Rama Linga Wop Bop and Doo-Wop
Doo-wop is street corner harmony. Friends from church, the neighborhood or school would gather on a mutually convenient city street corner and sing. The groups usually had four or ideally five guys, comprised of two tenors, one guy who could swing from a baritone to a bass, and, if they were lucky, someone who could fake a strong falsetto. Add some snapping fingers, clapping hands and slapping thighs, stir in the melodrama of Gospel arrangements with the secular focus of young love, and you had the sound of 15,000 young blacks and Italians on a march for local stardom. The term “doo-wop” itself comes from the prominent background rhythms the majority voiced to push to soloist’s singing into the forefront. “Rama Lama Ding Dong,” “Bomp She Bop,” “Oop She Boop,” “Bom Bama Bom” and other glorious nonsense syllables propelled a small percentage of these young folks into the status of potential hit-makers. Once the record companies began gobbling these kids up on their way into the studio, some minimal soul-inspired instrumentation was added for balance, but tinkling pianos, softly groaning saxophones, and meandering guitars always blurred behind the sharp focus of these, the greatest of all doo-wop songs.
The Chords. "Sh-Boom." Cat. 1954.
“Life could be a dream/Sweetheart/Sh-boom/Hello again/Sh-boom/If I could carry you/To the paradise up above. . . .” If there were ever another song so innocent that it came in for the public bashing this one suffered, you can bet it’d be every bit as good. Television commentators decried the song’s artlessness, hack musicians ridiculed its lack of sense, imaginative idiots claimed its subject matter was the end of the world (the title replicating, one presumes, the ultimate explosion), and white groups copied it (poorly), having their own hit versions while this Bronx sextet struggled just to get by. Fifty years later, no one much remembers the commentators, the hacks have gone to hack hell, and no one except the totally obsessed knows the names of the copycats. But The Chords will live forever for concocting this rollicking frenzy that was indeed deliriously guilty of being everything its detractors claimed—except possibly the apocalyptic soundtrack. Still, if the world has to end. . . .
My first thought when I saw this album was “They called it Best of because they couldn’t very well called it Greatest Hit.” In fact, I always thought of this
Long Island doo-wop group as a poor man’s Dion and the Belmonts, simply because, as far as I knew, they never followed up their sole chart success, an ignorance on my part, to be sure, but one due to a lack of exposure outside the R&B charts. Then I played the album. "Little Star" was as transcendent as ever. Indeed, when singers Vito Picone and Artie Venosa wrote and recorded this inverted Mozart lullaby, they created a song as ominous as it was innocent and serene. Everything else here has that same great studio-on-a-street-corner texture, Italian lovesick hoodlums trying to save themselves by wooing the right young lady into the distractions of love and romance.
The Penguins. "Earth Angel." Doo Tone. 1954.
Tin Pan Alley meets doo-wop ala
. Dead kids walking the planet searching for that true love transcendence was all the rage, thanks to this ode to secular halo-wearers. Fremont High School
Clarence “Frogman” Henry. "Ain't Got No Home." Argo. 1956.
“But I Do” was a bigger hit,” but “Ain’t Got No Home” was a better and certainly stranger song, what with the Frogman’s declaration that he not only sings like a girl (true), but that he also sings like a frog (right again). Despite the use of this song by the reactionary Rush Limbaugh and in nearly every movie that purports to be about the 1950s (the royalties from which having kept Henry alive), “Ain’t Got No Home” retains its power with thrilling Professor Longhair-style New Orleans piano and, of course, the Frogman’s unique vocal croakings.
The Cadets. "Stranded in the Jungle." Modern. 1956.
The Cadets were an inspired gang of lunatics whose moment in the sun was this 1950s side wherein the singer ends up in a pot about to be cooked into a festive dish by the local witch doctor. What’s most distinctive about “Stranded” is the fact that it’s actually two songs chopped up and mixed together. In the first song, our unnamed hero is surrounded by juju music appropriate to the cannibal feast of which he is the main course. The second song interrupts at every potential denouement with unabashed revelry, and just as that party reaches crescendo, we slam back into that boiling pot with about as much transition as scalding water. In addition to being one of the earliest cases of producer “sampling,” the Cadets’ version is also notable for inspiring a distinctly different version (though the arrangement was identical) by a group called The Jayhawks. That group’s version bombed, but The Jayhawks mutated into The Marathons and later The Olympics, under both names releasing some raucous novelty tunes. Meanwhile, back in the States…
Del-Vikings. "Come Go with Me." Dot. 1957.
One of the many things wrong with the world is the way real teamwork has gone out of fashion. I’m talking about the kind of teamwork where each person involved recognizes his own contribution as well as the contributions of every other person on the team—to the point where everyone involved understands the beauty of their interdependency. You used to find this kind of thing in professional sports, occasionally in the workplace, and even in popular music. I’m talking about the level of performance of any type where each person involved internalizes the mechanical and organizational concepts so tightly that he thinks of himself as a member of that particular team. It would be nice if the duration of these situations was longer—better, that is, for the rest of us. In the case of The Del-Vikings, the military, producers and record executives got in the way and the group that made this recording was only together for a few months.
You could say this was a collection of writers/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s best moments and you wouldn’t be far off. Certainly the beginnings of pop situation comedy are here. It would be wise, however, to remember Lee Allen’s saxophone, since that’s the road map everyone on this trip was following. And even though "Charlie Brown" has not aged all that well, "Shopping for Clothes" still has lines that are as pertinent in these hip hop days as forty-plus years ago: “Stand over there, look in the mirror and dig yourself” is pertinent indeed. "Yakety-Yak's" understated belligerence, "Young Blood"'s fear of Father, and "Down in Mexico's" infinite party appeal all make these contemporary and never quaint. “That is Rock and Roll” ranks with The Showmen’s “It Will Stand” as an ultimate testament to the form. And “Riot in Cell Block #9,” actually recorded by The Robins, which were only half of what would become The Coasters, has such an ominous feel, it’s no wonder its refrain (“There’s a riot goin’ on) went on to become the title of Sly and the Family Stone’s greatest album.[i]
The Capris. "There's a Moon Out Tonight." Planet. 1958.
The original line-up of The Capris were from
, a burg that could then be summed up (as Springsteen later would) “When you hit a red light, you don’t stop.” The five young Italian Americans led by the multi-ranged Nick Santo constructed a stroll-dance harmony around the simplest of lyrics: “There’s a moo-oon out too ni-eye-ite/Whu-oh-oh o-oh/There’s a song in my hear-ar-art/Whu-oh o-oh.” First released on the planet label in 1958, it suffered the ignoble indifference of most doo-wop numbers by white vocal groups. Ozone Park, New York Records discovered the tune three years later, at precisely the moment when searing group harmony by people of any color had at least some chance of stirring up national interest. Between the effect of Santo’s acrobatic note-bending and the rhythms of a drummer with a metronomic sense of timing, “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” reintroduced the early 1960s doo-wop craze. When people become too hip to love this ode to romance by these maniacs, then love itself must be dead. Maybe that’s why it’s a graveyard classic. Old Town
The Danleers. "One Summer Night." Mercury. 1958.
Jimmy Weston led his friends through a blissful doo-wop bop that either takes you back to 1958 and the Summer of Your Life, or forward into a reality only understood in dreams. “One Summer Night” doesn’t require experience. It simply asks that we listen softly and taste the air it breathes with enthusiasm.
The Silhouettes. "Get a Job." Ember. 1958.
The Gospel group The Golden Tornados mutated into a hard-driving pop vocal band when they found out the power of “yipyip yipyip yip” and “shad da da da da.” Get a Job” was their hit, an early example of social protest.
Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns. "Don't You Just Know It." Ace. 1958.
Of all the nonsense lyrics to gabba-garble their way up the charts in the 1950s, “Don’t You Just Know It” takes the honor of being the wildest. Backed by a band of professional transvestite musicians, Smith’s
piano sounded like he was artfully dancing upon the instrument rather than using his hands. But it’s the gloriously psychotic call and response between the uncredited female singer and the rest of the Clowns that really heats up the infectious contagion. “Gooba gooba gooba GOO-BAH!” she screams at one point, as if imparting the secret to life. The Clowns respond like any good flock and repeat in kind. New Orleans
The Students. "I'm So Young." Note. 1958.
Not much is known of this 1958 doo-wop group except that the leader’s name was Prez Tyus and that they were from
. The repressed hysterics of this lament are far less incidental than such trivia. Steubenville, Ohio
The Impalas. "Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)." Cub. 1959.
While not everything on Rhino Records’ Doo-Wop Box is actually doo-wop, there is so much good on their 101-song treasury that a person might come to believe that the only genuine way to bribe one’s way into heaven is with that package. The great bird groups are there (Ravens, Crows, Willows, Orioles, Flamingos, Penguins, Wrens, and if Spaniels are bird dogs, they’re here too), as are the car groups (El Dorados, Cadillacs, Capris, Edsels, and of course the Inpalas). Tony Carlucci, Lenny Renda and Richard Wagner teamed with Joe Frazier on this great 1959 genuine doo-wop moment, one of those all too rare records that threatens to explode at any second and then is over, begging to be played again.
Marcels. "Blue Moon." Colpix. 1961.
Named after their lead singer’s hairstyle, Pittsburgh’s own Marcels took a good show tune from the 1930s and added bahm ba-ba bahm and dang da dang dong to “Blue Moon,” lined it with doo-wop harmony and sped it up considerably, making this the most commercially successful doo-wop song of all time. Give or take the tune’s escalating and descending melody, it is Cornelius Harp’s frustrated effort to communicate in the nonsense language only understood by teenagers and rock critics that keeps people coming back.
Randy and the Rainbows. "Denise." Rust. 1963.
At a time when it seemed like every female mentioned in a hit record was named Mary, Sue, or Donna, the verisimilitude of “Denise” in a pop song truly hit hoe, or at least next door. And while no one in this group had the chops of Dion and/or The Belmonts, this neo-doo-wop quintet blended some two-four drumming (the only discernible instrument) with raving “Scooby-doo” fill-in nonsense lyrics, all of which pushed singer Dominick Safuto’s desperate falsetto to the forefront. If any of them could have rhymed “Dawn-esse” with anything, this tune would perhaps have the clout of its cousins.
The “5” Royales.
“Tell Me You Care.”
All released on King Records.
“Dedicated to the One I Love” bounds from an exploding nova with the infinitely wise jump blues authority of lead singer Johnny Tanner. Group commandant Lowman Pauling co-wrote the song and his back alley
swamp knife fight guitar injects much-needed antagonism. Meanwhile, “Think” takes us by surprise like a prison shiv. As with all the Royales’ best songs, this one features the dual raw leads of Johnny and Eugene Tanner, linked by the reverb single-string guitar sandblasting of Mr. Pauling. And to emphasize the breadth of their skill, “Baby, Don’t Do It” sheds the usual Gospel vocal arrangement and reworks the sound into a Charlie Parker jazz attack. Chicago
One of the best and most sophisticated, i.e., modern sounding, R&B groups of all time, Lowman Pauling, Charlie Ferguson, Obediah Carter, and Johnny and Eugene Tanner burned down the farm repeatedly between the mid-1940s and the 1960s. “Dedicated to the One I Love” has never been done better and neither has their version of “Think.” “Baby, Don’t Do It” and “Slummer the Slum” tore up the race charts but failed to go pop, which was everyone’s loss.
It should be noted that the song “Dedicated” suffers in cover versions by The Shirelles and Mamas and Papas, both of whom robbed the essential power of Johnny Tanner’s dramatic lead introduction. When Tanner begins with “This is dedicated—to the one I love!” he jumps out with the sonic equivalent of a slap to the face. Together, these songs will take you out of the church and into the heart of a black
Devotions. "Rip Van Winkle." 1964.
Still a working unit as of 2003, the Devotions are a vocal harmony group from Queens and the
Bronx. Their covers of songs by more prominent doo-wop groups of the early 1960s gave no clue that they would ever release this, one of the wildest takes on the Washington Irving story ever imagined. Possessed helium giggles, bowling alley sound effects, crazed falsetto singing, and a bumpy midnight ride after a twenty-year snooze: it helps if you’ve never heard of the title character.
[i] Jerry and Mike’s Greatest Hits: A partial list of Leiber and Stoller’s Finest Writing and Production Credits.
"Bulldog" The Shangri-Las
"Down Home Girl" The Rolling Stones
” The Coasters Mexico
"Drip Drop" The Drifters
"Flesh, Blood and Bones" Little Esther
“Gypsy” Ben E. King
“Heavenly Blues” King Curtis
“Hound Dog” Big Mama Thorton; Elvis Presley
“I Remember” Peggy Lee
"Jailhouse Rock" Elvis Presley
"Kansas City" Wilbert Harrison
"King Creole" Elvis Presley
"On Broadway" The Drifters
"Past, Present and Future" The Shangri-Las
"Poison Ivy" The Coasters
"Searchin'" The Coasters
“Stand By Me” Ben E. King
“There Goes My Baby” The Drifters
“Young Blood” The Coasters
[ii] Perhaps the best story of The “5” Royales appears in a book called Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, edited by Greil Marcus. The story in question is called “Dedicated to You” and is written by Ed Ward.