By Hank Davis
Nonsense. If you lived in the New York area (including Jersey and Connecticut) in 1956, you know differently. The Channels’ record was a smash. It was played to death by DJ Alan Freed and was essential fare for the burgeoning doo-wop market. Bobby Robinson, owner of Whirlin’ Disc Records, made a tidy bundle on it, and five kids from a Harlem street-corner group originally called the Lotharios (Earl Lewis, Clifton Wright, Edward Dolphin, Billy Morris and Larry Hampden) became overnight celebrities. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, they went on to record for Gone, Fury (another Bobby Robinson label), Port, Hit, Enjoy and Groove. In later years, the group parlayed its fame into becoming fixtures on the oldies/doo-wop circuit. Group members came and went, but The Channels never had another hit like “The Closer You Are.”
You might think there wasn’t that much room for a doo-wop group to distinguish itself. I mean, seriously, just think about the genre. Four or five voices singing in harmony. The songs, especially the originals, were not complex music by any means. Many were ballads; classic doo-wop is largely slow and sexy. The up tempo stuff usually came close to jump blues and was relegated to flipsides for good reason. The ballads typically were constructed around simple 1–6 minor – 4–5 chord sequences (for example: C–A minor – F–G) that didn’t allow a lot of room to be distinctive. Familiar and repetitive, yes. Just listen to “Earth Angel.” But distinctive? Far less often.
Instrumentation? Doo-wop records typically don’t involve much of it. They didn’t need it. Doo-wop was basically street-corner music. Arguably, it began that way and thrived when performed a cappella. Just throw in a touch of echo — the kind you’d get in the boy’s room at school or on a subway platform — and you’ve got all you need. When you took it into the studio, anything beyond a piano, bass and drums was gilding the lily. Perhaps throw in a tenor sax for that instrumental break, especially on the up tempo numbers. But basically, doo-wop records are built around four chords and three instruments.
That’s exactly what the owner of a fledgling, under-financed record company wanted to hear. Low production costs. Original material. Amateur singers. Four songs in three hours. A recipe for financial survival.
Which gets us back to the original question: Within those tight constraints, just how does a group or a record manage to distinguish itself? There’s not a lot of latitude here, to be sure. And, yet, The Channels managed to do it with their first release, “The Closer You Are.” They pulled off the minor miracle of being totally distinctive, thus elevating the group and the song to the level of “classic.” That old Gestalt psychology principle comes to mind here: The whole is worth much more than the sum of the parts. Analyze the parts of this record, and it doesn’t look very different from what was being released at the time. But listen to it — in fact, listen to the first eight bars — and you know you’re in the presence of something truly exceptional.
I remember kids in my school talking about “The Closer You Are” the first few days after Alan Freed started playing it. To use a more modern term, the song polarized its audience. Some kids absolutely hated it. They found it off-putting, alien, and, if I remember the adjectives that flew around back then, “stupid.” The song, itself, was nothing special. I think we all knew that. The melody, what there was of it, was ordinary. The chords? Again, standard four-chord issue. The lyrics? Hardly anyone’s idea of art. The singers, themselves?
Competent. Exactly the kind of voices we had come to expect from a black New York street-corner group. But — and this is a mighty big “but” — the arrangement. That was where this record just soared into the stratosphere. Nobody sounded like that. These guys broke the rules and transformed what had every right to be ordinary into a real attention-getter. When Alan Freed spoke those words, “The Channels singing ‘The Closer You Are’ on the Whirlin’ Disc label,” you knew you were in for a ride. You could almost feel the audience shaking its head in amazement when the record started to play.
Within a week, I heard two or three impromptu quartets singing in the bathroom of my school, all trying to sound like The Channels. Some were singing “The Closer You Are.” Others were singing different popular songs, trying to take them for a Channels-like ride. Mostly, that ride consisted of a dominant bass singer who had somehow become a lead singer, pushing his riffing wordless bass-lines right to the front.
Whose idea was that? Did someone in the group hear it that way and suggest it to label-owner Bobby Robinson? Or did Robinson, in a blaze of inspiration, pull the bass singer out of his usual supporting role and take him to the top of the mix? Whatever its origins, The Channels’ record did its doo-wop business differently than other groups, and they enjoyed success for their efforts.
When it came time to issue a follow-up, Bobby Robinson was pretty clearly stuck with a formula. He would have been mad to take the group into an entirely different — and probably ordinary — realm. But how closely could he stick with what we had already heard?
Undoubtedly, there were fans who simply expected The Channels to sing “The Closer You Are — Part 2.” It could have been anything. “The — uhh… Nose On Your Face ” or “The — uhh Cat In Your Ear.” It all would have sounded good. What we got was “The Gleam In Your Eye.” It wasn’t an exact clone, although it contained the same four-syllable phrase. Gleam in your eye. Clo-ser you are. At least we had that much. And we also had the falsetto that had distinguished the first record, although, now, the falsetto wasn’t wordless; he was singing the title phrase!
Instead of telling you where these guys went to high school or that the tenor lived in the projects on 117th Street, let’s examine their first record in detail. The truth is that “The Closer You Are” is still a shocking record. It is definitely not for the faint of heart. To those unfamiliar with it, the record offers an unbridled sense of chaos. It is almost a raw, unmixed parody of 1950s doo-wop. There’s a lead vocal — actually a duet in this case. There’s a falsetto singer (Earl Lewis, who now receives top billing when the group performs) wordlessly roaming free above the lead vocal(s), and there’s a bass singer. He’s performing in a style sometimes referred to as a “power bass” or “fool bass.” It’s a well-traveled technique, present on any number of doo-wop records, including hits by the Teenagers, Silhouettes, Spaniels, Pearls and Marcels, to name a few. Even Dion & The Belmonts’ first record “I Wonder Why” used the technique.
So why all the fuss? What’s so unusual? The answer, as we previously suggested, lies in the arrangement. Or perhaps a better description is: the balance. Normally the lead is the lead — he’s mixed up front. Everything else is secondary to it. You want a soaring falsetto? That’s fine. It can soar wordlessly all it wants; just keep it in the background. You want a bass? Of course you do. Just make sure you mix him well to the rear. He’s a background singer, after all.
But not here he isn’t. In fact, there are no background singers. Everyone is mixed up front. Either this was recorded by a lazy or inexperienced engineer who just set equal levels on all the voices and let it happen, or it was the work of a very assertive and risk-taking producer. The bottom line is that everyone on this recording is a lead singer. They’re all up front, right in your face, just wailing away. “The Closer You Are” is either a big amateurish mess, or one of the most inventive doo-wop records to come out of a New York studio in 1956.
A half a century later, it hardly matters. The record has become a classic. And, much as we love The Channels, it’s unfair to give them all the credit. In the hands of a more conventional mix, this might have been a pretty ordinary doo-wop record. Just look at some of the details. On the second verse, (“My heart skips a beat ”) Lewis’ falsetto really cuts loose. If there was any restraint in his performance during the first verse, it is all but gone here. When you get to the release, the bass part is so dominant that his wordless noises actually stick in your head as part of the lyric. (“When I first saw you BONG / I did adore you BONG”). It takes some effort to even hear the lyric over the booming bass part. (“And then you went away / But now you BOOMA BOOMA BOOMA”) What comes next? The leads are singing — actually reciting on the same note “My love for you grows stronger every… ” except it’s hard to hear what they say next for the WEY-EL WEY-EL WEY-EL of the bass. It’s sheer chaos. And absolutely magic in its effect.
The Channels might not have been surprised when they heard the playback in the studio. Under the primitive recording conditions available half a century ago, the unbalanced, poorly separated parts in the studio would have sounded very much like the finished product. It was the job of the engineer to isolate (as much as possible) and balance the various vocal parts and instrumental work into something conventional. Remember, this is before the days of multitrack recording. Balancing had to be done before the fact. There was no tinkering with that mono mix once it was set onto tape. To the eternal gratitude of doo-wop fans everywhere, the engineer never achieved that balance. And the results continue to delight us half a century later.
Collectables Records (www.oldies.com) has issued a Channels CD (CL 5012) featuring both sides of their six releases for Bobby Robinson, along with two strikingly different alternate takes. It’s everything you need, really. Tracks like “My Heart Is Sad” come close to recapturing that magic but fall short. “Now You Know” shows that The Channels were listening to The Cleftones’ big hit “Little Girl of Mine.” On “What Do You Do,” we hear Lewis’ soaring falsetto and Mickey Baker’s stylish guitar fills, but the results still don’t measure up to the high standard set on their first release. “Bye Bye Baby” is an interesting up tempo showcase for the group’s harmony and Lewis’ falsetto. Curiously, this time around, it is the electric bass, rather than a human bass voice, that is mixed to the fore.
Collectively, these 14 tracks support the conclusions we’ve reached in this article. Without that special, highly unusual mix achieved on “The Closer You Are,” the group produced pretty ordinary fare. It was never less than competent, but it also never equalled the power of their first record.