Dukes, The: Brief History of Doo Wop

Brief History of Doo Wop

At the heart of “The Dukes” is the sound of Doo-Wop, which before there was Elvis or the Beatles, before punk, hip-hop or grunge, was one of the first major musical youth movements, helping to usher in the age of rock and roll.

It emerged from gritty street corners, tenement stoops, church basements and working-class neighborhoods in the early 1950s, reflecting the growing urge towards expression of African-American and ethnic immigrant teens alike.
The distinctive style of Doo Wop – an indelible mix of three-part harmonies, lilting falsettos, heavy backbeats, dynamic baritones and often romantic, sentimental lyrics – would influence American pop culture for decades and imprint itself on the evolution of rock music to this day.

With its focus on group harmony, wry lyrics and moody nostalgia, Robert Davi also felt Doo Wop would make the perfect backdrop for his dark comedy about friendship, mischief and second chances.

Doo Wop got its playful name from the nonsense syllables – including plenty of repeated “doo-wops,” that create the rhythmic background to the form’s intricate harmonies. But the style signified more than just a new musical twist. It became a reflection of America’s urban diversity and youthful energy, sparking the success of all kinds of fresh musical talent, including African-American groups (and the first African American pop idol, Frankie Lymon), Italian groups and the rise of all-girl groups.

The roots of Doo Wop go back to jazz, swing and gospel, to African-American rhythm and blues groups like the Ink Spots, but also to Italy, where “acapella” (literally meaning “church style) singing groups were long a popular form of street entertainment. The simplicity of vocal harmonizing, which didn’t any require any instruments or even electrical power, meant that groups could form on sidewalks, subway platforms and schoolyards in cities like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, hoping audiences would discover them.

They soon did. The first Doo Wop act to hit the big time was The Vibranaires, a Baltimore, Maryland group that formed in 1946 and later changed its name to The Orioles, topping the charts in 1949 with “Tell Me So,” the first hit song to use the doo-wop technique of a worldless falsetto in the lead vocal.

By the early 1950s, acts such as Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, The Heartbeats, the Five Satins and the Cadillacs had become the street heroes of a generation, much as hip-hop stars would in the 1980s.

The popularity of Doo Wop among diverse audiences also helped to drive the burgeoning new business of indie record labels – including Chess, Vee Jay, King, Atlantic and Jubilee, all of whom started out making Doo Wop records, capitalizing on an audience hungry for fresh, modern sounds.

However, while the record companies flourished, the bands themselves often struggled financially. Most were paid a single, modest fee for a recording session rather than for the number of records sold, which meant they didn’t share in the wealth amassed from their hit songs. Making matters worse, the bands often had to pay astronomical touring expenses out of their own royalties. Due to these conditions, only the most committed and tenacious of bands were long lived, with many “one-hit wonder” bands rising and then just as quickly disappearing from the scene.

Even so, for a time, the music was king.
By 1955, Doo Wop was so popular that Allan Freed’s famous “Rock and Roll Jubilee” presented numerous Doo Wop groups as headliners, including the Clovers, the Drifters, the Harptones and the Moonglows. Out of that era came some of the most enduring Doo Wop songs, among them such instantly recognizable hits as The Chords’ “Sh-Boom,” the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” The Del Vikings’ “Come Go With Me,” The Monotones’ “Book of Love” and the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job.”

However, in the early 1960s, the territory began to change. The British Invasion ushered in the electrical era of rock music, and Doo Wop began morphing into R&B and soul, influencing the rise of Motown and the urban sounds of the 60s and 70s.

Still, the timeless appeal of Doo Wop never truly faded. Indeed, in 1982, there was a brief resurgence of Doo Wop when the label Ambient Sound began releasing new records by such acts as the Harptones, the Moonglows and the Capris. More recently Doo Wop has influenced the hugely popular “boy bands” of the 1990s and the recent success of the Tony Award-winning musical “The Jersey Boys.”

For many, Doo Wop remains the purest, original expression of the rock and roll spirit — but as The Dukes discover, it can take some very clever maneuvering to get the joy and excitement of the music to an audience.