Savoy Jazz’s Roots of Doo Wop collection consists of 20 songs from 15 different vocal groups recorded between September of 1949 and October of 1955, starting in about the middle of the classic doo wop era and wrapping up before that era’s close in 1957 and the overlapping rise of rock and roll. Produced during the time span covered by the disc were hits by the Orioles (“Crying in the Chapel” in 1953), the Penguins (“Earth Angel” in 1954) and the Platters (“Only You” and “The Great Pretender” in 1955). Popular, genre-bending hits that came afterwards and that the disc leaves off include “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in 1956, the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” also in 1956, the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” in 1958 and 1959, and the Flamingoes’ version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” in 1959, along with the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” that same year.
The Roots of Doo Wop is no overview of hits; it’s Savoy’s way of recognizing some of the lesser-known acts who may only be familiar to collectors. “Lilacs in the Rain”, the opening track by Baltimore’s Ravens, a group considered to be doo wop pioneers and the only group here who could be described as well known outside of doo wop circles, sounds warm and beautiful. The quality is consistently striking throughout. Appropriately rainy, it features brushed snare and Maithe Marshall’s inhuman falsetto, prominent on the other Ravens selection as well, “Count Every Star” (Marshall also turns up on two tracks by the Marshall Brothers). Unless you’re already steeped in doo wop or vocal groups it’s likely that you’ve heard little else like the vocal performances captured here. It’s a reminder of how endearing and meaningful it is to hear human voices unadorned and free from manipulation. It may be overly romantic to assume that all these groups were just in this for the love of the song, but when the groups have names like the Four Buddies and the Dreams, it’s easy to let yourself indulge in the fantasy. That’s partially what’s so appealing; the sound and the songs seem to come out of a time when everything was different in music; a time, it’s easy to convince yourself, when everything was better.
Most of the selections are ballads and they’ll open the ears of uninitiated listeners. Two of the best cuts are from Detroit’s Falcons—“How Blind Can You Be” and “You’re the Beating of my Heart”—both taken from the group’s only recording session in 1951. The Four Barons’ “Lemon Squeezer” (1950) drives home even further the seeming agelessness of this metaphor. Hearing singer David McNeil proclaim himself a “lemon squeezin’ daddy” and sing, “I like lemonade baby / I’m as thirsty as can be / Hurry on out of that kitchen and bring those lemons here to me The way I squeeze your lemons is a downright dirty shame” is a lot more appealing than hearing Robert Plant wail about falling out of bed when his lemons get squeezed.
Arranged chronologically, it’s the songs that close the disc that make the case, and ultimately blur the genre lines a bit, for the compilations’ claim on these songs as “the stuff that lead up to the 1956 rock ‘n’ roll explosion.” The Roamers pick the tempo up markedly with “Chop Chop Ching A Ling”, complete with sax solo, and the disc’s last five songs from the Roamers, Luther Bond & the Emeralds, Little Anthony & the Duponts, and two from Little David & the Harps are all from 1955, the same year that produced “Maybellene”, “Rock Around the Clock”, and “Tutti-Frutti”.
A lot of the parallels between the culture of doo wop fans (or really, that of the fans of any musical genre) and ‘80s and ‘90s indie-rock fandom may have already been drawn, but it’s worth mentioning, especially as people begin looking backwards to compensate for the lack of nourishment to be had from most of current popular radio. Lenny Kaye, writing in 1970 about a 1965 concert of a cappella singers, a New York-based style that grew out of doo wop in the early 1960’s, in Hackensack, New Jersey, not far from Savoy’s home in Newark, qualified the unifying force of being hip to music that others may choose to overlook: “And it was exciting to be at the theatre; a kind of community existed between the people who came, a spiritual bond which said that there is one thing that binds us all together—one thing that we have that the Others don’t even know about. There was a sense of belonging, of participation in a small convention of your own personal friends.” In the liner notes to this collection, Billy Vera expresses a similar sentiment, “And part of the excitement was knowing that you were onto something known only to the hip few, much as jazz was in its early years. You were on the inside and everybody else was out.” Taken in that way, it becomes even more flattering and worthwhile that a group of enthusiasts have chosen to open up their doors and let us all in a little on their secret.