From The Sing-Off, to The Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Contests, to the International Championships of High School and Collegiate A Cappella, there may no greater organizing force, and no greater platform for today’s a cappella musician’s than the competition stage.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction in all of a cappella rests in the fact that, despite so much of the genre revolving around competition, it still maintains one of the tightest-knit communities you’re likely to find in all of music.
The idea of community may be what’s most attractive about Abraham Santiago’s Street Corner Harmony, a documentary centered on the cadre of 1950s- and 1960s-era a cappella groups carved a unique niche New York City, Philadelphia and Jersey City.
In poignant recognition to how oft forgotten this unique, pioneering era in a cappella truly is, the documentary includes no video footage from the era of which it speaks, relying on recorded sounds and interviews with the singers decades after their heyday. Nonetheless, listening to the passion with which men speak of their time hearing and performing a cappella can’t help but stir up emotions in any reviewer, regardless of whether he or she was around to partake in that musical era. As Kenny Bank from The Five Sharks said, “I listened to people harmonize out on the street and got goose bumps—I couldn’t believe four or five voices could fill up a space like that.”
Santiago himself explained, “Music was a part of our lives—it was natural to be a part of it.”
In a little known story, Jerry Lawson, who went on to a celebrated career with The Persuasions and later Talk of the Town spoke abou how he moved from Florida to New York to play football and ended up singing on street corners instead.
The film recounts the way in which a cappella began to pervade city life, with audiences crowding street corners to the point that police had to break up the crowds because they were stopping traffic. In a quieter anecdote, one of the performers recalled his group singing alone on a subway platform and ultimately picking up the pay phone and dialing operator so they would have an audience of at least one.
The film recalls that a cappella grew popular among radio stations targeting young listeners, and that a cappella recording industry gathered a following through brightly colored 45s that featured a variety of groups on each one and included 16 or more tracks, rather than the 12-song records more prevalent in mainstream music in those days. Sadly, the vast majority of the artists themselves went unpaid, or received mere pittances for their contributions. Multiple men recalled that they were interested in money anyway, though, singing instead for the fanfare of being on stage.
There’s some debate over whether The Beatles’ arrival in the US hurt a cappella groups, or was simply concurrent with the genre going out of style. Nonetheless, the mid-1960s marked a shift, and the a cappella groups who thrived in previous years started to see less opportunities to perform or record come their way.
A sense of love for music and finding a community in it rests at the core of Street Corner Harmony, and is nowhere more evident than in a montage of black and white photographs from the time, shown with The Vic-Donns’ “Bad Girl” playing in the background, reminding viewers of a time too often forgotten.
Though some folks who watch this film will no doubt pine for a more cohesive narrative, a part of what’s so ambitious about the project is its refusal to chain itself to just one star, in favor of celebrating the music itself, and the people who came together around it. Fittingly, so many of the documentary’s most powerful moments come in form of music being performed--from modern day footage of old friends reunited, or elder-statesmen groups who have kept plying their trade for all these years.
For anyone interested in exploring the roots of contemporary a cappella, Street Corner Harmony is must-watch material.
Street Corner Harmony is available for purchase here.