From the Streets to the Studios
At the corner of Pop and Gospel streets sits a musical Sound ready to board the Rock ‘n’ Roll bus. It is called Doo-Wop and is just the first of several styles that will eventually board at that stop.
It was left there in the late forties by two groups: the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, two black pop vocal quartets who set the standard for the style of doo-wop in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The name “doo-wop” most likely came from the nonsense syllables that were sung by the backup portion of the group. “Sha-na-na-na, Sha-na-na-na,” “Oodly-doo-doo wop-wop, Oodly-bom-bom-dah” and other syllabic patterns were chosen for their percussive (B, P or D) quality, which sounded like a drum, their sibilant (S, Sh, Z, F) quality, which resembled cymbals or high percussion instruments, or their sustained (M or N) quality, which emulated a string or soft organ pad. Vowel choice had to do with the overall effect needed at the moment. “Oo” being used in soft, quiet and romantic passages, “Ee” used as a momentary cut through the sound (sometimes by the high falsetto tenor), and “Oh” or “Ah” being used in bigger, more open passages, where the main melody had reached the loudest or most passionate part of the song. Depending on the rhythmic energy of the piece (fast or slow doo-wop), the background group would create either sustained chords (on “Oo,” “Oh” or “Ah”) or patterns of nonsense vowels/consonants to copy an instrumental or percussive section, like a guitar, horns or drums. One of the most successful doo-wop songs in the ‘50s was “Sh-boom, Sh-boom,” in which the whole group followed the title phrase, “Sh-boom, sh-boom” with “ya-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dat” Completely without meaning, the phrase is indelibly linked to a unique sound and time period in American music history.
The Mills Brothers (four actual brothers from Ohio) began recording in the early ‘30s and had several major hits during the war years including “Paper Doll” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. Backed often by a single jazz guitar, the brothers gimmick involved imitating instruments behind the lead vocal and then harmonizing on other parts of the song. They appeared on radio, records and film through the ‘40s and ‘50s and on television in the ‘60s. Their last hit, “Cab Driver,” made it to the charts in 1968, by which time, the death of one brother made the group a trio.
Although The Ink Spots were not as commercially successful as the Mills Brothers, and certainly didn’t maintain the longevity of the older group, their impact on future doo-wop groups was just as significant. For about eight years (1938 to 1946) the group recorded with some success, “If I Didn’t Care” in 1939 being one of their most recognizable hits. The formula for the Ink Spots sound was unique: the melody was sung for most of the song by the lead (the second highest voice in the group), while a higher voice (the tenor) created soaring falsetto lines and the low bass rumbled a thumping bass note on the beats to a nonsense syllable. The fourth voice, a baritone, placed between the low bass and the melody, filled in notes in the chord. What made the Ink Spots unique was that after a chorus or two, the lead tenor would pass the melody off to the low bass and join the background chords while the bass voice spoke, in a deep resonant rumble, several lines of the lyrics. This shifting of lyrics and melody from one part to another made the Ink Spots a true vocal ensemble, as compared to solo voice with incidental backup singers. The practice of melody shifting continued through the doo-wop era and is still evident in the doo-wop renaissance of the last 15 years.
The Ink Spots – “If I Didn’t Care”
Doo-wop could technically be classified as a vocal style that incorporates a vocal melody supported by smooth, close vocal harmonies with occasional instrumental backup. The tempo of doo-wop songs could either be fast or slow, although most people associate doo-wop singing with a slow tempo. The up-tempo songs tended to gravitate towards a rhythm & blues classification: songs such as the Domino’s “Have Mercy, Baby” in 1952 and others by later groups such as the Coasters (“Yakety Yak” and “Young Blood”) included a honking sax, shuffle beat and driving rhythm section. In this, they were closer to jump blues than doo-wop.
The traditional view of doo-wop is that of a small vocal group (either four or five voices) singing a medium or slow tempo romantic song with minimal additional instrumental background.
Several characteristics regarding ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop groups should be noted. First, the vast majority of groups were one or two-hit wonders, hitting the charts and then disappearing into obscurity. This meant that no one group defined the sound of doo-wop, rather, the catalogue of doo-wop songs is a collective effort involving dozens of groups, each bringing one or two of their best to the list. Classic doo-wop songs like “Earth Angel,” “Sh-Boom,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Book of Love,” and “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby” were the only chart appearances of groups like The Penguins, The Chords, The Five Satins, The Monotones, and The Tune Weavers.
Second, although most of the early doo-wop groups were African-American (The Flamingos-“I Only Have Eyes For You,” The Moonglows – “Sincerely” and The Orioles-“Crying in the Chapel”) by the end of the ‘50s other ethnic groups were also being represented. Particularly significant were those groups from the Italian-American community like Dion and the Belmonts (from Belmont Avenue in New York’s Bronx) who recorded several hits including “A Teenager in Love” in 1959. The Dell-Vikings (which was the first racially integrated group-three blacks and two whites) had a hit with “Come, Go with Me” in 1957. The Crests, also multi-racial (Italian, two African-Americans and a Latino) had several hits including “Sixteen Candles” in 1958. Although a few doo-wop groups included a female lead, these were the exception, although the girl group phenomenon was to explode in the early ‘60s.
The Penguins, “Earth Angel”, 1956
Third, while many of the doo-wop songs were adaptations of pop or Broadway songs from the Tin Pan Alley era, just as many of the hits followed a formulaic chord progression (I-vi7-ii7-V7 or C-am7-dm7-G7 in the key of C). This pattern caused many of the doo-wop songs to sound harmonically identical, which they are. What created variety in the harmonic similarity were the patterns of rhythmic syllables that became the group’s collective thumbprint on the chord progression. The Moonglows, The Penguins and The Chords might be singing the same chords, but each with a unique rhythmic and doo-wop vocal fabric. Then, too, the melody and lyrics gave another level of identity to the hit. But, underneath the surface arrangement was the same four-chord progression.
While the early and mid-fifties were filled with one and two-hit “wonders,” the latter part of the doo-wop era was dominated by two groups, The Platters in the late ‘50s and The Drifters in the early ‘60s.
The Platters, a four male, one female group from Los Angeles, scored repeated hits with “Only You” (1955), “The Great Pretender” “You’ve Got That Magic Touch,” and “My Prayer” (1956), and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (1958). The Drifters, under the tutelage of Leiber and Stoller in the early ‘60s, signaled the end of the first doo-wop era with hits like “There Goes My Baby” (1959), “This Magic Moment” (1960), “Up On the Roof” (1962), “On Broadway” (1963) and finally “Under the Boardwalk” (1964). The beginning of the British Invasion in 1964 was the effective end of both the male doo-wop groups of the ‘50s and the girl groups of the early ‘60s.
The Platters – “Only You”, 1955
After a hiatus of three decades, doo-wop made a resurgence in the early 1990s with the appearance of Boyz II Men, N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. While Boyz II Men stayed close to the doo-wop style: a sensual, passionate melody backed by tight vocal harmonies, both N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys relied on choreography, extensive background instrumentation and stage energy to carry the songs. Each of the three groups scored more hits and sold more records than dozens of the pioneer doo-wop groups of the early ‘50s, yet time will tell whether any of their songs will have the longevity and recognition as early doo-wop hits like “Earth Angel” or “Up On the Roof”.
Boyz II Men – “End of the Road”, 1992