Times change, and, with them, musical tastes. Every now and then, though, a bad case of nostalgia hits America, and older groups get a second chance to revel in a bit of popularity while the fever is strong. Doo-wop music is one passé sound that received a shot in the arm in December 1999, when PBS aired a special entitled Doo Wop 50 that featured such legends of the genre as The Platters and The Del-Vikings. While doo-wop is one of the more sentimental sounds of the ‘50s, one advantage it has in remaining high in esteem is that it is based not on faddish production, but on vocal ability. And no matter what types of orchestration, arrangements, and production fade in and out of favor, the one thing that never goes out of style is great singing.
The Calvanes are one of the original West Coast doo-wop groups of the ‘50s, but they never made many records, and therefore failed to become a household name. Surely, though, they reaped some of the benefits of the renewed interest in doo-wop, as original members Herman Pruitt and Bobby Adams, along with longtime member Fred Willis and 1990 addition Jimmy Corbitt, had continued to perform throughout the years. The group got a break when, after providing backing vocals on Big Sandy’s Dedicated to You, they were invited to record an album for Hightone Records. The result is the wonderful, if belated, In Harmony.
What makes In Harmony so great is that it doesn’t sound gimmicky. Instead of trying to tailor The Calvanes to appeal to a modern audience, producers Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg have wisely tailored the material, including a few originals, to them. The result is something like being transported back in time to a 1950s dance.
The album’s opener, an a cappella version of “Traveling Stranger”, makes it clear right away what this album is all about: high-quality harmonies. The singing throughout is first-rate, whether the group is honing its chops on sentimental ballads (“When We Get Married”) or gritty, street-wise tales (“Mary Lou”, “Smokey Joe’s Café”). The backing musicians, including Carl Sonny Leyland, Bobby Trimble (Fly-Rite Boys), and Skip Edwards (Dwight Yoakam), are also an excellent bunch, less inclined to showing off their virtuosity than providing a rich backing for The Calvanes’ warm voices.
The producers hand-picked both the backing musicians and the material on In Harmony, including “Don’t Take Your Love from Me”, a minor hit the group originally recorded for the Dootone label in the ‘50s. It is such a sweet detail as this that tells just how much care everyone involved with this album took to make it the gem that it is.
// Notes from the Road
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