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Definition of the Genre

Doo-wop represents a subcategory of vocal group harmony that includes the following musical qualities: group harmony, a wide range of vocal parts, nonsense syllables, a simple beat, light instrumentation, and simple music and lyrics. Above all, the focus is on ensemble singing. Single artists fit only when backed by a group (the possibility that the group may not be mentioned on the record label is immaterial). Typically solo billing simply means that this individual is more prominently placed in the musical arrangement (e.g., Dion, Bobby Day, Thurston Harris) as opposed to typical group productions.

Group Harmony

In doo-wop vocal harmonies echo--or, more commonly--run underneath the lead vocalist. Generally, the second tenor and baritone blend together as one sound, with the high tenor (or falsetto) running over the lead and the bass reverberating on the bottom end. The group harmony does not usually lead throughout; however, it may occasionally alternate with a tenor in this capacity (e.g., the Channels--"The Closer You Are").

In the early 1950s, groups like the Ravens and Five Keys pushed vocal blending techniques from the r & b realm to doo-wop with the use of "blow harmonies." This practice, wherein sounds like "ha-oo" resulted by abruptly forcing air out of the mouth, replaced humming as the predominant form of background support.

The genre sometimes utilized the device of progressive entrances by different voices. In most cases, the bass would begin, with others entering one at a time, until full harmony was achieved. Two notable 1958 releases, Dion and the Belmonts' "Tell Me Why" and Danny and the Juniors' "At the Hop," employed this technique as a primary hook.

In short, doo-wop harmonies evolved to a more complicated level than that reflected in the call-and-response format found in gospel. However, the genre lacked the musical depth—obtained through use of the minor keys--typifying the mature work of the Beach Boys.

The Wide Range Of Vocal Parts

The lead singer was usually a tenor, although sometimes a high tenor (or child castrato, the archtype being Frankie Lymon). Occasionally the bass will take the lead for at least part of a song, typically uptempo numbers (e.g., El Dorados--"Bim Bam Boom"). The lead in early doo-wop ballads frequently employed melisma, a gospel-derived vocal technique in which syllables are elongated to fit the meter of the song (e.g., "O-o-only You" in the Platters' "Only You").

Most song arrangements had a distinctive bass part, frequently it provided the introduction and/or punctuated the song between choruses. In some cases, the bass contributed a talking bridge in the middle of a song (e.g., the Diamonds' "Little Darling") or a percussive beat. All-female groups would substitute a contrasting lower voice for the bass part.

Falsetto parts were often used, typically at the end of a song, in conjunction with the lead's dramatic fade-out (e.g., "Tell Me Why," by Norman Fox and the Rob Roys; "Since I Don't Have You," by the Skyliners). In ballads, the falsetto part echos the lead voice, is part of the background harmony, or runs above the vocal blend. The lead singer may move in and out of falsetto (e.g., the Channels' "The Closer You Are") or use it throughout (e.g., the Paragons' "Florence").


Nonsense Syllables

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"). 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.). The Chips' "Rubber Biscuit" (1956) represented a virtuostic application of this technique:

Gow gow hoo-oo,

Gow gow wanna dib-a-doo,

Chick'n hon-a-chick hole-a-hubba,

Hell fried cuck-a-lucka wanna jubba,

Hi-low 'n-ay wanna dubba hubba,

Day down sum wanna jigga-wah,

Dell rown ay wanna lubba hubba,

Mull an a mound chicka lubba hubba,

Fay down ah wanna dip-a-zip-a-dip-a,

Mm-mh, do that again! (bass exclamation)

Gow gow lubba 'n a-bubba lubba,

Ow rown hibb'n 'n a-hibba-lu,

How low lubbin 'n a-blubba-lubba,

Hell fried ricky ticky hubba lubba,

Dull ow de moun' chicky hubba lubba,

Wen down trucka lucka wanna do-uh,

How low a zippin 'n a-hubba-lu,

Hell fried ricky ticky blubba-lu,

How low duh woody woody pecka pecka. (BMI)


During the doo-wop revival (1960-1963), nonsense lyrics became more complicated, almost baroque in style. These lyrical contortions sometimes became the main focus; e.g., the Edsels' "Rama Lama Ding Dong" (1961), the Marcels' "Blue Moon" (1961).

Simple Beat/Light Instrumentation

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 vocalist but remained very much in the background. An instrumental break usually appeared after two verses. Those rare songs without a break included the Charts' "Deserie" (1958) and the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You" (1959); in both cases, the chorus is repeated throughout the song.


Simple Chorus and Lyrics

Doo-wop music is often comprised of four-chord progressions. Even uptempo renditions of old standards generally flatten out the melody line; i.e., rendering it in a more simplified form (e.g., "A Sunday Kind of Love," "Stormy Weather"). The lyrics tend to be repetitive, simple, dialectical, and awkwardly-phrased. Some are even grammatically incorrect. Nevertheless, many transcend these limitations to convincingly express such complex feelings as disillusionment, desire, and love.


Evolution of the Genre

Doo-wop emerged in the urban ghettos from the blending of rhythm and blues, gospel, and popular black vocal group music in the post-World War II era. The style represented the culmination of many hours spent by teens--usually black males--practicing vocal harmonies in school gyms, street corners, and subway entrances. These young groups sought a piece of the American Dream via cross-over success in the music business. From their perspective, the more direct route to success meant adapting white pop standards to contemporary black vocal styles. In other words, they attempted to replicate the formula employed a generation earlier by black groups like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. The pronounced gospel and r & b traits within their work reflected the influences from childhood (church, social activities, etc.) which formed the core of their music education. Doo-wop features began emerging in African American pop music during the 1948-1951 period. They can be discerned in r & b hits like the Orioles' "It's Too Soon To Know" (1948) and the Dominoes' "Sixty-Minute Man" (1951). The doo-wop era began around 1952--a time when the key musical qualities of the genre were all clearly in evidence--and remained artistically and commercially viable until the early 1960s. This time frame 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) The Chords--"Sh-Boom" (1954; the cover by the Crewcuts became one of the biggest hits of that year), The Crows--"Gee" (1954), The Drifters--"Honey Love" (1954), The Harptones--"A Sunday Kind of Love" (1954), The Jewels--"Hearts of Stone" (1954), The Orioles--"Crying in the Chapel" (1953), and The Penguins--"Earth Angel" (1954)

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), The Del Vikings--"Come Go With Me" (1957), The El Dorados--"At My Front Door" (1955), The Five Satins--"In the Still of the Night" (1956), The Flamingos--"I Only Have Eyes For You" (1959), The Heartbeats--"A Thousand Miles Away" (1956), The Monotones--"Book of Love" (1958), The Rays--"Silhouettes" (1957), The Silhouettes--"Get a Job" (1958), and The Willows--"Church Bells May Ring" (1956)

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), Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers-"Who Do Fools Fall in Love" (1956), and The Schoolboys--"Shirley" (1957).

(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), The Charts--"Desiree" (1958), and The Collegians--"Zoom Zoom Zoom" (1957).

(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 (the latter a premonition of the neo-doo-wop phase). Notable recordings included The Capris--"There's a Moon Out Tonight" (1958; 1961), The Classics--"Till Then" (1963), The Elegants--"Little Star" (1958), and The Mystics--"Hushabye" (1959).

(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), The Echoes--"Baby Blue" (1961), The Fleetwoods--"Come Softly to Me" (1959), The Temptations (white group)--"Barbara" (1960), and The Tymes--"So Much in Love" (1963).

Neo-Doo-Wop (1960-1963)

The impetus for this phase was the oldies revival (largely focused on doo-wop) which began in 1959. Although neo-doo-wop maintained the simple melody lines and preoccupation with love lyrics typifying the classical phase, the distinctive features of doo-wop were greatly exaggerated; e.g., a greater preponderance of falsetto leads, heavier and more pronounced bass singing. Instruments also figured more prominently in song arrangements. Notable hits included Gene Chandler with the Dukays--"Duke of Earl" (1961), The Devotions--"Rip Van Winkle" (1961; 1964), Dion with the Del Satins--"Runaround Sue" (1961), Curtis Lee With the Halos--"Pretty Little Angel Eyes" (1961), The Paradons--"Diamonds and Pearls" (1960), The Reflections--"(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet" (1964), The Regents--"Barbara Ann" (1961), and The Stereos--"I Really Love You" (1961).

The absorption of new talent from a variety of backgrounds spurred the development of new stylistic subcategories.

(a) Tin Pan Alley Doo-Wop. Exposed to doo-wop as well as schooled in music composition, young songwriters (e.g., Gerry Goffin/Carole King, Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich) and producers (Phil Spector) created their own formula. They melded doo-wop conventions (e.g., tight harmony, pronounced bass, nonsense syllables) with more complex melodies, augmented instrumentation, and thoroughgoing production values. Key recordings included The Chiffons--"He's So Fine" (1963), The Crystals--"Da Doo Ron Ron" (1963), The Raindrops--"The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget" (1963), Randy and the Rainbows--"Denise" (1963), and The Tokens--"Tonight I Fell in Love" (1961)

(b) Distaff Doo-Wop. With few exceptions (e.g., the Chantels, the Bobbettes, the Shirelles, and fronting male groups such as the Platters), women didn't play a prominent role in doo-wop until the Tin Pan Alley variant achieved popularity. Notable hits included Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles--"You'll Never Walk Alone" (1963), The Cookies--"Don't Say Nothin' Bad About My Baby" (1963), and Reperata and the Delrons--"Whenever a Teenager Cries" (1964)

(c) Garage Band Doo-Wop. Denotes material recorded on substandard equipment. Representative examples included the Laddins' "Did It" and the Contenders' "The Clock."

(d) Novelty Doo-Wop. Almost without exception, this genre encompasses humorous, uptempo material. Themes covered include fantasy (e.g., the Eternals' "Rockin' in the Jungle," the Cadets' "Stranded in the Jungle"), rebellion (e.g., the Coasters' "Yakety Yak"), fads (e.g., the Royal Teens' "Short Shorts"), and media heroes (e.g., Dante and the Evergreens' "Alley Oop").

(e) Pseudo-Doo-Wop. This category refers to the doo-wop style minus the vocal group format. Major strains have included solo efforts (e.g., Ron Holden and the Thunderbirds' "Love You So," Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby") and duos (e.g., Skip and Flip's "Cherry Pie," Don and Juan's "What's Your Name," Robert and Johnny's "Over the Mountain").

Post Doo-Wop (1964-)

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.