Acappella Doo-Wop

By Laura L Grivainis

Doo-wop: a distinctly American musical form that flourished in the 1950's, emerging from urban centers such as New York and Chicago. It's vital statistics? Groups comprised of four to five members, bass/baritone/tenor (or a first and second tenor) and lead, singing in three or four part harmony; frequent use of falsetto; predominance of "nonsense syllables"; dynamic bass parts; instrumentation subservient to vocals or nonexistent; simple but heavy backbeats and lyrical themes that espouse love and longing for "the one." It's pedigree? The vocal harmony groups of the 1940's, such as the Ink Spots and the Mills Bros., rhythm and blues, which incorporated elements of jazz and swing; country and gospel. Each of these individual cells would develop into the matrix called rock and roll, of which doo-wop is considered a part.

The "Rock 'n Roll Jubilee Ball," presented by legendary dee jay Alan Freed in 1955, featured acts the Clovers, Drifters, Harptones and Moonglows, a spectrum of talent that was representative as any of the musical trends of this dynamic period. A bevy of independent record labels sprung up to support and popularize the new music, including Chess, Vee Jay, King, Jubilee, Atlantic, Gee, Laurie and Dootone, and the personalities behind these often one room operations were practically as notorious as the artists themselves: George Goldner, Herb Abramson, Bess Berman, Syd Nathan.

As for the artists, they started young and often burned out early, and frequently realized meager rewards save the excitement of seeing their names on a theater marquee. With few exceptions, the acts were not adequately financed, and though technology was advancing at an unheard of pace (which provided new outlets and opportunity in the form of radio and television), the recording process was generally primitive, with groups rushed in and out of the studio in assembly line fashion. Indeed, that is why so many of the groups of this period sang "acapella": it was simply cheaper, as the producers didn't need to pay for a band!

By the way, "acapella" as a moniker (as distinct from the Italian term "a cappella," which, strictly defined, means "in the church style") evolved after a conversation between Donn Fileti, Leo Rogers (of Bruce Records) and Wayne Stierle, according to Wayne in his liner notes for the Moonglows "Glowing in Acapella." However it's described or whatever it's called, doo-wop in general and acapella doo-wop in particular represents a golden age in American vocal harmony, with a loyal following that remains vital to this day.

Laura is music reviewer for the Primarily A Cappella catalog

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