James J. Kriegsmann
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, NY.
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 & 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!
In the coming weeks we will also cover my musical foundations of rockabilly, soul, and gospel music. They are all inter-related as you will eventually hear but meanwhile ALL ABOARD the doo-wop train!
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.
1. "I'll Make You Understand" — The Performers (2:11)
I guess this a favorite because of the bass singer. This is my favorite bass singer part in all of doo-wop and that is no mean feat. Take a second listen and just listen to this guy — he’s a total standout and there is usually great bass singing on EVERY doo-wop record.
2. "Down in Mexico" — The Robins (2:54)
This is one of the first records written and produced by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, perhaps the most trendsetting team in all of rock and roll. The middle part of this song STILL sounds as original as it did back in the mid-'50s when it came out. The Robins was the original name of what became The Coasters who had many hit singles — all written and produced by Lieber & Stoller. This was one of the first doo-wop ones recorded in California, where they grew up before they moved to New York and took over the musical world.
3. "Happy Happy Birthday Baby" — The Tune Weavers (2:17)
This is one of the most enduring, famous ones you’ll hear today. The intro is kinda jazzy — actually the whole song is kinda jazzy but without doo-wop it might have gone unnoticed. This track will never go out of print and your kids' kids will eventually hear it.
4. "Your Cheating Heart" — The Pearls (2:29)
Not even the great Hank Williams, Sr was safe from the doo-wop machine. The Pearls take this early '50s country hit that was covered by Tony Bennett (!) around the same time — but not like THIS. This is a classic doo-wop interpretation of a ‘straight’ song that no one could ever have imagined in the doo-wop genre. That's what was great about doo-wop — no boundaries!
5. "Bad Boy" — Clarence Palmer & The Jive Bombers (1:57)
This is a lead vocal performance I will never forget. This is an old jazz tune written by Louis Armstrong’s ex wife Lil, who wrote others such as “Just For a Thrill.” Clarence uses his patented “lub-lub” routine on this to great advantage and one-hit stardom. The follow-up, “Cherry,” was just as good but failed to match the success of this one. Actually saw this group live at DJ Jocko’s “Rocketship Show” onstage at the NY Paramount Theater in the '50s. Guess which one is Clarence...
6. "Rubber Biscuit" — The Chips (2:06)
If you think the title is strange, wait'll you hear the lyrics. Whoever wrote this was the R. Crumb of songwriting. A surviving remnant of '50s doo-wop, covered by the Blues Brothers (but a weak second to this) at the peak of their success.
7. "Have Mercy" — The Platters (1:57)
One of the greatest lead singers of all time, Tony Williams leads his charges through this arrhythmical exercise in requesting mercy from their first album after having two hit singles on Mercury Records. Their string of hits remained unbroken for quite awhile.
8. "Whispering Bells" — The Del-Vikings (2:18)
This exemplified the “sound of 1957.” This is a perfectly made record, one of the first ever in rock and roll. This was a racially mixed group of servicemen who scored gigantically with their first single "Come Go With Me" a year earlier. Their second single “Little Billy Boy” was a quick flop, and then this, for all time. Covered live by Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
9. "Just Keep on Loving Me" — The Halos (2:32)
This is from the second period of doo-wop post-1960, when white acts began to outnumber the African-Americans, i.e. The Shangri-Las and The Angels. This is a permutation of The Angels, hence The Halos. There was a black male doo-wop group called The Haloes who scored with a track called “Nag,” but that’s another story. So this is fully orchestrated white music with the first line musically a lift from Ernest Gold’s “Exodus”! But this obscure oldie began to show the power of the doo-wop whites, later emphasized by The Four Seasons' amazing run and The Angels' biggest — “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
10. "Won't Find Better Than Me" — The Kit Kats (2:32)
This is from the final period of doo-wop post 1965 which included The Left Banke and Stories, two groups under the jurisdiction of songwriter-pianist Michael Brown. This is a very Michael Brown-influenced track with a great lead vocal and similar piano meanderings in Brown's quirky style. This is waaay obscure compared to The Left Banke and Stories, but still a block in my foundation musically.
Coming up a few columns from now, the musical foundations of my rockabilly period.