Top Pop: Doo-Wop’s New Stop
March 3, 2015 5:53 p.m. ET
A musical form that’s been relegated to a distant backburner for most of the past five decades, doo-wop echoes in several contemporary hit recordings. Is it a sign of a revival? It may depend on how you define doo-wop.
The Mills Brothers. Photo: Getty Images
Beyoncé included a doo-wop-influenced tune, “Superpower, ” on her 2013 self-titled world-wide hit album. Meghan Trainor concluded the deluxe edition of her No. 1 2015 album, “Title,” with “My Selfish Heart” and “Credit,” two songs that draw on doo-wop. Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson opened their 2015 hit single “Uptown Funk” with a dash of doo-wop vocalizing, as did Pharrell Williams on “Lost Queen” on his 2014 album, “Girl.”
But with the exception of Ms. Trainor, a 21-year-old who finds candy-coated charm in early ’60s pop, these contemporary artists see doo-wop as a branch of R&B that extends from earlier forms of African-American music—and they are right. Doo-wop’s origins can be traced back through some of the greatest vocal groups of the 1930s and ’40s to the late-19th-century gospel choirs and barbershop harmony groups.
Today, doo-wop might be defined as a popular form of street-corner vocal music of the mid ’50s to early ’60s featuring close harmonies, minimal instrumentation and a simple yet sturdy chord structure as the song’s spine, and whose greatest proponents were urban African-American and Italian-American groups. As recognizable as that definition is, it creates artificial barriers that wall off doo-wop from the continuum of popular music. There were great vocal groups well before the term doo-wop found purchase in the late ’60s, just as there was extraordinary music by vocal groups prior to the arrival of the Clovers and the Turbans, who were among the first to use the two-syllable phrase in “One Mint Julep” and “When You Dance,” released in 1953 and 1955, respectively.
The best popular vocal music of the ’50s and early ’60s can be linked directly to the Mills Brothers, the dominant vocal group of the ’30s whose members learned barbershop-harmony techniques from their father. They incorporated the techniques, as well as those they absorbed in church choirs, into their jazz and pop recordings, which are said to have sold in excess of 50 million copies. Building on the Mills Brothers’ model, the Ink Spots were then followed by a flood of mid- to late-’40s vocal groups. These included such influencers as the Ravens, the Orioles and the Dominoes, all of whom continued into the ’50s and whose recordings, as it was with the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, also appealed to white listeners. In their prime, none of these artists were identified by the term doo-wop.
To a degree, doo-wop has never gone away, perhaps because it seemed to become a nostalgia craze within minutes of its decline. Richard Nader began promoting oldies shows featuring doo-wop artists in 1969. That same year, at Woodstock, Sha Na Na, preceding Jimi Hendrix, performed an all-doo-wop set that fell somewhere between tribute and takeoff. The play “Grease” arrived in 1971; the film “American Graffiti,” two years later. As John Michael Runowicz details in his book “Forever Doo-Wop,” the oldies circuit thrives, giving some aging artists a second shot at remuneration denied the first time around. All-star oldies shows have been a staple of PBS’s pledge drives since 1999. Groups like Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox and the Doo Wop Shop at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, perform contemporary hits in a doo-wop style. Last year on “The Tonight Show,” Jimmy Fallon sang doo-wop tunes with Billy Joel and Robert Plant, using a “Loopy” app to overdub the harmony vocals. For the most part, vocal music of the mid-20th century is represented as it was redefined, not as a continuation of an American tradition that’s well over 100 years old.
But when Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams—among today’s most popular and successful R&B and pop artists—cite doo-wop in an R&B context, they are tapping into its proper history, even if they come to it primarily through Michael Jackson and Prince rather than ’50s R&B hit-makers like the Five Keys and the Moonglows. By steering away from doo-wop staples like the Marcels’ “Blue Moon,” the ’61 hit that dinosaur-stomped the Rodgers-Hart standard; the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” which parodied the Gladiolas’ version released only a month earlier; or the Crew-Cuts’ whitewashed version of the Chords’ “Sh-Boom,” they are providing a service to fans and fellow musicians who may be interested in the great sounds of a bygone era. If a revival is under way, may it continue to avoid nostalgia and the distortions of rebranding in order to restore the history and reputation of the best R&B vocal-group music.
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.