Doo-wop! Simple, sunny and enjoying a revival

Even Beyoncé is getting in on the act, as the sound of the Fifties sets 21st-century toes atapping

Paul Bignell
Sunday 10 February 2013 01:00
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Then: Dion & the Belmonts... And now: The Overtones
Then: Dion & the Belmonts... And now: The Overtones

It was the music that spawned – or at least made a generous contribution to – a generation. And now it's back. Described as barbershop harmony with beat, doo-wop's golden age in the 1950s was a thing of nostalgia. Now a slew of new albums look likely to lead a Lazarus-like resurgence.

Beyoncé, fresh from a barnstorming Super Bowl appearance, has revealed that her new album will feature doo-wop prominently. Ryan Tedder, her co-writer, told Rolling Stone magazine that she would not be following current music trends: "She's not interested in 2012, she's interested in what's 2013." Critics described her recent Super Bowl performance of her Destiny's Child hit "Single Ladies" as "a reinterpretation of that anthem as a girl-group doo-wop".

Another artist going back to his roots is Aaron Neville, lead singer of the Grammy-winning Neville Brothers, who has just released a solo album, My True Story, which celebrates doo-wop. Neville says his musical education came from groups such as the Drifters, the Clovers and the Flamingos, and had such an influence on him that their sound has kept recurring throughout his career. "I've been into every doo-wop there is. I think I went to the university of doo-wop-ology," he said. Surprisingly, the album represents the singer's first foray into the top 10, reaching number seven.

Other groups are also rushing to celebrate the sounds pioneered by such groups as the Orioles, the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers.

Two British bands, the Magnets and the Overtones, are enjoying growing success. The Overtones' Mike Crawshaw said: "We work to a doo-wop template that harks back to bluesy pre-rock'n'roll R&B. We learnt our trade with a cappella, which is different from normal pop as harmonies are a constant throughout. You get artists like Plan B, Cee Lo Green and Amy Winehouse – frankly, you could plonk them straight back in the Forties or Fifties, and they'd sound like the songs we're doing. It's going to be around for some time. It's beautiful, the way music should be."

The term "doo-wop" was taken from the ad-lib syllables sung in harmony in traditional songs from the genre. The 1955 hit "When You Dance" by the Turbans containing the chant "doo-wap" in the chorus is credited with its first use, but historians suggest it was the success of "In the Still of the Night" by the Five Satins, with its "doo-wop, doo-wah" refrain that cemented the name.

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