Earlier this month, Iowa Public Television showed the special Rock, Pop and Doo Wop as part of their “Festival” fundraising programming. Judging from the frequency of such shows featuring doo wop during their crucial funding drives, I can’t help but conclude that these shows are popular, at least among those who might be willing to open up their pocketbooks. For younger viewers and younger music fans, in general, the term doo wop may not hold a lot of meaning.
Doo wop is a label applied (retrospectively) to a music style that grew out of R&B during the late 1940s/early 1950s and became a major component of rock and roll during its formative stage. The hallmark of doo wop is that it relies on vocal harmonies, often sung a cappella, or with very limited instrumentation, to create the bulk of its sound. As R&B is a historically black music idiom, all of the earliest doo wop practitioners were indeed black vocal groups. Doo wop originated in New York City and Philadelphia, but also thrived early on in other cities of the northeast United States before spreading to cities nationwide.
Many doo wop tunes became national hits on the U.S. singles chart starting in the mid-fifties – the white Canadian vocal group The Crew-Cuts cover of the black R&B group The Chords’ song “Sh-Boom” is generally considered to be doo wop’s first number one single. Although the majority of doo wop groups continued to consist of all-black lineups, doo wop increasingly attracted the interest of white singers, especially among Italian Americans, but remained an urban phenomenon. Interestingly, at a time in which there was still very little interracial mixing, there were a number of instances where blacks, whites and/or Hispanics came together in doo wop groups, including such major artists as The Crests, The Del-Vikings, and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers.
Doo wop was an almost entirely male style, although a few otherwise male groups – The Platters being the most notable example – employed a single female singer. There was a female school of doo wop, headed quite prominently by The Shirelles, but “girl group” quickly became the tag used for those female vocal harmony acts, whose heyday was from the late-1950s to late-1960s.
Doo wop’s success only lasted until the mid-sixties, when the British Invasion radically changed musical tastes and realistically ended the doo wop era. The black doo wop groups that were able to adapt to the new scene moved into the soul genre (The Miracles, for example), while the white ones moved into mainstream pop (like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons).
One problem posed by the recording norms of the doo wop era is that most songs were only released as singles, often by small labels that soon went out belly up. As a result, many of the best-loved doo wop songs are by one-hit wonders, whose time in the limelight was fleeting. Even many of the groups who charted multiple times never released a proper album. Fortunately, many of these singles have been gathered together on compilations that hit the highlights of the doo wop era. The Des Moines Public Library has a fine collection of such albums, so if you’d like to try one or more of them, click here.
Several doo wop groups, of course, were able to have long careers, though even many of those acts can only be heard on career compilations. The following is an alphabetical list of ten significant doo wop artists and the albums owned by the Des Moines Public Library that best represent their musical legacy.
The Coasters – The Very Best of the Coasters
The Crests – The Best of Johnny Maestro, 1958-1985
The Diamonds – Little Darlin’: 25 Golden Hits
Dion & The Belmonts/Dion – The Essential Dion
The Drifters – All-Time Greatest Hits
The Five Satins – The Five Satins Sing Their Greatest Hits
The Flamingos – The Best of the Flamingos
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers – The Very Best of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
The Heartbeats – The Best of the Heartbeats: Including Shep & The Limelites
The Platters – 20 Greatest Hits