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Harmonies, Heroes and Heroin: New Doc Traces the Story of Doo-Wop

Written by on April 2, 2020

“Harmony, harmony, harmony — no band, no nothing,” explains Charlie Thomas of the Drifters in director Brent Wilson’s Streetlight Harmonies, a new doc tracing the history of doo-wop (premiering tonight on VOD). Doo-wop could be swoony and romantic, playful and mischievous. It was the sweet-voiced sibling to the insouciant rock & roll being made at the same time, and genre classics like “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “In the Still of the Night,” “I Wonder Why,” “Speedoo,” and “Why Must Fools Fall in Love” remade the sound of syncopated pop harmonies the same way Chuck Berry reinvented the guitar.

Yet it’s easy to forget that doo-wop emerged from East Coast street culture and the working class; some groups took to singing in stairwells and bathrooms simply because they couldn’t afford instruments. Those harmony groups also had their share of troubles involving racism, drug addiction, and music business manipulation. Incorporating interviews with surviving group members and industry experts, Streetlight Harmonies addresses those topics and more; it deepens our understanding of the music’s roots, rise, all-conquering pop moment, decline and legacy — the latter courtesy of interviews with Lance Bass of ‘NSync and En Vogue’s Cindy Herron and Terry Ellis.

A few sham-lama-fact-dongs we learned along the way:

One of the key figures in the development of the music was a woman. The Orioles — the suave, urbane R&B harmony group from the Forties — helped usher in the doo-wop era (even if the group themselves resisted that term). Their biggest hit, 1948’s “It’s Too Soon to Know,” was written by Shirley Reingold, a twenty-something from Baltimore who wrote songs under the name Deborah Chessler. Chessler went on to manage the Orioles, becoming a major player in the nascent music and, as the documentary asserts, “the first white woman to manage a black group.” Traveling with the band, she became surely one of the first women in the business who had to deal with often nefarious club owners and booking agents; consider her the Sharon Osbourne of doo-wop.

Chessler, who inducted the Orioles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and died in 2012, could neither read nor write music. But as Streetlight Harmonies chronicles, she related to the discrimination her clients often experienced. In a telling anecdote, Chessler once went to a Baltimore community pool that banned Jews and African-Americans, jumped in, got out and told the attendant, “I just want to tell you something — I’m Jewish and I just swam in your pool.”

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were the first boy band. Any history of boy bands — vocal harmony groups with polished dance moves — generally starts with the Jackson 5 or some of the Motown groups that preceded them. (One could also make the case for the Four Seasons or even the Beach Boys.) But Wilson’s movie makes the point that it was the Teenagers, led by then 13-year-old Lymon, who probably initiated the concept of a bunch of teens blending their voices and making their female fans squeal in delight, as much as another generation had for Sinatra a decade before.

In clips featuring the Teenagers’ biggest hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Lymon now looks like a slimmer, more cherubic version of Gary Coleman, sweet but prematurely knowing. Given that the group hit the R&B top 10 six times in 18 months, it’s still startling to learn that the group’s new managers convinced Lymon to leave the Teenagers at the end of that period. The singer’s solo career never took off, and his death in 1968 — from a heroin overdose in New York — is another reminder that drug addiction made its way through the doo-wop scene as much as it did rock & roll.

Doo wop groups were sometimes racially integrated. Whether it was the Flamingos or Dion and the Belmonts (who are seen only fleetingly in the film), most of the leading doo-wop groups were either all African-American or all white. But a few were multi-racial: the Teenagers included two Puerto Rican members, and the Del-Vikings (“Come Go with Me”) and the Crests (“16 Candles”) both had white and African-American members (and, in the Crests, an Hispanic member as well). “Music has no color,” recalls Sammy Strain of Little Anthony and the Imperials in the film. “It’s about the love of the music.” In light of the nationwide segregation so rampant at the time, the idea seems genuinely radical now.

Doo-wop groups had to cope with many with many forms of racism, even on their album covers. Streetlight Harmonies details the way in which doo-wop groups experienced some of the same ugly hurdles faced by touring rock acts of the Fifties. Doo-wop appealed to both white and black listeners, as Motown would do the following decade. But when the singers piled into buses to tour the South in the mid-Fifties, they were told not to order at front counters of restaurants, were taunted by angry whites, and were sometimes ordered to sing facing the walls of theaters rather to the white audiences in front of them. LaLa Books of the Crystals, who seems particularly impacted by those memories. admits she often refused to give autographs to white fans on those tours: “That was my way of rebelling, and that was my way of being hurt.”

The movie also uncovers the reason why so many African-American doo-wop singers and rockers of the era released albums without their photos on the jackets. As Terry Johnson of the Flamingos recalls, the group’s minders were so worried that Southern listeners would accidentally discover that the combo wasn’t white that the cover of one of their albums featured a photo of … actual flamingos on a lawn. (Yes, we see the cover, and it’s startling.) Another LP featured a cover shot of teens listening to records — white kids, naturally.

The era came went and went pretty fast, even by pop trend standards. The arrival of the Beatles in America in 1964 changed music and the culture in countless ways. But when the topic is brought up here, the reaction shots of doo-wop survivors truly convey how devastating that moment was for singers who, just a few years before, were kings and queens of pop. “It was here and it was gone,” says Motown songwriting legend Lamont Dozier. While conveying respect for the Beatles, the Flamingos’ Johnson admits, with more than a twinge of melancholy, “They killed our music. Our music stopped in its tracks.”

But as the film also demonstrates, the legacy of doo-wop continued decades later with ‘NSync, En Vogue, Boyz II Men, and Backstreet Boys. An early clip of ‘NSync singing a cappella makes it even more apparent than they inherited that mantle, at least for a time. As Anthony Gourdine of the Imperials says of modern music, “Still kids writing songs for kids.”

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