Some years ago, my then-roommate and friend Seth and I dreamt up the Doo-Wop Challenge. I don’t exactly remember what the impetus was although the catalyst was undoubtedly cannabinoid. The challenge in question was primarily a test of almost pointless endurance and stubbornness, like a quiet contest. Who can go the longest only ever listening to Doo-Wop when playing music. But we were both genuine fans too, not masochists. I, for one, always got excited when a Doo-Wop act would appear at the no longer extant Be-Bop Battlin’ Ball held at the no longer extant Rudolpho’s in Silver Lake.
Of course music is inescapable and a participant in the challenge would hardly be expected to leave a party, movie theater, restaurant, &c just because something other than Doo-Wop wasn’t playing. But what would happen if every time you put a dime in the jukebox, chose an mp3 or sang a tune it was Doo-Wop? Would you start dressing differently, speaking differently, being differently? In Jeannot Szwarc‘s Somewhere in Time (1980), doesn’t focusing thoughts on a penny allow for Christopher Reeve‘s character to travel through time to stalk his fetish?
It was about sixty years ago that the first Doo-Wop song, “Sh-Boom,” reached the Top Ten on the pop charts. It was written and performed by The Chords, a Doo-Wop group that featured Carl Feaster (lead), Claude Feaster (baritone), Jimmy Keyes (first tenor), Floyd “Buddy” McRae (second tenor) and William “Ricky” Edwards. The formed in The Bronx in 1951 and were discovered performing in a subway station. They recorded their only hit with Atlantic Records‘ Cat Records label.
For the uninitiated, Doo-wop is a vocal-driven but not a cappella style of Rhythm & Blues. The earliest confirmed usage of the term “Doo-Wop” to describe the music (it was a common scat phrase in the music, thus its usage) is from 1961 although the music’s heyday was in the 1940s and ’50s and its roots trace back considerably further. Doo-Wop groups often took their names from birds and/or sounded like makes of cars and the name “doo-wop” refers to one of the many wordless vocal sounds sung by these performers who are still the highlight of many a PBS fundraising special.
At least as early as the 1860s vocal formed and soulfully harmonized spirituals, folk songs and pop songs like those written by Stephen Foster. The first line-up of The Fisk Jubilee Singers formed in 1871. There were Barbershop hit versions of Tin Pan Alley pop songs like Richard H. Gerard and Harry Armstrong,’s 1903 hit, “(You’re the Flower of My Heart,) Sweet Adeline” and Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth‘s 1908 hit, “Shine On, Harvest Moon” during barbershop’s golden age of the 1900s and 1910s. The most obvious direct antecedents of Doo-Wop were the vocal groups The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots, who formed in 1928 and 1934 respectively. Both groups were usually quite mellow and perhaps Doo-Wop is unfairly characterized as an exclusively mellow music. Not every Doo-Wop song was as mellow (not to mention lovely and atmospheric) as The Flamingos‘ “I Only Have Eyes For You.”
Doo-Wop first emerged in East Coast black communities in the 1940s although it quickly found a foothold in Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhoods as well as far off places like Compton and El Monte, California. Doo-Wop continued to chart into the early 1960s when it largely was absorbed by the more commercial soul acts coming out of Motown, surf-pop harmonizers like The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, and baroque ‘n’ rollers like The Left Banke, The Merry-Go-Round, and The Zombies.
Doo-Wop never went away completely, however. Its echoes can be heard in Sha Na Na, Showaddywaddy, David Bowie‘s “Drive-In Saturday,” the soundtracks to Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, Elton John‘s “Crocodile Rock,” and Billy Joel‘s “For the Longest Time.” Whether or not you allow yourself to listen to these and others like them during your Doo-Wop Challenge is up to you. When you’re done, share how long you lasted and what, if any, effect it had on you. Thanks!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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