“Doo-wop” is a genre of rhythm and blues music that originated in the 1940s by African-American youth, mainly in the ghettos of large cities of the United States, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Detroit, and Washington, DC. It features vocal group harmony that carries an engaging melodic line to a simple beat with little or no instrumentation (“a cappella”). The pronounced gospel and R & B traits within the arrangements reflected the influences from childhood (church, social activities, etc.) which formed the core of their music education. The focus is on ensemble singing. Single artists fit only when backed by a group of background singers. Lyrics are simple, usually about love, sung by a lead vocal over background vocals of repeated nonsense syllables and often featuring, in the bridge, a melodramatically heartfelt recitative addressed to the beloved. Gaining popularity in the 1950s, doo-wop enjoyed its peak successes in the late Fifties and early 1960s.
Beginning in the 1930s, the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots were the popularizers of intricate harmonies that were the forerunner of Rock & Roll. Doo-wop was among the inheritors of that sound, with a thousand street-corner groups and a thousand one-hit wonders. The Spaniels, the Five Satins, the Vocaleers, the Drifters, the Moonglows, the Coasters and the Platters laid the foundation of doo-wop. In the 1950s, every high school stairwell in this country was loud with four-part singing. “We harmonized every night on the street corner until the neighbors would call the cops to run us away,” Frankie Lymon, lead singer of the Teenagers told Ebony magazine.
The phrase “doo-wop” itself is a nonsense expression. In The Delta Rhythm Boys’ 1945 recording, “Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin” https://youtu.be/ZXTgkJ8kEnI , it is heard in the backing vocal. It is heard later in The Clovers’ 1953 release “Good Lovin’” (Atlantic Records 1000) https://youtu.be/H_-f0eo7660, and in the chorus of Carlyle Dundee & The Dundees’ 1954 song “Never” (Space Records 201) https://youtu.be/6JAqhqkqH6g. The first record to use “doo-wop” in the refrain was The Turbans’ 1955 hit, “When You Dance” (Herald Records H-458) https://youtu.be/WWB9ZXMsMDY. The Rainbows embellished the phrase as “do wop de wadda” in their 1955 “Mary Lee” (on Red Robin Records; also a Washington, D.C. regional hit on Pilgrim 703) https://youtu.be/tHQz_T3wd6A; and, in their 1956 national hit, “In the Still of the Night,” The Five Satins (Ember Records) https://youtu.be/Mcu7O3EI7hi, sang across the bridge with a plaintive “doo-wop, doo-wah.”
Doo-wop street singers generally performed without instrumentation (“a cappella”), but made their musical style distinctive, whether using fast or slow tempos, by keeping time using a swing-like off-beat, while using the doo-wop syllables as a substitute for drums and a bass vocalist as a substitute for a bass instrument. Since doo-wop rhythms were originally provided by the snapping of fingers and clapping of hands, background beats are usually simple and heavy (with an emphasis on the second and fourth beats). Instruments such as the piano, guitars, saxes, and drums were often used to accompany the vocalists but remained very much in the background. An instrumental break usually appeared after two verses. In those rare songs without a break, such as the Charts’ “Deserie” (1958) (https://youtu.be/8lpgdt5TJNw) and the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” (1959) (https://youtu.be/FvzNeh4Mq1o), the chorus is repeated throughout the song. Nonsense syllables were derived from bop and jazz styles, traditional West African chants, a cappella street corner singing (in place of the instrumental bass line), and doo-wop-styled R&B songs during the 1950-1951 period (e.g., the Dominoes’ “Harbor Lights” (https://youtu.be/MI9Vur6Lqcg). They were commonly used in the bass and harmony parts; their use tends to be more restrained, simple, and somber when employed in ballads (“doh-doh-doh,” “doo-wah,” etc.).
Doo-wops developed during a time of Jim Crow and segregation, so black R&B performers were pushed to the side and white groups “covered” their records. Early attempts by white artists to cover R&B songs resulted in weaker renditions that bled the heart and soul out of the originals. Doo-wop groups experienced some of the same ugly hurdles faced by touring rock acts of the Fifties. Doo-wop groups had to cope with many forms of racism, even on their album covers.
Doo-wop appealed to both white and black listeners; but when the singers piled into buses to tour the South in the mid-Fifties, they were told not to order at front counters of restaurants, were taunted by angry whites, and were sometimes ordered to sing facing the walls of theaters rather to the white audiences in front of them. Many African-American doo-wop singers and rockers of the era released albums without their photos on the jackets. As Terry Johnson of the Flamingos recalls, the group’s managers were so worried that Southern listeners would accidentally discover that the combo wasn’t white that the cover of one of their albums featured a photo of actual flamingos on a lawn.
Whether it was the Flamingos or Dion and the Belmonts, most of the leading doo-wop groups were either all African-American or all white. Doo wop groups were occasionally racially integrated – The Teenagers included two Puerto Rican members, and the Del-Vikings (“Come Go with Me”) and the Crests (“16 Candles”) both had white and African-American members (the Crests had an Hispanic member as well). “Music has no color,” recalls Sammy Strain of Little Anthony and the Imperials. “It’s about the love of the music.” In light of the nationwide segregation so rampant at the time, the idea seems genuinely naïve.
Particularly productive doo-wop groups were formed by young Italian-American adolescents, who, like their black counterparts, lived in rough neighborhoods (e.g., the Bronx and Brooklyn), learned their basic musical craft singing in church, and would gain experience in the new style by singing on street corners. New York was the capital of Italian doo-wop, and all its boroughs were home to groups that made successful records. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, many Italian-American groups had national hits: Dion and the Belmonts scored with “I Wonder Why” (1958) https://youtu.be/pAPEfdjvTqE, “Teenager in Love”(1959) https://youtu.be/2pwgswchPDo and “Where or When” (1959) https://youtu.be/I0O_f3kzHrg; The Capris made their name in 1960 with “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” https://youtu.be/nVAZ5O0WXYA; and Randy & the Rainbows, who charted with their Top #10 1963 single “Denise”, https://youtu.be/K7Xy8XLKwec. Other Italian-American doo-wop groups were The Earls, The Chimes, The Elegants, The Mystics, The Duprees, Johnny Maestro & The Crests, and The Regents.
The Doo-Wop era can be subdivided into several phases of stylistic development:
Paleo-Doo-Wop (1952-1954) This subgenre retains many visible features of its stylistic ancestors; e.g., R & B, in the Drifters’ “Money Honey;” gospel in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” by Lee Andrews and the Hearts; black pop vocal groups in the Platters’ “Only You.” These traits had yet to be synthesized into a truly singular style. Other notable records from this period included The Cadillacs—“Gloria” (1954), https://youtu.be/U28e4EEC2j4, The Chords—“Sh-Boom” (1954), https://youtu.be/SBgQezOF8kY (the cover by the Crewcuts became one of the biggest hits of that year), The Crows—“Gee” (1954), https://youtu.be/jf9SP84EgHY, The Drifters—“Honey Love” (1954), https://youtu.be/nCwWCAVXGe8, The Harptones—“A Sunday Kind of Love” (1954), https://youtu.be/pvYCtdZpOMg, The Jewels—“Hearts of Stone” (1954), https://youtu.be/nCwWCAVXGe8, The Orioles—“Crying in the Chapel” (1953), https://youtu.be/eEwcMvcWKgk and The Penguins—“Earth Angel” (1954), https://youtu.be/VJcGi4-n_Yw;
Classical Doo-Wop (1955-1959) This phase featured tight and sweet harmonies; however, the lead singers lost much of the smoothness typifying paleo-doo-wop recordings. Bass singers were given a more prominent role; in the past they had tended to function merely as part of the background harmony. The performers were generally quite young, featuring lyrics primarily concerned with young, idealistic love. Nonsense syllables were employed in the majority of songs. Instrumentation remained in the background, albeit with a heavy backbeat. Key recordings included The Cleftones—“Little Girl of Mine” (1956), https://youtu.be/N5w8Dr45Sls, The Del Vikings—“Come Go With Me” (1957), https://youtu.be/P1eU_lDQaVM, The El Dorados—“At My Front Door” (1955), https://youtu.be/xAP_z-kEhgk, The Five Satins—“In the Still of the Night” (1956), https://youtu.be/MRb1-SAAIzs, The Flamingos—“I Only Have Eyes For You” (1959), https://youtu.be/FvzNeh4Mq1o, The Heartbeats—“A Thousand Miles Away” (1956), https://youtu.be/3HQBDRSryUA, The Monotones—“Book of Love” (1958), https://youtu.be/qIfuNPbBaaA, The Rays—“Silhouettes” (1957), https://youtu.be/ZGy18U3pV7E, The Silhouettes—“Get a Job” (1958), https://youtu.be/SzWkqfQ17Eo, and The Willows—“Church Bells May Ring” (1956), https://youtu.be/tLl1eDAWMeA). The classical period saw the development of a wide array of spinoff styles, in part a response to newly devised marketing strategies.
(a) Schoolboy doo-wop. The focal point here was an ultra-high tenor, usually a male in his early teenage years. While Frankie Lymon was the definitive interpreter from the standpoint of both commercial success and singing prowess, he has many imitators, including brother Lewis Lymon (the Teenchords), the Kodaks, the Schoolboys, and the Students. Among the notable hits were Little Anthony and the Imperials—“Two People in the World” (1958), https://youtu.be/gowgfivrR9g, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers-“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (1956), https://youtu.be/q96ylFiQK_I, The Students-“So Young” (1958), https://youtu.be/YNHCnc9RzOY and The Schoolboys—“Shirley” (1957), https://youtu.be/ijk8RG5o-bQ;
(b) Gang doo-wop. Lead singers studiously avoided being smooth; rather, they seemed to swagger as they sang. Likewise, harmonies, though intricate, were rough in approach. Major hits included The Channels—“That’s My Desire” (1957), https://youtu.be/uErSbuPUvkA, The Charts—“Desiree” (1958), https://youtu.be/8lpgdt5TJNw, and The Collegians—“Zoom Zoom Zoom” (1957), https://youtu.be/ZT0y_OCkAk0;
(c) Italo-doo-wop. Like African Americans, Italian Americans accorded music a prime place in their upbringing (through church). Although isolated white groups had appeared in the early 1950s (e.g., the Bay Bops, the Neons, the Three Friends), the first major wave of white doo-wop acts surfaced in 1958. This variant was distinguished by even tighter group harmonies, roughly-hewn tenors pushing their upper registers to produce a “sweet” sound, and the prominence of bass singers. Notable recordings included The Capris—“There’s a Moon Out Tonight” (1958, 1961) https://youtu.be/P4xNF9uh8SA, The Classics—“Till Then” (1963), https://youtu.be/K1VSQHjIM1w, The Elegants—“Little Star” (1958), https://youtu.be/l8F4vdF-bJc and The Mystics—“Hushabye” (1959) https://youtu.be/94VWNiOcss0;
(d) Pop doo-wop. Heavily influenced by the commercial mainstream going as far back as turn-of-the-century barbershop quartets, this style had little in common with classic doo-wop other than tight harmony. Practitioners developed a number of ploys geared to making inroads into the pop market, most notably (1) cover records, (2) softening the doo-wop sound in order that it might reach a broader range of age groups, and (3) jazzing up adult-oriented standards so as to appeal to youth. Among the more popular records in this vein were The Duprees—“You Belong to Me” (1962), https://youtu.be/XCeNCvwEFU8, The Echoes—“Baby Blue” (1961), https://youtu.be/n1hVMHJgBgI, The Fleetwoods—“Come Softly to Me” (1959), https://youtu.be/nIivzJ90M0s, The Temptations (not the Motown group)—“Barbara” (1960), https://youtu.be/nIivzJ90M0s, and The Tymes—“So Much in Love” (1963), https://youtu.be/FaYGlE9lHOw.
The Doo-Wop phenomenon continued into the 1960s. However, for all practical purposes, the genre ceased to function in a creative sense as elements associated with it virtually disappear from recordings. With few exceptions, words replaced nonsense syllables as background responses, harmony receded into the background, falsetto appeared less frequently, the bass was used less as a separate voice, instrumentation took on much greater importance, and melodies exhibited a much greater degree of variation. A number of groups–most notably the Drifters, the Four Seasons, and Little Anthony and the Imperials–crossed over into the pop mainstream. The primary innovations in vocal group singing now took place within the a cappella genre.
What made doo-wop so popular? Shower rooms after football practice when you could put five or six teenagers in a ready-made echo chamber. Four guys could walk down Main Street in the rain singing “Every time it rains it rains,” and, of course, the bass voice would take over with “Pennies from Heaven.”