Music: Together in perfect harmony

Fifty years ago, there was no rock'n'roll. Music was fresh-faced, vocals were pure, lyrics were divine. And they called it doo-wop. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
Like rap in the Eighties, doo-wop in the Fifties was the DIY music of black America. All it needed was voices, a popular song to rearrange, and the echo of a subway or apartment stairwell.

Street-corner choirs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles took their lead from the big vocal groups of the Forties, like the Ink Spots or the Ravens, and started to make it up as they went along. With a bass voice pumping out the rhythm, a high falsetto taking the lead, and tenor and baritone providing the swooning harmonies and grace notes that gave the form its name, doo-wop was perfect music for people too poor to afford proper instruments.

The songs were romantic celebrations of undying love or laments for its loss. As the trend went national and coincided with the invention of the teenager, doo-wop briefly became the voice of young America, what the critic Greil Marcus has called the beginning of rock'n'roll. Through groups like the Platters, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, and later Dion and the Belmonts, and the Four Seasons, what had once been an "underground" phenomenon made the real hit parade, not just the Billboard "race" charts. Then, as if the first real teenage fad had to reap what it sowed, doo- wop faded and all but died.

Today, you hear it mainly on the soundtracks to films by Martin Scorsese, who named his first feature film, Who's That Knocking At My Door? after a doo-wop hit. Lauryn Hill also recently paid tribute to the form with a song on her debut album, and every time you hear Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield or Terry Callier croon a sweet falsetto ballad, the connection is inescapable. Although the exact date of the anniversary is almost impossible to determine, doo-wop is 50 years old. And if Purcell and Duke Ellington can get their due, it's surely unfair to let this century wind to a close without celebrating one of its most distinctive sounds.

The true birthday of doo-wop may have been as early as 1948, when the Orioles "It's Too Soon to Know" topped the Billboard "race" chart. It could be 1950, when the Ravens created a new variation of their signature sound on Count Every Star. What's certain is that by the very early Fifties, vocal groups named after birds (the Crows, the Penguins, the Flamingos, the Robins, the Meadowlarks), or cars (the Cadillacs, the Coupe de Villes, the Lincolns), or music (the Chords, the Dubs, the Cleftones, the Harptones), were everywhere. But, what does doo-wop mean?

For Martin Scorsese, who has used doo-wop tracks in Mean Streets, After Dark, Goodfellas and Casino, it seems to represent a kind of lost innocence. Unlike the more openly bluesy and rebellious R&B of the time, preoccupied with the more adult subjects epitomised by songs like "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," doo-wop showed a more optimistic and accepting face to the world. Although most vocal groups mixed their gooey ballads with generic jump blues modelled after Louis Jordan or Wynonie Harris, doo- wop was not a good medium for the low down and dirty. The purity and youthfulness of the gorgeously congruent voices created its own aesthetic, and some of the best doo-wop songs are the most unworldly. Religious and celestial metaphors abound, "A Sunday Kind of Love" by the Harptones; "Heaven and Paradise" by the Meadowlarks; "Earth Angel" by the Penguins.

The latter two belong to what for me is the best of all regional doo- wop styles, that of Los Angeles, where recordings for the Specialty, Modern and Doo-Tone labels gradually evolved into a ridiculously wobbly, often badly out of key, genre of lugubrious teen laments. You can hear an affectionate parody of the style in "Cruising With Reuben and the Jets" by the Mothers of Invention, whose Frank Zappa wrote for the Penguins when he was a teenager of East LA's El Monte (the same nowhere Latino suburb where novelist James Ellroy grew up), participating in the decadence-stage of doo-wop's late Fifties demise.

Perhaps the greatest of all the LA doo-wop performances, however, is the track "Dream Girl" by the duo of Jesse and Marvin, recorded for Specialty in 1952. It's just two voices, but the slurred syllables and unbelievably slow tempo represent the pinnacle of the West Coast-slacker style. Sung by Marvin Phillips and Jesse Belvin (a hugely important early R&B star who, like Richard Berry - the writer of "Louie Louie" - is unforgivably absent from most rock'n'roll histories), "Dream Girl" is the ne plus ultra of R&B vocals. When, shortly after the recording, Jesse Belvin was drafted into the army, Marvin Phillips changed the group's name to Marvin and Johnny, recruited Emory Perry in Belvin's place, and went on to produce a number of killer singles in the same gooey vein.

This weekend, as if in homage to the notional 50th anniversary of doo- wop, Marvin and Johnny will be in Britain, where they are to headline the Saturday night of a three-day bill at "Rhythm Riot", a 1950s R&B and rock'n'roll weekend sponsored by Ace Records at the Camber Sands Holiday Centre, Sussex.

Inspired to contact Marvin and find out why West Coast doo-wop sounds as it does, I managed to speak to his nephew and musical director, Rip Spencer, who used to sing with the Valiants and the Alley Cats. "Marvin's old-school," the impeccably courteous Spencer says. "He doesn't like to do interviews. I can tell you all you want to know.

"I bought the name Marvin and Johnny from him when he quit the business in 1962, and we've had quite a few Johnnies since then, including me. He quit because he was sick of being stabbed in the back and ripped off, not getting his royalties paid and having his songs stolen, so he didn't want to do anything. I finally convinced him to come back into the business in 1990."

As to where the sound came from, Spencer takes a long breath. "Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry and those guys were a big influence," he says. "They were singing like that at Jefferson High School, Los Angeles High, and Marvin went to Belmont High. We had all of these clubs, like the California Club and the Nightlife Club, and we kind of influenced ourselves. There weren't too many DJs, but Hunter Hancock was playing black R&B on the radio and we got into his sound. Maybe the sound was because of the accent, or the smog we were breathing. Marvin also had this really beautiful baritone voice, and everybody was into Billy Eckstine then."

The patented Marvin and Johnny sound was, it seems, partly the result of a lazy, drawling, version of Mr B's romantic ballads. Doo-wop in LA continues to exist, 50 years on. "Of course, a lot of the guys have kicked the bucket," Spencer says. "Jesse's gone, Richard Berry too, but there are still a few of the Hispanics, and they really like our music. It's not as extravagant as it was, but we still play to 500 or 600 people on weekends. The Hispanics like to dress in the old style and drive their low riders. And Marvin, he's singing better than ever."

It's past midnight and before going to bed I play the Spaniels' "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight" - as you do. The cat's cradle of voices is as perfect as the roof vaulting in a particularly inspired cathedral. Doo-wop really is sublime. Happy birthday to ya.

The `Rhythm Riot', starring Marvin and Johnny, Nappy Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Joe Houston and many more, is at Camber Sands Holiday Centre, Sussex, from tonight to Monday (booking: 0181-566 2525). The albums, `Flipped Out' and `Cherry Pie', by Marvin and Johnny, are available on Ace Records