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Various Artists

The Doo Wop Box II

(Rhino)

Crew-Cuts

The Best of the Crew-Cuts

Diamonds

The Best of the Diamonds

Del-Vikings

The Best of the Del-Vikings

Penguins

The Best of the Penguins

Danleers

The Best of the Danleers

(Mercury/Chronicles)

By Peter Margasak

In thumbnail sketches of the history of rock 'n' roll, doo-wop is typically given short shrift. There's no good reason for the ongoing omission, but there do seem to be several bad ones: most of the early doo-wop artists were black, and while black R & B acts are usually credited with providing the foundations of rock 'n' roll, aside from Little Richard and Chuck Berry virtually none are ever presented alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Most of the great black stars were systematically excluded from the playlists of larger, white radio stations and so never really had a chance to cross over, and in the subsequent 40 years little has been done to redress this lack of recognition.

Doo-wop's other problem could be called "the Bowser syndrome." While the blame can't be thrust entirely upon Sha Na Na (who, let no one forget, got to play Woodstock), those pasty greasers symbolize doo-wop's perennial classification as nostalgia, its reduction to leather jackets, slicked-back coifs, and beer bellies. It's hard to think of music as timeless when the images it conjures are of Richie and the Fonz at the hop.

But beyond the handful of doo-wop ditties everyone knows--"Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "At the Hop"--lies a rich, rarely explored body of music that's alternately gorgeous, creative, purely entertaining, and brazenly sexual. Only a handful of these groups made significant contributions--i.e., more than a couple of hit songs--to the rock 'n' roll corpus, but hundreds of them cut superb singles. (There were actually thousands of different groups in the 50s, and although many made records, most were fairly mediocre).

Collectors have been responsible for a spate of obsessive reissues on obscure independent labels over the years, but recently a variety of less comprehensive compilations have surfaced on major labels, allowing the nonmaniacal listener a more reasonable entrance into doo-wop. The most essential release remains Rhino's The Doo Wop Box (1993), a terrific four-CD set with thorough, informative liner notes and 101 tunes that cover remarkable ground. It contains most of doo-wop's biggest hits and finest moments. The set's sequel, The Doo Wop Box II, as well as five best-of collections from groups that recorded for the Mercury label, have been released recently. They contain yet more superb, overlooked rock 'n' roll, but they also prove that most doo-wop groups rarely came up with more than a few gems.

A cursory glance at this country's pop singles charts quickly reveals that one-hit wonders are a dime a dozen, and so too with doo-wop. But a great song is a great song, even if it was somebody's only song. I can't argue for doo-wop's importance on the basis of the career longevity of its artists, but as a body of singles it's hard to beat, which is exactly why the Rhino compilations tend to succeed and the Mercury best-ofs don't.

Doo-wop remains a rather nebulously defined style, but it's almost always the product of a vocal group with a soaring lead and backing harmonies that consist of wordless but highly rhythmic sounds. Vocal groups have been a crucial element in black music in America--from turn-of-the-century acts like the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet to current chart-toppers Blackstreet. The great 30s pop vocal group the Mills Brothers followed the white pop model of the time (Bing Crosby), but their inventive use of the voice, such as the way they mimicked particular instruments, was a clear inspiration for doo-wop; they were just singing ofay tunes instead of rhythm-and-blues stompers. A cappella gospel groups like the Golden Gate Quartet went a step further, with arrangements meant to convey bluesier, more emotional music. Late-40s acts like the Orioles and the Ravens are typically considered the first doo-wop groups, although their music is marked by a finesse most popular doo-wop abandoned.

Rhino's first doo-wop box largely excluded popular doo-wop-influenced R & B groups like the Clovers and the Drifters--both of whose long-term success transcended doo-wop's limitations--as well as duo acts, but the sequel casts a much broader net. We get examples of some duo groups and even some girl groups like the Shirelles, whose music was sopped in pop. The collection covers the years 1951 through 1963, and it's inevitable that some of the less remarkable material will come off as just that: classic doo-wops like the rollicking "Zoom Zoom Zoom" by the Collegians and the Spaniels' sublime version of "Stormy Weather" are bookended by rather ordinary tunes like "Bad Girl" by the Miracles (a pre-Motown recording by Smokey Robinson's group) and "Diamonds and Pearls" by the Paradons.

While groups who forged substantial careers, like the Platters, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, the Cadillacs, and the Spaniels, are duly represented, most of the entries come from acts with only moments in the limelight. Most people haven't heard of the Chips, for example, but their "Rubber Biscuit" made a Top 40 hit for the Blues Brothers (though the original two minutes of high velocity, tongue-twisting nonsense could never be matched by those meatheads). With swaying rockers like "Smokey Joe's Cafe" by the Robins, rousing novelties like "Ling, Ting, Tong" by the Five Keys, and gentle weepers like "Island of Love" by Chicago's Sheppards, the set strengthens the case for doo-wop's range and vitality using less-than-obvious material.

The same can't be said for some of the recent Mercury retrospectives. Hard-core doo-wop fans scoff at white groups like the Diamonds and the Crew-Cuts. The latter were little more than the Pat Boone of doo-wop, scoring big mainstream hits with watered-down versions of songs by black groups--for instance, their barbershop-quartet-like emasculation of such gems as "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)," originally by the Chords, and "Chop Chop Boom," originally by Chicago's Danderliers. As was par for the course, the original groups were screwed financially, too. The Diamonds weren't so egregiously bland as the Crew-Cuts, but their biggest hit, the castanets-heavy "Little Darlin'," replaces the raw immediacy of the original by the Gladiolas with a slick silliness.

The multiracial Del-Vikings are best-known for their smash hit "Come Go With Me," but unfortunately it was recorded before they signed with Mercury, and as their best-of demonstrates, they spent a busy year or two trying and failing to re-create it. The Penguins and Danleers fared much better. The former were responsible for "Earth Angel," one of the most popular doo-wops of all time, but they recorded plenty of other songs that hold up 40 years later. From rockers like "Walkin' Down Broadway" to more trademark ballads like "Be Mine or Be a Fool," the group's punchy harmonies and silky, soulful leads easily transcend genre. The Danleers' sole hit was "One Summer Night," a beautifully languid teenage ballad, but as a should've-been like the hooky "A Picture of You" proves, the group deserved a few more.

It would be silly to suggest that doo-wop is a working form these days. But between earnest 70s revivalists and showbiz hokum a la Sha Na Na it's easy to lose sight of the fact that doo-wop has a living legacy in the evolution of both rock 'n' roll and black vocal-group styles. Remnants surface in everything from the bland pop-gospel outfit Take 6 to South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With these retrospectives now widely available, it's possible not only to enjoy doo-wop as an artifact, but also to understand the lineage between the Five Blind Boys, the Temptations, and Jodeci.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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