Saturday, June 18, 2016
When Be-Bop Bopped In The Doo Wop Night- “Street Corner Serenade”- Olde Saco Style
When Be-Bop Bopped In The Doo Wop Night- “Street Corner Serenade”- Olde Saco Style
By Josh Breslin
A few years ago I remember I was talking to an old friend of mine, a guy named Zack James who used to write articles about the latest happenings in music for various newspapers and journals, you know, musical trends and why some song hit guys and gals in such a way that they grabbed every record (or tape or CD or download depending on the time of your time) they could put their hands on, why some singer, some style grabbed people by the throat and wouldn’t let go, wouldn’t let go almost to the grave, and I were talking about the trends of our youth, the golden age of rock and roll when Elvis and a coterie of other rockers broke the ice for us from parent-endorsed music. Talked about why we never really got around to singling out doo wop as a part of the jailbreak experience even though as we put some quarters in the jukebox at Aunt Ida’s Diner where we were holding our conversation our weary fingers were pressing button for just those tunes like Til Then which had held up for fifty years and sounded like some ghost dance of our youths unlike some that we were hot to trot for back in the day.
By the way the reason that we were at Aunt Ida’s was to gain some proof-positive for the proposition just mentioned and unfortunately old Ida’s was one of the few places in all of coastal Maine where you could find an entire jukebox dedicated to the classic rock and roll music of our youth. That conversation, listening to those songs got me to thinking about writing a little something about where doo wop did or didn’t fit into the mix. Show old Zack that I too could mix and match with the best of them when talking about the music of our youth although I am more than willing to confess that a guy like Zack knows a hell of a lot more about punk, hip-hop, techno and all the other kinds of music that have succeeded the rock and folk of my youth than I do. See what you think.
Sure I have plenty to say about early rock ‘n’ roll, about what is now called, called with an “ouch” usually when I think about how the time has flown, the classic rock period in the musicology hall of fame. Heck, I lived it and so did a lot of other people, guys like Zack James whom name you might know if follow rock magazines or cultural journals since he has written for most of them, who now have time on their hands and are just becoming “wise” enough to write a few things about those times since they are safely behind us. Well, maybe safely behind us as you never know about certain social and musical trends.
Here is what is important though whether you have, in your dotage, just seen Elvis walking, well, walking like a walking daddy down your Main Street town (now joined by the shade of Tupac Shakur to prove that not only rockers have despaired dreams) like a million others just wishing that you could get together enough quarters to wear that old jukebox down at Jimmy Jakes Diner out (or wherever that beauty of a machine was located-these days a dwindling number of places what with pizza parlors going to family feeding rather than “hosting” corner boys and their dark-eyed forlorn loves and diners like Aunt Ida’s where I wrote a lot of this piece, going the way of highway and by-way pat telephones in age of cellphones and iPods) like in those lazy hazy school day afternoons. With that said I have in the past few weeks aided by several conversations with my old time friend Zack James spent a little time, not enough, considering its effect on us on the doo-wop branch of the rock genre and want to expand on that here.
Part of the reason for not highlighting doo wop separately we both agreed is that back in those mid-1950s jail-breakout days with six millions flash songs running through my head and Elvis stealing all the girls, directly or indirectly, I did not (and I do not believe that any other eleven and twelve year olds did either), distinguish between let’s say early Elvis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran rockabilly-back-beat drive rock, Bo Diddley-Chuck Berry black-based rock centered on a heavy rhythm and blues backdrop, and the almost instrument-less (or maybe a soft piano or guitar backdrop) group harmonics that drove Frankie Lymon, The Drifters, The Platters doo-wop. All I knew was that it was not my parents’ music, praise be, not close, and that moreover they, those parents, those golden age of America parents eternally worried about anything that smacked of breaking out of the mold in the red scare Cold War night, got nervous, very nervous, ditto on the praise be, anytime rock or “colored” music (I kid you not that was the way my mother called one song she heard when I had turned the dial on the kitchen counter to WFAM the local rock station) was played out loud in their presence. Fortunately, some sainted, sanctified, techno-guru developed the iPod of that primitive era, the battery-driven transistor radio. No big deal, technology-wise by today’s standards, but get this, you could place it near your ear and have your own private out loud music without parental scuffling in the background. Yes, sainted, sanctified techno-guru. No question.
What doo-wop did though down in our old-time working class housing projects neighborhood, the heavily French-Canadian quarters around Atlantic Avenue in Olde Saco up in ocean-side Maine, and again it was not so much by revelation as by trial and error, was allow us to be in tune with the music of our generation without having to spend a lot of money on instruments or a studio or any such. Where the hell would we have gotten the dough for such things when papas, including my own father, were out of work, or were one step away as the textile mills that had produced steady work for the town for a hundred years began heading south in search of cheaper labor, and there was trouble just keeping the wolves from the door. Sure, some kids, some kids like my home boy elementary school, Olde Saco South, boyhood friend Billy, William James Riley (mother, nee Dubois), were crazy to put together cover bands with electric guitars (rented occasionally), and dreams. Or maybe go wild with a school piano a la Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, or Fats Domino but those were maniac aficionados. Even Billy though, when the deal went down, especially after hearing Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers do Why Do Fools Fall In Love was mad to “do the do” of doo-wop and make his fame and fortune.
I remember much later, maybe the early 1980s, being in a New York City record shop, somewhere near Times Square, where they had a bin full of doo-wop records and the cover art of one of the albums showed a group of young black kids, black guys, who looked like they were doing their doo wop on some big city street corner. And that makes sense reflecting the New York City-derived birth of doo-wop and that the majority of doo-wop groups that we heard on that battery-drive transistor AM radio were black. But the city, the poor sections of the city, white or black, was not the only place where moneyless guys and gals were harmonizing, hoping, hoping maybe beyond hope, to be discovered and make more than just a 1950s musical jail-breakout of their lives. Moreover, this cover art also showed, and shows vividly, what a lot of us guys were trying to do-impress girls (and maybe vice versa for girl doo-woppers but they can tell their own stories).
Yes, truth to tell, it was about impressing girls that drove many of us, Billy included, Christ maybe Billie most of all, to mix and match harmonies. And you know you did too (remember girls just switch around what I just said). Yah, four or five guys just hanging around the back door of the that summer vacation vacant elementary school on hot summer nights, nothing better to do, no dough to do things, maybe a little feisty because of that, and start up a few tunes. Billy, who actually did have some vocal musical talent, usually sang lead, and the rest of us, well, doo-wopped. We knew nothing of keys and pauses, of time, notes, or reading music we just improvised. (And I kept my changing to teen-ager, slightly off-key voice on the low, on the very low.)
Whether we did it well or poorly, guess what, as the hot sun day turned into humid night, and the old sun went down just over the hills, first a couple of girls, then a couple more, and then a whole bevy (nice word, right?) of them came and got kind of swoony and moony. Most of them were sticks (local term of art, pre-teen, just teen boy-man term of art signifying, ah, signifying that mysterious transformation from boyish girl shape to womanly shape occurring right before our eyes). And swoony and moony was just fine. Especially when one stick turning to shape Rosamund, Rosamund Genet, came around one night toward the end of summer and I got sore eyes just looking in her direction (and I think she peeked in my direction that night too although nothing ever came of the situation both because she and her family moved away before school started that next school year when her family was heading south to get one of those cheap labor factory jobs when the MacAdams Textile Mills announced it was closing and heading south and before she left she was seen with Terry Duncan and so I had missed my chance). And we all innocent, innocent dream, innocent when we dreamed, make our virginal moves. But, mainly, we doo-wopped in the be-bop mid-1950s night.
And a few of the songs from that Time Square- seen album could be heard in that airless night. Songs like Deserie, The Charts; Baby Blue, The Echoes; Till Then, The Classics; and, Tonight (Could Be The Night), The Velvets. But mostly I remember the Five Satins’ In The Still Of The Night as the moon rose and the flies and other nightly insects reared their heads while we came of age those very nights. Yes, long live doo wop out in the be-bop night.