“Currently, there are over 300 inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Yet, only 12 vocal harmony groups represent one of the most disregarded and misunderstood eras in American music history…” – Streetlight Harmonies
I was on a fellow AAFCA member’s Facebook page and saw a publicist mention a documentary that was being released on home video called STREETLIGHT HARMONIES. Well, all it took was the word “harmonies” to pique my interest, so I asked if she’d send a screener for my review. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and not only did I take my time to watch and absorb the wisdom and musical history shared, but I came to absolutely adore the film.
Highlighting the musical form that enchanted post-war America and led, and contributed inconspicuously, to the Civil Rights movement, the film is filled with reflections, memories, songs, and history lessons from iconic artists, songwriters, and industry influencers – like homegrown Philly DJ and 1998 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jerry “The Geator” Blavat, “Little Anthony” Gourdine of Little Anthony and the Imperials, La La Brooks of The Crystals, Vito Picone of The Elegants, and 1990 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Lamont Dozier, who’s part of the famous Motown writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland – and a variety of their musical descendants including singer/songwriter Brian McKnight, his eldest brother and Take 6 member Claude McKnight, Cindy Herron and Terry Ellis of En Vogue, and Lance Bass of *NSYNC to name a few.
“We paved the way. (They) should acknowledge us, because if it wasn’t for us they wouldn’t be here.” La La Brooks, The Crystals
And with that and more, “Streetlight Harmonies” offers us insight from the perspectives of the pioneers, living and deceased, that created, promoted, and established one of the greatest periods of musical history.
Whether it’s Gourdine offering personal stories about the late Frankie Lymon (Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers), Richard Barrett and Jimmy Merchant, “The Geator with the Heater” Blavat describing pioneers Jocko and Alan Freed, or a variety of artists talking about major influences like The Brill Building, a mecca for artists and songwriters looking for a break in the industry, and trailblazers like Deborah Chessler – the first White (Jewish) woman to manage a Black group, The Orioles – the film doesn’t shy away from the ups of creating the music nor the downs of doing so at a time of deep racism and segregation.
Sidenote: a favorite of mine, the iconic singer/songwriter Ms. Carole King, got her break in the Brill Building as a young songwriter and wrote hits for several groups – including The Drifters (Up on the Roof) and The Shirelles (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow) – facts that are highlighted in the musical “Beautiful: The Carole King Story.” (Check out the MMT review in link).
“Music has no color. This is about love (and) for the love of the music.” Sammy Strain, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The O’Jays, two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee
Director Brent Wilson (A Gathering of Heroes: The Last Reunion, Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road) skillfully engages interviewees in the documentary to elicit stories of singers performing in the South while experiencing severe discrimination and dangerous encounters, only white faces/pictures being promoted on album covers and songs being covered by White artists while the Black artists who recorded originally received no airplay, and too often had their success/careers pale by comparison.
Yet, the documentary is also adept in displaying how diversity played a major role in this era, which subsequently became a musical launching pad for the Civil Rights movement, while ushering in the various musical sounds of the 60’s – none more arguably famous than Berry Gordy’s “Motown Sound,” which was nicknamed “The Sound of Young America” as it achieved its goal of promoting a sound that attracted all audiences.
“Spiritual (music) gave birth to Blues, Blues gave birth to R & B, R & B gave birth to Rock & Roll, Rock & Roll gave birth to Hip-Hop. No Doo Wop. I don’t know what that is, it doesn’t fit in the category.” “Little Anthony” Gourdine
Whether you call it vocal harmony, Doo Wop, or R & B like Mr. Gourdine, the legacy remains and its influence is long-reaching. Remember that 2011 Grammy performance featuring Bruno Mars with Janelle Monae and B.O.B. and the musical style incorporated throughout? Click here to check out the video if you’ve never seen or need a reminder.
And be sure to watch the documentary all the way through the end credits to see the a cappella group Straight No Chaser pay tribute to Ben E. King – who passed away several weeks prior to his scheduled interview for the film – and its version of “Stand By Me” featuring La La Brooks, Vito Picone, and the legendary Charlie Thomas from The Drifters.
Informative, entertaining, and filled with sometimes heartbreaking but primarily joyous recollections, I rate STREETLIGHT HARMONIES 4.5 out of 5 beats on the MMTrometer.
“Streetlight Harmonies” is available now on VOD and Home Video. You can get additional information and purchase at the official website here.
Until next thought, Thomasena
PS: I am so grateful that this film also included interview segments with Jon Bauman (aka Bowzer) of the famed vocal group Sha Na Na! The group’s self-titled TV series was a fun family watch in my home when I was a child! I hadn’t thought about it in years (sings: “Good night Sweetheart, well it’s time to go…Do, do, do, do do”). 🙂