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Various Artists

It All Started With Doo Wop

(Time Life)

I can see why the kids aren’t all into doo wop. It’s not very rough, you can’t really jump around to it, and its complete lack of Afropop influences makes it less than palatable to those in the know. It’s a music form based on being pretty but without being too showy or artsy and without ostentatious guts on display. But then again, there might be something more to it.


Every six months or so, I spend some time with some doo-wop. Right now it’s because of another Time Life box set, It All Started With Doo Wop, which has a pretty pretentious and essentially wrong title, but it’s still nine CDs and a DVD of some pretty good music. What I’m thinking right now is how maybe only David Lynch (the one who made films, but also the other one) might have gotten this stuff right. After all, the music comes from gangs, has a more powerful revelation of feeling than emo, and isn’t afraid to be funny. These are things each of us should be striving to do in our own lives.


This is the genre that gave us “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, a title which more than suggests the necessity of the protest, but it’s not really a character study. James Miller quotes an old Lymon interview in Flowers in the Dustbin: “When I was 10, I made a good living hustling prostitutes for the white men who would come to Harlem looking for Negro girls.” Lymon did the sex and drugs thing and died early. I’m not advocating prostitution, overdosing on heroin, or associating with small children—I’m just saying this music isn’t as soft as it seems.


It All Started gives us plenty of this music to dive into, and, of course, much of it is both great and familiar. Even though the set obviously can’t be complete in any real sense, the casual doo wop fan (which all music listeners should be, by the way) will have more than enough to keep them entertained for a minute or two. The hardcore fan will likely have many of these tracks, which speaks more to the set’s power for an instant collection than for any sort of redundancy. It seems like too few bird-named groups are represented, but the Orioles and Penguins are represented, so we’re okay.


Of course, Time Life falls into the sorts of traps it too often sets for itself. The first you just need to get over: yes, it’s still being marketed by infomercial (this time with Dion, but admittedly Dion’s sort of awesome). The second one is a little more problematic: the label seems caught between random accumulation and mass marketing and its newer line of scholarship. The liner notes, by Billy Vera, are fine enough, but don’t really reach the level of insight. I’m just as happy to have only the lyrics in the “Street Corner Symphonies” subset, but I’m disappointed they left out the backup syllables.


The scattershot approach to the compilation has both its negative and positive implications. On the negative side, the compilation is too inclusive. Time Life can construct its genres loosely, and here that leads to the inclusion of groups like the Supremes, the Shirelles, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. While those choices don’t initially make too much sense, they do help to contextualize doo wop a little. The music is rooted in (and a contributor to) R&B, and there are clear similarities between both a Motown sound and a girl group approach (at least as far as the vocals are concerned). While hearing Diana Ross suddenly appear on a doo wop compilation might be jarring, it’s only because the voice is a surprise, not because it doesn’t fit.


Of course, these sets aren’t entirely about fit. Each disc (or pair of disc) is collected under a title like “The Closer You Are” or “Looking for an Echo”, usually taken from a song title. The songs aren’t gathered thematically under these labels, though, nor is there a chronological import to the sequencing. It’s a harmless situation, although it does become laughable when the “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” set opens with the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak”. The liner notes are serviceable, and the inclusion of lyrics is nice (even with the regrettable lack of nonsense syllables).


At times, It All Started With Doo Wop seems to have more to do with the licensing power of Time Life rather than an ostensible love of the music, but, if that’s the case, it’s irrelevant. What does matter is that the label has collected nearly 150 classic songs (and a DVD of 21 recent performances by these artists). It’s not a perfect set, but it coheres well enough, and it’s as much doo wop as you’re likely to need, at least for the time being.

Rating:

Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.


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