clips of the later version of The Gospel at Colonus can be found here.
Bob Telson's sets on SoundCloud here - the first of four pages. The Gospel at Colonus is on this page. Scroll to the bottom of page 2 for the two discs of unreleased Lee Breuer collaborations.

Related posts:

For more about 14 Karat Soul and first hearing Sister Suzie Cinema click here.
"Greece is still the word" here.
Post about 14 Karat Soul reunited for a gig in 2011, with video clips, here.
Post about the group's original bass singer, Reginald "Briz" Brisbon, here.

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