Americana Lost and Found: Doo-Wop Music
I’m not sure that the twangy contingent of the roots music intelligentsia will agree with me on this one, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the vocal group harmony style that emerged out of African American communities in the late ’40s, and how it fits within the construct of Americana. It came out of cities like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and my hometown of Philadelphia. I recall first hearing doo-wop from a small radio station with a weak signal across the Delaware River in Camden by one of the greatest disc jockeys of that era, Jerry “Geator With The Heater” Blavat, who was also known as “The Boss With The Hot Sauce.” While he wasn’t as prominent as Alan Freed or Dick Clark, he helped bring doo-wop out of the urban ghettos and into the ears of white suburban kids like me.
Building on the small-group harmony style that was made popular in the ’30s and early ’40s by the Ink Spots, Mills Brothers, The Cats and the Fiddle, and the Delta Rhythm Boys, young black teenagers would get together on street corners, school gyms, and subway stations to sing a cappella, while hoping to come up with a sound that would let them grab at a piece of the American Dream. In his Survey of American Popular Music, author and academic Frank Hoffmann outlines the qualities and elements:
“Group harmony, a wide range of vocal parts, nonsense syllables, a simple beat, light instrumentation, and simple music and lyrics. Above all, the focus is on ensemble singing. In doo-wop vocal harmonies the echo runs underneath the lead vocalist. Generally, the second tenor and baritone blend together as one sound, with the high tenor (or falsetto) running over the lead and the bass reverberating on the bottom end. The group harmony does not usually lead throughout; however, it may occasionally alternate with a tenor in this capacity.”
“Nonsense syllables were derived from bop and jazz styles, traditional West African chants, a cappella street corner singing (in place of the instrumental bass line), and doo-wop-styled R&B songs during the 1950-1951 period. They were commonly used in the bass and harmony parts; their use tends to be more restrained, simple, and somber when employed in ballads.
“Gow gow hoo-oo, gow gow wanna dib-a-doo, chick’n hon-a-chick hole-a-hubba, hell fried cuck-a-lucka wanna jubba, hi-low ‘n-ay wanna dubba hubba, day down sum wanna jigga-wah, dell rown ay wanna lubba hubba, mull an a mound chicka lubba hubba, and fay down ah wanna dip-a-zip-a-dip-a’ are just a few examples.”
Hoffmann breaks down the evolution of doo-wop into these stylistic time periods: Paleo (1952-54), Classical (1955-59), and Neo (1960-1963). While independent labels released the majority of the music, the major labels smelled money and scooped up the most popular tunes to be re-recorded by popular Caucasian singers. But while that may have appealed to an older demographic or particular geography, teenagers bought the originals in such quantities that by 1955 songs from African American groups such as The Moonglows, Flamingos, Penguins, and Platters crossed over to the mainstream charts and helped usher in rock and roll.
Wikipedia offers more of the story:
“1958 saw the rise of Italian American doo-wop groups. Like African-Americans, the Italian Americans generally attended church, where they gained singing experience, and lived in urban neighborhoods, where they would sing on street corners. By the late 1950s, Italian American street corner doo-wop groups were seen in cities such as New York, especially the Bronx and Brooklyn. The contribution of Hispanics is often overlooked. Early, especially in U.S. East Coast cities, Puerto Ricans were lead singers in some groups with black and white members. ‘Racially integrated’ groups with both black and white performers included the Del Vikings, Impalas and Crests.”
Coinciding with The British Invasion, by 1964 doo-wop virtually ceased to exist. Some groups, such the Four Seasons, Drifters, and Little Anthony and The Imperials managed to continue to chart and perform in the mainstream. Some members of other groups found a second wind at labels such as Motown, Stax, Chess, Atlantic, and Philadelphia International. Aside from Sha Na Na at Woodstock, the golden oldies revival shows of the ’70s, and the American Graffiti soundtrack, the doo-wop era was all but forgotten until Jersey Boys — the story of the Four Seasons — came to Broadway in 2005 and played through last year. Beyond the PBS pledge drive shows with reconstituted groups and cheap costumes, I think doo-wop lives on as just another footnote in the great big tent of roots music and Americana … whatever that is.
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