Every Wednesday through the summer, we're posting quick introductory-level surveys of elements of rock 'n' roll from the 1950s. These overviews are not intended to be comprehensive; instead, they're designed to help curious listeners dive in and explore some of the genre's often-overlooked building blocks. Whether you're a novice or a rock snob, join the conversation below.
THIS WEEK: Doo-Wop
As PBS viewers know, doo-wop is eternal. Perhaps because it's so effusive, or perhaps because it so poignantly immortalizes the joys and torments of being a teenager in love. The voices, four or five of them together, swoop like stunt pilots in formation. They rattle off crazy-sounding nonsense syllables — "doo wop" being just one of many rhythmic vocal expressions. They specialize in effortlessly airborne messages of love, yet borrow some moves and exhortations from the classic gospel quartets.
That's one of the first big doo-wop hits from 1956, with songwriter Frankie Lymon, then 13, singing lead. (As with many songs of the era, there's an authorship dispute about who helped Lymon with the song.)
Read more after the jump...
The style, born on street corners in African-American neighborhoods of Northeastern cities, is notable for its utter simplicity — earnest melodies propelled by simple, straightforward beats, with the spotlight on elaborate ensemble singing. Those precise, often plaintive harmonies touched just about everyone making music in the 1950s. Here's one of the most successful doo-wop groups, The Platters, performing "The Great Pretender" and "Only You" in 1955.
Shortly after its ascent in the mid-'50s, doo-wop became a world of its own, with distinct subcategories. One of the most active was Italian-American doo-wop, which boasts such acts as Dion and the Belmonts, of "Teenager in Love" fame. To hear how far doo-wop spread, track down the incredible Los Zafiros, a Cuban singing group that melded doo-wop harmonies to lively tropical rhythms.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers: "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"
The Platters: "The Great Pretender," "Only You"
Dion and the Belmonts: "Teenager in Love"
The Five Satins: "In the Still of the Night"
The Flamingos: "Golden Teardrops"
The Coasters: "Yakety Yak"
Los Zafiros: "Caminadora"
Doo wop has been called "the sound of innocence." Yet many of its most powerful songs, like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," express a distinctly "adult" perspective on romance. Is this part of the charm?
Is there a generic "doo-wop" approach to harmony, used by many groups? Or is the harmony like a thumbprint, dependent on certain voices? Which groups have a distinctive style that cannot be replicated?
NEXT WEEK: The rock 'n' roll/R&B titans of New Orleans.
OTHERS IN THIS SERIES