Dom dom dom dom dom bedooby dom
Can you imagine a group of teenage boys getting together to sing harmony in school and community centre basements and on street corners?
It didn’t matter if it was cold. They’d fill a steel drum – they called it a fire barrel – with scrap wood and paper, light it and warm their hands as they sang.
Can you imagine boys buying records and imitating the singers they heard when the needle hit the grooves? Their heroes weren’t Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Jackie Robinson. Theirs were Jimmy Ricks and Warren Suttles.
Can you imagine boys auditioning to sing in those groups because it was the thing to do, because it got them the girls and maybe record contracts since somebody always seemed to know somebody who knew somebody who produced records?
Well if you can do all that imagining, you’re imagining the Doo-wop era. And the music that spellbound those teens.
Before I start talking about the music, why not sample it? Here are the Ravens with Count Every Star. The Dell Vikings with Come Go With Me. And the Hilltoppers with Till Thenand Trying. Y’all come back now, ya hear!
The essence of Doo-wop
The essence of Doo-wop is in the dom dom dom dom be dooby doms and the doomph badoomph badoomph badoomph doomph. The catchy sounds that the group members sang to accompany whichever member was soloing.
Just try humming behind someone the way they do in barbershop quartets and you’ll see why the backup guys wanted to do something more with their time and talent than just humming along.
Humming was all backup guys were doing in Trying when lead singer Jimmy Sacca was soloing. That’s okay for a while. But try doing it regularly. Boring!
And, by the way, that’s what sets Trying apart from Doo Wop. Because if it ain’t got the dooby doos and the badoo badoo doint doints, it’s not Doo-wop.
Those dooby doos defined
If you were wondering what those sounds were, they’re called onomatopoeia. Onomata … What!? That’s the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates the sound that it describes.
Words like bow bow and meow as well as roar, honk, giggle and chirp are examples of words created to imitate sounds.
So when the bass or baritone sings bom bee bee bom bom. He’s imitating the sound of a bass. And keeping time for the soloist. Shang-a-lang is the sound of a guitar soloing.
The reason Doo-woppers needed to make those sounds is because the early groups couldn’t afford basses and guitars. And even if they could afford a guitar, where could you plug in an amp on a street corner?
Without embarking on a long musicalogical dig for the roots of the music, suffice it to say, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and the Delta Rhythm Boys, all Afro-American groups, inspired the Doo-wop innovators, who were all Afro-American.
Inspired by Black Doo-woppers, White groups like the Hilltoppers, the Belmonts, the Elegants and the Capris followed.
Doo-woppers looked to the Mills Brothers – Donald, Herbert, Harry and John Jr. – the masters of close harmony.
While one Mills brother sang, the other brothers took turns imitating the sounds of the tuba, trumpet and trombone while accompanying the lead singer/brother vocally. With John Jr. backing them up on acoustic guitar and singing, the Mills Brothers were busy fellows. See how busy on How My Doin’.
When it came to making use of soaring lead singers, the Doo-woppers looked to the Ink Spots and their tenor Bill Kenny. The Ink Spots also added what they called a “talking bass” in bass singer Hoppy Jones, who intoned lines like “honeychile if I didn’t care.”
The Delta Rhythminspired with bass singer Lee Gaines who sang lead on most of their hits.
What was the first Doo-wop record to use Doo-wop refrains? A good question. It could have been the Chords in 1954 with Sh Boom, and its Doo-wop lyrics Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alanga Oh oh oh oh dip, a dibby dobby dip.
Or the Turbans, also in 1954, and When You Dance. Hear the doo-wop do wada wada?
Here come the White guys!
Like their Black colleagues, the White doo-woppers were ingenious when it came to finding audiences. The Elegantssang on the boardwalks at Staten Island.
Some groups like the Dupreesreworked standards their parents had danced to.
Eventually groups like the Belmontscreated music that sang to their own generation.
The White guys weren’t slouches when it came to coming up with new ideas. If you want to hear a perfect fusion of Doo-wop and barbershop, give a listen to There’s a Moon Out Tonightby the Capris.
But one thing the White guys lacked: those powerful Black baritones and basses.
Doo Wop eh! The Crewcuts and the Diamonds
Saint Michael’s Choir School in downtown Toronto is a long way from Harlem. But four of the school’s graduates – the Crew Cuts – made it to the charts with cover versions of the Chord’s Sh-boomand the Penguins’ Earth Angel.
Looking for a wider – or whiter audience – the producers of Sh-boom embellished the Crew Cuts’ version with a big band accompaniment. And they were right: the Crew Cuts’ Sh-boom hit #1 on the charts in 1954.
The Diamonds, also from Toronto, got their start harmonising at a Christmas pageant in the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in 1953. The audience liked them and 18 months later they tied for #1 spot on Arthur Godfrey Talents Scouts show.
Then they hit big covering Why Do Fools Fall in Love by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Church Bells May Ring by the Willows and their big one, Little Darlingby the Gladiolas.
Doo-wop was good. But did it make money? Not in its pure form. Certainly not enough for the producers. Sh-boom showed where the money was and operators like George Treadwell, former jazz trumpeter, followed the trail.
There goes Doo-wop
Despite being popular with disc jockeys and on the R&B charts, the Drifters hadn’t made it to the mainstream the way other Black groups like the Platters had.
Treadwell, who owned the Drifter franchise, shook up the group and added words and music from the likes of Lieber and Stoller and Carol King and hits like Stand By Me and Up On the Roof started coming.
Treadwell also co-wrote another Drifter hit, There Goes My Baby. Producers Lieber and Stoller added a string section to what was essentially a Doo-wop melody and Doo-wop’s days were numbered.
The melody lingers on
Groups like the Capris are in their second and third generation, playing to enthusiastic audiences at senior facilities everywhere while the Overtonesare singing their hearts out on the BBC.
Looking for an echo
But the days when teenage boys thought it was cool to sing in school basements and on street corners are long gone. Kenny Vance had it right in his eulogy for the Doo-woppers.
And today when I play my old 45’s, I remember when
We’d practice in a subway, in a lobby or a hall
Crowded in a doorway, singing doo wops to the wall
And if we went to a party and they wouldn’t let us sing
We’d lock ourselves in the bathroom, and nobody could get in
‘Cause we were looking for an echo, an answer to our sound
A place to be in harmony
A place we almost found.