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Topic: Authors celebrate golden age of doo-wop Return to archive
29th February 2008 09:38 PM
Ten Thousand Motels From The Times
March 1, 2008

Authors celebrate golden age of doo-wop
The doo-woppers of 1950s America may be gone but their sound is not forgotten

Bob Stanley

The nonsense syllables that defined a genre were first heard in the Turbans' 1955 single When You Dance.

Doo-wop - or, in the Turbans' long hand “doo-wop, be-dooby-dooby doo-wop” - gave a name to a specific strand of rock'n'roll that lacked the violence and anarchy of its close cousins, was more interested in the concept of perfect harmony, but is the exact sound that enters most folks' heads when they picture Anytown USA in 1958.

It's no coincidence that “Cousin Brucie” Morrow's coffee table-crushing new book, Doo Wop: The Music, the Times, the Era has sidebars on diners, Sputnik, even Senator McCarthy; doo-wop has been regarded as the de facto soundtrack to America's 1950s since it informed the score to George Lucas's American Graffiti in the early 1970s. It's no coincidence either that the sound of the music is reverberating around London clubs such as the Beat Rocket, held in a lovingly re-created 1950s bowling alley, or Rock-A-Billy Rebels in East London. The names - Turbans, Penguins, Slades, Shields, Sharps - may be lost in time, but the sound of their one-off hits is as evocative as the smell of your childhood home. The Four Seasons, possibly the most enduring of them all, are even the subject of their own hit musical, opening in London on March 18 (see feature, page 17).

Bruce Morrow - a Brooklyn-born prime mover and promoter of the sound in its heyday on Radio WABC - describes doo-wop as a “combination of gospel, R&B, soul, and rock'n'roll. And it's shaped by the most beautiful instrument of all. In the early 1950s black artists got together and they couldn't have a full band so they used their voices to emulate instruments of the bass and high end.” The bass singer, attempting to duplicate percussion, could come up with any number of sh-booms, rang-tang-ding-dongs and doo- wops, gibbering jive to push the sound along.

Sitting in the middle would be the keening lead of Sonny Til, Clyde McPhatter or Frankie Lymon, frontmen for the Orioles, Drifters and Teenagers. Most doo-wop hits, though, were one-hit wonders. While songs such as Earth Angel and I Only Have Eyes For You are doo-wop standards, naming the lead singers would be a harsh pub quiz question.

Guilty Pleasures and the BBC London DJ Sean Rowley has been in awe of the sound since his teens. “Those guys were literally yanked off street corners, given one chance to make a record in a tiny room. And then it was all gone. Working class kids from the streets... they'd get ASBOs now.”

In Britain doo-wop hits were few and far between, with only Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1956) and the Marcels' Blue Moon (1961) making No 1. Americana enthusiasts began propulgating the sound in the 1970s. Rowley recalls “sitting at home religiously taping Roger Scott's Cruising show on Capital Radio every Friday. Once, for three weeks in a row, he played only doo-wop. I played the tapes to death. They're very, very innocent records, so much so that it starts to become a bit weird. They inhabit the same world as David Lynch, that picket fence thing which I love.”

According to the rock scholar Billy Vera, “appreciation of this music is akin to a love of primitive or naive art.” It has been the province of collectors and record-sniffers since 1959 when the LA DJ Art Laboe came up with the revolutionary concept of licensing songs from various sources to create an album called Oldies but Goodies. It sold so well that a few of the singles it included by bands such as the Penguins and the Turbans re-entered the singles chart. Not only was this the start of the reissue industry - which has largely kept the major labels afloat in the last couple of decades - but it also fostered the collecting community.

Doo-wop is fetishised in America even more than Northern Soul is in Britain, causing heated discussion over the smallest detail. The New York Daily News writer David Hinckley says, “I don't even like the term. It suggests that the rich and varied music of 1950s rhythm and blues harmony ultimately distills down to a couple of nonsense syllables.” He thinks it reduces the groups to “the status of passing cultural novelty, like tail fins on Chevys.”

Bruce Morrow has no time for this kind of analysis. “I didn't want statistics in my book. I hate a scholarly guy! I'm Cousin Brucie!

“The reason I wrote the book is that I'm afraid the music is going to disappear. Radio programmers feel the audience for this music is getting too old. Like they're only fit to sit on a porch and watch someone digging their grave. It's ridiculous. People are hungry for this music.” The success of his book, and any number of CD compilations, bears this out.

It may not be the bedrock of American oldies stations any longer - seemingly replaced by the AOR of Journey, Foreigner and REO Speed- wagon - but doo-wop casts a long shadow.

London has the one-man act Budge McGraw and his “21st-century doo-wop”, while in Hamburg there's an aggregation called the Nymonics who deal in what they call “doo-wop massacre”. Greece has its Hi Rollers, Nashville has produced the God-exalting Acappella, and Denmark's BaSix cover staples such as I Wonder Why and All Shook Up with a contorted style that sounds disturbingly like the Seinfeld theme rendered in vocalese.

When Dion played in London last autumn he was joined on stage by the Roommates, a four-part group from Essex. Two of them are dustmen; the thought of them harmonising as they tip up a Canvey Island wheelie bin is quite an image. In the mainstream, it doesn't take much effort to hear doo- wop's influence in harmony acts Boyz II Men, the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync, or to see Justin Timberlake as a neo-Frankie Lymon, midwifed by Michael Jackson.

Uptempo doo-wop 45s make regular appearances at London clubs like Dirty Water, or Soho poker night Stag-O-Lee. The downbeat stuff though, to connoisseurs, will always be the music's heartbeat.

There's a cut-up of the Flamingos' deathless I Only Have Eyes For You on the new mix CD by the 21st-century arbiter DJ Shadow. “When a doo-wop ballad is good,” Sean Rowley coos, “it's like a serenade. Those records don't brag. I'll slip the occasional one into my BBC London show The Joy of Music, at around midnight, and it never sounds out of place.”

Bruce Morrow feels that's because “it's about love affairs, about life. What we do and what we all understand.” For Rowley, the magic is in “the moment in a song when four harmonies meet. It just reduces me to a gibbering wreck.”

Doo Wop: The Music, the Times, the Era by Cousin Brucie Morrow and Rich Maloof is published by Sterling. The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll: Doo Wop Edition is out now on Ace

1st March 2008 01:03 PM
Brian Jones Girl who put the bop in the bop she bop doo wop who put the ram in the rama lama ding dog?
lol long live doo wop!

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