I Only Have Ears For You: Doo-Wop Doc Streetlight Harmonies Does Deep Doo Run Run on Beloved Musical Genre
This reviewer would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate film for viewers — and listeners! — to experience during our current period of extended home confinement than Streetlight Harmonies, a new documentary from director/co-writer Brent Wilson.
The joyful, uplifting Streetlight Harmonies is a nonfiction ode to Doo-Wop, the musical genre that flourished in pop music from the 1950s through the 1960s. During its cinematic stroll down musical memory lane this nostalgia-inducing documentary includes archival footage, 45 original interviews and sonorous songs. Throughout its 83-minute runtime, Streetlight is highly entertaining, enjoyable and enlightening, as it spotlights the central role this type of music played in the Civil Rights movement.
The film describes and defines Doo-Wop as urban harmonious vocalizations that were often originally a cappella songs crooned from “the streets to the subways to hallways,” as Jerome Anthony Gourdine — the eponymous front man of Little Anthony and the Imperials — says. Many of the original performers were black, like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Italian-American, like Dion & the Belmonts, while many songwriters and DJs, such as Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Alan Freed, were Jewish.
However, Streetlight doesn’t pinpoint the derivation of the term “Doo-Wop” per se. Inquiring minds want to know — although, perhaps the origin has something to do with an ethnic slur for people of Italian ancestry?
One of the Coasters (“Yakety Yak”) explained the Doo-Wop-ers’ motivation for performing, saying it was “because of the girls.” But as Streetlight shows, there were also plenty of (presumably heterosexual) girl groups, too. They include the Supremes and the Crystals, with La La Brooks, who sang lead on the group’s “Then He Kissed Me” and “Da Doo Ron Ron“, being one of the doc’s top of the charts interview subjects.
According to Little Anthony, whose first big hit was 1958’s “Tears On My Pillow”, “the real stars are the songwriters.” Singer/songwriter Jeff Barry, (“Da Doo Ron Ron“, “Then He Kissed Me“, “Be My Baby“, “Chapel of Love“) points out that during the Eisenhower era “kids had money” to spend on records, and this disposable income was a determining factor in the success, popularity and consumption of the Doo-Wop style.
And speaking of “kids,” ethnicity and gender aside, one thing most Doo-Wop-ers had in common is that they were very young. For instance, when Frankie Lymon started singing “Why Do Fools Falls In Love?” he was literally barely an adolescent. Youthful naïveté led to exploitation by unscrupulous businessmen, with artists unknowingly signing away their rights, bad contracts and no royalties. As Little Anthony laments: “We sold 70 to 75 million records. We didn’t even know it. Somebody got the money — we didn’t.”
The role of race is central in Streetlight and repeatedly referenced throughout much of the doc. The energy and originality of black musicians influenced others, such as Staten Islander Vito Picone, an Italian-American singer for the Elegants (“Little Star”) who asserts: “I wouldn’t even buy a record by white artists.” On the darker side, Caucasian singers ripped off African Americans with sanitized, slower versions of songs that were toned down for mainstream consumption by the dominant majority culture. Although Elvis Presley is cited, Pat Boone is referred to more, for repurposing Little Richard’s iterations and proceeding to reap the financial rewards denied the black originators.
A case in point is “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream),” which is highlighted in an instructive sequence revealing how it could also be a nightmare for black musicians. First released by the Chords in March 1954, within a half a year it was largely eclipsed by the all-white Canadian group the Crew Cuts, outperforming it on the charts, hitting #1 on Billboard for nine weeks and singing it on Ed Sullivan’s television program. Streetlight cleverly cuts from the Chords’ more up tempo version to the Crew Cuts’ watered down rendition intended to appeal to a mostly Caucasian audience.
When Doo-Wop emerged, apartheid was still practiced in much of America, and to hear African American sounds on the air listeners had to tune in to stations at the far end of the radio dial in order to walk on the wild side. According to Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Terry Johnson of the Flamingos (“I Only Have Eyes For You”), the part-Jewish “Alan Freed — the ‘king of the DJs’ — was the first white DJ to play black music.” Another champion of black music on the air was Philly’s Jerry “The Geator” Blavat — humorously nicknamed “The Geator with the Heater” and “The Big Boss with the Hot Sauce” — another Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who reappears as one of Streetlight’s recurring interviewees.
Transcending sonic segregation was one thing, but actually breaking the race barrier up close and personal person was another thing. This was truly risky business for blacks from Northern cities who went on tour way down yonder in Dixie, where cotton — and the most vile, repulsive racism — remained unforgotten in the 1950s. There are clips of the KKK, “Sovereignty” and “Citizens” Councils denouncing rock music, black demonstrators being fire hosed and otherwise brutalized by Bull Connor-like white law enforcers. (Of course, in these grim scenes celebs like Elvis and Pat Boone, who profited so handsomely off of African American music, are nowhere to be seen fighting to defend those who had enriched them.)
Streetlight notes that blacks performing at segregated theaters were rather strangely forced to face the walls instead of their racially separated audiences. While touring with the Crystals below the Mason-Dixon Line, Brooklyn-born La La Brooks, who was of mixed Native American and African American heritage, eloquently describes onscreen what it was like confronting bigots: “I refused to give autographs to Southerners,” outraged that “I’m good enough for them to like me as a performer — but not as a person.” La La adds that “the pay was terrible,” to boot.
Little Anthony remembers apartheid-like halls with “a rope down the middle dividing the races.” But the music was so popular it drew mixed crowds and, according to the documentary, was “the beginning of integration.” The way Doo-Wop and rock enthralled white and black youth alike led to interracial dancing and eventually to an end of segregated venues, as viewers may recall the movie and Broadway musical versions of John Waters’ Hairspray dramatizes.
On the lighter side, Streetlight goes on to chronicle some of pop music’s myths. La La states that although producer Phil Spector would “work you to death” and recorded at “odd hours … when we worked with Phil we knew you’d have a hit.” She muses that Spector chose her to sing “Then He Kissed Me” because of her youthful “innocence and purity.” The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson marvels at the recording producer’s genius and creative prowess, “They called it ‘the wall of sound.’” (Spector’s subsequent fall from grace isn’t discussed.)
The next documentary by director Brent Wilson, who specializes in music-related films and is no relation to the Beach Boy, Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, reportedly grew out of his extensive original interviews Brent conducted with Brian for Streetlight. The doc also includes footage of conversations with Brian’s former bandmate Al Jardine, who asserts: “Doo-Wop became rock and roll.”
Indeed, the Beatles’ 1964 arrival in America, where they fired “the musical shot heard ’round the world,” and the ensuing “British Invasion” sounded the death knell for Doo-Wop. Jon Bauman — “Bowzer” of Sha Na Na — is among those who discusses Doo-Wop’s downfall. Contemporary artists Cindy Herron of En Vogue and *NSYNC’s Lance Bass are among those who put Doo-Wop into historical context in terms of popular music.
Streetlight has an upbeat grand finale, as some of the old-timers have a reunion and are joined by contemporary artists for a jam session at a recording studio. A sonorously splendid time is had by all — performer and listener alike. It’s an appropriate way to end an often good fun, uplifting documentary, wherein musical legends never die — they simply fade away.
Streetlight Harmonies can currently be viewed by accessing platforms detailed at: https://www.streetlightharmonies.com/watch.
L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.