Origins of name
In the beginning and during its heyday, this type of music did not have a specific name; the term "doo-wop" was not used.
In the 1950s, this type of harmonized group sound was referred to (broadly) as "rock and roll," but more narrowly as "R&B." However, R&B was still too general a term, since R&B included single artists, instrumentalists, and jump blues bands, as well as vocal groups. At the time, the best and most accurate term used was probably "vocal group harmony," but the style still did not have an official name, despite the fact that it dominated the charts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The term "doo-wop" first appeared in print in 1961, notably in the Chicago Defender, when fans of the music coined the term during the height of a vocal harmony resurgence. After the doo-wop era ended in 1964, making way for the Beatles, some record stores began selling the old doo-wop records, but had to categorize them with a name. The record stores began using the term "old town music" to describe the sound, which indicated the music's urban roots. "Old town" was the accepted term for a long time, but it never really caught on.
There is confusion regarding which recording was the "first" to contain the phrase "doo-wop." There is general acknowledgement that the first hit record to use the syllables "doo-wop" in the refrain was the 1955 hit, "When You Dance" by The Turbans (Herald Records H-458), in which the chant "doo-wop" can clearly be heard. As for the very first instance ever, there are several candidates: "doo-wop" can be heard in the chorus of the 1954 song "Never" by a Los Angeles group called Carlyle Dundee & The Dundees (Space Records 201); the 1955 song "Mary Lee" by The Rainbows on Red Robin Records contains the background "do wop de wadda" and was a Washington DC regional hit on Pilgrim 703; the 1956 song "In the Still of the Night" by The Five Satins, featured the famous plaintive "doo-wop, doo-wah" refrain in the bridge; and finally, the little-known "I Belong To You" by the Fi-Tones in 1956 on the Atlas label (release #1055).
It has been erroneously reported that the phrase was coined by radio disc jockey Gus Gossert in the early 1970s. However, Gossert himself said that "doo-wop(p) was already being used [before me] to categorize the music in California." After some time,the term "doo-wop" finally caught on as a description and category for R&B vocal group harmony. Many collections that were exclusively composed of original recordings of this music were sold, all under the name of "doo wop," which became the accepted term that still is used today.The definition expanded backward to include rhythm and blues groups from the mid-1950s and then even further back to include groups from the early 1950s and even the 1940s. There is no consensus as to what constitutes a doo-wop song, and many aficionados of R&B music dislike the term intensely, preferring to use the term "group vocal harmony" instead.
Among the earliest recorded examples of African-American vocal-group music is "My Prayer" by the Ink Spots, in 1939. According to some authorities, this may be the oldest known recorded doo-wop song. Doo-wop had its roots in the 1930s and 1940s music, and evolved from groups that sang gospel in churches, in African American urban areas. It was gospel music from these churches, where doo-wop truly began. However, influences of the blues were also added at this time, giving the music its own identity. Sometimes members of churches who sang gospel, would amass on street corners with their own music and lyrics, generally singing about love or relationships in their music. These street corner groups would generally (there were exceptions) consist of 3 to 6 members, and the music would consist of 3, 4, and even 5 part harmonies. That was the key to the doo-wop sound, harmony ... the heavy presence of soulful, simultaneous harmonies. Since the members did not use instruments on these street corners, it was done using only voice, making it a cappella.
Some of the singers imitated instruments while singing the nonsense syllables from which the name of the style is derived. The name was later extended to group harmony. An example of this includes "Count Every Star" by The Ravens (1950), which includes vocalizations imitating the "doomph, doomph" plucking of a double bass. This vocal style created a template for later groups. Among the earliest popular African-American vocal groups to make an impact were the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. Later, The Orioles helped develop the doo-wop sound with their hits "It's Too Soon to Know" (1948) and "Crying in the Chapel" (1953). Doo-wop broke into the mainstream in 1951, with R&B chart hits such as "My Reverie" by The Larks, "Where Are You?" by The Mello-Moods, "The Glory of Love" by The Five Keys, "Shouldn't I Know" by The Cardinals, "I Will Wait" by the Four Buddies, and "Will You Be Mine" by The Swallows. Other important African American doo-wop groups included The Marcels, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Moonglows, Clovers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The "5" Royales, The Flamingos, The Dells, The Cadillacs, The Midnighters, and The Platters.
When "doo-wop" was first being recorded in the late 1930s and 40s, usually instruments were included for the recorded version. Listening to very early doo-wop from the 1940s, the very strong gospel influence is heard...so much in fact, that much of it can be mistaken for gospel music (with the influence of blues added). Most doo-wop of this era was slow music...and very bluesy. Some of this early doo-wop did not have a repeating chorus and repeating harmonies, but much of it did. In the early 1950s almost all doo-wop was uniform in its formula. Many songs were becoming mainstream, with songs like "Since You've Been Away" by The Swallows in 1951, and "The Glory of Love" by The Five Keys, also in 1951. By 1953, doo-wop was popular in pockets across the country among a broader audience, notably in Cleveland, Ohio, where disc jockey Alan Freed began introducing black groups' music to his white audiences. Groups included The Spaniels, The Coronets, The Moonglows, and The Flamingos, whose song "Golden Teardrops" is a classic of the genre.
In 1954, doo-wop groups played a significant role in ushering in the rock and rollrhythm and blues hits by vocal harmony groups, "Gee" by The Crows and "Sh-Boom" by the The Chords crossed over onto the pop music charts. The success of these records was significant, and quickly other R&B vocal groups began entering the pop charts, particularly in 1955, the breakthrough year in the introduction of rock and roll. That year saw such cross-over doowop hits as "Sincerely" by The Moonglows, "Earth Angel" by the Penguins, and "Only You" by The Platters. The following year, the cross-over record by The Turbans, "When You Dance," became the first doo-wop hit that used the "doo-wop" vocal riff. era, when two big
Doo-wop records were being made with faster beats, as often as with slower beats. This faster element was aimed at the younger, teenage audience. It was at this time in 1956, when doo-wop was about to become a national phenomenon. Until this time, although many doo-wop songs were heard on radio stations near urban areas like New York, much of the country did not hear the music yet. This, despite a number of hits that were placing high on the charts in '54 and '55, culminating with doo-wop's first number one pop chart hit in 1956, "The Great Pretender" by The Platters.
The big break for the genre came in 1956, when Frankie Lymon and his group "The Teenagers" appeared on the Frankie Laine show in New York, which was televised nationally. America tuned in to watch Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers perform their new smash hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" But since this type of music still did not have its own name, the show's host Frankie Laine referred to it as "rock and roll." Curiously, the band backing up Frankie Lymon was Frankie Laine's own jazz band, and they were playing in the wrong key. As the band played in the key of D, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers sang in the key of E. Despite this, the song somehow came off sounding well, and received high acclaim. After this popular performance on the Frankie Laine show, it was common to see doo-wop songs in the top 5, sometimes all of the top 5. Frankie Lymon put up a string of hits, including "I Promise To Remember," "Share," and "I'm not a Juvenile Delinquent." Doo-wop became one of the most popular genres of the mid and late 1950s and early 1960s.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers illustrated a new sub-category of doo-wop that became known as "kiddie doo-wop." This was performed by groups with several older members but with a lead aged around 12 or 13. Kiddie doo-wop became very popular, and in 1957, Frankie Lymon's talented little brother Lewis Lymon got into the doo-wop scene with his own very successful group, The Teenchords. Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords had a string of hits in 1957 including "Your Last Chance," "(You Don't know) Honey Honey," "Tell Me Love," and "I'm So Happy." Another of these groups were The Kodaks, with hits like "Oh Gee Oh Gosh," and "Runaround Baby." However, from 1958 onward, the public began favoring groups with older lead singers. Some of these groups include The Rays with "Silhouettes" in 1957, "Plea in the Moonlight" by The Gaytunes, and in 1958, "Book of Love" by the The Monotones. Another important group in the doo-wop genre was Earl Lewis and the Channels with a string of songs that did well in the northeast, including "The Closer You Are," "The Girl Next Door," "Now You Know" and "Bye Bye Baby."
"Racially integrated" groups—those with both black and white performers—were also making the scene. Some racially integrated groups were the The Del-Vikings, who hit big in 1957 with "Come Go With Me" and "Whispering Bells," The Crests1960, and the Five Discs with "Never Let You Go" in 1961. The Timetones also had a few hits including "Here in my Heart" in 1961. These groups and others like them were very successful. with "The Angels Listened In" in
All-white doo-wop groups were also appearing. Two very early all-white groups were the Mello Kings in 1956 with "Tonight, Tonight," and The Diamonds, also in 1956. The Diamonds produced many hits, and topped the charts with "Little Darlin'" in 1957. Other examples are The Castaleers in 1958 with "You're My Dream" and The Skyliners, who hit big in 1959 with "Since I Don't Have You" and in 1960 with "This I Swear." The Tokens were another example, with hits in 1961 like "Tonight I Fell In Love" and "I Love My Baby." The Excellents, (who hailed from the Bronx but sang about Brooklyn) hit big in 1961 with "Coney Island Baby." However, of the white groups, the ones with Italian heritage were beginning to weigh in the most heavily.
The rise of Italian-American doo-wop
1958 heralded the rise of Italian doo-wop groups. This sub-group took over a large portion of the genre (but certainly not all of it), from 1959 to 1964, when doo-wop "ended." Though some African-Americans moved toward their new creation, "soul music," this alone cannot explain the Italian genre dominance. Like African-Americans, the Italians were extremely talented singers, and also hailed from the inner city and urban areas. For example, Dion DiMucci and the Belmonts hailed from the Belmont section of the Bronx. And, like African-Americans, the Italians were generally very religious. They mostly attended Catholic churches, which gave them much singing experience. By the late 1950s, Italian street corner doo-wop groups were seen in urban cities like New York, especially the Bronx and Brooklyn. Some of the Italian groups who had national chart hits included Dion and the Belmonts in 1958 with "A Teenager In Love," The Capris with "There's A Moon Out Tonight" in 1960, The Elegants, The Mystics, The Duprees, Vito & the Salutations, and the Del Satins. Other Italian groups included Dino and the Diplomats, The Four Jays, The Essentials, and Randy and the Rainbows, who charted with their 1963 smash, "Denise."
Doo-wop remained popular until just before the British Invasion of 1964. 1961 might have been the peak of doo-wop, with hits that include The Marcels' "Blue Moon." There was a revival of the nonsense-syllable form of doo-wop in the early 1960s, with popular records by The Marcels, The Rivingtons, and Vito & the Salutations. A few years later, the genre had reached the self-referential stage, with songs about the singers ("Mr. Bass Man" by Johnny Cymbal) and the songwriters ("Who Put the Bomp?" by Barry Mann) in 1961.
Total numbers of recordingsDuring its recording era from around 1939 to 1964, many groups produced doo-wop songs on 78 rpm records, and on 45 rpm records. During the late 1950s and early 1960s because of its popularity, some radio stations were flooded with new doo-wop records, not all of which could be put on the air; so many high-quality recordings did not receive any air time, and some previously unreleased doo-wop is still being released on CD sets. In some cases only a hundred records of a particular song would be pressed, and were then rarely played. Some old doo-wop records that never aired are still being discovered. Some estimates put the number of doo-wop songs recorded from 1939 to 1964 to be over 30,000.
The genre has seen revivals at various points in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Its main artists are concentrated in urban areas (New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, Los Angeles, and others), with a few exceptions. Revival shows on TV and boxed CD sets (ex. DooWop Box 1–3) have kept people's interest in the music. Groups have done remakes of doo-wops with great success over the years. Part of the regional beach music or shag music scene, centered in the Carolinas and surrounding states, includes both the original classic recordings and numerous remakes over the years.
Britain also made a notable contribution in the mid-late 1970s with the group Darts, who successfully (and with some authenticity) revived revered doo-wop standards such as "Daddy Cool," "Come Back My Love" and "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart."
Other artists have had doo-wop or doo-wop-influenced hits in later years, such as Led Zeppelin's 1973 song "D'yer Mak'er," David Bowie's 1973 hit "Drive-In Saturday," Billy Joel's 1983 hit, "The Longest Time," Frank Zappa's 1981 song, "Fine Girl," or Electric Light Orchestra's 1977 smash "Telephone Line." PunkMisfits, The Ramones, and The Riverdales also included a healthy amount of doo-wop in their songs. The last known doo-wop hit was "It's Alright" by Huey Lewis and the News, which reached number 6 on the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart in June 1993. "Someone," a B-side from the 2002 Red Hot Chili Peppers' album By The Way is an example of the doo-wop style in the 2000s. In fact, much of the album was noted to contain some doo-wop style. Another song from the By The Way sessions to feature a doo-wop influence, was a cover for "Teenager In Love," originally recorded by Dion and The Belmonts. bands like the
A number of band names are drawn from birds (e.g., The Orioles, The Ravens, The Cardinals, The Crows, The Swallows, The Larks, The Flamingos) and from cars: The Edsels, The Cadillacs, The Fleetwoods, The Impalas, and Little Anthony & The Imperials). Doo-wop is popular among collegiate a cappella groups due to its easy adaptation to an all-vocal form. Doo-wop recently experienced a resurgence in popularity with PBS' doo-wop concert programs: Doo Wop 50, Doo Wop 51, and Rock, Rhythm, and Doo Wop. These programs brought back together, live on stage, some of the better known doo-wop groups of the past.