The Pre-Cursor to Rap
Untrained youth broke into the music industry 30 years before Rap…and were exploited just the same
You could find them on street corners in cities all across America. Groups of (mostly) young men, standing in a circle, getting loose.
They were striving to get notoriety. They also wanted to impress the women. To that end, they battled other groups wherever they could find them — street corners, recreation centers, talent shows, you name it — competition was fierce.
Watching a group sign a record deal, have their song played on the radio, that song becoming a hit, and then watching that group go on tour, inspired more people to want to be down.
Down to the point where there were groups on every corner in every neighborhood across America. Many didn’t make records but enough did for there to be 100s of 1,000s out there. Enough for many of those records to be a group’s one hit. Enough to alter the musical landscape forever.
Long before DJs spun two records making a unique beat and MCs rapped over that said beat. Long before that unique beat morphed into a music of its own. And long before that music spawned an industry, another culture existed that was created by teens who lacked instruments but had a voice.
That culture existed for close to a decade before a name was thrown on it. The name of that culture became Doo-Wop and it was the first youth music that dominated the charts and influenced youth, both Black and white.
This writing is about a music that grew in the incubator of the Black community, became a commodity, produced white imitators, and was eventually left for dead. This writing is about innocence lost and the hard lessons learned from dealing with the burgeoning record industry.
This writing is about a sign for those that dare compare and contrast then to now.
I only know Doo-Wop because of Scorsese.
Sure, I grew up when Sha Na Na was on television and even used their “Goodbye Sweetheart” as a sign off song for Fun Da Mentals.
Sure, I remember when New Edition rehashed “Earth Angel”. And sure I know that the Force MDs were supposed to be modeled after groups from that bygone era, but I never had any affinity towards the music until Goodfellas.
When music and movies mesh perfectly, the scene and the accompanying music become unforgettable. How can you not envision Henry Hill parking cars to The Cleftones “Can’t We Be Sweethearts” or as the sandwich boy when you hear The Cadillac’s “Speedo.”
A Bronx Tale…not a Scorsese movie, but still…used Dion and the Belmonts “I Wonder Why” and I can still see teenage boys jumping on each other’s back as they segue into a Cleftones song, “Little Girl of Mine.” Or how they go from The Complexions singing “I Only Have Eyes for You” in the stairwell right into the original Flamingos version…movie/music magic.
That’s what made this movie buff want to learn more about Doo-Wop — two Mob movies. Because the music sits right between my parents’ era, they grew up on Soul and Motown, and my Grandparents’, whom I’m assuming grew up on Gospel and Blues, Doo-Wop wasn’t a music that was played in our house.
When The Orioles were landing their hit “It’s Too Soon to Know,” my dad was barely teething and by the time Doo-Wop had made it’s last shoo wop de wop, he was barely a teenager.
Now had I grown up the child of my Dad’s oldest brother who’s twenty years his senior and was living in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn during that era, it would be a different story.
Doo-Wop groups were as plentiful then as rappers are now, they were everywhere.
As you may have picked up if you’ve read any of my previous writings, I hate clean origin stories.
Many o’ music writer likes to place the origin of Doo-Wop around the time of The Orioles. They love to say that The Orioles were inspired by The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots and adapted those styles to their own.
Reality is, small vocal quartets harmonizing goes back to a time when even Jazz was an infant, unnamed music. According to Lynn Abbott, the dominant image of the four white men in their suits and straw hats is just that, an image.
You can catch a glimpse of that look whenever Jimmy Fallon does his Ragtime Gals Barbershop renditions of modern songs.
That image is the dominant one and people often associate the harmonizing quartet with well to do white men belting out tunes in barbershops. But they were the Johnny Come Latelys to that. In fact, many of the original white quartets adopted Black vernacular and gestures when singing those harmonies.
Abbott’s extensive research has Black Quartets popping up right after the Civil War when we weren’t allowed to sing in concert halls and such and thus did it wherever we could — street corners — and yes, the back of barbershops. (Even Louis Armstrong sang in a quartet…before he ever touched a horn).
Tying Doo-Wop in a nice 1940s bow is doing a disservice to the true through line that exists in Black music from Reconstruction up until at least the 1980s.
So to hell with an origin date. Black folks been harmonizing. What happened was The Orioles, Ravens, Dominoes, & Clovers were young & famous, made the girls scream, and success breeds imitation. It’s really that simple.
For some reason, like rap, it was mostly young men that began forming groups — when I say young, I mean middle school young — hitting up street corners and stoops, perfecting their harmonies.
That wave of groups — groups like The Harptones, The Crows, The Chords, etc could be considered the first Doo-Wop groups and they would inspire the next wave — the ones that would make the music “mainstream.”
We try to forget the race problem away. It doesn’t work.
Things always start innocently. Black people make music. It’s either dismissed by whites or not heard at all. White outliers become advocates of said music. Convince other whites.
Original dismissive whites see how a dollar can be made off of said music. Capitalize. Blacks get nothing. Move on. Whites take on music as their own. Repeat.
It’s important to point out because the great myth is that the music united the people and so on and so forth; Black and white kids happily dancing together.
A student of music has likely heard about the so-called first Rock & Roll concert, The Moondog Coronation Ball that took place on 21 March 1952, filling the 10,000 seat venue and turning away 10,000 more.
Supposedly, this was a racially mixed party and, while very few pictures exist from the event, photos from other Moondog Balls do, and much to my surprise (not really) the crowd appears to be predominantly Black.
These Balls were thrown by Alan Freed who was convinced by a Cleveland record store owner, Leo Mintz, that the music then dubbed “Race Music” (before it was renamed Rhythm & Blues by Jerry Wexler) was a viable music and that there was a profit to be found in it.
Why did Mintz feel this way? Because of those above mentioned outlier white youth who ventured in his record store and purchased these Black recordings. Some of the recordings were the music now called Jump Blues while the other was the music now called Doo-Wop.
I would imagine that first Moondog Ball looked something like a Hip-Hop jam in the 70s/80s looked — wall to wall Blackness with sprinkles of white. They bought the music, no doubt. They even commissioned Black groups to perform for them. It was a music that both whites and Blacks shared…but white people weren’t making the music yet. That was years away.
Wexler called it Rhythm & Blues. Freed would call it something else — Rock and Roll. And what did we call it? Good luck on finding that answer. We likely just called it music which is very African as many African cultures don’t even have separate names for music and dance.
Codifying and marketing the music was one of the first ways at capitalizing on the Black creation. The other, more prominent way would be thievery. Whether it was through an unhonored contract or straight up theft, an industry was made off the backs of Black creatives.
Some Doo-Wop songs transcended the era and are recognizable to most music lovers. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and The Silhouettes “Get a Job” are two examples.
Listening to older music oft times is a burden because it’s difficult to place the songs contextually. In order to understand a song’s relevance, I like to make a chronological playlist and rock it on repeat.
Sometimes songs blend into one another but when a song stands out, nine times out of ten, it was a hit. “Sh Boom” is a perfect example.
It would be impossible to measure it against all vocal group songs released in 1954, there are thousands, but among the more popular ones, “Sh Boom” is clearly a stand-out track from first to last note.
Recorded by The Chords, a Morrisania, Bronx group of young men barely out of their teens in March of 1954, “Sh Boom” became the anthem of the Summer of 54 (before there was such a thing).
The song most notable for introducing (what is repeated ad nauseam) “non-sensical” lyrics, “A langala langala lang” even the song title, all had meaning, imitating a nearby church clock and referencing local slang respectively. The record label, Atlantic, hated it and tried to bury it on the B Side. But The Chords were simply doing what was common among Black artists — striving to be unique.
That uniqueness is what shot the song up the charts both R&B and Pop, it’s what ignited the competition to be signed among New York and other so-called inner cities youth across America.
New York City alone boasted thousands of groups. Many younger groups were directly tutored and influenced by The Chords like the Mello Moods who were taught harmony by Chords’ Jimmy Keyes and it wasn’t uncommon for a neighborhood to resemble the area around Harlem’s 115th Street and 7th avenue — overflowing with vocal groups.
That small section was home to The Bop Chords, The Five Crowns, The Five Willows, & The Harptones, all of whom were electrified by the possibility of a hit like “Sh Boom.”
Robert Palmer summed it up perfectly in this 1982 NYT article:
Doo Wop …gave rock and roll one of its most cherished myths — the overnight success story.
And as we mentioned before, it wasn’t just a New York story. This is a scene that was taking place all over the U.S. Richard Pruter, in his excellent book Doo-Wop: The Chicago Scene, interviewed a one Ularsee Manor of a group, The Four Buddies that described the times like this:
[It] was our street and anybody who came into our territory, they couldn’t pass through unless they sang. From one territory to the next there would be singouts. Instead of fighting to get through, you had to sing.
Hit records and the fame that followed was a motivator for men and women who were growing up in poverty.
The Chords emerged from virtual obscurity, dropped a monster hit that had them traveling the country, far away from their Jennings Street upbringing, what young person wouldn’t want that?
“Sh Boom” is considered to be the first crossover hit of the 50s, it inspired a whole new generation of Vocal groups…is one of the first cases of cultural appropriation…and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
One of my favorite, oft-repeated lines of Black Moon’s Buckshot is “I hate the weak shit and it be fuckin with my soul.”
For the most part, music for me is at it’s best in it’s rawest form. Not mixed well? Cool. Beats a little muddy. Alright with me.
I never listened to anything the Crew Cuts made. Why would I? But when I finally decided to take on this writing, I felt compelled. Went to YouTube, cued up their remake of “Sh Boom.” Yo. I barely made it past the first note.
All of the life, vitality, and soul is completely stripped from the original…and it was a hit! So much of a hit that it soon eclipsed The Chords’ very original version.
Think of that, a song that has a title based on local Bronx slang, with an onomatopoeia of the local church, and references to a band member’s Uncle Bip, were repeated by a white Canadian group with zero knowledge of the origins of any of the above…and it becomes more successful.
And there are worst versions. Bobby Williamson’s rockabilly “Sh Boom” is awful and Leon McAuliffe’s ‘jazzy’ “Sh Boom” is horrendous. And there are still more versions. How did this happen?
It’s quite simple. The Chords publishing was owned by Atlantic and they wanted to get as much bang for their buck as possible. Thus, the label farmed the song out there for covers, selling the rights to publishing company Hill & Range. And the covers (and dollars for Atlantic) started rolling in.
Not only did all these “Sh Booms” dilute the original, it was too big of hit for The Chords to ever duplicate. They never made a top-selling single again. Meanwhile, The Crew Cuts were making money hand over fist and since it wasn’t broken, they decided to do more covers.
What we did was take songs by black artists and re-do them in our style. It’s not something you could do today and get away with. Johnny Perkins
Other groups jumped on the Cover bandwagon and became famous as well — often times the cover completely eliminated from memory the original (Without using your Googles, if you hear “Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” you think Elvis not Big Mama Thornton, right?).
Musicologist Portia Maultsby called this era:
the most wide-spread, systematic rape and uncompensated cultural exploitation the entertainment industry has ever seen…
…to which the Brit rockers of the 60s said, “hold my beer.”
The year 1954 is often marked as the beginning of Rock & Roll. Many of the Black DJs of the time, people like Willie (The Mayor of Harlem) Bryant, Dr. Jive, Ramon Bruce, Hal Jackson and Jack Walker (the pear shaped talker) played the music that young Black and white kids loved.
But this was 1954.
A white face on a product was still preferred over a Black one. Alan Freed moved from Cleveland and took a job in the top market in America, New York radio station WINS, 1010 on your AM dial. He was paid a $75,000 salary…in 1954 (that’s $673,000 in 2017 money).
Black DJs were livid but the writing was on the wall. What was once known as “race music” and then Rhythm and Blues, both names for Black music, was soon becoming what Freed had termed the music — Rock & Roll and Rock & Roll was becoming increasingly white.
The Chords unfortunate run didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of young Black youth from signing on to a label. Quite the contrary. A whole new wave of groups were inspired by The Chords success and many of them saw similar if not equal success. In fact, many of the earlier groups and songs mentioned as transcendent in this writing were all post “Sh Boom.”
But by 1958, even the face of Doo-Wop was becoming whitened as young Italians took to harmonizing. By the time the Chicago Defender was naming the style of music Doo-Wop in 1961, most of us were on to something else. That something else was called ‘Soul.’
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a lot of scholarship written on the wave of Doo-Wop that sprung up in cities all over America.
We’re talking about a time where televisions were barely in everyone’s homes, when radio was king, and Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, Amsterdam News, & Chicago Defender were the voices of our communities.
Yet, despite it being such a phenomenon in the Black community, remember, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of groups, the best source on history for that time is Marv Goldberg who interviewed many of the surviving members of these bands and combed the records to provide more information about groups that are all but forgotten.
And it’s not just the fly-by-night groups that are forgotten either. Groups like The Crows, whose “Gee” preceded “Sh Boom” as an R&B and Pop hit by a year, rarely come up in the discussion of Doo-Wop.
Or women groups like The Chantels and The Bobbettes who were to Doo-Wop what Sequence, Pebblee Poo, Sha Rock, etc were to early Rap — an anomaly — rarely have their story told either.
The Doo-Wop groups that leap frogged that era into another were the ones that persevered the harsh realities of the music industry.
The Five Chimes were a group that formed in 55, went through a name change, became the Matadors, faced rejection from a major label who said there was no place for them since there was already The Platters (a group of men featuring one woman), and finally produced a single that resonated, an answer to The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job,” aptly titled “Got a Job.”
Their story would have ended there had their songwriter not impressed the producer of the record. That producer decided, after only receiving a measly $3.19 for his work, that he would start his own record label with the “Got a Job” group as the flagship.
That group, of course, was The Miracles and the producer was Berry Gordy — the label, Tamla, later better known as Motown.
Motown also played a role in another failed Doo-Wop group from Plainfield, New Jersey who modeled themselves on Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers.
The group had three dismal attempts at breaking into the industry with three different small-time labels, APT, Flip, and Golden Wordrespectively. It was almost nine years (from 58 to 67) before they recorded a hit.
The lead singer of the group left New Jersey, moved to Detroit, and landed a job at Motown while making connections throughout the city. He got an opportunity to make a song with the Motor City record label Revilot, and, although none of the other band members were present, he recorded under the group name and released “(I Wanna) Testify.” It was a hit.
And the group, The Parliaments, would go on to alter the course of Black music over the next ten years.
Two other great examples are Chicago’s The Roosters who became The Impressions, the group Curtis Mayfield emerged from and a Philadelphia group named The Blenders that became The Butlers until Marvin Gaye encouraged them to change their name to Maze…that’s right…of Frankie Beverly and Maze fame, Maze.
But by and large, as Doo-Wop members grew out of their teens, having seen little or no financial success, they were forced to join the military or find some other form of employment.
The 1994 National Geographic Explorer documentary Voices of Doo-Wop focused on one such case, Bobby Mansfield, the lead singer of The Wrens, who grew frustrated with the industry, got a job for the MTA, and never talked about his time as a member of an influential Doo-Wop group…not even to his children.
The last bastions of hope for Doo-Wop were a few record stores in New Jersey and the Doo-Wop revival concerts that were popular in the late 90s. But as record shop owners pass away and band members do as well, the music is becoming a footnote in the story of American Popular Music.
It may be difficult for someone not versed in history to draw the parallels between a music that was all the rage in a time long before even their parents were born — I’m sure Doo-Wop sounds like movie soundtrack music to most people — but the similarities are striking.
Black youth all over America took to street corners singing for local fame and the attention of girls (and boys), found out that there was money to be made from their past time, signed awful record deals, enriched labels while receiving little to nothing…
Soon that industry was dominated by whites — the DJs were white, the record labels were white, the people, then and now, who wrote about the music…white.
It’s not too far off from modern Rap — a genre that has produced thousands upon thousands of groups and individuals who may have had one hot single only to vanish into obscurity and as we wrote about in The Infiltration of Black Rap as soon as it became possible to make a profit from the music, the power shifted hands from the makers to the owners.
None of this is new.
We had to go back to the 50s to a time that was similar to show the reader that. The power is in ownership and until the artists and those of us who love the music realize that, every art form that we hold dear risks going the way of Doo-Wop.
Could it happen to Rap? Maybe it’s already happening. You be the judge.