It’s time to once more welcome our very special guest blogger John Walker Ross! John is the creator and curator of our favorite blog about Music and the world “The Round place in the Middle”. Here’s Johnny!
There’s been a running debate about when Rock ‘n’ Roll began since, well, Rock ‘n’ Roll began. For me the question’s answer has always been easy: Rock ‘n’ Roll began when Fats Domino’s left hand, a piano, and a recording mike were put in the same room together to lay down “The Fat Man” in the last month of 1949. The four thousand other explanations I’ve heard are so much hooey.
Doo wop, as it came to be called many years later, began about two minutes after Fats started playing his piano, when he went into a wordless falsetto wail during what can’t really be called a verse, bridge or chorus. It’s as if Fats decided since the train was leaving the station and he was the engineer he might as well let loose with the whistle. In that moment he found the permanent space between discipline and anarchy where rock ‘n’ roll would live.
There was already a strong, distinct vocal group tradition in Black America, ready to wed with whatever happened next, and that subject is worth several books. By the time White America joined in—mostly urban immigrants who lived cheek-by-jowl to black neighborhoods in America’s inner cities—sometime during the mid-fifties (the southern hillbillies who created rockabilly were on the same train at the same time but in a different car), doo wop, as it was still not called, became the third leg of the 50’s revolution.
But, despite the respect, even obsession, of collectors, aficionados, even the occasional crit-illuminati (those big name critics who largely determine the narratives the rest of us are forced to consume even if it’s only so we know where the argument is supposed to start), doo wop has never achieved quite the credibility of rockabilly or hardcore 50’s R&B. I can make an argument, though, that its reach has been even farther and its effects longer-lasting.
For starters, it never died. There was a strong doo wop revival in the early 60s and, while a lot has been made about the British Invasion kicking life back into rock and roll generally (and one can debate that but we’re sticking to accepted narratives here), it wasn’t an accident that the four existing prime American forces which survived and thrived into the mid-60’s—Chicago Soul, the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons and Motown—all had deep roots in what was still not called doo wop.
The doo wop-rooted history of Chicago soul, from “Your Precious Love” to Superfly and the roots of Philly International, can best be heard on The Impressions: The Vintage Years, which is worthy of its own book. I hope to write that book myself some day so I’ll leave the subject for another time.
Of the others, the Four Seasons were the most obvious. In the late Summer of 1962 they parlayed a decade of slogging through dingy night clubs, pool halls, and bowling alleys into Overnight Success, stomping to the top of the charts as the biggest phenoms between Elvis and the Beatles with a sound that amounted to Doo Wop on Steroids. Frankie Valli’s wail was the strongest force in the style since Clyde McPhatter set its limits in the early 50’s and the group’s arrangements the most inventive since Dion left the Belmonts. They sailed through the British Invasion, Folk Rock and early Psychedelia, before they were stopped by the Late Sixties—and, it should be noted, by forgetting where they came from. When the doo wop arrangements died, so did the Seasons, though they eventually reinvented themselves in the 70’s, contemporaneously with the Bee Gees, who were about to dominate the charts as no one had since the Beatles, by putting doo wop-rooted disco on steroids (and it was that version of the Seasons who brought fifteen-year-old me into the record stores and, from there, straight back to the 60’s…a story I’ve already told on my website.
The Beach Boys arrived at the same moment as the Seasons (and the same moment the Beatles hit the British charts—thus was the concept of the self-contained rock band born all at once and everywhere), though with a bit less fanfare. It was evident from their earliest albums that Brian Wilson was, in particular, a first-generation example of what would one day be known as the Doo Wop Freak, even if he was determined to wed the emotional aesthetic to the Four Freshmen’s smoother-but-hardly-unrelated approach and throw in a little Chuck Berry guitar.
Still, when the rubber met the road—roughly from 1963’s “Surfer Girl” to 1967’s Wild Honey —it did so at a spot where the 50’s multi-racial vocal-group tradition was clearly behind the wheel of the car. If you want to have some idea of how much all that meant, spend a day with your favorite oldies’ station or streaming service that plays music from the two decades after Wild Honey and see how long it takes to spot a “Beach Boys” chorus. Bet it won’t take more than twenty minutes, advertisements included.
And then there’s Motown. I’ve written about it before, but just to reiterate, the importance of Motown in extending the Rock and Roll Revolution of the 50’s well beyond any shelf life the powers-that-be ever intended is incalculable. I won’t go back into the socio-political significance of that. I only want to emphasize the outsized influence the 50’s-era vocal group sounds that collectors and other lovers-beyond-all-reason would eventually place under the umbrella of the intended insult “doo wop” (or doowop or Doowop or Doo Wop or doo-wop or…well you get the idea) had on Motown’s actual music.
There was a lot going on in Motown’s music. Every style of 40’s and 50’s R&B, every style of Jazz, most styles of Pop, even a little Country. Tough stuff and, except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, Berry Gordy had the broadest and deepest vision going in American music. If Motown had not become its own brand a good bit of what made the label famous to begin with would probably now be simply called Doo Wop: “Shop Around,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” And because Smokey Robinson, Clyde McPhatter’s natural heir, became such a force in the label’s success—someone who had to be contended with, in-house and in the culture, as singer, arranger, lyricist, composer, producer, businessman, poet—the doo wop ethos was never far from the center of later era-defining hits by the Tempts, Tops, Supremes and others, even when Smokey himself was not directly involved.
Through all that, Motown became, with Elvis and Chicago’s aforementioned Curtis Mayfield/Jerry Butler axis, the only American force operating in 1963, as the first doo wop revival was coming to an end, to thrive beyond the Summer of Love.
When the label passed more responsibility to younger producers like Norman Whitfield and Ashford and Simpson they were intent on keeping up with the times—thus we got late-60’s spooky, fin de siecle masterpieces like “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” most of which amounted to Motown’s response to Sly Stone’s revolution, which had begun in James Brown’s revolution, which had begun in the 50’s with sides like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” that already sounded like something new but also felt of a piece with so much of the era’s R&B radio.
You know, where they played right next to the records they were inspired by and inspired in turn: the records that would one day be called Doo Wop.