By Phill Marder
If you grew up in Philadelphia in the ’50s, you danced to The Orioles, The Moonglows, The Penguins, The Five Satins and a lot more as the City of Brotherly Love — along with its big brother, New York City — became the home base for street-corner vocalization.
It became known as doo-wop. Back then, we just called it rock and roll. Today, I’m still a little fuzzy as to what exactly makes a song doo-wop. You just know it when you hear it.
The nation heard it on Philly’s “Bandstand,” hosted by Dick Clark. But in Philadelphia, we heard more on the radio, mainly thanks to three of the greatest deejays in rock history: the late Georgie Woods and Hy Lit, and the still-going-strong Jerry Blavat.
Woods, “the man with the goods,” broke “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, named Jerry Butler “The Ice Man” because he was so cool and coined the phrase “blue-eyed soul” for The Righteous Brothers. Referring to New York City, he called it “New York, New York, the city so nice, they had to name it twice.”
Lit was the main man on WIBG Radio 99, the 50,000-watt Philly giant that issued a Top 99 list each week and played every one of those records, plus new releases. No Top 40 there. Lit chanted, “Calling all my beats, beards, Buddhist cats, big-time spenders, money lenders, teetotalers, elbow benders, hog callers, home-run hitters, finger-poppin’ daddies and cool baby sitters. For all my carrot tops, lollipops and extremely delicate gum drops. It’s HyskiORoonieMcVoutiOZoot calling, uptown, downtown, crosstown. Here there, everywhere. Your man with the plan, on the scene with the record machine.”
Blavat rapped constantly, talking right over the records he was playing. But “The Geator With The Heater,” which remains his tag today, played almost exclusively what has come to be known as doo-wop, so we heard many great records that weren’t national hits.
Today, “the Boss with the Hot Sauce” continues spinning those oldies in the Philly area, particularly the Jersey Shore. And I’m talking about the real Jersey Shore: The Wildwoods, Ocean City, Margate, Stone Harbor, Avalon.
Wildwood stakes a claim as the birthplace of rock and roll because Bill Haley And The Comets first performed “Rock Around The Clock” there in 1954. Described as “irreplaceable icons of popular culture,” Wildwood’s doo-wop-style hotels and motels, placed on a national list of endangered places a few years back, emphasize the town’s dedication to keeping the doo-wop culture alive and well. Last year, in an outdoor concert, I had the pleasure of seeing doo-wop legends The Duprees and Vito and The Salutations perform live.
What made doo-wop so popular? Shower rooms after football practice when you could put five or six teenagers — usually all male — in a ready-made echo chamber. All that was needed was one bass voice to go “mope-itty mope mope de mope mope mope” and the rest of the gang chimed in. Each knew his part, and it sounded great. At least we thought it did. (By the way, if Pat Prince finds a photo of the Boss-Tones, he automatically wins “editor of the year.”)
Four guys could walk down Main Street in the rain singing “Every time it rains it rains,” and, of course, the bass voice would take over with “Pennies From Heaven.” The key? No instruments. Doo-wop could be sung anywhere, by anyone, at any time. All you needed were some voices, but a street corner was an added bonus.
When I received this assignment — the 20 greatest doo-wop groups — I thought it would be fun. Then, I realized how hard it would be to limit the list to 20 when every doo-wop group was so good. So, I conveniently lost count. Many of your favorites — and mine — will be left out due to space limitations. These may not be the greatest in your ears, but, for one reason or another, each sticks out in mine.
If the Cadillacs had done nothing more than the classic “Speedo,” they’d be remembered. But their catalog is one of doo-wop’s finest, led by the definitive version of doo-wop’s definitive ballad, “Gloria.” Throw in “Peek-A-Boo,” on which the group out-Coastered the Coasters (“Look in the dark, you see my face —aaaaaaaaaaaaa! Don’t try to hide, I’m every place!) Who could ask for more?
The Chantels notched three national hits before The Shirelles got their first. The biggest, of course, was the group’s signature song, “Maybe,” which became one of doo-wop’s signature songs, as well. The song has been covered since, but even Janis Joplin couldn’t match the vocal of soprano high-schooler Arlene Smith.
Well before the onslaught of rock and roll, The Clovers were topping the charts with 19 Top 10 hits between 1951 and 1956, most of which were covered later. Among others, “Lovey Dovey” was done by Clyde McPhatter; “One Mint Julep” became an instrumental hit for Ray Charles; “Devil Or Angel” was a smash for Bobby Vee, and, of course, there was “Love Potion No. 9,” which reached No. 3 for The Searchers, though they left out the crucial last verse: “I had so much fun that I’m going back again. I wonder what happens with Love Potion No. 10?”
I’m not sure much of their material was doo-wop, but all they needed was “Searchin’” and “Young Blood” to make this list, and they put them both on the same 45!
This group had all the bases covered with three black members (one female), one Puerto Rican and one Italian-American. The key was the Italian-American, lead singer Johnny Maestro, who became one of rock’s most-beloved vocalists, fronting not only The Crests but later The Brooklyn Bridge. “16 Candles” was followed by many other big hits, but my personal favorite was a B-side, “Gee (But I’d Give The World).” What an ending.
The Del Vikings
Sometimes known as the Del-Vikings, sometimes the Dell-Vikings, the history of this group is more convoluted than any except, perhaps, The Hollywood Flames. Suffice it to say that the body of work left by variations of the group over several different labels is, for the most part, of high quality topped by two of the greatest recordings in Rock history: “Come Go With Me” and “Whispering Bells.”
The Diamonds, from Toronto, were a terrific group. The group’s covers — “Little Darlin,’” for example — often buried its originals. But in addition to the nine major hits The Diamonds had with covers from 1956 to 1961, the group also gave us “The Stroll,” “High Sign” and “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” all major hits and all originals. Great listening and fun to watch.
Dion & The Belmonts
Between 1958 and 1960, this group from the Bronx gave us a string of unforgettable performances, starting with the doo-wop anthem “I Wonder Why.” The revival of the 1937 smash “Where Or When” was the group’s biggest, reaching No. 3, but to doo-wop afficionados, the flip, “That’s My Desire,” was just as good.
The greatest of them all? Certainly could be. At least there’s one non-debatable fact — The Drifters had more great lead singers than any group in history. First was Clyde McPhatter, then Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore. They had more hits than most groups, too.
Jersey City guys, the Duprees specialized in remakes of early classics, coming up with four gems in “You Belong To Me,” a 1952 hit for Jo Stafford, “My Own True Love,” from “Gone With The Wind,” and “Why Don’t You Believe Me?” and “Have You Heard?” — both hits for Joni James in the early ’50s.
The Flamingos had just one major hit record, but the group was so good, some of its misses are classics today. The hit was the impeccable “I Only Have Eyes For You,” with the haunting background of “dobop, dobop” or whatever it is. One of the misses was the incredible “Lovers Never Say Goodbye.”
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
Frankie Lymon was just 13 when he wrote and recorded one of the all-time classic rock and roll hits, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” The Teenagers had other hits, but their legacy of doo-wop classics also includes the non-charting but heavily played “Paper Castles” and “Out In The Cold Again.”
The Heartbeats/Shep & The Limelights
Members of many groups come and go, but these two are tied tightly together by lead singer-songwriter James Sheppard. With The Heartbeats, Sheppard failed to produce anational hit, but “A Thousand Miles Away” became a doo-wop great, and almost everything that followed became a radio staple. When The Heartbeats split up, Sheppard founded Shep & The Limelites and penned a sequel to “A Thousand Miles Away.” The resulting “Daddy’s Home” rocketed to No. 2 in 1961. He couldn’t follow it up, but “Three Steps From The Altar” and “Our Anniversary” were valiant attempts.
Jay & The Americans
The group’s first single and album, “She Cried” with lead singer Jay Traynor, fit solidly into the doo-wop camp, as did follow-up single “This Is It.” But when Jay Black took over as lead, the group’s doo-wop ties lessened. In the late ’60s, the group returned to its roots with two albums firmly rooted in the doo-wop camp — “Sands Of Time” and “Wax Museum” — featuring covers of doo-wop classics, some of which became hits all over again.
Lee Andrews & The Hearts
These Philadelphians make up one of the most underrated vocal groups in Rock history. In 1957, they gave us two doowop greats, “Long Lonely Nights” and “Tear Drops.” The next year they followed with “Try The Impossible.” In Philly, “Maybe You’ll Be There,” “Just Suppose,” “Cold Gray Dawn” and “I’m Sorry Pillow” were other great ballads in heavy rotation, while the uptempo “Glad To Be Here” and “The Clock,” the flip of “Long Lonely Nights,” also were Philly favorites.
Little Anthony & The Imperials
The greatest opening line in rock and roll? “You don’t remember me … But I remember you.” What makes it so great? I haven’t a clue. It just grabbed me when I was a kid and hasn’t let go. “Tears On My Pillow” went to No. 4, but in doo-wop circles, the flip, “Two People In The World,” is almost as important. Other doo-wop giants followed: “So Much,” “When You Wish Upon A Star” and “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop.” After a four-year lull, the group returned with another doo-wop gem, “I’m On The Outside (Looking In),” setting the stage for a monstrous comeback featuring “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” “Hurt So Bad” and “Take Me Back.”
Most Motown groups sounded like, well, Motown. But The Miracles, particularly their early releases, fit into doo-wop right down to the primitive, garage-like sound of the recordings. Even the group’s initial effort, “Got A Job,” was a direct response to The Silhouettes’ doo-wop standard “Get A Job.” “Bad Girl,” “Shop Around,” “I’ve Been Good To You,” “I’ll Try Something New,” “Way Over There” and “Depend On Me” all permeated doo-wop radio playlists before the group evolved into a giant hit machine.
Baltimore’s Orioles (no pun intended) generally are considered the first of the doo-wop vocal groups, and, as such, obviously stand as one of the genre’s greats. Led by the velvety-voiced Sonny Til, their group’s first effort, “It’s Too Soon To Know” topped the R&B charts and hit No. 13 on the national charts in 1948 — long before the start of rock and roll but when the foundation of doo-wop was taking shape. The Orioles became major stars and Til was a genuine heartthrob, but, despite prolific recording, there were no more hits until 1953, when “Crying In The Chapel” topped the R&B charts and hit No. 11 on the national charts.
I’m 9 years old in a giant arcade on the Wildwood Boardwalk. I’m surrounded by pinball machines and skeeball ramps, and this Wurlitzer is blasting “Only You,” “The Great Pretender” and “My Prayer.” If you’ve never been there, done that … that spells “doo-wop!” With seven top 10 records, with four that hit No. 1, and one of the great lead voices in rock history in Tony Williams. What else need be said?
What this group might have done if tragedy hadn’t struck? “Silhouettes” was maybe the greatest record ever, and I loved it so much I ran to the record store and bought it on the pale blue XYZ label before Cameo even grabbed it. And the flip, “Daddy Cool,” wasn’t chopped liver, either.
The greatest female vocal group in the history of rock and roll, bar none. From 1958 until 1963, almost every side the group released became a doo-wop treasure. My favorite? “Blue Holiday,” the flip of “Mama Said.”
When I was in high school, the “gang” I was in was named The Skyliners. It wasn’t a gang like you think of today, just a group of guys who played ball, drank beer and sang doo-wop together. Why the Skyliners? Because they were so damn great.
I had this album by The Spaniels when I was a kid. Collectors will know it. It’s the one with the five dogs at the bottom of the cover and “The Spaniels” across the top. I bought it because the lead cut, “I Know,” bowled me over. But it also contained “Stormy Weather,” and almost every cut was an out-and-out gem. I wore it out.
Phill’s Honorable Mention
Now I’m going to cheat a little. With so many groups and so many memories, here are some of my favorites:
• “Sh-Boom” by The Chords (incredible vocal);
• “Little Girl Of Mine” (diddalidda lidda liddalit) and “Heart & Soul” by The Cleftones (yeah);
• “Stay” (make that 45 stay a little bit longer) by Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs
• “Buzz Buzz Buzz” by The Hollywood Flames (great great great);
• “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by The Edsels (more cowbell!);
• “Blue Moon” by The Marcels;
• “I Do” by The Marvelows (doo-wop smack dab in the middle of the British Invasion, and great drums);
• “Stranded In The Jungle” by The Cadets (Great googly moogly, lemme outta here);
• “Over And Over” by Bobby Day (including the last verse, which the Dave Clark Five missed);
• “Sorry (I Ran All The Way Home)” by The Impalas (Uh oh, whack that snare);
• “At My Front Door” by The El Dorados (wop wop doodly wop — wop wop);
“There’s A Moon Out Tonight” by The Capris (moon out tonight, moon out tonight, moon out tonight) and “Morse Code Of Love” (ditdotditit);
• “Hushabye” by The Mystics (thanks Doc);
• “Tonight I Fell In Love” by The Tokens (long before the lion, there was dumdoobiedum whoa oh).
• “Zoom Zoom Zoom” by The Collegians (kids stompin’ so hard, you’d swear the floor was gonna give);
• “Trickle Trickle” by The Videos (years before there were videos);
• “Who’s That Knocking” by The Genies (boom boom boom bang bang bang);
• “Tonite, Tonite” by The Mello-Kings (the perfect grind song);
• “My True Story” and “What Time Is It” by The Jive Five (better hurry up and put my tie on);
• “Book Of Love” by The Monotones (yeah);
• “Peanuts” by Little Joe and The Thrillers (left me shell shocked … sorry);
• “Imagination” by The Quotations (gimmeimamamagination);
• “Just To Be With You” by The Passions;
• “Could This Be Magic?” and
“Don’t Ask Me (To Be Lonely)” by The Dubs;
• “Remember Then” by The Earls.