The Fabulous ’50s: A doo-wop duel —Six Teens vs. Cleftones

By  Hank Davis

SixTeensBIG.jpg
The Six Teens
A Casual Look
Ace (UK import) CD CHD 842
www.acerecords.co.uk

The Cleftones
Heart and Soul
Collectables CD 9914
www.oldies.com

It may be true that nothing is new under the sun, but you can make a pretty convincing case that two unique musical forms — rockabilly and doo-wop — were born during the Fabulous ‘50s. This column is about the latter.

For all intents and purposes, doo-wop — like rockabilly — was both born and buried during the 1950s. It may have lingered on in slightly different forms and spawned some belated post-‘50s hits, like Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” (1962), “Blue Moon” (The Marcels, 1961) and “Stay” (Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs, 1960) but, truth be told, the purest, most iconic form of doo-wop music reared its lovely head during the ’50s.

Doo-wop conveys images of four unaccompanied voices blending together on a street corner somewhere in America. While it is true that doo-wop was essentially an urban form of music (just as rockabilly was essentially rural), it is false that street corners were the best place to practice and perform. There is a really simple reason for that: acoustics. Those four unaccompanied voices needed to seek shelter in the hallways of buildings or on subway platforms. They thrived in the natural reverberation provided by four walls and a ceiling.

When I was a kid, we had two or three singing groups in my high school. Membership was a fluid thing, often determined by who was available at the moment. If someone had a study hall, he was ready to sing first tenor at the drop of a hat. Often, we arranged to meet in the boy’s room. At exactly 11:15, four of us would experience a simultaneous urge to use the toilet and leave our respective history, English or science classes. Tiled bathrooms were wonderful places to practice. Swooping harmonies literally bounced off the walls, giving the group a satisfying fullness it could not achieve in the schoolyard or other open-air venues.

A lot more doo-wop was happening on the East Coast than out West. Indeed, New York (Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx) seemed to be the capital of street-corner harmony, with satellite locations in New Jersey and Philly. Nevertheless, there was plenty of California doo-wop (mostly in Los Angeles), and there are probably several scholarly works on the subtle differences in West Coast vs. East Coast styles. Even though New York eventually became the doo-wop capital, it was not the source of the genre’s biggest earliest hits. In 1954, South Central L.A. gave rise to what might still be the iconic doo-wop record: “Earth Angel” by the Penguins. Barely two years later, another non-New York group (from New Haven, Conn.) called the Five Satins hit the national charts with “In The Still Of The Night.” Even The Platters, doo-wop’s major-label success story, were born in Los Angeles. So there we shall start.

The adjective you see time and time again to describe The Six Teens, a one-hit-wonder group from Los Angeles, is “innocent.” It’s not like they had a choice. In fact, lead singer Trudy Williams was barely 13 when the group’s first release and biggest hit, “A Casual Look,” was released in 1956. With six voices to employ, there were plenty of opportunities for harmony. But the song really belongs to Williams, as she tells the happily-ever-after tale of an underage marriage.

In a refreshing turn of events, the singer had to marry the boy, not because she was pregnant or otherwise desperate, but because she loved him, and he was leaving for the army.
“Darling, can’t you see/That I’m going overseas/For two, three, four years/Don’t know how long it will be.”

And so, little Miz Williams walks down the aisle with him, a “vision of happiness.” Students of early West Coast doo-wop will note that the phrase “vision of happiness” also turns up in the release to the Penguins’ “Earth Angel.”

Innocent, indeed. And also a damn fine record, tightly constructed and performed, with just a hint of military authority in the drumming. This CD reissue on England’s Ace Records collects all 25 sides (13 singles) released by the group on the Flip label (not to be confused with the Sun subsidiary, Flip). The accompanying booklet by Gordon Skadberg tells the group’s story with economy and provides a detailed look at each song. It’s hard to ask for more.

I never owned the 45 of “A Casual Look” and probably never heard any of the 12 subsequent records, so there were some pleasant surprises in store for me. For one thing, the original flip side, “Teenage Promise,” is a strong record in its own right and might have been an apt follow-up to “Casual Look” had it not been wasted on the B-side. “Only Jim,” another “my guy’s gone off to defend our country” song was also above average, although it failed to chart later in 1956 as the second follow-up to “Casual Look.” “Baby You’re Dynamite” took the group in a slightly different direction to fine effect, but again went nowhere commercially. “Oh It’s Crazy” is perhaps the most traditional doo-wop approach on this CD collection and offers a fine arrangement and performance. The side has a deservedly good reputation among doo-wop collectors. It is on this side (from 1958) that the lead singer first starts to exude a maturity that carried forth into her subsequent career. In fact, this collection of 25 tracks reflects the large changes in the sound and style of American popular music over a very short time (1956-1960). It’s almost like a crash course in early pop culture. The first track features straight ahead group harmony with small combo support. Before it’s over, the lead singers have really become soloists with incidental group vocal support. Sadly, violins are creeping into the arrangements. The times, they were a’ changin’.

Moving from The Six Teens to The Cleftones is a study in contrasts. The time periods are virtually identical — the Cleftones beat the Six Teens to the charts by a few months in 1956. Admittedly, 3,000 miles separated the groups, studio musicians and record companies, but perhaps the biggest difference was the age of the singers. The Cleftones may still technically have been teenagers when they began recording, but there’s a big difference between being 14 and 18. The CD compilation we’re looking at in this review is strictly an entry-level budget affair, but it’s all you need in some ways. If you become more interested in the group and want an additional dozen tracks and some liner notes and discography, there are plenty of other releases to satisfy you; in fact, you can find them listed on the same www.oldies.com Web site that got you to this disc.

The Cleftones were formed at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y. The group featured lead singer Herb Cox and a very imaginative bass singer named Warren Corbin. The group’s first two records both reached the middle of the national charts in 1956, but the Cleftones had their biggest success with “Heart and Soul” five years later in 1961. That five-year gap is deceptive.
Growing up in New York, the picture looked very different. The group’s first record, “You Baby You” — the very first release on the Gee label — was a modest hit. In many ways, it was a warm-up for what would follow. The song was up tempo and worked the 1-6 minor-4-5 chord progression. There’s a honking sax break, but surprisingly, an electric guitar (thought to be played by session man Kenny Burrell) is featured prominently in the arrangement. In fact, the entire record is something of an extended guitar solo with lots of vocal harmony swirling around. The vocals are tight, but the whole session has a spontaneous feel and is almost certainly a head arrangement. These were the days when it took three hours to cut four sides. In this case, there would have been time to spare.
The Cleftones’ next record, “Little Girl Of Mine,” was an absolute monster. Arguably, it’s their best record by far and an iconic piece of rhythmic New York doo-wop. Probably nobody was ready for the success of “Little Girl Of Mine.” In retrospect, they should have been. Everything went right on this recording, and it’s still hard to sit quietly when it plays some 50 years later. There are enough hooks to anchor this song in your head before the first English sentence is sung. That “diddle little little little lit” and the answering “Yeah” must have been spoken in some previously unknown teenage tongue, because it seems that half my high school was repeating it the next day. Did the Cleftones know what they were unleashing on teen culture with this record? It’s not just the vocals that stand out. The rhythm section (bass and drums) is very dominant, and the sax break is one of those wordless honking sermons that fits perfectly.
You don’t want to analyze this whole thing to death, but it just might be the bass singer who elevates the record to the level of greatness. Those “Yeahs” are just off-mike enough to be funny. It almost sounds like we’re overhearing half a conversation bleeding through from the control room. “Yeaaahhh.” “Yeeeaaahhh.”

During the 1950s, the Cleftones’ best records were backed by small combos, often lead by sax-man Jimmy Wright. Wright barely could keep up with the session work during the heyday of independent New York label recording. His honking solo on “Can’t We Be Sweethearts,” the group’s third release, tells you just about everything you need to know about the time and place. Sixteen bars, and Wright barely gets off the tonic note. Plainly, he’s making his point with rhythm and phrasing, not melody. The song is once again a standard 1-6 minor-4-5 and is far from a lyrical masterpiece. But it works like a charm. I remember the song being a huge hit with radio play to match, but according to Joel Whitburn’s Billboard book, it never charted nationally. The Cleftones’ fourth record, “String Around My Heart,” was a moderate hit in New York but is not included here.

This is only a 10-track CD, and you can usually pick it up for under $5. Are 10 tracks enough? For my taste, four would have been. In fact, you could leave off the 1961 track “Heart and Soul”  (a prime example of post-vintage doo-wop), and I’d still be mighty happy. Along with the three songs I knew and loved, there was one major discovery waiting for me. Track 6 is called “Why Do You Do Me Like You Do.” The title was unfamiliar, but when I listened, I remembered every word and vocal inflection and drum accent. I knew this record by heart, yet I had no idea that this song, long buried in my memory, was even by The Cleftones. A little research revealed that the track, now one of my favorites, was released in 1957 on Gee 1031. Did I own the record when I was a kid? I doubt it, but at what point, then, did I learn it note for note? It kind of makes me wonder whether there are some more undiscovered treasures among the obscure or unissued tracks and B-sides by the Cleftones. For now, I’m happy with what I have here. The way I figure it, between this newly re-discovered song and “Little Girl Of Mine,” which I still can’t get out of my head after 50 years, I’ve given a lot of power to this group of kids from Queens.

Contact Hank Davis via e-mail at hdavis@uoguelph.ca

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