Doo Wop Vocal Group Greats
t might be your grandparents' music, but doo wop is a weird thing. These falsetto-led odes to love and innocence requiring precise singing were born on street corners among gangs of toughs. Spotting your typical doo wop group, you'd be blameless if you crossed to the other side of the street. Of course, as soon as that tenor reached you with his meditations on romance, you'd be cold-hearted if you didn't cross right back over.
Frankie Lymon, one of the genre's stars, explains it for us in song. His lyrics say, "I'm not a juvenile delinquent," but his earnest protestations say, "Yes, I very much am." The trick of the song lies with the fourteen-year-old Lymon wooing the girls as he pacifies the mothers. It's not that doo wop is a particular sexualized form of pop (despite having its moments); it's that it's a very pretty, very romantic style that travels in and out of grit and lust.
Unfortunately, this new box doesn't do much to explain doo wop, offering surface treatment (ah, pretty) and an unguided tour (you'd be wise to pick up something like James Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin to get your bearings). The tracks come at us largely unsequenced, beyond the loose, and date-irrelevant early/middle/late division across the three discs, with the third venturing into forms that could be considered early rock 'n' roll (the Miracles, the Drifters, the Marvelettes). Fortunately, even with key tracks like "Earth Angel," "Sixteen Candles," "Book of Love," and "Sh-Boom" missing, the music's strong from start to finish, functioning not as a history of doo wop but as a more general broadcast.
Disc one starts a little later than it should, in 1955, and although it does backtrack, it never makes it to the '40s or to foundational groups like the Ink Spots. This disc primarily contains that sound that epitomizes doo wop, including tracks like "The Glory of Love," "Blue Velvet," and "Please Send Me Someone to Love." Even in this early stage of the genre, though, its expansive potential is apparent. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters not only spin "Work With Me Annie" into its suggestive natural direction, they also make their rhythmic cooing into coital releases. In the middle of it, we get a guitar solo that decades later Stevie Ray Vaughan would reference for "Pride and Joy." It's four dudes on a corner touching gospel, soul, and blues-rock, all in the hope of getting some.
The second disc rolls along smoothly—doo wop is structured, and, shall we say, formalised, by this time. Within the genre lines come beautiful developments, most notably the bass part to "Sea of Love" by Phil Phillips with The Twilights. The lead tenor here doesn't actually have that engaging a voice, but the nonsense syllables under him guide the song to all its ocean dreaming.
Oddly placed 3/4 of the way through this disc is Danny and The Juniors' "At the Hop," which adds rock 'n' roll music to doo wop harmonies and an unforgettable "Oh, baby" to create something all its own. The inclusion of this song is a great decision: the track's surroundings expose the doo wop elements often buried in the marriage to rock 'n' roll. Its location is odd, near enough the end to suggest it as a forerunner to the tracks on disc three, but it was actually released before nine of its 14 predecessors on the compilation (meaning it's even more progressive than it sounds). More oddly, "Little Darlin'" follows it on the disc, suggesting a lineage when, in fact, this Diamonds tune came out nine months before "At the Hop," making it the likely ancestor.
Those types of decisions keep the box set from being a historically illuminating document, but disc three fully redeems it simply by the strength and breadth of its music. I wouldn't take on any arguments about what is and isn't doo wop on the second half of this disc, but all the tracks have clear ties to the genre. The earlier numbers groove on an increasing bounce, and the later ones start pulling toward the future. In the middle of it, we get one of pop's finest performances, the Drifters' "This Magic Moment," with its hesitation and change on "Sweeter than wine" turning exuberance into epiphanic relaxation.
We're given just one song until the pure fun comes back with "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." One more song and then romance turns dark with The Miracles' "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." It's a fantastic run of songs, even if they make no sense in this sequence beyond mild chronological proximity. Which, unintended as it may be, seems fitting. Doo wop isn't here to make sense for us, even if all its "ooh"s and "aah"s and "oh baby"s carry plenty of meaning.