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Vocal Group Hall of Fame: Induction Ceremony, Vol. 4 [DVD]

Erik Hinton

This is an occasion when the special features of the film actually save the piece and recast the entire DVD in a different (somewhat brighter) light.

Vocal Group Hall of Fame

Induction Ceremony, Vol. 4

Contributors: The Association, The Lettermen, Mary Wilson, The Tokens
Label: Standing Room Only
US Release Date: 2007-05-29

Let me start this review with the remark that I have really no idea why anyone would buy this DVD. However, do not take this as a blanket disavowal of the disc’s content. I mean, through this sweeping generalization, that no one will probably ever even encounter this three disc set (one video, two CDs of the audio tracks from the induction).

I cannot name a single person -- I have polled the vast sample group that are the acquaintances of this socially limber reviewer -- who is aware that the Vocal Group Hall of Fame even exists, much less who wants to purchase archival footage of this discrete organization’s induction ceremony. Furthermore, the three hours over which this DVD stretches its poppy, agreeably harmonized legs remind me that award programs, formal events, galas, et al. are painfully long and almost impossible to sit through once much less the expected repeated future views that purchasing a DVD infers. Imagine watching the Oscars twice…for that matter imagine actually watching the Oscars all the way through once. Yeah, Herculean.

Furthermore, the recording is not executed particularly proficiently and the entire event seems somewhat second rate. The camera is rather static except when it tries to emulate the crane shots of the big boys (award ceremonies with salient budgets). This endeavor is generally impeded by the relatively small scale of the venue and flat geography. Such shots are only “cool” if they soar down stadium seating from the heavens, aping the purview of all watchfulness through flight. Furthermore, the setting for this event seems rather cobbled together. Perhaps this milieu is but a byproduct of the listless reactions of the audience seated in folding chairs before tables draped in white linen. I want velvet aisles and red carpets at my gala affairs, thank you very much.

I was fully prepared to use this review to air my grievances (and admittedly, rudely), with a feature that bored me to tears after just one of its three hours. The content of this disc is nothing but performance after performance of famous vocal groups (the ranks of which have been savaged by death or disillusionment) from decades ago. However, for once, the special features of a film actually saved the piece and recast the entire duration in a different light.

In an interview with Tony Butala (singer of the Lettermen and current-day chairman of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame) he reveals that the foundation was begun when he was dining at a restaurant and he realized that his busboy was the old frontman for a vocal group, the identity of which he refuses to divulge, whose hit had reached the top spot on Billboard several years ago. This alerted Tony to the obscurity into which most vocal group performers have passed, prompting him to start an organization which would remember the individual members, not just the groups which subsumed them.

At this point, I paused the DVD and reflected on the three hours of song I had just witnessed. Several phenomena came to the fore of my recollection: even though I was raised on this music and could sing along to almost every track, I knew the names of perhaps three performers at best. Furthermore, as the titles and youth of the singers informed me, most of the groups that were featured contain few, if any of their founding members. Finally, for groups that dominated the charts for years and made teenagers swoon and obsess, the modern audience hardly responds at all.

The first two observances raise a nagging question: What is it about the vocal group qua band type that, categorically, grants unilateral primacy to the group over the individual. Sure, most bands are privileged with greater name recognition than the members which comprise them. However, whereas 75 percent of those who enjoy the mainstream of US pop culture could probably list the majority of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or Aerosmith members, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who could enumerate the O’Jays, the Drifters, or the Platters. Perhaps, this may be accounted for simply by the fact that the former list of rock bands has sold many more records than the vocal groups whose singles are just as well represented in the Top X of the charts.

However, if one is not convinced of the singularity of the vocal group’s privilege of the collective over the individual, consider the frequency with which vocal group’s members are replaced. Many vocal groups tour with no original members; how is this more than an officially approved cover band? I feel that this primacy of the group stems from the musically anonymous nature of vocal groups.

In a rock band, one can appreciate the rhythmic virtuosity of the drummer, the range and panache of the singer, the speed of the guitarist etc. In such praise or discussion, the name of each individual is trafficked and thus they are committed to the memories of posterity. However, very few listeners have the ear to siphon through harmony and comment on the timbre of the baritone or the vibrato of the tenor. In fact, the less one performer stands out, the better the vocal group is: the blend is the ideal.

As to why these once juggernauts of the recording industry now cannot command much more than sparse reaction from audiences while women still swoon for the now decrepit Jaggers and Tylers: this is a mystery at which I can hardly postulate. Maybe some reader with greater mental alacrity than I can solve this for me although I doubt there is any easy answer. Changing pop climates? A shift in sexual ideals? Legacies inflated by oldies radio stations? Your guess is as good as mine.

While this DVD will probably give little pleasure to all but a few, it does probe the history of musical performance and spotlights its fallout. The collector, the nostalgic, and the critic will all probably enjoy this disc but more as a time capsule or an object of study. There is something compelling about watching the ghosts of vocal legacies haunting these otherwise soporific three hours. The question begs to be asked, “What modern performers enjoying the opulence of success will find themselves, in 30 years, in front of a full audience that can hardly muster the energy to bop their heads?”


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