To most people who remember doo-wop classics like the Spaniels' "Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite" or the Dells' "Oh What a Nite," the sound is unmistakably of the past, a catalyst more for nostalgia than for the appreciation of artistic achievement. But to fanatics like writer Robert Pruter such crucial roots of rock 'n' roll represent both great art and an important slice of urban American history. In his recently published book Doowop: The Chicago Scene (University of Illinois Press), Pruter paints a meticulous portrait of the music's vital role in the city's black social fabric. He writes that street-corner doo-wop groups were the gangs of the 50s. Ularsee Manor of the Five Buddies, a group from Ida B. Wells, described it to Pruter this way: "[It] was our street and anybody who came into our territory, they couldn't pass through unless they sang. From one territory to the next there would be singouts. Instead of fighting to get through, you had to sing."
Raised in and around Chicago, Pruter, 52, got hooked on rock 'n' roll as a teenager in the mid-50s, listening to the new sounds on WLS. But during his college years in the early 60s he gravitated toward the more provocative sounds of rhythm and blues on WVON. A weekly oldies program hosted by legendary DJ Herb Kent clued him in to the music of the previous decade that he'd missed listening to WLS: doo-wop. Pruter was obsessed with black music by the time the formative rock press--magazines like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy--began publishing. "The way those magazines treated rhythm and blues really struck me," he says.
"R & B existed to them only if it crossed over [to a white audience]. I was getting tired of reading in Rolling Stone that there were only two forms of R & B; there was Motown and there was Stax, and nothing else existed. The idea germinated in my mind that eventually I would write a book about these artists that were never discussed by the mainstream press and weren't even recognized in their hometown of Chicago."
After earning his BA and MA in history from Roosevelt University, Pruter began writing about Chicago R & B for a variety of record collecting fanzines, including Goldmine, with the idea that he would collect these articles to form his book. "I was a combination journalist and detective," says Pruter, who later became Goldmine's R & B editor (and contributed occasionally to the Reader). "I had to find all of these people and dig up facts."
Indeed, exhaustive research marks both Pruter's first book, Chicago Soul (1992), and the new one, which is loaded with details about well-known groups like the Flamingos, the Moonglows, and the El Dorados. Readers learn, for example, that in 1958 Moonglows leader Harvey Fuqua replaced the other members of his group with a combo from Washington, D.C., that included a very young Marvin Gaye; that soul great Johnnie Taylor sang with the Five Echoes; and that local blues mainstay Cicero Blake began his career singing doo-wop with the Kool Gents back in 1952. But Pruter also reports on dozens of neighborhood groups, like the Quintones, the Five Chimes, and the Von Gayles, some of which never released a record. "I now realize that I wrote these books to document something that's part of the history of Chicago, part of the history and cultural heritage of African-American people," says Pruter. "And I'm glad I got it down, because nobody else would have."
The book isn't for everyone. The barrage of discographical information will turn off the casual music fan. "I'll be the first to admit that my writing style is very dry," Pruter says. Rabid fans of early rock 'n' roll will eat it up, though, and the book's sociological merit is hard to overstate. With vivid, almost obsessive detail Pruter describes the south side's thriving club scene, the way street-corner groups functioned within neighborhoods, and how black doo-wop groups were almost systematically screwed over by predominantly white-run record labels, which routinely took songwriting credit, denying artists the sometimes lucrative royalties.
While most of Pruter's interview subjects were enthusiastic about participating, some were understandably skeptical--usually those still bitter about being burned by their labels. "They felt that I wanted something from them to profit from," says Pruter. "It's hard to explain that writing for a university press is not a money-making scheme; when you say 'book' people sometimes think you're another Danielle Steel."
Not to be confused with the post-Grateful Dead Furthur Festival that comes to the New World Music Theatre on June 30, Even Furthur is a three-day outdoor rave that will be held in rural Wisconsin this weekend. Organized in part by Chicagoan and dance-music writer David J. Prince--who's moving to Los Angeles to chronicle Timothy Leary's impending expiration for a book called Design for Dying--the annual event will include techno, ambient, house, and drum and bass DJs from all over the country and, in the case of the terrific Mixmaster Morris, from England. There'll also be psychedelic light shows, some rock bands--such as Poi Energy Inc. and Low--and plenty of Herbal Ecstacy. Call 509-6334 for information and directions or hook up with the Web site at http://taz.hyperreal.com/raves/mw/mwravescalendar.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.