Ah yes, doo wop. Perhaps no other genre is so closely identified with a specific era in time than the one that relied on majestic vocal harmonies to alternately offer pleading paeans to love and nonsensical shimmy-shimmy ko-ko-bops, all delivered by immaculately dressed (and mostly black) singers in uniform silk suits in the mid to late 1950s.
But as any PBS pledge-drive viewer will tell you, love for the music of groups like the Flamingos, Platters, Five Satins, Crests, Drifters, Spaniels and a host of acts with bird names (Cardinals, Ravens, Orioles, Falcons, Crows) is still healthy, even if its fans aren’t quite as medically sound.
Legendary New York DJ and current Sirius satellite radio host “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and co-author Maloof have produced a gorgeous coffee-table book here. And while a bit light in word count, it still manages to pack in a lot of detail about doo wop’s origins, development and performers. It’s alternately a nostalgic look back into the archives for veteran listeners, as well as kind of a CliffsNotes starting block for the curious.
In addition, the art direction and graphics are great, with eye-popping fonts and colors, group photos and plenty of album cover reproductions. Morrow, who spun platters all through the era, also shares plenty of memories about the time and includes short new interviews with some of the scenemakers.
But though the title clearly indicates the subject is not just the music, too many pages are spent creating a sort of ‘50s time capsule. Copious space is dedicated to the usual suspects of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, monster movies and cool cars, all pretty much pedestrian Wikipedia-type info. The latter portion, which tries to tie in the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, also seems superfluous.
Morrow posits the theory that doo wop died an untimely and premature death because it was perhaps the genre with the shortest time span between its heyday and “revival.” While groups were still trickling out hits, compilations like the popular Oldies but Goodies record series made the music seem out of date and unhip. But the truth is, by the Beatles / Dylan / Stones period, music fans clearly wanted something different, be it stars with identifiable personalities (doo-woppers were almost famous for their anonymity), loud guitars or something that you could dance to besides slowly.
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In addition, the notorious fluidity of group lineups, one-hit wonder status, and regional appeal in an era when the industry was moving toward a national mentality also contributed to doo wop’s decline on the music scene.
But the influence of those original vocal groups is there - if not always so obvious - in the musical catalogues of Motown (Temptations, Four Tops, Miracles), ‘70s soul (Chi-Lites, Stylistics, Spinners) even up to today’s boy bands – though Little Anthony could clearly sing rings around Justin Timberlake.
Doo wop fans looking for more meat should check out the books The Complete Book of Doo-Wop or They All Sang on the Corner and Rhino’s excellently annotated Doo Wop Box. Still, Cousin Brucie’s Doo Wop is a fine, fun celebration of all things rama-lama-ding-dong, shoo-bop-shoo-bop, or sha na na. – Bob Ruggiero
Doo Wop: The Music, The Times, The Era, by “Cousin Brucie” Morrow with Rich Maloof, $24.95, 352 pp., Sterling Publishing