[30 August 2006]
[Dr. Emmett Brown is doubting Marty McFly’s story that he is from the future]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, “Future Boy”, who’s President of the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor?
—Back to the Future (1985)
I’d like to share a fantasy of mine. It involves a convertible (hmmm, let’s make it a Mustang, whatever color you like), a stoplight, and The Pearls vs. The Velours Collectors Gold Series CD. It’s summer. I’m driving my convertible down the street in total silence. The top’s down and a cool breeze is blowing over my tight fade. After several minutes, I stop at a red light where several other drivers have already stopped. I nod at the old guy to my left, then at the young lady to my right. I pull out The Pearls vs. The Velours, a collection of doo-wop classics issued on Onyx Records between 1956 and 1958.
And you know what happens next. I slide the disc into my car stereo, crank the volume until it’s completely off the meter, and sit back in amusement as the Pearls’ “Let’s You and I Go Steady” blasts everybody out of their car seats. I’ll even pump up the bass to make everyone else’s windows quake. It’ll be my tribute to doo-wop.
For anyone who automatically thinks of “Earth Angel” when doo-wop is mentioned, you’re not alone. I think of that song, as well as Lorenz Tate’s emotive rendering of vocalist Frankie Lymon in the movie named after Lymon’s hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. Since it’s been a long time since doo-wop was the big thing, let’s set the context for The Pearls vs. The Velours, which chronicles the releases of two doo-wop groups from 1956 to 1958. With the help of Infoplease and A People & A Nation: A History of the United States (Norton, M.B., Katzman, D.M., Escott, P.D., Chudacoff, H.P., Paterson, T.G., and Tuttle, W. M., 1994), I compiled a few facts to describe the environment for which the Pearls and the Velours provided part of the soundtrack.
In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was reelected as President of the United States, while Elvis Presley released the hits “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, and “Hound Dog”. That same year, the Highway Act authorized $31 billion dollars (over thirteen years) for the construction of the U.S. interstate highway system.
In 1957, Althea Gibson—who was something like Venus and Serena Williams rolled into one—won Wimbledon (and again in 1958). While Leave It To Beaver premiered on CBS, U.S. troops squared off against locals in Little Rock, Arkansas as students sought to integrate the school system. In the fall, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth. The U.S. matched them several months later with Explorer I.
Billboard’s Hot 100 debuted in 1958, and Ricky Nelson rocked the airwaves with “Poor Little Fool”. Alvin Ailey established the American Dance Theatre and, believe it or not, the price of a first class U.S. stamp rose from three cents to four.
Things are different now. When I’ve had the guts to play out the fantasy outlined above (minus the convertible), I’ve gotten some awfully strange looks. When I’ve had The Pearls vs. The Velours playing while I was talking on the phone, people ask, “What the hell are you listening to?” “Oh that?” I reply. “That’s ‘Honey Drop’ by the Velours. That’s my jam right there.”
The story behind this digitally remastered release begins with Jerry Winston, a New York entrepreneur who established Mardi Gras Records in 1954. Mardi Gras focused on Latin music. In June 1956, Winston created Onyx Records to tap into R&B and rock n’ roll. With the help of conductor Sammy Lowe, Winston released a memorable body of work during his company’s two-year lifespan.
The album cover, which people seem to find amusing, presents eleven men in suits. Like a Battle of the Bands rumble that’s about fifty years too late, these men belonged to two camps.
In the right corner, spearheaded by lead singer Jerome “Romeo” Ramos, dressed in glorious gold suits, and hailing from Brooklyn, New York, you’ve got the Velours. In addition to Ramos’ lead vocals, the line-up was John Cheatdom (first tenor), Donald Haywoode (second tenor), John Pearson (baritone), Charles Moffett (bass), and Calvin Haynes (piano accompanist). The first single for Onyx Records was the Velours’ “My Love, Come Back”/“Honey Drop”. On “My Love, Come Back”, Ramos’ voice flutters pleadingly, and with emotion-laden hiccups, over a warm quilt of background vocals. “Honey Drop” is an upbeat romp arranged around a quick tempo and a blazing saxophone. Later, the Velours released “Can I come Over Tonight”, again featuring Ramos’ trademark lilt. The tune reached #83 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957. Another Velours tune, “Remember”, was the final single for Onyx Records, making it to #83 on Billboard’s Top 100 in 1958.
In the left corner, weighing in as a quintet, wearing white suits and dark colored bowties, you’ve got the Pearls. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, they were previously known as the Five Pearls. Their first Onyx single “Let’s You And I Go Steady”/“Zippity Zippity Zoom” garnered plenty of attention. “Let’s You And I Go Steady”, the jam I plan on blasting in the middle of rush hour traffic, puts me in the mind of the television show Happy Days. It sounds like a fun song you’d hear at a malt shop, perhaps, with those cute lines about going to the movies—you know, going steady. But then again, when the singer croons, “I wanna tease you, please you, squeeze you, baby”, you know he’s trying to do more than carry a young lady’s books home from school. Not that R&B radio of the 50s would’ve tolerated much of what we listen to today—imagine Nelly going back in time, in a hip-hop Back To The Future, to unleash his hit Hot In Herre on a past audience. Still, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities, though subtle, between the Pearls’ “Zippity Zippity Zoom” and Wrecks-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” (remember this: “All I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom in a boom boom”). I’ve always wondered what these truly old school pioneers of R&B would say about contemporary R&B.
Unfortunately, like many doo-wop acts of the day, the Pearls and the Velours failed to sustain the momentum they cultivated, despite releasing such tunes as “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Ice Cream Baby”, and “Wheel of Love”. Fortunately for us, The Pearls vs. The Velours brings us all of the Onyx recordings by the two groups. In 1958, Onyx Records folded, but in its two years, the company facilitated an array of splendid historical treasures.