It’s interesting that a doo wop album with a Hot Rod Magazine cover doesn’t feature any songs from The Cadillacs or The El Dorados. Neither does it have tracks from The Spaniels or The Capris. In fact, this collection offers very little doo wop in its purest sense. The idiom, as represented here, was exploited and substantially altered by record companies in the early 1950s.
Doo wop developed in post-World War II urban America and was principally the a capella singing of teenage gangs. Though significantly influenced by black R&B, the distinctive flavor of doo wop derived from Italian and Irish barbershop singing. As young ruffians roamed the streets they postured for female affections with a soaring falsettos backed by tight, bouyant harmonies. It relieved stress; otherwise, it was a way of saying, “I got your girl, and if you got anything to say about it, here’s my boys.” Doo wop was an antecedent to rap and hip-hop. It can still be heard occasionally in the subway stations of New York City, and if authentic doo wop is what the listener desires, that is where one needs to go. *Doo Wop Heaven*, on the other hand, is a nostalgic expose of how a distinctive urban style became bastardized to sell 45s.
Since most of the best doo wop quartets and quintets were black, it behooved record companies to “whiten” their sound. At the time there remained a lingering aversion to the “race records” of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Hence the introduction of drums, pianos and strings. The groups were dressed in matching suits, and their hair was slicked up to match the studio production.
“In the Still of the Night,” by The Five Satins, is the most-played song in the history of recorded doo wop, but the title is perplexing: is there such a thing as a still night in the big city? Clearly there was an effort afoot to write material suited for suburban America. “Ling Ting Tong” by The Five Keys utterly violates the street-smart spirit of doo wop, and was indicative of that most heinous sub-genre, “beach music,” exploited by The Drifters and other Myrtle Beach acts whose pleasure was to delight drunken, shagging whites. And “Since I Don’t Have You” by The Skyliners introduced a host of heresies: swelling strings, virtually non-existent backing vocals, and a female voice (a girl in the gang, forsooth!) soaring over the falsetto.
The other phenomenon observed on this collection is the effect embryonic rock ‘n’ roll had on doo wop. Bill Haley & The Comets invented rock by tweeking jump blues—revving up the drums while constraining the horns. The effect is heard in the break of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and “Blue Moon” by the Marcels. And the difference between The Rainbows’ “Denise” and Buddy Hollie’s “Peggy Sue” may be no more than the color of a girl’s sweater.
Remarkably, one of the best examples of genuine doo wop on this collection comes from The Belmonts. Being all-white, the group wasn’t subject to the same “cleaning up” as their peers, so the spirited vocals on “I Wonder Why” fleetingly capture the feel of nasally, Italian/Jewish kids hanging out on the corner. “My True Story” by The Jive Five is also noteworthy. But then the listener must suffer through such duds as The Velvetones’ “The Glory of Love” with its corny recitation (”...why you fool, you sad, sad, worthless, foolish fool..”) and the downright annoying ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop’ by The Imperials.
There is one track on this collection that is worthwhile, not because it rates as doo wop, but because of its creative production quality. The Flamingos “I Only Have Eyes for You” continues to send chills some 41 years after its release. The tempo of the song was slowed to a crawl while the backing vocals (‘she-bop-do-bop’) were rapid fired in an echo chamber. Combined with a dreamy lead vocal and vibrato bass notes, this recording evoked a surreal mood and ambiance that makes it among the most provocative 45s ever made. It was The Platters on acid.
Nevertheless, Doo Wop Heaven is simply a collection of chart hits rather than an examination of America’s most primitive and romantic urban musical style. This is a recreational album, the kind you wax your ‘55 Chevy to beneath blue suburban skies. But humming these tunes won’t incite any any rumbles on the mean streets.