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Filmmaker, DJ, and music scholar Beverly Lindsay-Johnson had an idea around a year ago: Create a pop-up museum to display photos and memorabilia of 1950s doo-wop musicians that have sat in her Fort Washington home for more than a decade. But after determining that finding a physical location would be too difficult, her vision evolved. She decided to apply for a grant that would give her the potential to reach a much larger audience. On Feb. 4, The Nation’s Capital: Doo-Wop, From the Street Corner to the Stage, debuted at nationscapitaldoowop.org.
Working with a team of music scholars, Lindsay-Johnson has designed a detailed online platform that tells the story of Black D.C. rhythm and blues acts from the 1940s and ’50s, while documenting the local venues, radio stations, DJs, record stores, and history of that segregated time. Lindsay-Johnson tells City Paper the year range was selected to keep the project manageable—“Once you get past 1960, there are so many more bands,” she notes. The site includes YouTube links to songs, interviews with various musicians such as Greg Gaskins and Sandra Bears, and photos, including a few from a Howard University exhibit that Lindsay-Johnson had stored in her home. It also includes an educational section that can be used in schools. In fact, on Feb. 16, Lindsay-Johnson and three young D.C. singers who’ve mastered the old-school style harmonies identified with doo-wop visited Eastern High School on Capitol Hill to lead an in-person presentation on the material.
Raised in New York City, Lindsay-Johnson came to D.C. in 1977 to attend and work at Howard University. She was involved with Howard University Television (WHUT) for more than three decades, and is best known as a filmmaker, specifically for her work on the 2007 documentary Dance Party: The Teenarama Story and 2021’s Fat Boy: The Billy Stewart Story. She was also president of the National Hand Dance Association from 2008 to 2016, and, in 2021, became the executive director of the locally based African American Music Association (AAMA), which is best known for its annual Marvin Gaye Day event. She’s also a DJ. Every Sunday evening Lindsay-Johnson plays R&B records from the 1950s through the 1970s on DJ Bev’s Sockhop Revue on Twitch.
Through the AAMA, Lindsay-Johnson received grants from Humanities DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to fund the website project. She then enlisted a roster of music experts to create the content, including Mark Puryear, the curator for the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Rhythm & Blues: Tell It Like It Is; Jay Bruder, who put together the 2021 book and CD box set R&B in D.C. 1940–1960; Darnea Samuels, a DJ from Takoma Park’s WOWD radio station; arts consultant La’verne Washington; Sandra Butler Truesdale of the DC Legendary Musicians organization; and education consultant Joy Jones.
The group started working in March 2021. It took them nearly a year to get additional photos, write the text, and create the educational part of the website. Design & Integration, a Baltimore company, handled the formatting of the site. According to Puryear, the team envisioned a finished product that is “cross-generational” with easy access for young and old music lovers, and not “too busy.”
Currently, there are 20-some acts featured on Nation’s Capital Doo-Wop—but Lindsay-Johnson confirms they’ll add more content soon; they have at least 30 other artists they wish to highlight. For now, the site includes a few better known singers and bands, such as Don Covay—whose songs the Rolling Stones covered—and Gaye, who’s featured on the site due to his time with local doo-wop group the Marquees. The Clovers, of “Love Potion No.9” fame, are also here. But many groups on the site, such as the Cruisers and the Dippers, are lesser known; they still impress with their intricate, multi-part harmony.
“It’s always been said that Washington, D.C. had so much talent, but it couldn’t get past the boundaries of the District of Columbia,” Lindsay-Johnson says. The Clovers were one of the few acts from this time to get a national hit.
While D.C. may be best known as a government town, the website, through its “History,” “Artists,” and “DC Scene” sections, conveys how the city’s rhythm and blues music scene has always thrived, including highlighting the musicians who’ve released music here on independent labels like Lillian Claiborne’s DC Records. The site also showcases historical venues both known—such as the Howard Theatre—and lesser known like the Shanty, an obscure tavern in Anacostia, about which the creators are still collecting information. Puryear notes that while there was some coverage of these local artists in Black publications of the time, the website seeks to “cover what wasn’t covered by the mainstream publications of the time—the Washington Post and the Washington Star.”
The website conveys more than just music geek details. The site’s writers explain how the music fit into the sociological and political culture of the time. In the D.C. Scene section, Puryear hopes to convey how that era “demonstrates the intellectual and entrepreneurial motivation of a lot of African Americans.” He notes, with a citation to author Stuart L. Goosman’s book on Group Harmony (Group Harmony: The Black Urban Roots of Rhythm and Blues), that, despite “the legacy of legal racial segregation in schools, neighborhoods, businesses, and many public spaces … doo-wop music was an expression of young people’s optimistic outlooks about life and the prospects of improved social and economic circumstances.”
Bruder adds, “Personally I feel that the African American performing artists of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, are rarely given the credit they deserve for helping to set a baseline of goodwill which helped carry us through difficult years of integration which followed.”