Black Music Month: California Celebrates History and Heroes

Black Music Month: California Celebrates History and Heroes

Heart & Soul: A Love Story Director Kenny Vance and Cleveland Still from the group, The Dubs. Naomi Randolph, Kenny Vance, Cleveland Still and Renee Minus.

Kenny Vance has a talent for creating vivid musical imagery.

If you ask the 79-year-old about his musical upbringing in 1950s Brooklyn, New York, Vance will describe wandering through the borough as a young man and listening to other young people sing harmonious tunes with no instruments from the neighborhood’s stoops. He will mention how groups would string together melodic lines in competitions with each other.

Vance notes how these melodic groups in the ‘50s and ‘60s, composed of African Americans, sang their way from their neighborhood stoops and other local spots in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to small recording studios. These vocalists, whose Rhythm-and-Blues singing style is known as doo-wop, would release a song or two and sometimes never be heard from again.

With his documentary “Heart & Soul: A Love Story,” Vance, a musician, actor, and film director, puts the musical talents of “unsung doo-whop heroes” like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Dubs, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and the Chantels in the limelight again. The film will be screened at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angles on June 8 at 7 p.m. The two-hour showing in the museum’s 200-seat theater is part of its celebration of Black Music Appreciation Month this June.

The screening of Heart & Soul: A Love Story,” is just one-way individuals, businesses and organizations are commemorating Black Music Month throughout the state.

In Alameda County, The Black Music Month Festival will take place on June 17 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Love Center Ministries in Oakland. Performers such as The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol & Her Trio, Bobi

Cespedes, Stephanie Crawford, Netta Brielle, and the Glen Pearson Trio featuring Derick Hughes, Bernard Anderson, and Rico Pabon will take the stage.

Throughout June, Disneyland is also honoring the history of Black music by featuring three bands performing hits by Black artists from various decades on the Hollywood Backlot stage at the park.

Black Music Appreciation Month celebrates African American musical influences that make up an essential portion of America’s cultural heritage. Established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, it recognizes the history and rich musical traditions that gave rise to genres such as barbershop, blues, funk, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, and swing music.

Every president since Carter has continued the tradition, including President Joe Biden. Biden proclaimed June as Black Music Month in a May 31 statement.

“Today, the creative ways that Black music tells stories of trial and triumph in American life continue to move us all to understand the common struggles of humanity,” Biden’s proclamation reads. “This month, we celebrate the songs and artists that challenge us to think critically, stand up to injustice, and believe in ourselves. We recommit to expanding the promise of dignity and opportunity for all Americans. And we revel in the sounds, spirit, and soul of some of the very best music ever created.”

Back in Los Angeles, GRAMMY Museum Chief Curator & VP of Curatorial Affairs Jasen Emmons said “Heart & Soul” shows the musical innovation in the Black community.

“If you didn’t have access to instruments — this ability to get together and create vocal harmonies as a group — it doesn’t require access to certain things,” he stated. “You can do it anywhere — stoops, subways, street corners. I think of hip-hop having similar innovation — despite the resources — to create something original and enduring.”

The film is a collection of video recordings shot by Vance over a decade with artists he befriended and worked with. The oral histories’ documentary features first-hand accounts of what it was like for young Black and Latino musicians to go into an entertainment industry that was unsure of how to manage the new artists’ sound.

Vance, prone to breaking out in melody himself while discussing the musicians featured in “Heart & Soul,” said the doo-wop performers — whose 50s’ and 60s’ heyday influenced later genres like rock ‘n’ roll and soul — oftentimes get no credit for their impact on American music culture.

Brand architect and television personality Erika Pittman will emcee the Los Angeles screening. Hip-hop icon Christopher “Kid” Reid, one half of the duo Kid ‘n Play, will deliver an opening monologue. Entertainment journalist Brande Victorian will lead an after-screening conversation with Vance.

Emmons hopes viewers gain a deep understanding of doo-wop music.

“There is an audience that deeply loves doo-wop and when the songs come on the radio, they evoke a lot of emotion in people,” he noted.