Do You “Doo Wop”? I Do (Wop)

Earlier this month, Iowa Public Television showed the special Rock, Pop and Doo Wop as part of their “Festival” fundraising programming. Judging from the frequency of such shows featuring doo wop during their crucial funding drives, I can’t help but conclude that these shows are popular, at least among those who might be willing to open up their pocketbooks. For younger viewers and younger music fans, in general, the term doo wop may not hold a lot of meaning.

25 All-Time Doo Wop Hits

Doo wop is a label applied (retrospectively) to a music style that grew out of R&B during the late 1940s/early 1950s and became a major component of rock and roll during its formative stage. The hallmark of doo wop is that it relies on vocal harmonies, often sung a cappella, or with very limited instrumentation, to create the bulk of its sound. As R&B is a historically black music idiom, all of the The Coastersearliest doo wop practitioners were indeed black vocal groups. Doo wop originated in New York City and Philadelphia, but also thrived early on in other cities of the northeast United States before spreading to cities nationwide.

Many doo wop tunes became national hits on the U.S. singles chart starting in the mid-fifties – the white Canadian vocal group The Crew-Cuts cover of the black R&B group The Chords’ song “Sh-Boom” is generally considered to be doo wop’s first number one single. Although the majority of doo wop groups continued to consist of all-black lineups, doo wop increasingly attracted the interest of white singers, especially among Italian Americans, but remained an urban phenomenon. Interestingly, at a time in which there was still very little interracial mixing, there were a number of instances where blacks, whites and/or Hispanics came together in doo wop groups, including such major artists as The Crests, The Del-Vikings, and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers.

The FlamingosDoo wop was an almost entirely male style, although a few otherwise male groups – The Platters being the most notable example – employed a single female singer. There was a female school of doo wop, headed quite prominently by The Shirelles, but “girl group” quickly became the tag used for those female vocal harmony acts, whose heyday was from the late-1950s to late-1960s.

Doo wop’s success only lasted until the mid-sixties, when the British Invasion radically changed musical tastes and realistically ended the doo wop era. The black doo wop groups that were able to adapt to the new scene moved into the soul genre (The Miracles, for example), while the white ones moved into mainstream pop (like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons).

One problem posed by the recording norms of the doo wop era is that most songs were only released as The Five Satinssingles, often by small labels that soon went out belly up.  As a result, many of the best-loved doo wop songs are by one-hit wonders, whose time in the limelight was fleeting. Even many of the groups who charted multiple times never released a proper album. Fortunately, many of these singles have been gathered together on compilations that hit the highlights of the doo wop era. The Des Moines Public Library has a fine collection of such albums, so if you’d like to try one or more of them, click here.

Several doo wop groups, of course, were able to have long careers, though even many of those acts can only be heard on career compilations. The following is an alphabetical list of ten significant doo wop artists and the albums owned by the Des Moines Public Library that best represent their musical legacy.

The Coasters – The Very Best of the Coasters

The Crests – The Best of Johnny Maestro, 1958-1985

The Diamonds – Little Darlin’: 25 Golden Hits

Dion & The Belmonts/Dion – The Essential Dion

The Drifters – All-Time Greatest Hits

The Five Satins – The Five Satins Sing Their Greatest Hits

The Flamingos – The Best of the Flamingos

Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers – The Very Best of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers

The Heartbeats – The Best of the Heartbeats: Including Shep & The Limelites

The Platters – 20 Greatest Hits


American Teen Comedies Come of Age

When American Graffiti was released in August, 1973, it set in motion a chain of events that would be felt across the entertainment industry for years to come. Set in 1962, its success brought on a nostalgia craze for late-50s/early-60s music, influenced contemporary music, and reenergized the careers of such period icons as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, and Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. It also helped get the American Graffitisimilarly-themed Happy Days onto ABC’s primetime schedule, a decisive first step in turning the perennially last-place network into a ratings king in just a few short years. And, it greatly advanced the careers of several future movie and TV stars, as well as that of one of the most influential filmmakers of our time.

My brother and I really wanted to see American Graffiti when it came out, but living in a small town, the opportunity never seemed to arise. Back then – before VCRs/DVD players, cable TV and pay-per-view – if you missed seeing a movie while it was in theaters, you really missed it. At that time, hit movies might play in theaters for a year or more, but once you missed that theatrical run, it meant waiting several years before you might catch it on network television, minus “the good parts.”

When my brother and I were invited by friends to go with them to finally see it, we were immensely psyched. By that time, it had already been a surprise Oscar nominee for best picture (and had lost to The Sting) and was nearing the end of its run. Could it, however, live up to our considerable expectations? To our delight, it didn’t just meet those expectations, it obliterated them.

What an impact that film had on us! We’d never seen anything like it. The setup was simple: one long, late-summer night of various teenagers cruising the strip of a mid-sized California town. Oh, but what a night! American Graffiti was hilarious, exciting, and occasionally raunchy. The world created onscreen was so enticing that we longed to give up our own comparatively humdrum lives and somehow become a part of it. That world was the creation of an unknown young writer-director named George Lucas. It was just his second film and we couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. It wasn’t until 1977 that Lucas’ next movie finally came out. If I remember correctly, it was something called Star Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Aside from the reasons discussed above, American Graffiti was foremost a watershed film because it was the first successful modern, teen comedy. Sure, there had been plenty of movies featuring teenagers previously and some of them had jokes. The truth is, however, that before the cultural shift of the mid-sixties and the creation of the MPAA’s film ratings system in late-1968, those movies were generally lame, family-friendly, second-tier fodder about first kisses, hot rods, or surfboards. OK, American Graffiti actually has first kisses and hot rods, but it has so much more, even though there are no surfboards in sight. Lucas proved that an intriguing story and a good directorial eye could trump the perceived deficit of a low budget and a cast of little-known, if talented, young actors. Among those young actors whose careers were greatly helped by the film were Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, and Suzanne Somers.

Ever since American Graffiti, unproven filmmakers (like Lucas had been at the time) have tried to capture that same lightening in a bottle, hoping that their off-screen talents will combine with the untapped charisma of onscreen neophytes to create the breakout teen comedy of their era. Frankly, it seldom happens. Every few years, however, a teen comedy comes along that helps define a generation. Like American Graffiti, they have large fresh-faced ensemble casts, myriad intersecting storylines and just the right amount of good-natured humor and raunchiness to strike a chord among the targeted demographic.

Here are a few teen comedies that have carried on the tradition of American Graffiti:Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was helmed by first-time director Amy Heckerling (Look Who’s Talking, Clueless). On release, it became one of the biggest hits ever directed by an American woman. The movie boosted the careers of Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage, and Anthony Edwards.

Dazed and ConfusedDazed and Confused (1993) was the third film directed by Richard Linklater (The School of Rock, Bernie). After a relatively minor theatrical release (but with lots of special late night shows), it gained momentum through rentals, premium cable airings and VHS/DVD sales. It provided early roles for Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, Adam Goldberg, Renée Zellweger, Cole Hauser, and Milla Jovovich.American Pie

American Pie (1999) was the directorial debut of Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company). A huge summer hit, it spawned a series of films of variable quality. It gave acting early acting opportunities to Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Alyson Hannigan, Shannon Elizabeth, Seann William Scott, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, and John Cho.Superbad

Superbad (2007) was just the second feature film for director Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Paul), though he’d had extensive seasoning in television between then and his debut feature eleven years prior. Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Stone, and Martha MacIsaac all benefited from their being cast in starring roles.

American Graffiti is the blueprint for just one type of teen comedy. Other great teen comedies of the modern era that were made in different styles include Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Clueless, Mean Girls, and Easy A. Along with the titles above they make a solid list of teen comedies that shouldn’t disappoint any fan of the genre. Visit the Des Moines Public Library and get in touch with your inner teen by checking out these ten terrific titles.

From Berlin to Hollywood

This past week I watched a film titled People on Sunday. No, you’ve probably never heard of it. For one, it’s 83 years old. Secondly, it was produced in Germany (actual title: Menschen am Sonntag) outside of the studio system. Thirdly, it has no stars in it – not even German ones. Finally, it’s a silent film, so it doesn’t get shown very often.

Are you still with me? If so, you may be asking yourself, “so, what makes that movie worth writing about?” Well, I’ve got three good reasons why People on Sunday is an important piece of cinematic history: 1) it was made outside the German studio system as an experimental project, 2) it provides People on Sundayfascinating footage of Berlin during the latter stages of the Weimar Republic (the federal republic that would be overthrown by the Nazis), and 3) no less than five members of the creative team later emigrated to the United States and established themselves as major Hollywood talents.

People on Sunday mostly takes place on a summer Sunday and tells the interrelated story of five Berliners who plan to picnic at the beach. Shooting took place on several weekends during 1929 with much of the story improvised. The film exclusively features non-professionals in the starring roles, though the relaxed, unselfconscious acting belies that fact. The numerous shots of the city give the film a semi-documentary feel. Combined with the seemingly carefree narrative of these lower-middle class young adults, it creates the illusion that the camera is unobtrusively spying on real-life events.

Mid- to late-twenties Germany was a time of moderate prosperity, having survived the economic collapse that occurred after, and as a result of, World War I. In 1929, the country was just beginning to experience the runaway inflation that would create the severe political instability that paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler. The Berlin of People on Sunday, however, is one of normalcy: the mood of the characters is lighthearted and the city seems robust. The movie provides a rare view of the period.

The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariMetropolisI enjoyed the film, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to oversell it to you as a must-see example of German silent-era filmmaking; for that, my must-see picks would probably include such titles as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis, and Pandora’s Box. No, the appeal of People on Sunday is as much for being a notable social document as it is an entertaining film. So, if you’re interested in the period, or in experimental film efforts, it‘s something you’ll want to check out.

You may have noticed that I haven’t yet further mentioned the third reason for discussing the film. Depending on your interest in film history, the third reason may provide more cause to watch People on Sunday than the other two, combined. That’s because the credits show that the film was directed by Kurt (Curt) Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, while the screenplay was by Kurt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Billy Wilder, based on source material by Robert Siodmak.

That group of filmmakers (all of whom were Jewish) saw the writing on the wall when the Nazis started consolidating power in the early thirties and those five left either before, or slightly after Hitler placed Joseph Goebbels in his cabinet as Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels strictly controlled all forms of media, ensuring that they conformed to Nazi political philosophy. Some of the filmmakers went to Paris or London first, but they all eventually wound up in Hollywood.

The Crimson PirateRobert Siodmak entered the movie business writing titles for imported American films and progressed to film cutter. He was the one who convinced producer Seymour Nebenzal to finance People on Sunday. When the independent film became a surprise hit, Siodmak was signed by the giant German studio UFA as a director. Despite some success there, Robert and younger brother Curt fled Germany when all Jews were kicked out of the film industry by the Nazis. Robert spent several productive years in France before landing in Hollywood, where he would become an A-list director, particularly known for his stylish film noir thrillers. Among his many hits were The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, Criss Cross, and The Crimson Pirate. Robert later returned to Germany, where he made several more films.

Curt Siodmak was a journalist when he took a job as an extra in Metropolis so that he could write an article on the film’s director, Fritz Lang. One thing led to another and he soon became a screenwriter. He would later direct and produce several bottom-of-the barrel films near the end of his career, but he remains best-known for the horror scripts he wrote for Universal, king of that low-budget genre. Many of his works were unexceptional, but among the best were the classics The Wolf Man and I Walked with a Zombie. Curt also wrote several novels, including the notable Donovan’s Brain.From Here to Eternity

Fred Zinnemann worked as an assistant cameraman in Germany before his fateful association with People on Sunday. He immediately moved to Hollywood, where he became an assistant director for a short time before graduating to directing short films. From 1942, when he made his Hollywood debut as a feature director, Zinnemann worked his way up to becoming one of the industry’s leading directors. His resume includes such significant titles as The Search, High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma!, A Man for All Seasons, and The Day of the Jackal. He was nominated for eight Oscars and won four.

Edgar G. Ulmer was a set designer and art director in German films before moving to Hollywood shortly after the release of People on Sunday. In Tinseltown, he would work in those same positions before breaking into the ranks of film directors. Ulmer bounced around the second tier of Hollywood studios, but is most identified with Poverty Row outfit PRC. Ulmer was PRC’s top director, helming their biggest-budgeted projects (I know, it’s kind of an oxymoron), and served as an unofficial head of production. Among his erratic output is what many consider the quintessential low-budget film noir classic Detour.

Some Like It HotBilly Wilder, like Curt Siodmak, was a journalist who became a screenwriter. After spending the early thirties in Paris, he came to the United States, where he became one of Hollywood’s top writing talents. In 1942, he was given the opportunity to direct The Major and the Minor, and the rest, as they say, is history. Wilder created hit after hit into the sixties, when his output finally became somewhat spotty. Who doesn’t know these titles? (if you don’t, you should): Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd. , Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three. There’s not room enough to list them all! He worked in several genres, yet had equal success in each. In my mind, Wilder was the greatest director of the Classic Hollywood period. He won six total Oscars covering three categories (screenplay, directing, producing) and was nominated a whopping 21 times!

The Des Moines Public Library checks out DVDs for seven days for just $1.00. Our new policy allows you to have 15 DVDs at a time, so take advantage and create your own German émigré film festival today!