This year is special; I’ll be eligible to collect social security. To some people that might sound ominous, but it’s really not. All it means is that I remember “the days before rock ‘n’ roll,” to quote Van Morrison. Picture, if you can, a seven year-old boy with his ear to the radio—not even a transistor radio just yet. Sometime around 1954 I was listening to “Secret Love” by Doris Day and “Cry” by Johnnie Ray. “Rag Mop,” from a few years earlier, would often come bursting from my lips for some unknown reason.
Then, one morning as I dressed for school, it happened. “Earth Angel” transformed my life forever. The sound of doo wop burned through the radio and I was transfixed. Peter Tripp and the WMGM (AM) DJs opened my ears and my being to a new sound. Ever since that day, rock ‘n’ roll music has helped define my life and doo wop gave it soul. The harmonies were magical, the falsettos heavenly, the slow groove infectious.
On a ladder, cleaning the kitchen window, I harmonized with the Fireflies when they echoed “You were mine at the time and the feeling was sublime…” Old standards, those songs my parents loved, breathed life in a new and exciting way. The harmonies of Dion & the Belmonts updated “That’s My Desire” for my generation. The Skyliners moved “I’ll Be Seeing You” from the ’40s to 1960.
The shame is that so many of these songs and far too many of the artists never received the recognition they deserved. I’m sure the Crew Cuts got financial rewards the Penguins never saw. But in the end, the names we remember are the Flamingos, the Platters, the Five Keys, the Five Satins, the Cadillacs, the Edsels, the Tokens and too many others to list.
Doo wop may have run its course, but its influence is everywhere. During the ’60s, the Beatles kept the feeling alive when they belted out “Baby’s in Black” and “Oh! Darling.” Jay & the Americans incorporated the sound into many of their records and stage shows. Motown might have brought soul music to the masses, but the undertones were there. As late as the 1990s, Boyz II Men brought “In the Still of the Night” to a whole new generation. I watched my daughter swoon over the same music that excited me in 1956.
Today I still claim doo wop as my favorite branch of rock ‘n’ roll, but where and how can I hear it? It’s not easy, but it’s out there. Local acappella groups abound in small clubs and are always available for parties and reunions. Once in a while, a radio station will have a doo wop night. Then there’s TV. I still get chills watching Kathy Young or Fred Parris or Johnny Maestro or Jimmy Gallagher strut their stuff while new and old members of the Crests or the Innocents blend their voices behind them. Infomercials hire Dion to sing the praises of harmonizing under a street lamp—still with that special “cry ” only Dion can manage. And don’t forget the PBA . At least once a year, a Police Benevolent Association somewhere throws a benefit concert with spectacular artists. Shirley Alston Reeves and her backup singers bring the Shirelles back to life. Larry Chance & the Earls and others are sure to be in town at some point. And guess what? They all sound great!
It might not be the same as it was when I turned ten, listening to “My Prayer,” but doo wop harmonies are still around. Then again, what does it matter? I’ll carry them around with me forever. Yeah, “Earth Angel” changed my life.