Rock Hall Gives '50s Doo-Wop Vocalists Recognition

Intricate harmonies helped kick off rock era, brought early fame to Curtis Mayfield, Clyde McPhatter.

African-American vocal groups such as the Moonglows, the Penguins, the Dells and the Orioles are the focus of a monthlong series of events and exhibits by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland this month.

It's recognition the museum's curator said is long overdue.

"It was an area that was perhaps more unrecognized," museum director James Henke said last week of what's become known as the doo-wop era. "The whole sort of vocal-group, doo-wop aspect of rock seems to be overlooked."

Next month, the Moonglows will be inducted into the Hall. Their tight harmonies and early pop hits such as 1953's "Sincerely" (RealAudio excerpt) were antecedents of rock 'n' roll and influenced, among others, R&B legend Smokey Robinson. They will join only a handful of previously inducted doo-wop groups, including the Drifters and their founder Clyde McPhatter (inducted separately), the Orioles, the Platters, the Coasters, and the late Curtis Mayfield and his group — also inducted separately — the Impressions.

Throughout February, in conjunction with Black History Month, the Hall of Fame is filling its corridors with the sights and sounds that made the Moonglows and their contemporaries famous. The doh-doh-doh bass parts, the shoop-de-shoop high parts and the matching outfits are all part of the display.

The Dells, whose early-'50s hits included "Oh What a Nite" (RealAudio excerpt), performed at the museum Wednesday. The Dramatics, the Manhattans, the Persuasions and the Penguins also appeared this month. The Penguins' 1954 hit "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)" (RealAudio excerpt) is often cited as one of rock's earliest hits.

Better Late Than Never

"I think [doo-wop] deserves to be a part of history," Penguins co-founder Cleve Duncan said from Los Angeles, where he helped form the group in 1953. "I certainly think everyone deserves that recognition. ... I would say it's better late than never."

Though Duncan, 65, is the only remaining original member of the group, he and current Penguins Walter Saulsberry and Glenn Madison have been together since 1968. Along with original group member Curtis Williams, Duncan arranged the vocals for "Earth Angel."

Robert Santelli, the Hall's vice president of education and public programs, called doo-wop the "most forgotten, most misunderstood, most unappreciated" genre in rock, which likely explains why it has taken so long for honors to arrive. Most doo-wop groups of the '50s hailed from New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

"Because the music wasn't guitar driven, and because it didn't hail from the South, and because doo-wop was primarily a northern, urban musical phenomenon, this music has an identity problem," Santelli said.

Innovation Born Of Necessity

"Its roots are certainly black," Bob Hyde said of the soaring melodies that defined doo-wop. Hyde compiled the four-CD collections The Doo Wop Box I and II for Rhino. "The single biggest element in early doo-wop was gospel."

Hyde, who heads the catalog division of EMI Music, said the vocal groups of the '50s took the harmonies of church music and combined them with the improvisation of jump-jazz and the shuffle of rhythm and blues to create their sound. He also said their often-wild three- and four-part vocal harmonies were mostly an innovation born of necessity.

"It was kind of amateur," Hyde said. "These small independent labels [the groups recorded for] couldn't go out and hire orchestras to go and support these kids. So the low part would substitute for the bass."

'The Word Just Stuck'

The term "doo-wop," used to describe the music of the Orioles, the Ravens, the Flamingos and others, was invented by New York DJ Gus Gossert in the early '70s.

The tag stuck, to the chagrin of such hard-core supporters of the music as Ron Italiano. The New Jersey native runs the National Group Harmony Association, which boasts 2,000 members and stages approximately 40 shows a year in the Northeast. He said he prefers the description "group harmony music."

"It's a losing battle, and sometimes you gotta give in," Italiano said. "The word just stuck."

The rise of the moniker accompanied a doo-wop revival in the 1970s, highlighted by the success of the '50s music tribute band Sha-Na-Na and the musical "Grease."

But the Penguins' Duncan said it didn't really matter to him what people call the music.

"The sound that we make has not changed," he said. "It still remains the same."

Hyde called doo-wop hugely important to the development of rock 'n' roll. He pointed out that Alan Freed, the storied Cleveland DJ credited with bringing rock to the masses for the first time in 1954, gave the Moonglows and other doo-wop groups their initial exposure.

Last year, the Hall of Fame dedicated its Black History Month offerings to gospel, with performances by inductee Al Green and others.