Once Again, When Be-Bop Bopped In The Doo Wop Night-Billie’s Doo-Wop Minute-With A YouTube film clip of the Harptones performing Life Is But A Dream.
By Special Guest Billy Bradley, Junior
Sure I have plenty to say, as I mentioned in
a review of Volume One of a two- volume Street Corner Serenade set,
about early rock ‘n’ roll, and now called the classic rock period in the
musicology hall of fame. And within that say I have spent a little time, not
enough considering its effect on us, on the doo-wop branch of the genre. Part
of the reason, obviously, is that back in those mid-1950s jail-breakout days I
did not (and I do not believe that any other eleven and twelve year olds did
either), distinguish between let’s say rockabilly-back-beat drive rock,
black-based rock centered on a heavy rhythm and blues backdrop, and the almost
instrument-less (or maybe a soft piano or guitar backdrop) group harmonics that
drove doo-wop. All I knew was that it was not my parents’ music, not close, and
that they got nervous, very nervous, anytime it was played out loud in their
presence. Fortunately, some sainted, sanctified, techno-guru developed the iPod
of that primitive era, the battery-driven transistor radio. No big deal,
technology-wise by today’s standards, but get this, you could place it near
your ear and have your own private out loud music without parental scuffling in
the background no-ing you to dead, or worst with the big scowl. Yes, heaven's
door sent, sainted, sanctified techno-guru. No question.
What doo-wop did though down in our old-time beat down, beat around, beat six-ways-to Sunday working class neighborhood (dependent on fading domestic, early globalized ship-building), North Adamsville, and again it was not so much by revelation as by trial and error is allow us to be in tune with the music of our generation without having to spend a lot of money on instruments or a studio or any such. Where the hell would we have gotten the dough for such things anyway when papas were out of work, or were one step away from that dreaded unemployment line, and there was trouble just keeping the wolves from the door? Sure, some kids, some kids like my “home boy” (no, not a term we used at the time, corner boy was after some sociologist nailed us with that title, and jack-rollers too, since we, ah, hung around corners, you know, mom and pop variety stores, pizza parlors, arcades, donut shops, corner drugstores when all of those locations had local meaning) elementary school boyhood friend Billie, William James Bradley, were crazy to put together cover bands with electric guitars (rented occasionally), and dreams. Or maybe go wild with a school piano a la Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, or Fats Domino but those were maniac aficionados. Even Billie though, when the deal went down, especially after hearing Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers on Why Do Fools Fall In Love was mad to do the doo-wop and make his fame and fortune on the cheap.
I remember mentioning to someone when we were cutting up old torches once seeing some cover art on a doo-wop CD compilation showing a group of young black kids, black teen-agers, black guys anyway, who looked like they were doing their doo- wop on some big city street corner. (Corner boys too, okay, although they may have actually used that homeboy expression among themselves.) And that makes sense reflecting the New York City-sized, big city-sized derived birth of doo-wop and that the majority of doo-wop groups that we heard on AM radio were black. But the city, the poor sections of the city, white or black, was not the only place where moneyless guys and gals were harmonizing, hoping, hoping maybe beyond hope to be discovered and make more than just a 1950s rock and roll musical jail-breakout from musty old parents’ tunes. Moreover, that cover art also showed, and showed vividly, what a lot of us guys were trying to do-impress girls (and maybe visa-versa for girl doo-woppers but they can tell their own stories).
Yes, truth to tell, it was about impressing girls that drove many of us, Billie included, christ maybe Billie most of all, to mix and match harmonies. And you know you guys did too (except girls just switch around what I just said). Yah, four or five guys just hanging around the back door of the elementary school on hot summer nights, nothing better to do, no dough to do it, maybe a little feisty because of that, and start up a few tunes. Billie, who actually did have some vocal musical talent, usually sang lead, and the rest of us, well, doo-wopped. What do you think we would do? We knew nothing of keys and pauses, of time, pitch, or reading music we just improvised. (And I kept my changing to teen-ager, slightly off-key, voice on the low.)
Whether we did it well or poorly, guess what, as the hot day turned into humid night, and the old sun went down just over the hills, maybe the sea freshen up the night with a thank god breeze, first a couple of girls, kind of hesitant, kind of shy led, led usually, by some budding Billie-entranced girl too afraid to come alone, then a couple more maybe from down the street, non-Billie-entranced, but just what are guys all about wondering in that good night, and then a whole bevy (nice word, right?) of them came and got kind of swoony and moony. (Read: hoping that the lyrics doo-wopped portended romance, or whatever it was they read in those girl magazines that Doc’s Drugstore could not keep enough of in stock.) And swoony and moony was just fine. Just fine with what- are- girls- all- about Billie-led corner boys (and in Harlem, South Side Chicago, Watts, East Los Angeles and about then thousand spots on this jail break-out ready continent too).
And we all innocent, innocent dream, innocent when we dreamed, make our virginal moves. But, mainly, we doo-wopped in the be-bop mid-1950s night. And a few of the classic songs of doo-wop like Your So Fine, In The Still Of The Night, and Could This Be Magic could be heard in that airless night.
I think, that like in other genres, there were really only so many doo-wop songs sung on those sultry nights that have withstood the test of time, the Billie-derived play list test of time : Life Is But A Dream (which with my voice really changing I kept very, very low on), The Harptones; Gloria (a little louder from me on this one), The Cadillacs; Six Nights A Week (not their best 16 Candles was but by then Billie was into other stuff), The Crests: and, A Kiss From Your Lips, The Flamingos.