SEP 2001




& Some Classy Kids

The Doo Wop Box

Rhino Records, Four Disks

The story goes that if Sam Philips, the reknowned 1950s record producer from Memphis, could find a white singer who could sound "black," that is, sound like the black artists who Philips recorded—Howlin’ Wolf, Sleepy John Estes, Rufus Thomas or B.B. King—then he would make a million bucks. The story continues that when Philips found a hillbilly cat named Elvis Presley, who successfully mixed the sound of black music with that of rural country music, rock’n’ roll was formed, and indeed, Philips did make a million dollars.

The problem with this great American musical myth lies partially in the alchemy of it all. "Add one part this to one part that and you get a million bucks" just doesn’t work primarily because there ain’t just one part of anything. The country music Presley sang wasn’t the country most people heard on the 1950s country charts. In fact the rockabilly up-tempo cat music Presley performed was a marginal country music amalgamation in and of itself; something that rarely made the country charts, and because of its emphasis on the "lectric" guitar and loud beats, it was scoffed at by "real" country artists of the time.

Similarly with the black music Presley supposedly mixed with this country music. The blues-laced countrified Memphis black music Presley (and Philips) heard was marginal at best in black culture. If one examines the black popular music charts between 1948 and 1959, the charts leaders were not the country blues artists recorded in Memphis or Chicago (the arena where Philips sent much of his black music to be distributed by Chess Records). What one does see on the charts is a music that addressed both lyrical sentiments and musical traditions different from that found in Memphis or the rural south in general. This chart-topping black music came from an ensemble tradition, that is, it emphasized vocal harmonies that came from urban rather than rural settings, traditions that had long been recorded and performed in the 1930s and ’40s on the urban stages of many of the important black centers in this country.

And instead of singing about sentiments of the rural Southern country found in the blues music of Memphis and later Chicago, sentiments that aligned themselves with issues of slavery, repression, and working-class issues, the urban black music heard most on the charts often addressed concerns much more middle class in nature. This "doo-wop" music of the cities represented a side of black American culture and class that had little to do with rural black culture and class, and one might argue, goes on to reflect the dominant class position of much of the civil rights struggle (and its leaders) throughout the later ’50s and early ’60s. In a sense, doo-wop represents a hallmark of black culture. Rather than offering a musical style that might easily be "combined" with white musical stylings, it presented a forum that reflected a rising black middle-class sentiment while keeping its power and prestige as an exclusive black idiom.

In a similar sense, where black country blues shined a light on the repressive, persevering nature of the dominant white culture on southern rural black culture, doo wop put the light on a black cultural manifestation that celebrated its own parameters and conditions. One can only imagine what rock’n’roll and American popular music in general might have sounded like if Presley’s cat music would have blended with doo wop music.

Rhino Records’ four-disk, 101-song "The Doo Wop Box" set contains some of the best doo-wop hits ever recorded. Aiming at the most popular and recognizable songs from 1948-1987, virtually all the important headliners of the time are there: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Flamingos, The Wrens, The Spaniels, The Chords, The Moonglows, The Platters, The Clovers. Two other 101-song sets are also available which dig deeper into the genre, revealing the depth and breadth of the genre and tunes that may have not made it to many of the secondary markets. But the material covered in this first boxed set clearly gives a picture of the class perspective of the dominant black music of the time.

Because doo-wop performers were often in their teens or early twenties—e.g., 16-year-old Frankie Lymon of The Teenagers, 20-year-old Rudy West of The Five Keys, and 22-year-old Sonny Til of The Cadillacs—much of doo-wop was viewed as youth music. Surprisingly though, the songs that these young people sang more often than not addressed adult themes with very mature points of view. For instance, The Five Keys’ hit "The Glory of Love" comes from the Broadway stage and emphasizes fidelity and romantic commitment. The Harp-Tones sing about searching for "a love that is square… a Sunday Kind of Love." Even in the classic "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite," the Spaniels claim that "your mother and father wouldn’t like it if I stayed here too long… so I really must go." It is a surprisingly mature attitude for a teen group.

Similarly The Flamingos sing about "walking you home in the moonlight" in the hit "I’ll Be Home." Even the million seller by the Chords, "Sh-Boom" looked at love and romance from a very mature attitude: "Life could be a dream (sh-boom), if I could take you to Paradise up above (sh-boom), if you would tell me I’m the only one that you love, Life would be a dream, Sweetheart…"

As this boxed set points out, over and over again doo-wop tunes emphasize a sedate middle-class view of love and relationships, one that places commitment and a certain respect for women in the forefront—a view almost diametrically opposed to both rural blues music and the emerging youth rock’n’roll music. In rock’n’roll women are "babies" and men are "hound dogs," in doo-wop women are sweethearts and darlings and men are always the gentleman.

Although this romantic middle-class sentiment changed as the rock’n’roll hegemony took over all popular music, throughout much of the 1950s the slow-tempo balladry of doo-wop coalesced the young and old audiences within the African American community. And this coalescence helped fortify the focus of the African American community throughout the early civil rights era. It was the sedate, pristine and middle-class music of doo-wop that countered the "jungle-music" critique found in the rantings of the racists and gave a sense of self-respect to those willing to face the rantings full on. Ironically the inherent middle-classness of doo-wop fit neatly into the burgeoning class notions found in the preachers, teachers and students of the early civil rights era and thus became as powerful an agent for cultural change as any other black popular music of the time.

This boxed set clearly illustrates this power and is highly recommended for anyone interested in African American popular music and cultural change.


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