From the beginning, Doo Wop music had what today might be called a DIY or “Do It Yourself” character: it could be performed nearly anywhere — without the need for expensive equipment or special technology — at almost any time by anyone with some singing ability. Years before gaming consoles and cable TV, harmonizing on the street corner or front stoop was an enjoyable way to pass the time, particularly for residents of poorer neighborhoods for whom other forms of entertainment may have been prohibitively expensive. Musical instruments, after all, cost money. Singers replaced backing bands with their voices, supplying full harmonies and even mimicking the sounds of instruments. When Doo Wop emerged as a musical phenomenon in the 1950s, this kind of group singing became part of American popular culture on a bigger scale. Amateur or semi-professional groups were taken off the streets in neighborhoods like Harlem in New York City and put into recording studios. White groups began imitating black groups, and the sounds of Doo Wop were everywhere by the middle of the decade.
Doo Wop’s musical and social roots point to a long history of vocal harmony in American culture, particularly in African-American communities. Social singing provided entertainment in barbershops, bars, schools, churches, theaters, and other communal spaces. Some of the musical precedents students will consider in this lesson include the barbershop quartets that flourished from the 1890s through World War I; the Pop vocal groups such as the Mills Brothers that topped the charts in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s; and the Gospel singers who made harmonizing a spiritual practice throughout the early twentieth century.