Every vintage music form—from swing, rockabilly and country-blues to honky-tonk, Dixieland and bebop —has been hauled from its inky grave and proffered as something fresh and exciting. This has actually been a good thing: some of my favorite modern artists—Lavay Smith, Ray Condo, Corey Harris, Dale Watson, James Dapogny and Roy Hargrove (representing the aforementioned styles, in order)—have been retro-heads.
So why not doo-wop (and if you mention Sha Na Na, I'll have to bomb your house)? The blending of voices singing anything from mad, galloping rock & roll to tearjerking ballads is among the most rewarding of human sounds. When Big Sandy released the doo-wop Dedicated to You album a couple of years ago, it seemed to signal a revival. The album was nothing short of superb and showcased Sandy's prodigious vocal talent to much better effect than his rocka-hillbilly work. Plus, Sandy seems to be one of the central figures around whom the trendiest element of greaser culture revolves, and I thought for sure that this was it: the start of doo-wop becoming fashionable once again. But Dedicated to You turned out to be a commercial flop, the poorest-selling album of Sandy's career. Go figure.
Some months ago, PBS aired a doo-wop reunion special, bringing together surviving members of many of the genre's finest. The concert was tremendously moving, musically and emotionally. Seeing old silverbacks like Harvey Fuqua and Jerry Butler singing as fine as ever was bittersweet—great to know that these old geezers still had their chops, but sad that it took a cheesy PBS show to bring them back to the public eye. Most of all, I suppose, the show made me feel really fucking old: doo-wop was the first music I remember hearing as a little kid, and seeing these Brilliantined, shark-skinned stars of my youth as nostalgiamongering graybeards was something of a mortality wake-up call. And damned if I didn't love every second of it.
This week, the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts presents The Doo-Wop Reunion, featuring some or all members of 10 great doo-wop groups for two days for one low price. Saturday's show features The Drifters, The Penguins, The Skyliners, The Diamonds, and Santo & Johnny (who were not doo-woppers at all, but rather guitar instrumentalists. But I don't care 'cuz they were great). Sunday afternoon serves up The Platters, The Coasters, The Olympics, Rosie & the Originals, and Little Caesar & the Romans. Several of the acts are billed with handles such as "The Original Sound of . . . " or "So-and-So of . . . ," a disclaimer designed to indicate that many key members of the original groups are dead, in nursing homes or otherwise unavailable for comment. Well, nearly 50 years after these dinosaurs roamed the earth, what did you expect? What I expect is two evenings of classy, expert vocalizin', aside from any warm wibblies of nostalgia. Great pains are usually taken to maintain a group's original sound in such re-formations, and if the Cerritos Center's offering is half as successful as the PBS broadcast, this concert will be well worth the relatively thrifty 30 bones per night to be thrilled, chilled and grilled by the sound of early R&B vocal groups in their purest and classiest form.
A truly great blues fest also graces the region Saturday night: Blues Unplugged VI features jump-piano legends Jay McShannand Floyd Dixon, country-blues guitarist Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards (who's older than a roomful of doo-woppers), and relative whippersnapper Alvin Youngblood Hart. Along with Corey Harris, Hart brought country blues back from the dead in the past few years, the first time that young black men have grabbed the baton since Taj Mahal first surfaced in the '60s. Like Harris, Hart is a gifted and versatile singer/ guitarist, eloquent in virtually all styles—even early hillbilly. Yet it seems he has elected to abandon his roots, which is why the prospect of Hart "unplugged" is particularly gratifying. Hart's latest album, Start With the Soul, is an often throbbingly loud electric effort that sounds more like Los Lobos than Charlie Patton. Hart, a bit of a surly guy, seemed disgusted by public expectations for him to be a moldy fig when I spoke with him a few months ago, and he was particularly disgusted by the success of commercial-minded revivalist Keb' Mo'.
"The Robert Johnson boxed set comes out [in 1990] and made this music acceptable to your average yuppie," he fumed. "Next thing, everybody's dressing up like Robert Johnson and this and that. I wasn't really into that. I got burned out on it. I've done enough of that torch-bearing stuff, I guess. I've been doing this since I was a kid. I didn't just spring up on the planet. But then it got like what I was saying about Robert Johnson. All of a sudden, it was like, 'Hey, we can sell this stuff,' and they're out looking for a Robert Johnson. Then the Keb' Mo' thing happens, and all the record labels are saying, 'We gotta get us one.' Keb' Mo' has his thing, and he's working it. I'm a different thing. I'm from a place where I've been into this as a cultural thing since I was a kid. Whatever. He's obviously had a lot of success with it. More power to him."
I love Alvin Hart not only because he plays the holy bejesus out of the guitar but also because he doesn't care who he pisses off. I also love his new album, but not as much as his acoustic albums; it'll be good to hear him come back home.
The Doo-Wop Reunion is at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $30; Blues Unplugged VI is at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Sat., 8 p.m. $30.
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