Doo-wop: At The Hop

White vocal groups of the Fifties embraced a variety of styles and sounds, ranging from adult pop groups (the Ames Brothers, the Four Aces, the Hilltoppers), through shameless pop-rockers who covered the R&B hits of the day (the Crewcuts, the McGuire Sisters, the Diamonds) to a vast army of teenage singing groups who naturally absorbed black vocal mannerisms. 

Some, like the Skyliners and the Belmonts, rivaled the best black harmony groups but, before the emergence of such quartets, white doo-wop was synonymous with plagiarism and what might be termed 'sham-rock'.

The king of sham-rock was Bill Randle, a Cleveland disc jockey who discovered the Crewcuts and the Diamonds, the two most successful doo-wop groups of the entire decade. Alan Freed's arch-rival, Randle took the Crewcuts to Mercury records in 1954. Originating from Toronto, the group had previously been known as the Canadaires and comprised: John Perkins (lead), Pat Barrett (tenor), Rudy Maugeri (baritone) and Ray Perkins (bass). The Crewcuts covered a variety of R&B hits including those by the Chords ('Sh-Boom'), the Queens ('Oop Shoop'), the Penguins ('Earth Angel'), Nappy Brown '(Don't Be Angry') and Clyde McPhatter ('Seven Days'). They notched up 11 Top Twenty hits in two years.

Like the Crewcuts, whose career they so closely followed, the Diamonds also came from Canada where Ted Kowalski (tenor), Phil Letitt (baritone) and Bill Reed (bass) attended the University of Toronto. In 1954 they auditioned for CBC-TV's Now Is Your Chance and met David Somerville, who joined them as lead singer. After a couple of flops on the Coral record label they approached Randle, who placed them with Mercury and picked their songs, including the Teenagers' 'Who Do Fools Fall In Love'.

The Diamonds had a safe, successful formula from which they rarely strayed, grabbing songs which had just broken onto the R&B chart, recording them quickly with a slicker production and selling millions of copies to people who had never heard the originals. Between 1956 and 1961 they ripped off R&B hits by the Willows ('Church Bells May Ring'), the Clovers ('Love Love Love'), the G-Clefs ('Ka Ding Dong'), the Heartbeats ('A Thousand Miles Away'), the Gladiolas ('Little Darlin") the Rays, the Solitaires and the Danleers.

R&B versus royalties

The Crewcuts and the Diamonds looked like rock'n'roll groups and, superficially, sounded like rock'n'roll groups. All they lacked was the feel and creativity of the black groups they squeezed off the pop charts. But while these cover versions suppressed black performers, they also brought royalties to black songwriters who preferred a million-selling pop hit to an R&B hit which reached less than 10 per cent of the record-buying public.

Most of the better white groups came from the Northeast — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. There was a depth to the East Coast vocal group tradition that the rest of the country lacked. The Orioles, a black group, enjoyed a string of Top Ten R&B hits between 1948 and 1953. Hugely popular in New York, they left a solid heritage to which kids of all races could aspire. Generally, the East Coast produced the best black vocal groups. R&B band leader Johnny Otis remarked: 'On the East, they have such nice harmonies, musically, artistically … but dear friends like the Penguins, the Medallions and those other West Coast groups were horrible. I used to talk to my bassman and my trumpet player and we used to say, "There must be something here in the water that causes that".'

The direct influence of these great black singing units was, then, one reason why white groups on the East Coast were so good. But equally important was social and racial background. White groups from the West Coast were usually over-privileged kids who sang and surfed in equal proportions. From the Four Preps through the Fleetwoods to the Beach Boys, theirs were pretty, summery sounds.

White doo-wop's best exponents sprang from lower status minorities. By WASP standards, 'white' is really a misnomer since it was the Italian, Hispanic and Polish kids who took to the subways in search of the perfect echo. Many of the Puerto Ricans, next to the blacks the lowest on the social scale, were recruited from street gangs and black/Puerto Rican combinations, like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, were not uncommon.

Of all these ethnic groups, the Italians were the most important. From New York, the Three Chuckles, led by Teddy Randazzo, brushed the charts with 'Runaround' (Number 20 in 1954), 'Two Times I Love You' (1955) and 'And The Angels Sing' (1956). In a similar vein, the Four Lovers from Newark, New Jersey, made the Hot Hundred with 'You're The Apple Of My Eye' (1956); some years later they re-emerged as the Four Seasons.

Coast-to-coast chorus

By 1957, white doo-woppers were coming from all over the country. The Crescendos, from Nashville, Tennessee, grappled with 'Oh Julie' (Number 5) and the Silva-Tones from Texas enjoyed a smaller but oft-recorded hit with 'That's All I Want From You'. The year 1957 also saw the emergence of the Del-Vikings, a racially-integrated unit who hit with 'Come Go With Me' and 'Whispering Bells'.

Danny and the Juniors were one of the most successful, if not the most talented of white groups. They topped the charts with 'At The Hop' in 1958, proclaimed that 'Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay' (Number 19 in 1958) and reached the Hot Hundred with another seven records. Formed in Philadelphia, the group, comprising Dave White, Frank Maffei, Joe Terranova and lead singer Danny Rapp, took their material to Artie Singer, a vocal coach who owned Singular records. Singer liked 'Do The Bop', changed the title on the advice of Dick Clark (of American Bandstand) and copied the piano introduction from 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On'. After the group appeared on Bandstand, ABC-Paramount bought the master and 'At The Hop' sold a two-and-a-half million.

Dick Clark was equally responsible for the fortunes of the Crests, an integrated group with an Italian-American lead singer, Johnny Maestro, whose creamy tenor reached the Hot Hundred on 10 occasions between 1957 and 1960. After 'Sweetest One' (on Joyce) they signed to George Paxton's Coed label and went to Number 2 with 'Sixteen Candles'. Dick Clark, who bought the publishing rights, plugged the Crests repeatedly, but their success owed something to their talent and was not entirely manufactured.

The progress of white vocal groups gathered momentum throughout 1958. Many of the hottest sellers — the Playmates ('Beep Beep') and the Kalin Twins ('When') — were immediate anachronisms with sickly and contrived orchestrations. Others, including the Aquatones' You' (Number 21), the Elegants' 'Little Star' (1), Dion and the Belmonts' 'I Wonder Why' (22), the Teddy Bears' 'To Know Him Is To Love Him' (1) and the Slades' 'You Cheated' (42) retain a charm and freshness which permits repeated listening.

White to black

The story of the Slades from Austin Texas, does much to undermine the belief that white groups cribbed all the best R&B discs. They went to the Domino record label where they cut 'You Cheated' written by lead singer Don Burch. The disc was covered by the Shields, a black Los Angeles aggregation whose imitation far outsold the original.

In 1959 the contribution to the white doo-wop bonanza was a mixed as before. Despite insipid harmonies, the Fleetwoods, a trio from Olympia, Washington, racked up 11 hits between 1959 and 1963. The Impalas (an integrated group with three Italians and a black lead singer) hit Number 2 with 'Sorry I Ran All The Way Home' while the Mystics, the Passions and the Fire-flies brought 'Hushabye', 'Just To Be With You' and 'You Were Mine' to the charts. Pittsburgh's Skyliners, famous for a stunning lead singer in Jimmy Beaumont and a massive, much-revived hit, 'Since I Don't Have You', are often regarded as the most sophisticated of white doo-woppers.

Recorded for Al Capozzi's Calico label, 'Since I Don't Have You' (Number 12 in 1959) was the first successful R&B oriented disc to use a string section. Dreamy orchestrations accompanied the group on records for Colpix, Cameo and Atco, all of which were notable releases.

White doo-wop reached epidemic proportions between 1960 and 1962 when the Hot Hundred was riddled with discs by the Innocents, the Roommates, the Classics, Donnie and the Dreamers, the Capris, the Regents (who recorded the original 'Barbara Ann'), the Chimes, the Tokens, Rosie and the Originals and a dozen of others, including integrated teams like the Marcels and the Time-Tones. A New Jersey craze for acappella (unaccompanied) singing provided white doo-wop's final, pure but short-lived gasps during 1963-64.

Salute to a sound

The English invasion halted white doo-wop overnight. Apart from the occasional throwback (for example, the Casinos who scored with 'Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye' in 1967), the style was simply wiped out of existence. Vito and the Salutations mourned its departure with the unsuccessful 'Liverpool Bound': 'I don't wanna hold your hand/I just wanna go diddle it did, diddle it did, dip dip dip … !' When Americans recovered from the Beatles, indigenous ethnic groups had lost the doo-wop touch. Vocal/instrumental combos — the Standells, the Kingsmen and many more — regurgitated black music in less attractive ways.

The subject-matter of white doo-wop lacked variety and the lyrics were often poor. Ignoring the candid language of earlier black groups, love and desire were rarely expressed by sexual metaphor. Lyrics were romantic, sugar-coated and coy, filling a need which groups like the Osmonds satisfied in the mid-Seventies.

But white doo-wop groups often used four- or five-part harmony to its best advantage, and some of the lead singers were superb: in Jimmy Beaumont (Skyliners), Dion Di Mucci (Belmonts) and Johnny Maestro (Crests), the idiom produced the finest vocalists of their generation. Allowing for a self-conscious lack of humour, these were exceptionally talented singers by any standards.

There was keen edge to their voices, a purity of tone which escaped many of the black singers they idolized. And despite the increasing segregation of R&B radio playlists, most of the nationally successful white doo-woppers dented the R&B chart with their first hit; as new and totally unknown performers, R&B stations simply couldn't tell what colour they were.

© Bill Millar, 1982

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