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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During the early 1950s when rock 'n' roll's history was beginning to come together, no single type of music sold better or was more influential in binding teenagers together as the harmony singing known as doo-wop. It didn't come out of nowhere, however, and scholar Bill Dahl has now undertaken a 15-volume year-by-year survey of the form for Bear Family Records. It's called "Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo-Wop."
The first five volumes, dealing with 1939 to 1953, have been released. Rock historian Ed Ward has heard them and has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIXTY MINUTE MAN")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Woo-hoo-hoo. Sixty minute man. Sixty minute man. Looka here, girls, I'm telling you now, they call me loving Dan. I'll rock 'em, roll 'em all night long I'm a sixty-minute man. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Billy Ward and the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man," an underground hit in 1951, is often credited as one of the first rhythm-and-blues records that white kids bought because it was dirty. By today's standards, it's pretty mild, but it was a different story then. Otherwise, the song is pretty normal fare for the day, with bass singer Bill Brown taking the lead and the rest of the group punctuating the lyrics with support.
Vocal groups had been around for a while by the time this record was made, and were often part of a nightclub show back in the 1930s. Some would sing with the band's rhythm section behind them, and some, like the Cats and the Fiddle, played their own instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I MISS YOU SO")
CATS AND THE FIDDLE: (Singing) Those happy hours that once were ours. I miss him yes, I know. Most of all, I miss you so. Now that I'm lonely I...
WARD: Others, like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, were famous on their own, and would play package shows with other musicians as well as clubs. Some of these acts went on for decades, often without a single member of the original group appearing with them.
As far as black teenagers were concerned, though, this was old folks' music, and after WWII, they wanted something of their own. For harmony singing, all you needed were some other singers, and basic harmony instruction was as close as the church your parents probably made you attend anyway. The first wave of these groups was referred to as the bird groups, because the Robins, the Orioles and the Ravens were the first to start investigating the new ways of presenting vocal harmony. The Ravens, for instance, had a bass lead singer, Jimmy Ricks, known as Ricky.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OLD MAN RIVER")
THE RAVENS: (Singing) Doodi doo doo, doodi do do. Well, old man river, old man river, he must know something, but he don't say nothing. No, he just keep rolling, keeps on just rolling along. Doodi doo doo, doodi do do. Keeps on rolling. Doodi doo doo, doodi do do.
WARD: Ricky's bass lead was copied by a lot of other groups, but although the bird groups were younger, this was still the old frontman-with-harmonies approach. As some of the new gospel groups coming up were proving, there was another way, and when one of them decided to go secular, hits often followed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, DON'T DO IT")
THE 5 ROYALES: (Singing) If what you say is true, then you and I are through. If you leave me pretty baby, I'll have bread without no meat. I've given you all of me. You are all that I have, you see. And if you leave me, pretty babe, I'll have bread without no meat. You told me that you love me. How good you made it sound. And now you're trying to tell me you going to put me down. Oh, baby, don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it.
WARD: The 5 Royales' "Baby, Don't Do It," from 1952, translated gospel fire and quick interaction between the soloist and the group into a big hit for the former Royal Sons, and they never looked back. Vocalist Johnny Tanner is rightly credited with being one of the inventors of soul music.
The other approach was to take an old standard and rearrange it, as with this chestnut from the '30s film "Holiday Inn."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")
FIVE SHARPS: (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather. It's me and my gal ain't together. It's raining all the time. Can't go out.
WARD: Sorry for the terrible sound quality there. That's one of the only two known copies of the world's rarest records, the Five Sharps "Stormy Weather," and another the other has a crack in it. Not only was this a holy grail for record collectors, this song became a challenge to young groups to harmonize and rearrange, to show your chops.
By 1953, it was clearly harmony that was the thing, and one of the first groups to throw down the gauntlet was Chicago's Flamingos, who would be champions of the genre for years. One of their first records, "Golden Teardrops," shows what they were capable of.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN TEARDROPS")
FLAMINGOS: (Singing) Golden teardrops, I remember when you fell from the eyes of my love. You made me reconsider what a fool I've been. And swear to God, I'll stray no more by all the stars above. Golden teardrops...
WARD: As you can hear, lead singer Sollie McElroy is only part of the story here. I think the falsetto is by Zeke Carey, but Dahl's liner notes aren't clear on this.
And, of course, combining the rhythms that would eventually become rock 'n' roll with some solid harmonizing could also move records with teenagers, black and white.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD LOVIN'"] YEAH I KNOW)
THE CLOVERS: Wada doo-doo-woop. Doo-doo. Da, da, da, da, da. Baby I love you. I really love you. Baby I need your good nothing. Got to have all your good loving. Baby I want your good loving. You're good loving satisfies my time. Gee, but I crave you...
WARD: The Clovers' "Good Lovin'" was a smash hit on the rhythm and blues charts, although it was doubtful that pop radio would've played. It was too suggestive. But that's OK. It was only 1953. Doo-wop would soon conquer America, to the delight of its teenagers, and the dismay of its grouches.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. He reviewed the first five Volumes of "Street Corner Symphonies" on Bear Family Records. You'll find a couple of videos of doo-wop groups on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, why you should start thinking of your cellphone as a tracking device.
This is FRESH AIR.
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