Al Kooper, 1961
This music started for me in the mid-'50s when I was about 11 years old. My parents still had a babysitter for me — Janet, who lived down the hall from us in our apartment building in Queens Village, New York.
About 30 minutes after my folks would leave, all of Janet’s friends would come over with a portable phonograph and boxes of 45 rpm singles — seven-inch vinyl records of this new mystical music called doo wop that I had never heard before. It was a cross-pollination of gospel music and rhythm and blues and it changed my life. Songs like “Earth Angel” by The Penguins and “Get a Job” by The Silhouettes filled our apartment and all these kids danced like maniacs. It was amazing!
Shortly thereafter, I bought my first single — “The Closer You Are” by Earl Lewis and The Channels on the Whirlin’ Disc label. I still have it (!) along with 4000 other ones I collected until they stopped making them!
So today’s column showcases ten of those singles that changed my life musically and taught me the foundations of what would become my general musical taste. If you were alive when this happened and are roughly my age, you will surely know some of these — but if you missed this period of music, here’s a quick GREAT look at it in less than a half hour!
Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.
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1. "Little Girl of Mine" — The Cleftones (3:16)
As I strolled the streets of Queens, New York in my young teens, the spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll permeated the neighborhood with music everywhere. This group was formed in Queens in 1952 when they were in eighth grade. When they moved on to Jamaica High School, they were signed in 1955 to NYC’s doo wop label GEE Records run by George Goldner. Many of their singles ("You Baby You," "Can’t We Be Sweethearts," "Why You Do Me Like You Do") were hits, especially locally. And everyone walked around singing this one. They had a second life in 1961 with “Heart and Soul” and “For Sentimental Reasons,” but that was a final note for the Cleftones. In later years their rockin’ recordings were featured in films like Goodfellas, American Grafitti, A Bronx Tale, and Drive. God bless ‘em.
2. "The Closer You Are" — The Channels (2:55)
The time came, around 1956, to start buying 45 rpm seven-inch single records with one song on each side for 99 cents. I was perplexed because I wanted two singles, but only had a dollar to spend. The choices were THIS mysterious ballad with all kinda bizarre sounds in it OR a show-off piano instrumental by Roger Williams called “Autumn Leaves,” which was a totally “white record.” I stood in the store with a record in each hand. I noticed that the Channels' song was on the Whirlin' Disc label and that made my final decision. This was the first record I ever bought and I still have it.
3. "Blue Moon" — The Marcels (2:15)
This was second generation doo wop and came out in the early '60s. The recording methods had improved and this version is actually in stereo, but wasn’t at the time of release. I collect stereo versions of songs that were originally released only in mono. There are HUNDREDS of them on iTunes. This is a beaut.
Nice tux jackets, guys, but down in front: pull yer socks up, will ya?
4. "On My Word of Honor" — BB King (2:55)
Yep. Even BB King made doo wop records long ago. His voice is instantly recognizable, but the power and beauty in the young man’s vocal really stands out nowadays. This song was a hit for the seminal group The Platters in the late '50s.
I've said this before but jeez, wouldja look at the size of those fingers?
5. "Come Softly to Me" (a cappella) — The Fleetwoods (2:35)
This was a huge hit at the turn of the decade in 1959 and the debut single by two girls and a guy from Washington State. Decades later, in a CD release of their greatest hits, this version was included wherein they took all the instruments out excepot a tambourine, and put the group's voices in stereo. It really shows off what great singers they were and what a great blend they shared even without Auto-Tune! They had four or five other hits ("Mr. Blue," "Tragedy," "Outside My Window," to name a great threesome) but this was the one that REALLY lasted.
It’s hard to believe those voices came from this former canasta team. Original derivation of the term “threesome.”
6. "Oh How Happy" — Peter-John Morse (2:31)
This was originally recorded by The Shades of Blue from Detroit in the early '60s and made the top ten. I covered it with Peter when I produced him in the mid-’70s and put it here to show how much doo wop still influenced me in later years. Hats off to the great studio background singers in LA and the great vocal contractor at the time, Ron Hicklin. Peter became one of the top stage lighting designers in later years and still does that sort of thing famously today. He had quite a nice vocal range back then and we did this for MCA records back when — in the semi-archaic world of 16-track recording with still no Auto-Tune in sight. I just played this for my friend and he thought it was a woman the entire time! Pete’s got a high range to say the least, but remember — that’s Peter with a peter.
7. "My True Story" — The Jive Five (2:27)
This was a #1 R&B hit and spearheaded the first revival of true doo wop in 1961. It was also on the Beltone label housed in 1650 Broadway in New York, where I was raised musically from the age of 13. What an amazing building. Since the walls don't talk I guess it's up to me. The lead singer in this group was Eugene Pitt and what a fine doo wop lead singer he was. Later on I played guitar on some of their recordings and backed them live occasionally in the early ‘60s. This is a great stereo mix done later. The count-off is by their producer/arranger Joe Rene, by the way.
You guys obviously shopped at the same place as The Marcels. How I wish that store was still open!
8. "True Love, True Love" — The Drifters (2:10)
Starting in 1959, The Drifters' second period began with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller producing many hits in a row for them. The first one was the avant garde “There Goes My Baby” with a very amazing string arrangement by Stan Applebaum. The follow-up continued the tasty violins backup, this time arranged by Dick Wess. This didn't make the top ten but pierced the Top 40 at #33 in October of 1959. Here’s a great stereo mix featuring that bell you used to tap on to get someone’s attention at the front desk of hotels at the time. Very clever.
9. "Shimmy Like Kate" — The Olympics (2:13)
This was a hit in 1960 for the great Olympics, who had many. This was an adaption of a song from the '20s and '30s that was a swing hit back then as well. I always loved the singing on this track. It was originally released on the Arvee label out of LA run by Richard Vaughn, hence the RV. Richard had three labels in his domain, HiFi, Arvee, and Orbit. HiFi mostly put out jazz that is now known as lounge music, including Arthur Lyman’s early catalog. Other hits by The Olympics on Arvee were "Big Boy Pete," "Dance By the Light of the Moon," "(Baby) Hully Gully," and "Little Pedro." Their original hit, "Western Movies," was on Demon Records also out of Los Angeles. I’m guessing the included track was produced by HB Barnum.
Worst matching outfits of the week and the Olympics.
10. "For Your Precious Love" — Jerry Butler and The Impressions (2:43)
A chart-topper in 1958 introduced the high ethereal harmonies of the Impressions to the world, albeit with Jerry Butler singing lead. Soon after, Curtis Mayfield stood in front and they became one of the top voical groups of all time. This was a well made record at the time and this semi-stereo remix highlights the quality of the original recording back in 1958. This is in my top five of all time in doo wop land. It is rumoured that the lyric came from a love letter a high school friend sent to his girlfriend. Okay then, now a sad return to 2013 and Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga... Hey, they should get together and cover “My Boyfriend's Black errr Back.”
Jerry Butler (upper left), Curtis Mayfield (lower right), First and Final Impressions (center and right, top row), unidentified (lower left). Curtis’s guitar appears to be a Silvertone, manufactured at the time by Sears Roebuck for approximately $40.