Doo-wop

“Doo-wop is a genre of music that was developed in African-American communities in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in the 1940’s, achieving mainstream popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. Built upon vocal harmony, doo-wop was one of the most mainstream, pop-oriented R&B styles of the time.”
—-Wikipedia.

“Doo wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu–perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers, and the dark at the YMCA canteen. The soundtrack for your incredibly, wonderful limp–your–ass, blue–balled walk back home after the dance. Oh! And it hurt so good.”
—-Bruce Springsteen, 2012 South by Southwest Keynote Address*

I grew up in Philadelphia and early rock n’ roll and doo-wop were (happily) inescapable on the radio and TV, even beyond their original era. (The television program American Bandstand, which featured popular songs, acts and local dancers, was on TV for seven years in Philly before going national. I cannot emphasize enough how important growing up there was to my musical education.)

If I were to differentiate doo-wop from rock and roll I’d certainly agree that it was “built upon vocal harmony.” But what that bloodless Wikipedia statement above misses – and Bruce captures –  is how soulful and romantic doo-wop was.

But if you were a bit young to hear doo-wop or it never made its way to your corner of the globe, it’s best to just listen to it. A perfect example is “In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins. (The bands all pretty much had names like that. Wikipedia says “The saxophone solo was played by Vinny Mazzetta, of New Haven.” Of course it was.)

Interestingly, this 1956 song may have been one of two responsible for the name doo-wop. You can hear them singing it in the background during the sax solo. Earlier than that (1955) was “When You Dance,” by the Philly group, The Turbans.

This clip was used on the soundtrack to the movie American Graffiti, a great “starter kit” for anyone who wants to know what music sounded like in the US pre-Beatles. (And if you’ve never seen the movie, I’m sorry, what are you waiting for?)

Now that’s a guy group obviously. But I think probably the greatest female doo-wop song is “Maybe,” by the Chantels. (They have another great one called “Look In My Eyes.” ) I will here quote Rolling Stone magazine on “Maybe,” which – I recently discovered – has it at 199 on their 500 greatest songs of all time (“In the Still of the Night,” is 90):

“At 16, Arlene Smith wrote and sang lead on this towering doo-wop song, a template for a generation of girl groups. The Chantels’ second single, “Maybe,” was recorded at a church in midtown Manhattan in October 1957, when the girls were all still in high school at St. Anthony of Padua in the Bronx. The single was first credited to label owner George Goldner, but now the world knows better.” (Record company people have been treating artists like shit ever since there were record companies and artists.)

If you were to ask me what my favorite doo-wop song is I could come up with a short list. (“Runaround Sue,” “Blue Moon,”a couple of others.) I love those songs. But boy I get a kick out of “Little Darlin’.” Ironically, the song was recorded as somewhat of a parody of doo-wop itself. With all the heavy emoting and mid-song speeches, it was an area ripe for parody. And then a funny thing happened. It caught on and was a hit as a straight doo-wop tune. “A-hoopa, a-hoopa, hoopa, Kno-ow well-a”

I find myself wondering to what extent doo-wop ever made its way outside of the States or how much it was largely an American phenomenon. I can find plenty of evidence that The Beatles were impacted by skiffle, rock n’roll, girl groups and even Motown. I get the feeling that some, but perhaps not all of doo-wop surfaced in the UK.

I know The Beatles recorded the song “Anna” which had that feel, so possibly. “Oh, Darling” is pretty close. I read that David Gilmour’s original band did “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” And Eric Clapton famously quoted “Blue Moon” in his solo on “Sunshine of Your Love.” That’s about it. Speaking of which:

Any Brits of a certain age out there that can speak to this? Was doo-wop an influence there? Or for that matter, anywhere outside the US? I like to think that it was.  I just can’t find any evidence of it.

NOTE: I periodically visit Philly. On one visit a few years ago, my buddy Steve, on a Saturday morning, said C’mon and took me to a small, suburban radio station. And out came four middle-aged singers who sang doo-wop over the radio with, I recall correctly, just the two of us in the studio watching and listening. Fantastic stuff.

*Tip o’ the hat to fellow blogger Runaway American Dream who clued me in to Bruce’s great, great keynote speech. If you love rock n’ roll, you owe it to check out this talk on his blog here.

10 thoughts on “Doo-wop

  1. Great article and thanks for the hat tip. I have to admit, Bruce has been my gateway drug to a lot of music I grew up thinking was ‘old fashioned’. His passion for the music of his own youth is infectious and he managed to contemporise a lot of it by filtering the sounds through his own music.

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    1. It’s funny Anthony, but I’ve been sitting on the Doo-wop draft for a while. My observation FWIW is that bloggers and blog readers skew younger than the general population. And so I expected much OMG: eye-rolling on this post. (What next? Rudy Vallee?) But I consider the pre-Beatles music some of the greatest, most romantic music I’ve ever heard in my life.

      I’m also glad I waited because after reading your post on Bruce at SXSW, I thought, there’s my quote! 😀

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  2. When I read Springsteen’s description of doo-wop music, it really surprised me on how well he really knew this genre of music given his age. (For some reason, I thought he was in his 50’s.) Found out via the internet, Springsteen did live through this great time of doo-wop music. I actually forgot how romantic the songs were during this time. Some of favorites were the ones you listed, “Blue Moon”, “Runaround Sue”, “Why do Fools Fall in Love”, “In the Still of the Night”, “Look In My Eyes”, but my favorite romantic doo-wop song was from the Flamingos, “I Only Have Eyes For You”. Great post. Thanks!

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  3. Yeah Bruce will turn 67 this month! And consider that the guy just did his longest show ever, four hours in New Jersey. He is 67 going on 20. Who else even approaches this output?

    It makes eminent sense he’d be affected by this music, having grown up in Jersey. In that talk, he picks up the guitar at that point and plays his song “Backstreets” to show how doo-wop influenced him. I realized it had the same chords and key as, say, ‘Earth Angel.’ He doesn’t play it straight through as that song does but I can hear it. He just makes it so you won’t recognize it. In this talk he’s like a magician revealing his secrets.

    I’m with you all the way on “I Only Have Eyes for You.” One day – one fine day – I will post my “Indispensable 150.” Those are the 150 pre-Beatles early rock n’ roll, girl groups, R&B and doo-wop everybody should own! .

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  4. I heard this music in the early eighties when I moved to Atlanta. It was revived under the label of “Beach Music”. Mostly consumed by local college students at the time (think Animal House music). But I also remember “Only You” on heavy rotation in the 70’s french late night rock radio shows. The same ones that brought the Clash, Police, Stranglers, Specials, Cure and Sex Pistols to my ears. Funny mix.

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    1. Beach music! Interesting name. Maybe a way to package older music for a younger crowd. My millennial daughter and her chums love this stuff. And that mix you mention, yeah that’s pretty cool. I listen to music that way on my iPod now. Almost no relation between doo-wop and, say, The Clash.

      But now that you mention the Police, it occurs to me that “Every Breath you Take” is ’50’s. In fact the G-Em progression is the same as “Earth Angel” and “Backstreets.” And how old is Sting? 😀

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