Our doowop series, Street Corner Symphonies, hit The Times
It may not be the bedrock of American oldies stations any longer – long replaced by the AOR of Journey, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon – but Doo Wop casts a long shadow. 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 pop that lacked the violence and anarchy of its close cousin rock’n’roll, but is the exact sound that enters most peoples’ heads when they picture Anytown USA in 1956.
Bear Family Records has just released a set of five CDs, called Street Corner Symphonies, which all predate the Turbans’ hit, and all pre-date Rock Around the Clock, but are still identifiably Doo Wop. In the late forties and early fifties, teenagers were already harmonising on street corners, in subways, or in school gyms, searching for the echo to give their harmonies a fuller sound. The luckier vocal groups were hurried into a studio by a small-time entrepreneur and had a 78 or a 45 to show for their misspent youth. Once a while, one of the records clicked and the singers became stars.
In Britain, Americana enthusiasts began reviving the sound in the seventies, notably DJ Roger Scott with his Friday night Cruising show on Capitol Radio. In the States it has been the province of collectors and record-sniffers since 1959 when LA DJ Art Laboe came up with the revolutionary concept of licensing songs from various sources to create an album called Oldies But Goodies – the first ever pop re-issues. It sold so well that a few of the singles it included by the likes of the Penguins and the Turbans re-entered the singles chart. Not only was this the start of the re-issue industry, but it also fostered the record collecting community.
Doo Wop is fetishised in the States even more than Northern Soul is in Britain, causing heated discussion over the smallest detail. New York Daily News writer David Hinckley has said “I don’t even like the term. It suggests the rich and varied music of 1950s rhythm and blues harmony ultimately distills down to a couple of nonsense syllables.”
Hinckley would like the tone of Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop. At least, that’s what it’s called on the outside. The sleevenotes refer to the acts as “R&B vocal groups” and are keen to point out that this music is “what’s now known as Doo Wop” (the term wasn’t coined until the early seventies). The first five sets will be followed by a further ten before the end of the year, and it’s safe to say this is the real deal; for a start, I’d never seen a picture of the legendary Five Sharps before (their 1952 single Stormy Weather is the holy grail of Doo Wop; only a couple of 78s have survived).
Each disc covers a year, with the exception of the first which traces Doo Wop’s roots from 1939 to ‘49, moving from the pre-war Mills Brothers and Ink Spots to Sonny Til’s Orioles via a bunch of names I’m unfamiliar with: the clunkily-named Big Three Trio were a pre-blues vehicle for Willie Dixon; the Basin Street Boys provide the original I Sold My Heart to the Junkman, later Patti LaBelle’s first hit in 1962; Nashville’s Five Bars provide an intriguing 1947 hybrid of country and Doo Wop on I’m All Dressed Up With a Broken Heart. The unfamiliarity of these singles, and the formative nature of the recordings – we’re a whole decade ahead of rock’n’roll here – make for a fascinating and enlightening listen.
The enlightenment comes from the chunky booklet that accompanies each disc; the super-detailed liner notes are the work of compiler Bill Dahl. There are photos and label scans to accompany pretty much every track.
For each familiar recording from a ‘bird’ group – the Orioles, Larks, Ravens, Falcons – there are at least two obscurities. If I have a criticism, it is only that the insularity of Doo Wop fetishists carries over into the notes, and that there is little socio-historical context, or even pop cultural context – that’s some homework you’ll have to do for yourself.
I find it mind-blowing that the Marylanders’ cut the hypnotic, echo-drenched Make Me Thrill Again in the same year as the coronation, the same year Al Martino’s blousey, pre-historic Here In My Heart was the UK’s first No 1. Maybe that’s because Martino’s hit is so time-bound, little more than a cheap antique. Compare it to the evocation of sleepless high summer on the Striders’ Cool Saturday Night, modern and timeless. I’d never heard it before, nor the Marylanders’ gem, nor the Four Buddies’ winter warm Sweet Slumber. These are extraordinarily fine records, and this series is top-rate archeology.
Street Corner Symphonies – The Complete Story of Doo Wop, Volumes 1-5, are out now on Bear Family Records (bear-family.de)