Sunday, April 05, 2015

Out In The Corner Boy Be-Bop Night-With Jersey Boys In Mind   


From The Pen Of Sam Lowell 


Frank Jackman’s old friend Jack Dawson, his old friend from corner boy days starting in the fifth grade down in back of the Myles Standish Elementary School in Carver about thirty miles south of Boston in the 1950s, had a while back written a short review about seeing the film Jersey Boys. With the wizardry of modern technology Frank had had the review placed in a blog dedicated to all things retro 1950s and 1960s (two slightly different retros but guys like Frank and Jack squeeze both eras.) Prior to Jack’s viewing the film with his lovely wife, Anna, Frank had told him a summary of the plot-line (and the song playlist) one night when they were having one of their periodic “watering hole” get- togethers to cut up old touches at the Sunnyville Grille in Boston when Frank was in town for a conference. Based on that exchange Jack was determined to see the film. A few days later after seeing the film, seeing how a bunch of “from hunger” working class kids from Jersey (but given the plot-line it could have been lots of places including the “projects” down in Carver where he had come of age), how they made it big, made their fifteen minutes of fame and then some Jack started to think about those old days. About the days when chance had caused him to meet Frank at Myles Standish after his family had moved from Clintonville a few miles away in the summer before fifth grade and the two of them along with a couple of other corner boys, Red Radley and Jimmy Jenkins, in sixth grade created their own (imitative) doo-wop group in an attempt to break out of their youthful jails and gain their own fame (although their standard had not been fifteen minutes but infinity, or when the girls started gathering around, whichever came first).    

What got Jack thinking along those lines was something Frank’s long-time companion, Laura, whom he had seen the film with, had told Frank. She said to him that she had had trouble “getting into” the story line at the beginning because as Frank told Jack before he gave him the details of the film the scenes were far too removed from her own strait-laced middle-class upbringing in Manhattan. Laura did said that she assumed that part of the film’s story line, the part about the furious growing up “from hunger” strivings of the guys who would become the Four Seasons out in the 1950s New Jersey night, had dovetailed with Frank’s experiences in his own youth and as well with the kind of things he have been writing about from that period of late. The kind of things that Frank wrote about after Jack and he discussed various incidents in growing up absurd in the 1950s at their “watering hole” sessions which they initiated after they had then recently rekindled their friendship after many years of going their own ways. Laura had been right about that part, about going back to the mist of time and grabbing some thoughts about how those days had formed Frank, for better or worse, no question. And that feeling got through to Jack as well.

Frank’s had told Jack when he asked why he was writing some many sketches about the past, also placed in retro blogs dedicated to such reflections, that his purpose in writing about the old days had not been to put paid to some ghosts of the past as a lot of guys they knew were interested in doing by physically revisiting growing up hometowns like Josh Breslin going back up to Olde Saco in Maine and getting the wits scared out of him that somebody might recognize him at every turn he made, like brawny Bart Webber going back to Carver to re-flame old sport’s dreams by attending the home football games with other old geezers from his high school, or like one of their other pals, Jimmy Jenkins, who had gone to his (their) fiftieth class reunion at Carver High and came away more depressed than anything since all the old gang, those still walking, talked about was various medical conditions and their grandchildren which left him cold. No, that part was done with this late in the game and the fates had called their shots on that saga already. Moreover Frank said he certainly had not intended to evaluate, Jesus, not to always evaluate, how this or that thing that happened back then turned the great Mandela wheel any particular way but merely to put together some interesting tidbits for Jack, Jimmy, and a couple of other of his later acquaintances Josh and Phil Larkin who were also from the same era when everybody got together at the Sunnyville, or at the Kennebunk Pub up in Maine where Josh lived when they all tired of the city and needed to be washed clean by the ocean spray off the fearsome blue-green Atlantic Ocean. 

Of course lately Jack had begun, feeding off Frank’s tidbits as well as that film, writing sketches about his own musical coming of age time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the time frame that the Four Seasons had blossomed. Strangely both Frank and Jack agreed that except for the classic doo wop be-bop song, Sherri, they were not fans of the Four Seasons although unlike other groups and singers of the time Jack did not hate their sound. What had perked Jack’s big interest in this film had been the almost chemically pure corner boy aspect, Jersey corner boy aspect, which was not at all unlike his (and Frank’s) Carver corner boy growing up saga.        

In fact at certain points the early story of the guys who formed the core of the original group, Frankie, Tommy and Nick was so very, very similar to parts of Jack’s corner boy experiences that he had to laugh. The options for corner boys, guys who grew up “from hunger” in the working class neighborhoods, usually “the projects,” around the country had those same options mentioned early in the film once they came of age, the Army one way or another many times under some judge’s “trying to make a man out you” threat of the Army or jail, for those who rap sheets were too long to warrant options then just jail or for a guy they knew, Slammer Johnson, who was as tough as they come at age twelve and even older guys, serious corner boys who knew a thing or two about whipsaw chains and brass knuckles, the reformatory, or become famous. Jack knew that part, knew that “wanting habits” hunger that all the young guys in Carver were trying break from, break from when they saw Elvis or Jerry Lee burning stages up and so he and the boys had tried the latter, the fame game, at one point.

It all started in the summer before sixth grade when doo wop was all the craze after Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had asked the magic question-why do fools fall in love- and drove the song by the same name to the top of the charts. There were other guys groups (doo wop girls’ groups too who were cruising to the top the charts but the Carver guys really weren’t interested in them because there was no way they could get anything to help them break-out from paying attention to girl groups, yeah, foolish guys) that hit it big, the Five Satins, The Dubs, The Chasers, The Be-Bop Boys and a bunch of others, mostly black guys (and an occasional girl mixed in) which they knew were hitting it big from watching American Bandstand in the afternoons after school. Dick Clark and that Bandstand was in elementary school anyway, in elementary school at the time when they were getting hipped to music was mandatory to see who was who in the teenage song firmament, see what guys were wearing, see what dances guys were expected to know how to do, sweaty palms and two left feet not withstanding, and, and what chicks looked cool on the show. That last maybe the biggest draw of all as everybody rushed home after school to catch the show.     

Funny the black group thing was not a big deal, or Jack and the others didn’t think much about it since the only time they saw black people was on television. Jack would never really since a live black person until years later when he ran track and would run against black guys in the big meets up in Boston Garden. Other than grabbing tips, like having the lead singer off to the side, everybody having the same outfit, the harmony guys snapping their fingers to the beat, and staying on beat with the lead singer they had no racial options about the music and they,  meaning mainly Jack at first, figured their niche would be as white guy doo-woppers so they would be working a different street. (Jack and Frank, later in high school, when the civil rights movement was on the television every night practically would get a very rude awaking both within their families and among their fellow students and neighbors when they expressed the slightest sympathy for the black liberation struggle but back in sixth grade there was nothing to it)  That niche was not all thought out in such a refined manner as Jack was now recalling in retrospect but what was thought out was that fame part, thought out big time.   

That summer before sixth grade right after school got out for the summer was when the Myles Standish corner boys’ natural leader, Red Radley, driven to distraction by the notion of fame, got them together around their corner every night to practice. Since there had not been any stores to stand in front of holding up the wall in the “projects” where they lived like in the pictures they had seen on music magazines they looked through up in the main library up in Carver Square their corner had been in back of the Myles Standish Elementary School. On hot summer nights the back was all lit up brightly since the night basketball leagues would be holding forth across the field from the gym entrance where they hung out. So under “the street lights” just like those New York City and Philly street corner guys they sang. Sang the doo-wop craze stuff which Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had started and which Red following Jack’s lead about the white boy doo-wop niche figured they could cash in on.

For a couple of weeks they practiced like crazy each night, no paying much attention to much else except exchanging fantasies about what kind of suits they would by, how to act when the crush of the crowds came on, what to do with swooning girls, kids’ stuff dream stuff. But mainly the practiced, trying like hell to work a smooth harmonious sound on the material they covered, covered by Frank copying down the lyrics each time a song they wanted to cover came on WMEX the local rock station (fortunately the big hits got played endlessly each cycle so Frank mainly got the words but on few he missed a couple and so they just incorporated what was there) with Red in the lead. Red really did have the best voice, really could project his voice, and Jack thinking back thought Red with some work and breaks could have made a nice career maybe as a lounge act out of his talent.      

That doo wop practice worked, well, worked for what their other purpose was, gathering interesting girls around them. See, a lot of this doo wop jail break out had to do with sexual stirrings, with this cohort of corner boys finally noticing that those shapeless girls from fifth grade class like Cindy, Linda, Bessie, Rosalind (Jack’s favorite), some of them, were starting to get shapes and who the year before had been noting but nuisances but now were, well, interesting. So each night all through that summer as day turned to night Red and the Roosters (nice name, right) crooned, kept working on their timing, and talking about their look, their niche.

At first they were left all by themselves, maybe the older serious basketball players would chuckle as they left the courts, but then one night a couple of girls, girls they knew from class were standing maybe fifty yards away up against a fence not hiding or anything but just kind of listening and swaying back and forth to the songs. (Jack thought the song they were working on was Little Antony and the Imperials Tears On My Pillows, although he would not swear to that. In any case that was the song that got him a dance with Rosalind so maybe he was confusing the two situations.)

A few nights later there would be several girls, including sixth grade girls and one from the other fifth grade class, Lorna who they called Lorna Doone for no particular reason but who was hot, standing at that fence. Jack thought that night if they did a song that all the girls could join in on they might come closer. So they switched up and did the Tune-Weavers’ tear-jerker Happy Birthday Baby everybody knew and was easy to sing. Sang it several times. The girls came running on the excuse that they thought it was somebody’s birthday, somebody who needed consoling. Yeah, it was like that in the innocence boy-girl thing then, probably still is. The summer passed that way with the boy-girl thing working its virginal way through the old neighborhood just like since Adam and Eve time, maybe before. Jack never got to Rosalind then only later after school started and then she moved to another town and that ended his first serious love affair. Frank even with his two left feet got a date for the movies with Bessie, and Jack thought Red (with that mass of red hair), the best looking guy of the bunch from what the girls said but maybe that was just because they wanted get near the lead singer, as always, had gone “steady” with Lorna for a while until Red kind of went off by himself.           

See here is where things broke down. Sure Red and the Roosters could draw the local girls in, girls who, well, had sexual stirrings too but here is what had happened. Their problem was, unlike Frankie and the Four Seasons from the get-go, they really did not have any serious raw musical talent (except Red) and did not as Frankie and his guys did really have a new angle on the music of the times. Moreover Frank’s voice changed about mid-way through sixth and threw everything off (later Jack’s and then Jimmy’s did too but that was after the group broke up). So, sadly, this edition of the corner boys broke up in the summer before junior high. Red was bitter since he more than the rest of them was staking his life, his break-out from the ‘from hungers,” on musical fame.

Red would a little later after they moved on to junior high turn against any musical aspirations, get himself into a new career path, the life of crime, which had Jack and to a lesser extent Frank in its thrall for a while, remember they were from hunger too, before they backed off but it was a close thing, very close. Both of them had been “look-outs” when Red began his “clip” five-fingers discount rampage of the various stores up in Carver Center and Jack had worked with Red one night when they jack-rolled a drunk for fifty bucks. Frank and Jack soon moved away from that business though once they realized it was too much work and they felt too much anguish over what they were doing to make a career out of that life.     

Red would go on to form another corner boy crowd with some older tougher boys who hung around Jimmy Jack’s Diner based on midnight creeps and some of those corner boys later wound up in the Army, a couple dead in Vietnam for their troubles names now etched in black marble down in Washington and on a granite monument on Carver Commons, or in jail (including Billy later who did a nickel’s worth for an armed robbery after he failed to make a half-hearted one more chance career singing alone and who in the end wound up on the short end of a shoot-out with the cops trying to rob a two-bit White Hen down in some godforsaken town in North Carolina after a second nickel stretch for another armed robbery).       

Jack as he thought about Red as he had not done so in a long time, thought about those last parts of the Carver corner boy story, the parts about the fate of the Reds of the world as against the luck of the Four Seasons thought the difference was important because no matter how “from hunger” you are you need the talent and the quirky niche in order to survive in the musical world. Even then as Jack noted in that review he had written and as became apparent as the film unfolded fame is a very close thing. A couple of twists one way or another and the fifteen minutes of fame is up, gone. And fame as Frankie Valli and the boys found out the hard way despite their hard work doesn’t shield you from life’s woes as the break-up of the group, Frankie’s daughter’s death and the financial problems created by “from hunger” Tommy who thought the money would rain in their faces forever attest to. Not an unfamiliar fame story but one worth seeing once again. And telling the Carver corner boys story too.   

[By the way as the film moved on to the performance parts the when the Four Seasons started getting some breaks, got a natural song-writer, and got tight and in synch both Laura and Anna said they did settle in and liked the rest of the film. And why wouldn’t they as children of that time as well the Carver corner boys when they were glued to their transistor radios up in some bedroom listening to the aforementioned Sherri, other like Dawn, Walk Like A Man,  Rag Dog, Big Girls Don’t Cry and all the rest that drove the young girls wild back then.]

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