Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop (PBS, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was yet another PBS pledge-break special with the typically awkward title My Music: Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop, whose entry on PBS’s Web site denotes that it was aired November 10, 2016 but doesn’t say how old the show is — a significant omission for this type of program, which presents old rock ’n’ roll, rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop acts in recent concert but it would be nice to know how recent it was. After all, these acts are, shall we say, venerable, and in particular I’d like to know if anyone who was featured on this show has died since it was filmed. From my point of view the program — directed by T. J. Lubinsky as one of his innumerable forays into programming the pop music of the 1950’s and early 1960’s for PBS — was weighted too heavily towards doo-wop and not enough towards rock and rhythm, though it did have one advantage over some of Lubinsky’s previous productions. This time he didn’t show any dead people; in some of his shows he’s represented deceased artists via film clips, which had the ironic effect of presenting the dead performers more advantageously than the live ones, since we were seeing the dead ones in clips from their artistic and commercial primes while we were seeing the living ones as they appear now (or at least as they appeared when Lubinsky filmed them — the title Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop is not to be confused with Rock, Pop and Doo-Wop, which Lubinsky made in 2011 with some of the same performers he featured here). The show opened with a pure rock ’n’ roller, and one of the greatest of all time, Little Richard — he may not have quite invented rock (as Jerry Butler, who MC’d the show but oddly didn’t perform himself), and there are arguably people who were doing what became rock ’n’ roll even earlier than he was (like Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Professor Longhair and his disciple, Fats Domino), but he’s one of the great practitioners of the form and the only one left from a classic rock show I saw in San Francisco in 1971 that also featured Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. What I remember about that show is that Berry and Diddley were content to work with a pick-up band (the guitarist in it was cute but overall they were uninspired; occasionally an audience for a Chuck Berry show got to see him play with a then-unknown musician who’d later become a star in his own right, like Steve Miller in San Francisco in 1966 or Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey in 1973, but those dates were few and far between) but Richard brought his own group and benefited handsomely by it. Last night he did the song “Keep A’Knockin’,” the last piece he recorded in 1958 before he abruptly (and, blessedly, temporarily) quit the music business to study for the ministry — it was a 57-second tape he gave to his producer, Art Rupe of Specialty Records, who repeated sections of it and thereby stretched it out to 2:17, and it got even more stretched out in the Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop show as Richard kept on repeating it for about five minutes, periodically shutting up so the fine saxophonist in Lubinsky’s studio band could show off and solo. 

Little Richard’s only concession to age is that he hardly moves around on stage at all anymore — he basically stood still at the piano but he could still hammer out those power-chord triplets he learned from the gospel records of singer-pianist Arizona Dranes in the late 1920’s (Richard himself named her as one of his biggest influences, which probably had a lot of rock fans scratching their heads and thinking, “Who the hell is Arizona Dranes?”) — and that shrieking voice of his is as intense and viscerally grabbing as ever. Indeed, I wondered why T. J. Lubinsky had put Little Richard on first because just about anything else would sound weak and wimpy by comparison — ideally Richard should have been on last — but at least Lubinsky was savvy enough to put on as his second act a group that wasn’t even trying to mine the same territory Richard had. They were the white group Kathy Young and the Innocents, and they did the closest thing they ever had to a hit, a song called “A Thousand Stars” that was light, innocent and a nice depiction of teenage love. Then the Rays came on and did their big hit, “Silhouettes” (an interesting revamping of the same theme Bing Crosby and his songwriters had trolled in the early 1930’s with a song called “Shadows on the Window,” though in the Rays’ version — unlike in Bing’s — the singer who thinks he sees silhouettes on the window shade of his girlfriend making out with another guy turns out to be “on the wrong block”), after which one of Berry Gordy’s early signings from Motown, The Contours, tore through their one hit, “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)?” I remember reading about this song in Herbert Kohl’s book 36 Children, in which he as a well-meaning young white Jewish teacher in a Harlem grade school naïvely asked his students about that song, thinking it shouldn’t really matter to a young girl whether her boyfriend can dance, and got a thorough taking-down of his white-boy naïveté when the kids told him, “Dancing is a soul thing.” I also remember first hearing the song in the Dave Clark Five’s cover on their first album, Glad All Over, and thinking it was one of the best things on the disc — and then I heard the Contours version, and of course the Black Detroiters totally blew away the white Londoners on this one! 

After the Contours came a doo-wop group called the Duprees, a Black group covering the white song “You Belong to Me,” a big hit for Jo Stafford on Capitol in 1952 — though to my mind the very best version ever was by Judy Garland, also in 1952, when she was substituting for Bing Crosby on his radio show while Bing was with his wife, Dixie Lee, who was in a hospital dying of cancer. The Duprees’ cover was pleasant but hardly in a league with either of the solo white women who made this song special! Then came the first of the interminable pledge breaks that make these shows, and PBS in general, incredibly annoying — and which we’ll probably have to endure more of (along with commercial interruptions in the middle of PBS’s major programming as well) once the Republican Congress and the Trump administration have their way and totally defund PBS — and afterwards they showcased a singer-songwriter I’d never heard of, Earl Townsend, who in 1958 instead of having to record for teeny-tiny labels with substandard sound quality and chancy distribution, got a crack at a major-label contract when Joe Zerga of Capitol Records heard a demo he’d made of a song called “For Your Love” (a romantic ballad and not the similarly titled but far more rocking song that became the Yardbirds’ first hit). Townsend saw himself mainly as a songwriter and was hoping Zerga would give “For Your Love” to a Capitol artist to record — instead, much to Townsend’s astonishment, Zerga suggested that Townsend record it himself. Townsend got the full Capitol treatment — not only a single deal but an entire album with no less than Nelson Riddle as his arranger/conductor, though it was another big-band veteran, ex-Lunceford arranger and trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who arranged “For Your Love.” (Incidentally, I got most of that information from an online obituary on the Los Angeles Times Web site,, which states that Townsend died in 2003 — which really dates this program and shows just how far in the past it was filmed.) 

Townsend’s other big hit was for another artist: he co-wrote and co-produced Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Incidentally, a YouTube posting of “For Your Love” features a cover scan of a Townsend-Riddle album called glad to be here (the all-lower case spelling is on the original) in which Capitol’s photographer seemed to be aiming him towards the “Black Sinatra” image, complete with hat — and on the Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop show the arrangement was close to the original and Townsend’s voice, though lower, rougher and gravellier than it had been in 1958, certainly communicated the song’s moving message of commitment. Townsend had three women backup singers in back of him and was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the legend “Big Poppa” — a bit of bravado one wouldn’t associate with the singer of such a romantic ballad, though maybe it’s more understandable when you realize this guy did co-write “Let’s Get It On.” After Townsend’s number (both the original recording and the clip from this program are available on YouTube, in case you’re interested: the 1958 original on and the Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop version on came what I thought was the most interesting number on the program performed by white artists: the Reflections, of whom I’d never heard of before, who had a #6 hit single in 1964 with a song called “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet.” Given what happened to Romeo and Juliet at the end of Shakespeare’s play, I’m surprised that any young teenage lovers would want to compare themselves to them, but the song itself is great. The Reflections were from Detroit but I suspect their record filtered out to the New Jersey music scene, if only because it sounds so much like an early Bruce Springsteen song it seems likely to me the Boss heard it when it was new and was influenced by it. 

After that they brought on Lou Christie for his one hit, “Lightning Strikes” from 1966, and though he doesn’t have the killer falsetto that made the original record so much fun (when the song had to go high, the three women backup singers — I think the same ones Townsend had used — had to cover for him), Christie’s normal male-range voice is actually quite nice even though it’s more Sinatra-lite than a real rock voice. Then Little Anthony and the Imperials came out and did three songs — a rare privilege in a show like this, whose message to most of the acts seems to have been, “You only made one record anybody remembers. Sing that and then get off the stage” — “Tears on My Pillow,” “Shimmy-Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop,” and probably their best record, the lovely ballad “Going Out of My Head.” Little Anthony’s voice was hard to hear at first — the sound engineers on this program didn’t always get the lead singer loud enough for the first few bars — but once they got the mix adjusted he was in excellent form, one singer who has kept his falsetto from his glory days. After yet another pledge break Bobby Lewis came out for two songs, one of which I didn’t write down in time but the other was his great hit, “Tossin’ and Turnin,” and he too had held up surprisingly well vocally. Then the Fleetwoods, one of the better white doo-wop groups, did their haunting hit “Mister Blue,” following which another group I’d never heard of before, Larry Chance and The Earls, did a song called “Remember Me” — not the one Bing Crosby so beautifully recorded in 1938 and Tommy Dorsey’s most underrated male singer, Stuart Foster, revived with the Dorsey band in the late 1940’s. After that a Black vocal group called the Limelights (whom I remembered getting confused with the white folk group The Limeliters — I mistakenly typed the name “The Limelighters” into a search engine and kept getting references for the Limelights) did their biggest hit by far, “Daddy’s Home.” 

After yet another pledge break Lloyd Price, the singer who’d been having hits since his 1952 song “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” became Specialty Records’ first crossover hit (label owner Art Rupe recalled that he’d see white people buying it throughout the South and saying, “Oh, it’s for my chauffeur,” or, “It’s for my maid,” when of course they really wanted it for themselves) and who previously had been seen on the show co-MC’ing with Jerry Butler (original lead singer for The Impressions, who broke through with the haunting R&B ballad “He Will Break Your Heart” and was the first singer to record “Moon River” — it wasn’t Andy Williams, and having Butler sing either “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Moon River” or both would have considerably boosted this show’s quality: instead he only MC’d), came out and did “Stagolee.” I hadn’t realized until I saw the recent folk documentary American Epic that the first record of what I’d always regarded as such a quintessentially Black song came from a white artist, West Virginia coal miner and part-time singer Frank Hutchison in 1928 (though Mississippi John Hurt covered it a year later for the same label, Okeh, and thereby established it as a Black song). What I did know was that this was the first record Lloyd Price made after he jumped from the Specialty label to ABC, a major company then (they’d also lure Ray Charles from Atlantic), and that he recorded it in two versions. The first rocked the song up but stuck closely to the original folk lyrics, in which Stagolee shoots his friend Billy Lyons after Billy accused Stagolee of cheating him in a craps game. The second was made after Dick Clark told ABC’s promotion people that he loved the record musically but couldn’t play on his American Bandstand show such a raunchy record that seemed to be glorifying murder, so someone wrote a cleaned-up lyric in which Stagolee and Billy were two teenagers arguing over a girl and ultimately making up as friends. Fortunately on Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop Price sang the original, uncompromised version — and belted it out beautifully. 

After that came another group I’d never heard of, Lenny Coco and the Chimes, doing another doo-wop cover of a standard: “Once in a While,” written in 1937 by Michael Edwards and Bud Green and stunningly recorded by Sarah Vaughan in 1947 — her version swoops up and down the scales in her trademark style and manages to blend astonishing technique with intense emotion. It was actually introduced by Louis Armstrong and covered by quite a few great singers, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page and Mose Allison (on his last album, The Way of the World), but to my mind young Sassy owns this song and a doo-wop version, however cleverly arranged (which this one was), was hardly going to come even within hailing distance of the great Sarah. Afterwards they brought on another one-hit wonder group, Gene Hughes and the Casinos (like Earl Townsend, Hughes died early in the 2000’s — February 3, 2004, age 67, from complications following an auto accident), a nine-piece doo-wop group from Cincinnati whose one hit was a hauntingly beautiful ballad called “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” I’ve heard this song other places because other oldies cover groups have done it, and interestingly it became a hit in 1967 — a bit late in the day for the doo-wop style given that the sounds that were ruling the charts just then were psychedelic rock and the blues-rock style that eventually became heavy metal — and the song itself was written by country singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk, a bit of a departure for him given that his most famous piece was the anti-poverty plea “Tobacco Road.” According to their Wikipedia page, “The Casinos were playing in a Cincinnati club where WSAI disc jockey Tom Dooley liked to visit. Dooley had a song he wanted to record but needed a band to provide the music. The Casinos had been getting great reaction to ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’ at the club and wanted to record it. Dooley offered to pay for studio time at Cincinnati’s King Records Studio for the group to record their song if they would back up Dooley on his song. While Dooley’s song didn't see success beyond WSAI, the Casinos’ tune quickly became a national hit.” 

The finale of the show was much-ballyhooed — we were breathlessly promised a reunion of a famous band in such fulsome terms one would have thought we were going to see a Beatles reunion with a spirit medium channeling John Lennon, but instead it was Fred Parris rejoining the Five Satins to sing lead on their biggest hit, “In the Still of the Night,” which Parris wrote in 1954 while stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany: the song was inspired by the long nights during which he was on watch duty and therefore had to stay up all night. (Johnny Cash wrote his first song, “Hey Porter,” in Germany when he was serving with the U.S. Air Force in 1954.) Parris’s voice was in excellent form and “In the Still of the Night” is one of the greatest doo-wop songs, a heartfelt ballad that challenges and transcends the rather stupid clichés of the form and achieves the emotional power of the later soul style. My previous impression of shows in the My Music (or, as PBS sometimes spells it in obeisance to the ridiculous nomenclature of computer programs, MyMusic without the space) series had been that of the veteran singers brought back on stage for these programs, the Black singers’ voices have generally held up better than the white singers’ voices — which I attributed to the fact that most of the Blacks who sang this music began in African-American churches and were given professional vocal training by the church choir directors, while white singers who took up this sort of music bought into the myth that the Black singers’ voices were “untrained” and quickly destroyed their voices thinking that all they had to do to sing soul was to scream. (Exhibits A and B: Bonnie Tyler and Stevie Nicks.) This time around, the survival rate (or lack of same) among the Black and white voices sounded pretty even, and the overall show was pretty good even though I’d have liked more clarity as to just when this was recorded (according to an Internet search it was 2001) and, as I said at the start of this piece, I’d have liked more rock and rhythm and less doo-wop!