The sound I most associated with the fifties, Doo-Wop has actually been around since the forties, started in America when groups of young kids would sing under the streetlights on street corners.
The sound, like a lot of music from America, began in the churches. There’s a slight disagreement over the term doo-wop however, with many artists considering themselves R&B singers, not doo-wop.
In the documentary we hear from a whole host of singers and writers, young and old, from Anthony Gourdine to Brian McKnight and all in between.
The documentary itself is a series of talking-heads with some interludes of footage of groups on various TV shows of the era.
We hear tragic tales of people such as Frankie Lymon, of Franky Lymon and The Teenagers. At just 13, Frankie fronted the group as they recorded the smash hit Why Do Fools Fall In Love.
However, after a change in management, Lymon was split from his band, to go solo. After the split, Lymon never had a hit record, neither did The Teenagers. Frankie later sunk down into drugs and died young.
But these groups started out with no intentions of being famous or cutting a record deal, they simply wanted to have fun, singing under the streetlights until 9pm when everything shut down.
In some areas, you could walk around the neighbourhood and have a group singing on every corner. They were judged by the amount of girls that would gather around to listen, The Drifters adamant they were the most popular.
This changed when the groups began to see others making it. They would head to The Brill Building, 14 floors of music publishers and A&R men. The groups would head in and just began knocking on doors until someone took them in. Most of these groups members were just teenagers.
Two of the biggest writers of the time were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Two white, Jewish men, they had a knack for writing catchy music, writing for people such as Elvis and creating songs such as Yakety Yak. They were in demand.
Given the era, there’s also much talk about race with all bands saying how scary it was to go and play down in the south of America. Crowds were segregated and any black members of the band were forced to sing to the wall, rather than the crowd.
Even the radio DJ’s wouldn’t play the music, not until Alan Freed came along at least, who is credited as the first white DJ to play black music on the radio and also for being the one to push it to a wider audience.
White groups were also taking the songs the black groups had created, and re-recording them, making them more commercial and, subsequently, having a lot more success because they were white. Pat Boone, for example, used to do it a lot, even re-recording Tutti Frutti.
As we get into the sixties we begin to get to Motown, The Beach Boys etc, and the influence the early doo wop musicians had on them.
But then The Beatles, and the subsequent British invasion of music, arrived and killed the sound of the fifties and sixties in America. Paving the way for a new sound.
Streetlight Harmonies is a fascinating insight into doo-wop and the sound of the era and it’s great to see so many legends being interviewed.
Sadly, Ben E. King passed away a few weeks before his scheduled interview for the film. So, at the end, the producers pull everyone together and have them sing his most famous song, Stand By Me.