Pop Music Muse 5/20/2022: Doo-Wop of the ’50s

One of my favorite genres in pop music, vocal group harmony, is better known as doo-wop. I appreciate doo-wop because of its simplicity, innocence, romance, novelty, and sound. Performed with or without instrumental accompaniment, it plays a vital part in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll. Its influence is enormous. Had it not been for a group like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Michael Jackson (for one) might not ever have existed. Frankie and his group left behind some of the most enduring and endearing recordings of the doo-wop era from the mid-fifties.

The Teenagers were just one of what seemed like a million vocal groups in the fifties and sixties who, looking for the perfect echo effect, sang on a street corner or in a hallway or in a bathroom, all competing with each other in hopes of getting a hit record. Many did. Many more did not. Doo-wop has its roots in the mid-forties, with groups like The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots. Its popularity gained ground in the early fifties. The Five Keys from Virginia began their successful multi-year run in 1951 with the following:

Doo-wop is generally divided into five time periods: pre doo-wop 1945-1951; paleo doo-wop 1952-1954; classical doo-wop 1955-1959; neo doo-wop 1960-1964; and post doo-wop 1965-present day. The following vocal group recordings are from 1951 to 1959, featuring the top sellers, the most popular, and the most familiar. I was seven years old when I heard this classic by a group from Manhattan led by Willie Winfield. They began their career in 1953 and continued to sing until 2014.

If you dig doo-wop, you know that, for the most part, it presents itself either as a ballad or an uptempo number, both perfect for dancing or dreaming. The vocal group that sings it usually has anywhere from four to six members. More often than not, the group will feature a bass singer, a lead singer with falsetto much of the time, with the rest harmonizing in the background chanting a response of some kind. Many of the words you hear take the form of nonsense syllables. It all depends on the group, type of song, arrangement, and time period. The Spaniels were from Chicago, and the following song was used by DJs to close many a radio program:

You might be surprised to learn that one doo-wop classic may have been the first rock ‘n’ roll record. That’s the opinion of a lot of fans who believe that the following uptempo number fits that title because of its arrangement and style, along with a jazzy guitar solo and a bouncing beat. It took a year to chart and get recognized by the music show Your Hit Parade, but it was the first doo-wop record to sell more than a million copies. It ended up being number two on the Rand B surveys and number 14 on the pop charts. 

  • Gee, The Crows (1954)

There are some doo-wop tunes that turn out to be a must for most doo-wop groups. One such side is a tune written by Leon Rene in the forties, and recorded by many bands including The Mills Brothers. In 1954 The Cadillacs, a New York group known for other hits like Speedo and Zoom, waxed a revamped version of the song as their debut single. It’s one of the most covered records in doo-wop history. The lead singer is Earl Speedo Carroll:

Doo-wop groups, for the most part, were recorded by independent labels. The major outfits like RCA, Mercury, Capitol, and Columbia felt they didn’t need doo-wop because they had artists who could cover original Black recordings while catering to a more affluent White audience. For much of the fifties, countless doo-wop and rhythm and blues recordings were re-cut by major labels, robbing the originals of their due rewards. One such example is a smash hit by the Los Angeles-based Penguins produced by Dootone record owner Dootsie Williams. It stayed at number one for weeks in 1955. It would have done better had it not been covered by The Crew Cuts, a White group who specialized in the practice (and thankfully we rarely hear that version). 

Another golden oldie that was covered a lot about the same time was a ballad written by Harvey Fuqua and famous DJ Alan Freed, the personality responsible for the rock ‘n’ roll movement. It was recorded by a very popular group from Chicago, Harvey and the Moonglows, and became a smash in 1955, forcing cover versions (the most prominent being The McGuire Sisters).

Another major doo-wop classic was released in 1955 by another vocal group from Chicago, The Eldorados. It was an infectious up-tempo number that scored number one on the R ‘n’ B charts and number 17 on the pop charts. The lead singer was Pirkle Lee Moses, who, having just got out of the Air Force, was signed with his group to Vee-Jay records, one of the very few independent labels owned at the time by Black entrepreneurs. Their follow-ups included I’ll Be Forever Loving You and Bim Bam Boom. This one got a lot of airplay:

If you lived anywhere back East in 1955 you couldn’t escape this next song, or the one that came after. The Nutmegs were a group from New Haven, Connecticut. They got lucky and were signed to Herald Records in New York City in 1955. This ballad was their biggest hit, reaching number two on the R ‘n’ B charts, and it was followed by Ship of Love. The quintet was led by Leroy Griffin, who wrote the songs. Guess who covered it? The Crewcuts. About this time, White teenagers were beginning to discover what was original and what wasn’t. 

Another New York group that ushered in 1956 was The Willows, who had a good-sized hit with the following song. The owner of their record company, Morty Craft—like a lot of owners back then—took credit for writing the song, even though he probably didn’t. Owners like Craft always made sure they got publishing rights or writer’s credit. Music was a risky business. It did well on the R ‘n’ B charts, but suffered on the pop list because it was covered by The Diamonds, a White group who also covered Little Darlin. The bells that chime in this song (a lot of doo-wop songs had bells in them) are being played by a very young Neil Sedaka.

What’s the most popular doo-wop song ever? I’d guess it would be the following by The Five Satins from New Haven, Connecticut, written by lead singer Fred Paris. It was initially the b-side, and was only a moderate hit when it first came out. Over the years, however, after many re-releases and appearances in movies and oldies albums, it has taken on a life of its own. It just might be the ultimate make-out song (you can thank the saxophone for that). The song was recorded in the basement of a Catholic School, and “Night” is spelled N-I-T-E so as not to be confused with the Cole Porter song of the same title. 

Up until 1957, most of the doo-wop groups were Black. One of the first vocal groups to be integrated was The Del Vikings, with three Black singers and two White vocalists. The group was formed at an Air Force Base in Pittsburgh, and its first number, written by member Clarence Quick, was recorded twice. The second version was the hit. It featured Gus Backus on lead. After the success of this record (it reached number four and stayed on the charts for 31 weeks) the group split up into two different factions, both with hits like Whispering Balls and Cool Shake in the summer of 1957. This one sold over a million copies:

While The Del Vikings were hitting it big, songwriter and producer Bob Crewe—long before he got involved with The Four Seasons in 1962—was riding on a train when he saw a couple embrace behind some window shades on a house he was passing by. The image gave him an idea for a song. He found a group to record it, The Rays, and it became a nationwide smash. Of course such a moneymaker would be covered by The Diamonds, but despite that, this version charted at number three. For a while in the fall of 1957, it is all you heard every time you turned on the radio.   

One of the most famous doo-wop songs of all time earned that reputation simply because of the beginning bass vocal. This is what doo-wop is all about: nonsensical lyrics highlighting the story line. If I say “Sha Na Na” to you, you might reply “Get A Job,” a crude but effective—and even upbeat—tale about being unemployed and yelled at by a frustrated wife. The group, The Silhouettes, was from Philly, and managed to reach number one status on both the R ‘n’ B and pop charts. Doo-wop coming of age, along with gaining an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand didn’t hurt. Bill Horton has the lead, Raymond Edwards is the bass. The name of the group came from the aforementioned song, Silhouettes.

If there’s one doo-wop record that sticks in my mind from the summer of 1958, it’s one by The Elegants, a fantastic group leaving behind, surprisingly, just this one-hit wonder. The Elegants, a five-man Italian vocal group from Staten Island, New York, included Vito Picone as lead singer, who co-wrote the song based on the English lullaby Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It topped the charts, but it was the band’s only hit. One story has it that they never got further airplay because they wouldn’t pay payola to a popular New York DJ. It was one of the best Italian doo-wop vocal groups—by 1958 now growing in number.

It should come as no surprise that many doo-wop standouts were one-hit wonders. One such novelty number appeared in 1958 by way of a six-member vocal group that called themselves The Monotones. Hailing from Newark, New Jersey, the group’s only hit is one of the more unique vocal group sounds. Lead singer Charles Patrick got the idea for the song from a Pepsodent toothpaste commercial that touted “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” Patrick was inspired to come up with “I wonder who wrote the book of love.” The boom part of the song, created by a kid kicking a ball against the garage where they were rehearsing, was left in. It reached number five.

By 1958 a lot of doo-wop records were being made by Italian vocal groups who understood this musical territory, as had Black performers. One of the best and most notable was Dion and The Belmonts from the Bronx, who debuted with the following song, a great example of the doo-wop sound. Listen to bass singer Carlo Mastrangelo, and Angelo D’Aleo who sings falsetto lead. Dion DiMucci handles the lead. And pay attention to all the different vocal sounds these guys produce. Dion and the Belmonts went their separate ways in 1960.

So who might the best doo-wop group be? Many would point to The Flamingos, formed in Chicago in 1953. They started out as regional hit-makers, but got so good during the doo-wop years that they found themselves in great demand on a national scale. They charted numerous hits with their smooth vocal sound, appeared in movies and on American Bandstand, and by the late fifties were singing covers of standards written by songwriters like George Gershwin et al, including their biggest hit ever:

The end of the decade brought a doo-wop song that sounds like it came from the big band era. Listen for the electric guitar and the multitude of horns in the background of this song by a Brooklyn group named The Impalas, an integrated group led by Joe Speedo Frazier. It was one of many groups named after cars (birds were also fashionable at the time). This was their only hit, but what a hit it was, reaching number two on the pop surveys. 

  • Sorry, The Impalas (1959)

You might ask what’s the most valuable doo-wop disc ever recorded. The following was recorded by The Five Sharps in 1952. Only three 78s exist, and there are no known copies on 45. Legend has it that most copies were burned in a fire, yet people will forever keep searching for this Holy Grail of record collecting. When you hear it, you might wonder what all the fuss is about:

Part of the charm of doo-wop records can be found in their novelty. Here’s one such song by The Chips, a vocal-only gang that sang about lead singer Charles Johnson’s poverty. It’s kind of hard to tell because you can’t understand the lyrics, which are delivered in a scat manner. The one-liners throughout, however, can be deciphered if you are willing to listen for that long. The record is fueled by session pros drummer Panama Francis, guitarist Mickey Baker, and sax man King Curtis. Supposedly written by gangster label owner Morris Levy for the royalties, it is the weirdest doo-wop disc ever made: