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Doo-wop is a genre of music that was developed in African-American communities of New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in the 1940s, achieving mainstream popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. Built upon vocal harmony, doo-wop was one of the most mainstream, pop-oriented R&B styles of the time. Singer Bill Kenny (1914–1978) is often called the "Godfather of Doo-wop" for his introducing the "top and bottom" format which featured a high tenor singing the lead and a bass singer reciting the lyrics in the middle of the song. Doo-wop features vocal group harmony, nonsense syllables, a simple beat, sometimes little or no instrumentation, and simple music and lyrics.
|Cultural origins||1940s–early 1960s, United States|
|Typical instruments||Double bass - Electric guitar - Saxophone - Drums - Piano - Harmony vocals|
|50s chord progression|
The first hit record to use the syllables "doo-wop" was probably "When You Dance" by The Turbans in 1955. The term "doo-wop" first appeared in print in 1961. During the late 1950s many Italian-American groups contributed a significant part in the doo-wop scene. The peak of doo-wop was in 1961. Doo-wop's influence continued in soul, pop, and rock groups of the 1960s. At various times in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the genre has seen revivals. Doo-wop was a precursor to many of the African-American musical styles seen today. An evolution of jazz and blues, doo-wop also influenced many of the major rock and roll groups that defined the later decades of the 20th century. Doo-wop is iconic for its swing-like beats and using the off-beat to keep time. Doo-wop laid the foundation for many musical innovations, for example, R&B.
During the years around World War II, hit records by African-American vocal groups such as The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Cats and the Fiddle, the Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, along with Negro spiritual groups, set important precedents for the genre. The Ink Spots had a string of record successes in 1939 and 1940, both in the United States and in Britain, with "My Prayer", "Bless You", "If I Didn't Care", "Address Unknown", "Memories Of You", "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You" and "Whispering Grass" and The Mills Brothers followed suit in 1943 and 1944 with "Paper Doll", "You Always Hurt The One You Love" and "Till Then".
These were generally slow songs in swing time with simple instrumentation and close four-part harmony reminiscent of the barbershop quartet—The Mills Brothers evolved from there. The subject of the lyrics was generally love and relationships. The typical doo-wop chord progression I–vi–IV–V was a slight but significant variation of the I-vi-ii-V-loop that generated several American 1930s hits such as Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon" (1934), and Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul" (1938); it would later become closely associated with doo-wop such that it is sometimes referred to as the 50s progression. This characteristic harmonic layout was combined with the AABA chorus form typical for Tin Pan Alley pop. A second stream of doo-wop oriented itself to the harmonic, formal and melodic means of jump blues.
From the outset, singers gathered on street corners, and in subways, generally in groups of three to six. They sang a cappella arrangements, and used wordless onomatopeia to mimic instruments since instruments were little used: the bass singing "bom-bom-bom", a guitar rendered as "shang-a-lang" and brass riffs as "dooooo -wop-wop". For instance, "Count Every Star" by The Ravens (1950), includes vocalizations imitating the "doomph, doomph" plucking of a double bass. This art dates to The Mills Brothers, who first came to fame in the 1930s with their mimicking of instrumental music. Radio, gramophone, and cinema inspired imitation in many U.S. cities.
The late 1940s and early 1950s brought the so-called "bird groups"; The Swallows, the Ravens, The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows, The Flamingos, The Blue Jays, The Cardinals, and The Larks. A number of band names are also drawn from cars (The Edsels, The Cadillacs, The Fleetwoods, The Impalas, and Little Anthony and the Imperials). The Orioles helped develop the doo-wop sound with their hits "It's Too Soon to Know" (1948) and "Crying in the Chapel" (1953). Doo-wop scored 1951 R&B chart hits such as "Sixty Minute Man" by Billy Ward and His Dominoes, "Where Are You?" by The Mello-Moods, "The Glory of Love" by The Five Keys, "Shouldn't I Know" by The Cardinals, "I Will Wait" by the Four Buddies, and "Will You Be Mine", by The Swallows.
The term "doo-wop" first appeared in print in 1961 in The Chicago Defender; fans of the music coined the term during the height of a vocal harmony resurgence. The phrase was attributed to radio disc jockey Gus Gossert but Gossert suggested "doo-wop(p) was already in use [before me] to categorize the music in California."
The first record to use the syllables "doo-wop" in the refrain was the 1955 hit "When You Dance" by The Turbans (Herald Records H-458). Previously, the scat backing vocal "doo-wop" is heard in The Clovers' 1953 release "Good Lovin'" (Atlantic Records 1000) and in the chorus of Carlyle Dundee & The Dundees' 1954 song "Never" (Space Records 201). Other early uses include the 1955 song "Mary Lee" by The Rainbows on Red Robin Records (also a Washington, DC regional hit on Pilgrim 703), which contains the background "do wop de wadda"; and the 1956 smash "In the Still of the Night" by The Five Satins, which features a plaintive "doo-wop, doo-wah" refrain in the bridge. After some time, the term "doo-wop" finally caught on as both a description and category for R&B vocal group harmony. The definition expanded backward to include rhythm and blues groups from the mid-1950s, then cascaded even further back to include groups from the 1940s.
Doo-wop songs featured both fast beats and slow beats. In 1954, doo-wop groups played a significant role in ushering in the rock and roll era when two big rhythm and blues hits by vocal harmony groups, "Gee" by The Crows and "Sh-Boom" by The Chords crossed over onto the pop music charts. Quickly, other R&B vocal groups entered the pop charts, particularly in 1955, which saw such cross-over doo-wop hits as "Sincerely" by The Moonglows, "Earth Angel" by The Penguins, and "Only You" by The Platters. The same year saw a number one pop chart hit, "The Great Pretender" by The Platters. In 1956, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers appeared on the Frankie Laine show in New York, which was televised nationally, performing their hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?". Frankie Laine referred to it as "rock and roll"; Lymon's extreme youth appealed to a young and enthusiastic audience. His string of hits included: "I Promise to Remember", "The ABC's of Love" and "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent". In 1958, "Book of Love" by The Monotones became an icon of the style.
1958 also saw the rise of Italian American doo-wop groups. Like African-Americans, the Italian Americans generally attended church, where they gained singing experience, and lived in urban neighborhoods, where they would sing on street corners. By the late 1950s, Italian American street corner doo-wop groups were seen in cities such as New York, especially the Bronx and Brooklyn. Some of the Italian American groups with national chart hits included: Dion and the Belmonts, in 1958, with "I Wonder Why", "Teenager in Love" and "Where or When"; The Four Seasons; The Capris with "There's a Moon Out Tonight", in 1960; The Earls; The Chimes; The Demensions; The Elegants; The Mystics; The Duprees; Vito & the Salutations; The Gaylords; Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge; The Regents; Nino and the Ebb Tides; The Del-Satins; The Videls; most of the members of The Passions; and The Chaperones. Other Italian American groups included Randy & the Rainbows, who charted with their 1963 hit single "Denise".
The contribution of Hispanics is often overlooked. Early, especially in U.S. East Coast cities, Puerto Ricans were lead singers in some groups with black and white members, including The Crests, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Five Discs and the Tune Weavers. "Racially integrated" groups with both black and white performers, included The Del-Vikings, who hit big in 1957 with "Come Go With Me" and "Whispering Bells"; The Crests, whose "16 Candles" appeared in 1958, and The Impalas, whose "Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)" was a hit in 1959. All-white doo-wop groups were also appearing: The Mello-Kings' 1956 "Tonight, Tonight" and The Diamonds' chart-topping "Little Darlin'" in 1957, The Skyliners' 1959 "Since I Don't Have You" and 1960 "This I Swear", The Tokens' 1961 "Tonight I Fell In Love" and "I Love My Baby", all saw success.
Female doo wop singers were unusual in the early days. Lillian Leach, lead singer of the Mellows from 1953 to 1958, helped pave the way for women and is often cited as an influence by later performers.
The peak of doo-wop might have been in the early 60's with the most notable hits being Dion's "Runaround Sue", "The Wanderer", "Lovers Who Wander" and "Ruby Baby" and The Marcels' "Blue Moon". There was a revival of the nonsense-syllable form of doo-wop in the early 1960s, with popular records by The Marcels, The Rivingtons, and Vito & the Salutations. A few years later, the genre reached the self-referential stage, with songs about the singers ("Mr. Bass Man" by Johnny Cymbal) and the songwriters ("Who Put the Bomp?" by Barry Mann), in 1961. Other important groups, including The Coasters, The Drifters, The Midnighters, and The Platters, helped link the doo-wop style to the mainstream, and to the future sound of soul music. The style is heard in the music of The Miracles, particularly in their early hits such as "Got A Job" (an answer song to "Get a Job"), "Bad Girl", "Who's Loving You", "(You Can) Depend on Me", and "Ooo Baby Baby". The style is also heard in the early days of The Famous Flames, led by James Brown; the group recorded several doo-wop hits, including "Please, Please, Please", "Try Me", "Bewildered", "I Don't Mind", "Oh Baby Don't You Weep" and their hit cover of The "5" Royales' "Think" .
Doo-wop's influence continued in soul, pop, and rock groups of the 1960s, including The Four Seasons, girl groups, and vocal surf music performers such as Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. In the Beach Boys' case, the doo-wop influence is evident in early hits such as "Surfin'" and "Surfer Girl", and in albums recorded within their psychedelic era, during which the group experimented and innovated with the human voice as an instrument in a self-described effort to "expand modern vocal harmony".
At various times in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the genre has seen revivals. Main artists are concentrated in urban areas, e.g., (New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, and Los Angeles). Revival television shows and boxed CD sets (e.g., DooWop Box 1–3) have kindled interest in the music, the artists, and their stories. In December 1968, Frank Zappa's band The Mothers of Invention released a doo-wop parody/tribute album called Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. An early notable revival of "pure" doo-wop occurred when Sha Na Na appeared at the Woodstock Festival.
Over the years groups have remade doo-wop songs, with great success. Part of the regional beach music or shag music scene, centered in the Carolinas, and surrounding states, includes both the original classic recordings, and numerous remakes. Britain chimed in with notable contributions, in the mid-late 1970s, by the group Darts, who successfully (and with some authenticity) revived revered doo-wop standards such as "Daddy Cool", "Come Back My Love" and "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart".
Other artists had doo-wop or doo-wop-influenced hits in later years, such as Robert John's 1972 version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", Toby Beau's 1978 hit "My Angel Baby", and Billy Joel's 1984 hit "The Longest Time". Rock, punk and new wave musicians such as The Velvet Underground ("Candy Says"), Blondie ("In the Flesh"), The Ramones, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and The Pretenders included a healthy amount of doo-wop in their songs. Soul and funk bands such as Zapp("DooWa Ditty") released New style Doo Wop. The last doo-wop record to reach the top ten on the U.S. pop charts was "It's Alright" by Huey Lewis and the News, a cover of The Impressions' 1963 Top 5 smash. It reached number 6 on the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart in June 1993. D.R.S "Gangsta Lean" and After 7 "Nights like This", Coming of Age "Coming Home to Love" have some doo-wop elements as well. "Someone," a B-side from the 2002 Red Hot Chili Peppers' album By The Way is an example of 2000s doo-wop style. Much of the album contained a doo-wop flavor. Another song from the By The Way sessions to feature a doo-wop influence was a cover for "Teenager In Love," originally recorded by Dion and The Belmonts. Mr. Bungle also displayed doo-wop influences on their final album, California, particularly on the song "Vanity Fair".
Doo-wop is popular among barbershoppers and collegiate a cappella groups due to its easy adaptation to an all-vocal form. Doo-wop, at the turn of the millennium, experienced a resurgence in popularity, with PBS's doo-wop concert programs: Doo Wop 50, Doo Wop 51, and Rock, Rhythm, and Doo Wop. These programs brought back, live on stage, some of the better known doo-wop groups of the past. In addition to The Earth Angels, doo-wop acts in vogue in the second decade of the 21st century range from The Four Quarters to Street Corner Renaissance. The ultimate longevity of doo-wop has been disputed.
Bruno Mars and Meghan Trainor are two examples of current artists who incorporate doo-wop music into their records and live performances. Mars says he has "a special place in [his] heart for old-school music". The doo-wop scene of the 1950s strongly parallels that of the formation of the hip-hop scene beginning in the late 1970s, but particularly mirroring the emergence of the culture of the 1990s in that "it is (in its authentic form) a non-commercial street music pursued by the group, for the group (African Americans). In a broader context, it involves a male-competitive form of dancing (breaking), its own private slang and dress code, as well as other related emotive forms, such as graffiti art."
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- Appen, Ralf von / Frei-Hauenschild, Markus (2015). "AABA, Refrain, Chorus, Bridge, Prechorus — Song Forms and their Historical Development". In: Samples. Online Publikationen der Gesellschaft für Popularmusikforschung/German Society for Popular Music Studies e.V. Ed. by Ralf von Appen, André Doehring and Thomas Phleps. Vol. 13, p. 43-48, 61-63.
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