Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Sole Repeat?



As Tommy Cooper would say, "That's nice." Have just checked the radio schedule for today and seen that instead of Part Two of Street Corner Soul at 8pm on Radio 2 there is the first of a two part tribute to Peggy Lee. The forthcoming schedule on the BBC website doesn't go further than next Sunday, which is the concluding part of the programme. So will Street Corner Soul continue its run after that? Who knows?

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.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

An inaccuracy of love


I read an article by Tom Sutcliffe in yesterday's Independent which deserves to be quoted at length here, as it ties in with a recent post about Ben E King and the theme which has interested me for yonks, namely the tension between the performer's and audience's expectations.

I suppose it's partly about the melancholy of time passing. I recall a family holiday in Spain and seeing a fairly young guy singing and playing accordion in a pub, giving out flyers which seemed to be of the group he was formerly part of. I must have been around ten, but I think I caught a sense that something sad was going on: I mean, he hadn't printed new flyers of his own, so his fortunes since the split obviously hadn't been that great, and he was sort of trading on our supposed knowledge of his past. I seem to recall a sense of desperation at one point - unless it was just that he was putting all his passion into the climax of a certain song. Or both. I could be romanticising the vaguest of memories, but I hope he endured.


When I grew a bit older and became interested enough in fifties rock'n'roll and doo wop to try to see those heroes who were still around I soon became aware that parting with my 50p or however much it was could as easily be an occasion for sadness as joy.

Or maybe not so much sadness as numbness or puzzlement: sitting bemused while everyone around me seemed to be whooping it up, lost in the fifties tonight, with no sense of the yawning gulf between the energy and delight on the records and the cold rehashing of those feelings onstage. I  tried to write - and may even finish sometime - a play about a former child star who becomes aware that it almost doesn't matter what he does onstage: the audience will fill in from their stock of memories. Once he twigged that, he sings a new song for himself and exits for good. "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck," as another teen idol succinctly put it.

The Independent article is interesting because it suggests a reason why some critics react, in print, in much the same way as those starry-eyed audiences. The columnist distinguishes between two critical vices. The first involves writing about what what - in the critic's mind - the piece ought to have been.
 The other version [...] consists of reviewing the performance you hoped you might get before you actually turned up ... or, to put it another way, of reviewing the performance you'd love to say you'd been at. This too involves critical inaccuracy but it's driven, in this case, by an admiration for the artist in question rather than an indifference to his or her intentions. The review I'm thinking about in this respect was one that followed Paul Simon's Graceland concert in Hyde Park the other night and which, in the course of a 360-degree rave, described Simon's voice as "faultless".

I went to that concert, very much enjoyed it, and found myself in tears at at least two points [...] But I don't think I'd have described Simon's voice as "faultless". He's 70 years old now and it isn't what it was ... but that hardly mattered. Its frailties were integrally part of the emotional content of the show. That critic, it seemed to me, wasn't reviewing what he'd actually heard, but what he wanted – in his admiration for a great singer-songwriter – to be true. His was an inaccuracy of love, not condescension.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Peter Skellern: The End of the Show


Still haven't finished my magnum opus, but I must draw your attention to the song The End of the Show, originally on the album Holding My Own, and at last available on youtube courtesy of Vincent Paul Jones, and embedded below.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Sykes and an Autobiography


Have just learnt that Eric Sykes has died. This is my 2005 review of his autobiography. The above image comes, I  presume, from Very Important Person: not a big role, but a pleasing one.

Given his contribution to postwar British comedy - writing for the Goons and developing Frankie Howerd's comic persona being the least of it - Eric Sykes is entitled to write his memoirs any way he pleases, and the result is a warm book, rich with anecdotes: according to this, the real-life Sykes has had about as many mishaps as his screen persona.

It has to be said, however, that the book is thinner (if that's what you're looking for) on comic (or personal) analysis, but perhaps that's appropriate: he once talked in an interview of having to reassure a puzzled and angry Tommy Cooper that he shouldn't try to pull apart his gift but simply be grateful; and as Sykes has, in any case, already written elsewhere about his own comedy heroes, it's not too difficult to sit back and accept this book for what it is. What comes over when watching the Sykes sitcom is the warmth of the perormers and that is faithfully conveyed here.

Read Graham McCann's biography of Frankie Howerd if you want a more detailed account of the innovation that Sykes' scripts represented, or try David Nathan's The Laughtermakers (long out of print) for material about Sykes. Or just watch The Plank (with Sykes and the instinctive Cooper) and marvel - probably the wisest course of action.