I am not big on the music our young people listen to today. But I acknowledge that most of our young people today are not fans of my type of music. Yes, they may sample certain songs to create songs for their generation, but that tends to be the only purpose the ’50s and ’60s music serves for most of them. For me and others from my era, that music we refer to as “doo-wop” holds a special place in our hearts; it brings back many fond memories.
It is hard to appreciate doo-wop music if one has no understanding of this a cappella style. It generally features a lead singer, first tenor, second tenor and baritone. Quite often,it is a pure style in which the human voice has no instrumental accompaniment. It is even viewed as homespun; its phrases quite often make no sense; it generally has tight harmony, whether it is up-tempo or romantic ballads. You can best understand doo-wop by reflecting on the songs that were a part of the singing groups found on the street corners of most inner-city neighborhoods. While whites sang doo-wop, the style is mainly associated with Blacks. The Four Aces, a white vocal group, is not one you would identify as a doo-wop group. The same is true for other white vocal groups such as the Four Lads, Ames Brothers, Hi-Los, Four Coins and Kirby Stone Four. These were all-male groups, but there were also white female vocal groups that were not doo-wop. These included the Fontaine Sisters, McGuire Sisters, Chordettes and Andrews Sisters. Let us be clear that not all Black groups were in the doo-wop category. Clearly, the Mills Brothers were not a do-wop group.
Many of you can easily reach back in time and identify your favorite Black male doo-wop groups. I suspect the Orioles, Spaniels, Five Keys, Heartbeats, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Harptones, Cadillacs, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, Nutmegs, Clovers, Penquins, Drifters and the Diablos may be on your list. What about the Moonglows, Flamingos, Dreamers, Castelles, Robins, “5” Royales, Dreamers, Sonny Gordan and the Angels, Turbans, Students, Schoolboys, Medallions, Jacks, Silhouettes, Coasters, Swallows, Crows, Charts and the Impressions? They were the groups that sang tunes to which you did the bop, stroll, slop and the slow drag with one of your significant others back in the day.
Not all doo-wop groups were Black. There were white doo-wop groups such as the Crests, Mello Kings, Duprees, Danny and the Juniors, Belmonts, Four Seasons, Vito and the Salutations, Diamonds and the Mystics. Growing up, many of us had no knowledge that certain groups were white, as they could carry that doo-wop sound just like many “brothers.” If you go back to the song “Little Darling” by The Diamonds, you clearly appreciate the harmonizing ability of white groups. You might be surprised to know that there were also some interracial doo-wop groups. The song “Come Go with Me”was recorded by an interracial group, The Del-Vikings. You may also recall the strong bass in the up-tempo song “Blue Moon.” Yes, it was another interracial group, The Marcels. Do you recall the song “Sorry, I Ran All The Way Home” by the Impalas? This group consisted of four white background singers and a Black lead singer. Joe “Speedo” Frazier was the lead singer? Other interracial do-wop groups were the Jaynells, Jacquars and Vel-tones. An extremely rare do-wop group, The Seniors, is one of which most people have little knowledge. These are indeed not household doo-wop names.
Recent women’s events and issues have caused me to specifically look at the female or girl groups, as they are often called because of their youth, who also sang doo-wop during the height of the vocal group era. So, what girl doo-wop groups can you recall, Black or white, from back in the day?
My all-time favorite was The Chantels. Their songs usually started with a rhythmic piano beat before lead singer Arlene Smith would belt out the words to o songs such as “Maybe,” “He’s Gone,” “Every Night I Pray,” “I Love You So” and “Look In My Eyes.” I suspect a few of you fell in love to the sound of The Chantels. As someone who loves doo-wop and even tried his hand at singing it believe me, these girls from Bronx could really sing. They had such a distinctive sound you could never confuse them with any other girl group. I was surprised when I recently learned that another Black girl do-wop group preceded them in obtaining nationwide success. While their name may not jump out at you, many of you, I suspect, can sing along when someone starts singing, “1, 2, 3, look at Mr. Lee. ” This song was recorded and released in 1957 by The Bobbettes.
If you were listening to music on the radio or going who recorded this song were The Dixie Cups. Do you remember them? While those of you who know rock and roll and rhythm and blues may argue that this next group does not meet the criteria for doo-wop, I would beg to differ. It would be difficult not to recognize this girl group, with four white members, and their 1958 recording of “Born Too Late” as doo-wop. Another group in a similar category is The Angels. Reflect on their recording of “My Boyfriend’s Back” and tell me, if you do not agree, then in what category would you place this group? I know many of you can identify with The Shirelles as their recordings of “Tonight’s The Night,” “Soldier Boy,” “Baby It’s You” and “Foolish Little Girl” and are still heard on the airways and at oldies parties today. I also know many of you can identify with The Ronettes, a group produced by Phil Spector. You probably recall their beehive hairdos and their sexy singing sound. Many of you, I suspect can still sing along with their most popular recording, “Be My Baby.” Are still wondering, as I did for many years about the racial background of this group? Do you remember the song, “Leader of the Pack?” Perhaps you remember the white doo-wop girl group that recorded this song, The Shangri-Las? Other girl groups that may be on someone’s list were the Toys, Hearts, Cookies, Teen Queens, Chiffons, Deltairs, Blossoms, DeVaurs and, of course, the Crystals, a girl group that rivals my love for The Chantels.
A number of do-wop groups that featured girl lead singers or had girls as members went unnoticed. Let me share some with you to help bring back some forgotten memories. What about the Capris, Ad-Libs and the Sensations? Do you recall Rochell and the Candles, Six-teens, Orlons, Quintones, Patty LaBelle and the Blue Belles, Ruby and the Romantics, Flairs, Skyliners, Jaynettes, Essex, Kathy Young and the Innocents and the Cleftones? I bet most of you did not know that there was a girl as a member of the Cleftones. Remember, this is not a complete list, just a glimpse.
As women continue to dominate the news; as we witness women continuing to reach and break the so-called glass ceiling; as we observed, participated in and saluted women achieving in connection with Women’s History Month in March; and as some of us plan to participate in The Tribune’s Women Achieving luncheon next month, let those of us who have a special place in our hearts for doo-wop music give special recognition and attention to those pioneer do-wop girl groups that set the stage for those that followed and obtained considerable success. I speak of such groups as The Supremes, Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Honey and the Bees, Sweet Inspiration and others from the Motown and soul area. We should salute these pioneering female doo-wop groups who failed to get their due recognition i as did male groups back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.