Directed by Brent Wilson, Streetlight Harmonies shines a spotlight on the origins of doo-wop and its influence on the broader culture. Among the endless jukebox of melodies and memories, we hear how these performers found themselves on the front lines of the battle over segregation as they toured deep south towns, where Jim Crow was the law of the land. Courageous musicians, white and black, contributed to concert desegregation and helped sway the public against Jim Crow, using the great common denominator of music to bring audiences together. Asked what sparked his interest in this very specific (and unique) era of music history, Wilson says that his love of the style extends back into his childhood.
“I grew up in a time where we didn’t have as many choices as we have today,” he recalls. “You were kind of forced to listen to your parent’s music. This was before the Walkman, and I certainly didn’t have iPods and things like that. So, you got in the car, and you listened to your parents’ records and, on the weekends, it was your parents who were having parties and playing music. So, I just put up with it and I liked it. I didn’t rebel against it. I really enjoyed just some of those great groups of the ‘60s that they were listening to. I just enjoyed it. Then, as a young teenager, I really loved the movie American Graffiti. The soundtrack on that film is just one of the greatest soundtracks ever to this day (and, maybe a few years later, Stand By Me.) That was the one that really hooked me in and got me loving the music. I’ve always been a big believer in the power of music in films.”
“As for the film itself, our producer Tim Headington is a collector and lover of art and he loves music. We were talking about doo-wop music and how it had never really been taken very seriously and we both really liked it. It was Tim and Susan who [asked] has there ever actually been a serious documentary done on the genre? Of course, there’ve been dozens on rock and roll and blues, jazz, and some of the other American art forms. Sure enough, no one had actually ever done one before. That began our journey. We knew that at that point that we had something pretty special. When you can find something as dynamic as [the story of] this music and it’s not been told before, it really excites you as a filmmaker and that’s what kicked us off down that path.”
Despite its historical significance, Wilson soon discovered that doo-wop was vastly underrepresented in terms of information.
“One of the things that we discovered was just how overlooked the genre had become,” he explains. “We initially reached out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see about any kind of resource materials they had and we discovered just how few of these groups were in there. It really began to kind of shape our philosophy for the film. Also, as we began to do the research, you’re looking to read books and there’s only like two books out there. There are a thousand books on the blues, jazz and country but there was like two written on doo-wop and they were never true examinations of it. It really did form a lot of our philosophy in the film that this music was so overlooked and we explore the different reasons for that and the impact that it had. It was a short time, but man, what it did in that time we felt was really important.”
Given the incredible contribution of groups like Franky Lymon and the Teenagers and the Flamingos to today’s popular culture, one might expect that today’s vocal artists would have a deep appreciation of their place in music history. Nevertheless, Wilson believes that many of the this generation’s performers are simply unaware of the impact of groups that came before.
“I know Lance [Bass], Justin [Timberlake] and the ‘NSync guys really well, and I know they recognize it but I don’t know if some of these others that have come a little bit later in these last couple of years are [as familiar with them],” Wilson explains. “When I think about ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys and the surge there in the early ’90s, I think there was a more of a little bit more of a direct connect [to the genre], certainly at least to Motown. But I think now it’s become a copy of a copy of the copy. I don’t know if they recognize it. Certainly, when you talk to Charlie Thomas and La La Brooks and some of those pioneers, they’ll definitely tell you that they don’t recognize it. I think one of the things that’s culturally an issue, where we just don’t recognize those enough that have come before us. I think this music was never just taken that seriously. So, I hope this film, in some small way, will help these artists just recognize the ones that came before them.”
“All this K-pop and [styles like that], there’d be none of that if it hadn’t been for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers,” he continues. “[Newer groups] have rights in their contracts and their contracts are better protected because so many of those kids in the ‘50s got taken and now, the laws are much stricter. People are much more savvy. Back then, there was no precedent for these kinds of things and they paid a high, high price to be first. I hope a few of those [younger] artists [see the film] and give a shout out to The Drifters to The Teenagers and The Flamingos. That would be wonderful. There are some [that know the history]. I’ve seen [Bruno Mars] talk about it before. We tried to reach out to Bruno but he was just always on tour. That made it very difficult. So, there are some that are out there but we do certainly need more.”
In light of this, one of the most powerful moments within Harmonies comes towards the end of the film as Wilson and his team invites legends such as Charlie Thomas, La La Brooks and Vito Picone to band together for a performance with a cappella group, Straight No Chaser. To Wilson, the opportunity to see generations come together was not only exciting but powerful as well.
“The idea [to include the final song together] was [that] we really wanted to show that direct connection [between generations],” he beams. “Straight No Chaser is just a phenomenal group of talented young men and to have them bridging that creative gap with some of those legends was just [amazing]. It was producer Theresa Page’s idea to have them record “Stand By Me” and it was just a stroke of genius. Every time I watched that scene, I get chills. If Charlie Thomas’ voice doesn’t make the hair on your arms stand up, I don’t know what to tell you. [laughs]”
While exploring the roots of doo-wop, Streetlight Harmonies is also willing to explore the darker experiences of black vocal groups during the era of racial segregation. However, despite the pain and difficulties of the time, Wilson’s film also shows the power of music to begin to tear down barriers between people.
“One of the key themes as a film itself is that, despite all that these artists went through going through the Jim Crow South and having to sing to the wall, at one point they got mixed audiences,” he points out. “They would have white audiences on the left and black audiences on the right and then as the audiences started to mingle and dance and take down the ropes, they wouldn’t even let them look at the audience. They would make them turn their back to [them]. So, it seems like every time society would try to curtail what was happening, which was an acceptance of a people, they would find a way to continue to push the boundaries. It’s just because of the power of music.”
“In the film, [we point out] that music has no color. I think that began very much with doo-wop and, if you go back to the Ink Spots and some of those groups in ‘40s, they’re trying to sound ‘white’. That was their hook. We’re not going to sound threatening and we’re going to do this kind of smooth Bing Crosby sound. Then, as we got into the Orioles, which we talk about in the film, and that first kind of earthy sound where they were doing Ink Spot-type of music and harmonies, but they weren’t going to sound ‘white’ anymore. Once you start to do that and audiences are listening on the radio, I think then [people] began to ask [themselves], ‘Well, if I like their music, why do I have to hate these people? What is it that’s making me dislike something or someone who’s generating something that I like so much?’ I think that’s what makes music the great equalizer is that it just forces you to ask yourself that question…”
In fact, Wilson even suggests that music has such a powerful impact that one could draw a direct line between the rise of doo-wop and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
“This was I think the first music to really do that,” he says. “That’s at the heart of this film is here we are in ’54-’56 and rock and roll was certainly starting to happen. You had the blues. You had Howling Wolf’s and things like that, but they were forbidden. It was absolutely on the black radio stations and there was no crossover. But now we began to have crossover and now you began to kind of seep into the white home. I think once that started to happen, it really did open up a door that led to civil rights. One of the things that I am most proud of what the film is that we shine a light on the impact and power of hearing ‘In The Still Of The Night’ and what that must have meant to the thirteen-year-old girl or boy in love in Indianapolis or from the middle of the country, pointing out that that was a black artist that wrote that song and thinking maybe I don’t have to think the same way that my parents do. I think that’s what music does at its best as it just makes us think. It makes us question the status quo.”
Considering the music’s impact upon tearing down social barriers, it comes as little surprise that music itself is often perceived as a ‘threat’ to the dominant culture. With this in mind, Wilson believes that much of the perceived threat stems from music’s ability to cut straight to the heart.
“It happens in every generation,” he clarifies. “The very first rock and roll riot was in 1955 in Asbury park with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers… You get it again a little bit later with the Beatles and their long hair and even the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with the Rolling Stones and the Who smashing their guitars. You get into the ‘80s and Madonna and ascending the church and the Pope coming out against her. Then you get into thick heavy metal there and Tipper Gore testifying before Congress, saying ‘We’ve got to save our children.’ Look at what happens with hip hop and Eminem. Music is always a threat because it’s a direct line to a young person’s heart. When you hear that song, whether it’s Bob Dylan or Eminem or whoever the case may be, and you just say, ‘Holy heck, nobody can speak to me like that person. Nobody understands me like that person.’ It’s such a powerful, powerful moment and you become hooked. It can transform your thinking. I don’t think there’s any other form of art in the 20th Century that has that direct connection to the heart, like popular music does.”
“It’s never been the threat that everybody thinks it is but, at the time, you think it’s just the end all be all… Now it just kinda seems kind of silly to think that that’s such a threat. Right? But it does. I think, as a parent, you [say] nobody’s getting to my kid anymore. They’re only listening to X or Y or Z. But, it’s a direct line to the heart and I think will always will be.”
Having said this, Wilson also contends that the perfect song is indeed much more of a subjective experience where the listener feels directly connected to the artist through the music and lyrics.
“[I think that a great song] is one that I think speaks to you [in] that moment where you think [it] was written specifically for [you],” he feels. “[You say] I don’t know who this person is or who this artist is, but clearly they got inside of my head and they wrote that song specifically for me. You think there’s nobody else in the world that will understand that song the way you do. When you’re hearing that song in your car, or maybe you’re at home at night in the bedroom and got your headphones on or wherever the case may be, there is a moment where you just think to yourself, how did this person get in my soul? How did this artist do that? How do they understand the way I feel? That, to me, is always a great song… I think that’s what great art does. [It] evokes emotion. That emotion can be anger, joy, pride, identification, whatever it may be. But if it’s evoking an emotion, then I think you’ve got a great song.”
For full audio of our interview with director Brent Wilson, click here.
Streetlight Harmonies is available on demand now.