Mon | Oct 22, 2018

Sweet sounds of nonsense

Published:Sunday | January 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The term doo-wop has been associated with rock and roll music from the early 1950s. From my experience, doo-wop songs are essentially rock and roll or rhythm and blues (R&B) numbers with some unique, but simple, characteristics. Their essence is the doo-wops, nonsense syllables used for background, fill-ins or novelty effect. The doo-wop riffs of the bass man and/or the wacky harmonies contained in group chants often take the place of costly instruments and instrumentalists.

What may surprise many is that there were hundreds of such songs written and sung during the rock and roll, as well as blues, eras of the 1950s and their proliferation had a resounding influence on rock music and musicians of succeeding generations.

Doo-wop emerged almost simultaneously with the slower style of rock and roll in 1951. Rock and roll had earlier seen a more uptempo style, demonstrated by Fats Domino when he recorded The Fat Man in 1949; The Dominos when they recorded Sixty Minute Man in 1950 and Jackie Brenston, when he recorded Rocket 88 in 1951.

Although groups like The Inkspots had shown glimmers of doo-wop's emergence in the 1940s, perhaps The Clovers were spot on in terms of making a hit and enunciating the doo-wop style. They introduced their early 1951 Atlantic recording Don't You Know I Love You with the nonsense syllables "dee-di-doo-daa-doo-dae, dee-di-doo-daa-doo-dae" to usher in the bass man's "Baby can't you see what you doing to me" and the group's unisonant chants "Don't you know, don't you know I love you so."

Using the off-beat to keep the timing and employing a heavy beat with simple melodies and blues elements to go along, the early doo-wop recordings were basically slow songs in swing time that portrayed a more romantic, sentimental mood. In order to experience the full impact of this enchantment, one may choose to immerse oneself in the lyrics of Little Anthony and the Imperials' Tears on my Pillow, which begins with the doo-wop style:

"Whoo ooh ooh whoo,whoo ooh ooh whoo

You don't remember me, but I remember you.

'Twas not so long ago, you broke my heart in two.

Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by you, you-oo-oo.

If we could start anew, I wouldn't hesitate.

I'd gladly take you back and tempt the hands of fate.

Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by you".

Although not being a performer, perhaps the main catalyst in the development of the genre was the American disc jock Alan Freed who, like an American version of Jamaica's Vere Johns, unearthed and exposed several aspiring musical talents who went on to achieve international recognition.

Freed was also credited with coining the phrase rock 'n' roll in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1951, while working on a radio station. "Are you ready to rock and roll," he would urge his listeners.


A vast portion of the rock and roll recordings Freed promoted on his radio show and at his stage shows were doo-wop. As a disc jock, he played a decisive role in broadening the audience for doo-wop rock 'n' roll songs in the early 1950s to include white teenagers. In the latter half of the decade, Freed supported many black artistes by playing their records on his radio shows.

The genre, which was turning out hits at a blinding speed, was filled with quartets and quintets. The most flamboyant were Sonny Til and The Orioles, which had a big hit with Crying in the Chapel; The Five Satins with In the Still of the Night and The Platters doo-wopping with Only You. A 1986 reworking of The Penguins' 1954 doo-wop hit Earth Angel by the group First Edition, became a big hit in the USA.

Sincerely by The Moonglows was perhaps the genre's biggest success. Co-written by Alan Freed, the lyrics had distinctive doo-wop characteristics:

"Ba-ba-doh, ba-doh, ba-doh, ba-doh-bah

ba-doh, ba-doh, ba-doh, ba-doh-bah.

oo-eee, oo-eee-oo, ooi-ooi-ooo...

Sincerely, oh yes, sincerely

Cause I love you so dearly

Please say you'll be mine".

After entering the charts in 1954, the recording was number one on Billboard's R&B charts in 1955.

As the doo-wop tempo stepped up towards the mid to late 1950s, Frankie Lymon (who was 12 years old) and the Teenagers rode the doo-wop rhythm of Why Do Fools Fall in Love, with bass man Sherman Garnes' doo-wop intonations "hey-o-toom-bah-toom-bah-toom-bah" complementing Lymon's lyrics:

"Why do fools fall in love'

Why do birds sing so gay

Lovers await the break of day

Why do they fall in love"

An all-black quintet called The Stereos came along in 1961 in a hand-clapping, foot-stomping manner, singing "do-do-do-do-do-do-do I really really love you", the last five words being the song's title.

Also in 1961 The Marcels contributed to doo-wop with their rendition of the classic Blue Moon. With a 'tip-ti-dip-ti-dip' and a 'bomi-bomp-a-bomp bompa' behind the main lyrics, the recording opened a new avenue for doo-wop music.

Other groups that helped promote the doo-wop genre included, The Cardinals (Choo Choo), Dion and the Belmonts (A Teenager in Love), The Chords (Sh-Boom), The Coasters (Yakety Yak), The Monotones (Book of Love), The Turbans (When You Dance), and The Silhouettes (Get a Job).

Though now considered a nostalgic music form, doo-wop had several revivals in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.