The Fabulous ’50s: Are you ready to go steady with The Pearls

By  Hank Davis

The Pearls also were known as The Fabulous Pearls, The Five Pearls and Howie & The Sapphires, according to Music Nostalgia, which issued a collectible card about the group. Photo: Music Nostalgia.

The Pearls also were known as The Fabulous Pearls, The Five Pearls and Howie & The Sapphires, according to Music Nostalgia, which issued a collectible card about the group. Photo: Music Nostalgia.
I know there are Web sites devoted to misheard song lyrics, but while we’re all together here, let me tell you about one particular case that’s been bugging me for most of my adult life. It involves the words to my favorite record by a 1950s vocal group called The Pearls. I’ve been listening to “Let’s You And I Go Steady” since it came out in 1956, and, in some ways, I’m no closer to getting it right today than I was as a teenager.

Before we dig into this mystery, here’s a brief bio of the group. Led by Howard Guyton, The Pearls originated in Detroit. The group also contained David Clowney, later known to ’50s collectors as Dave “Baby” Cortez for his instrumental hit, “The Happy Organ.” The Pearls also featured Derek Martin, Coley Washington and Geo Torrence. Their first record (“Please Let Me Know”) appeared on Aladdin 3265 in 1954 (as by The Five Pearls) and was followed a year later by another effective outing, “Shadows Of Love.” In 1956 and ’57 the Pearls recorded for the New York-based Onyx label, the source of “Let’s You and I Go Steady” as well as the impressive “Your Cheating Heart” / “I Sure Need You” (Onyx 510).

These first two releases on Onyx bore the unmistakable mark of arranger Sammy Lowe (who received label credit). Unlike much competing doo-wop product of the time, these sides really sounded  “arranged.” They were tight productions that left little to chance. Lowe had already spent 20 years arranging for band leader Erskine Hawkins and went on to an illustrious career in pop and R&B, arranging sides by James Brown, Sam Cooke and The Tokens, to name a few. Later singles by The Pearls appeared on Atco, Amber, On The Square and Okeh. According to Andrew Hamilton in the All Music Guide, the Pearls “…were ladies’ men with conked/processed hair, bow ties, and immaculate matching threads (that) made them quite an eyeful to the chicks.”

Back to the lyrics of “Let’s You and I Go Steady.” I’ve played the song for friends of a similar age and also for kids who did not grow up hearing it. It doesn’t seem to matter who the listener is: Nobody gets it. Or at least all of it. Some parts — like the first line of the last verse — are simply unintelligible. Others — like the entire first verse — are finally getting through to some of us and can now be recognized as part of the English language.

What makes the mystery doubly frustrating is the fact that Howard Guyton’s lead vocal sounds as if it ought to be intelligible. His voice is reedlike in its clarity. In fact, I can’t think of another doo-wop lead singer who enunciates more precisely than Guyton. Just listen to him on the group’s version of “Tree In The Meadow” (Onyx 506.) The effect is almost comically clear. Yet none of us can figure out what the hell he’s saying on “Let’s You and I Go Steady.” Worse yet, Guyton seems to have studied at the Lou Monte school of Italo-English. Guyton adds syllables (usually “uhs”) both before and after words almost randomly. They extend lines and change the quality of otherwise recognizable words. However, unless I miss my bet, Howie Guyton was not a first-generation Italian immigrant.

We’re going to try to figure this thing out together. Let me start by telling you how I’ve heard this since I was a kid. I don’t pretend this is correct. In fact, I know it can’t be. But at least we can start on the same page, so to speak.

Let’s You and I Go Steady
Like my sister the Betty, my home
Let’s get better’d
We’re gonna have some fun tonight.

Let’s go and see a movie, Pearl
And make up and prove in my heart
I full of love and I want to give it out to you.

I want to kiss, a hug, a hold you tight
Because you are my heart’s delight
I want to tease, a squeeze a please you, babe
Without you what would I do?

You’re a piece of deathly defy in my heart (huh?)
I have but one desire that’s love
And be near you babe
Because I love you, love, love you so much.

Obviously, that borders on gibberish in several places. So here are a few improvements that stem from a lot of years and a lot of ears. The results are still incomplete, and some of the corrected lyrics have been pieced together by logic alone. If you approach it differently and try to transcribe what you actually hear Guyton singing, you’ll probably come up with a completely different version. For example, look at the second line: He must be saying  “Like my sister Betty, come on.” But the record sounds for all the world like he’s singing “Like my sister the Betty, my hommme.”

And what goes on at the start of the second verse? “Let’s go and see a movie Pearl.” Is Pearl his girlfriend? Was the group named after her? Is he inviting her out to the movies? I’ve now concluded that Guyton is singing “Girl,” not Pearl, using a very rolling “rrrrrr.” But what on earth is that next line all about? For years I had it as, “And make up and prove in my heart.” That’s plainly wrong, but what is the alternative? Recently I thought Guyton might be singing “make a big groove in my heart.” That’s not a bad line, but what does it mean? Are grooves like notches on a gun? Slowly, I realized that wasn’t right either. The truth seems to actually be much simpler. How’s this for a couplet: “Let’s go and see a movie / And make everything groovy.” The “girl” just gets tagged onto the first line to space it out a bit. Likewise, the second line is expanded by borrowing “My heart” from the start of the next line. To put it mildly, Guyton takes some major liberties with phrasing as well as pronunciation. Can you imagine if Abe Lincoln had gone to the same school of diction as Howie Guyton?

Four score and-uh
Seven years ago our

The nation would still be wondering what Honest Abe was talking about.

And in case you were wondering, this song may have pioneered the use of “movie/groovy” as a rhyme in a rock ’n’ roll song. Remember, this is 1956, a good nine or 10 years before everything was groovy. Then again, as is often the case, the word “groovy” probably had currency in black culture before it hit the white mainstream.

But these are small mysteries compared to the first line of the last verse. No one I’ve spoken to in Doo-Wop Land can unravel those phonemes. When I mentioned the mystery to collector/historian Donn Fileti, he just laughed. It’s quite a common response. Many of us can sing the line phonetically, but none of our versions make sense in English. After purring the opening word “You’re,”  Guyton  seems to say “a piece (or a face) of deathly defy (or devil desire) in my heart.” Or maybe it’s “devily fire in my heart.” Both seem unlikely. Doo-wop researcher Marv Goldberg, who seems to have an easier time with these lyrics than anyone I’ve met, sheds possible new light on the lines. Marv hears, “Your kiss is just like fire,” and he may be right. But even if he’s unravelled this one, I think Marv is off-target on Verse # 2, which he swears begins with the lines “Let’s go and see a movie/Cuddle and make things groovy.”

What makes this lyrical scavenger hunt even more exasperating is the fact that on many other lines, Guyton’s singing is clear as a bell. It’s almost as if he’s included one line of gibberish per verse just to drive us kids crazy, a condition that would remain with us well into adulthood and middle age.

So what are we going to do? Even if we could track down one of the original group members, there’s no guarantee he would remember these lyrics. I’ve drawn my share of blanks interviewing singers about their songs recorded a half century earlier. Although we seem fixated on those historic performances, many of the original artists aren’t. They seem to have the audacity to grow up and move on!

Short of interviewing an original member of The Pearls and hoping for total recall, we have two choices. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, Guyton is deceased and fellow Pearl, Derek Martin was last seen living in France). One choice is to visit the Library of Congress and spend an afternoon in the sub-basement hoping that documentation was filed in support of the song’s original copyright. The other option is to ask a lot of doo-wop collectors what they heard. The problem with that approach, of course, is that we risk agreeing on something that isn’t even close to what The Pearls originally sang. Consensual validity, it’s called. It’s a poor substitute for the truth.

Here is the final “enlightened” or adult translation of the song’s lyrics. It’s far from complete and is still speculative in places. Corrections and suggestions are welcome. Maybe by working together we can unravel this mystery while there’s still someone around who cares.

Let’s You and I Go Steady
Like my sister Betty
Come on, let’s get ready
We’re gonna have some fun tonight.

Let’s go and see a movie, girl
And make everything groovy
My heart’s a-full of love
And I want to give it all to you.

I want to kiss, a-hug, a-hold you tight
Because you are my heart’s delight
I want to tease, a-squeeze a-please you, babe
Without you what would I do?

Your kiss is just like fire
And my heart has but one desire
Just to love and be near you babe
Because I love you, love you, love you so much.

     
Fortunately for us, just about everything The Pearls ever recorded is available on CD. The most complete version (22 tracks) appears as Here Come The Pearls on Onyx 2003, an import disc released about 10 years ago. A search of the web will locate a number of suppliers.

A second CD (on Empire Musicwerks) features 10 tracks by The Pearls and 10 by The Velours, their label mates on Onyx. This CD is available from www.oldies.com, a Web site that should be on speed-dial for fans of ’50s music.

“Let’s You And I Go Steady” has also been anthologized on several doo-wop collections from the era. But having sampled Howie Guyton’s lead vocals, you may want to dig more deeply into The Pearls’ impressive and tightly arranged body of work. Both of these CDs will provide much listening pleasure.

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