By Phill Marder
If you grew up in Philadelphia in the ’50s, you danced to The Orioles, The Moonglows, The Penguins, The Five Satins and a lot more as the City of Brotherly Love — along with its big brother, New York City — became the home base for street-corner vocalization.
It became known as doo-wop. Back then, we just called it rock and roll. Today, I’m still a little fuzzy as to what exactly makes a song doo-wop. You just know it when you hear it.
The nation heard it on Philly’s “Bandstand, ” hosted by Dick Clark. But in Philadelphia, we heard more on the radio, mainly thanks to three of the greatest deejays in rock history: the late Georgie Woods and Hy Lit, and the still-going-strong Jerry Blavat.
Woods, “the man with the goods, ” broke “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, named Jerry Butler “The Ice Man” because he was so cool and coined the phrase “blue-eyed soul” for The Righteous Brothers. Referring to New York City, he called it “New York, New York, the city so nice, they had to name it twice.”
Lit was the main man on WIBG Radio 99, the 50, 000-watt Philly giant that issued a Top 99 list each week and played every one of those records, plus new releases. No Top 40 there. Lit chanted, “Calling all my beats, beards, Buddhist cats, big-time spenders, money lenders, teetotalers, elbow benders, hog callers, home-run hitters, finger-poppin’ daddies and cool baby sitters. For all my carrot tops, lollipops and extremely delicate gum drops. It’s HyskiORoonieMcVoutiOZoot calling, uptown, downtown, crosstown. Here there, everywhere. Your man with the plan, on the scene with the record machine.”
Blavat rapped constantly, talking right over the records he was playing. But “The Geator With The Heater, ” which remains his tag today, played almost exclusively what has come to be known as doo-wop, so we heard many great records that weren’t national hits.
Today, “the Boss with the Hot Sauce” continues spinning those oldies in the Philly area, particularly the Jersey Shore. And I’m talking about the real Jersey Shore: The Wildwoods, Ocean City, Margate, Stone Harbor, Avalon.
Wildwood stakes a claim as the birthplace of rock and roll because Bill Haley And The Comets first performed “Rock Around The Clock” there in 1954. Described as “irreplaceable icons of popular culture, ” Wildwood’s doo-wop-style hotels and motels, placed on a national list of endangered places a few years back, emphasize the town’s dedication to keeping the doo-wop culture alive and well. Last year, in an outdoor concert, I had the pleasure of seeing doo-wop legends The Duprees and Vito and The Salutations perform live.
What made doo-wop so popular? Shower rooms after football practice when you could put five or six teenagers — usually all male — in a ready-made echo chamber. All that was needed was one bass voice to go “mope-itty mope mope de mope mope mope” and the rest of the gang chimed in. Each knew his part, and it sounded great. At least we thought it did. (By the way, if Pat Prince finds a photo of the Boss-Tones, he automatically wins “editor of the year.”)
Four guys could walk down Main Street in the rain singing “Every time it rains it rains, ” and, of course, the bass voice would take over with “Pennies From Heaven.” The key? No instruments. Doo-wop could be sung anywhere, by anyone, at any time. All you needed were some voices, but a street corner was an added bonus.
When I received this assignment — the 20 greatest doo-wop groups — I thought it would be fun. Then, I realized how hard it would be to limit the list to 20 when every doo-wop group was so good. So, I conveniently lost count. Many of your favorites — and mine — will be left out due to space limitations. These may not be the greatest in your ears, but, for one reason or another, each sticks out in mine.
If the Cadillacs had done nothing more than the classic “Speedo, ” they’d be remembered. But their catalog is one of doo-wop’s finest, led by the definitive version of doo-wop’s definitive ballad, “Gloria.” Throw in “Peek-A-Boo, ” on which the group out-Coastered the Coasters (“Look in the dark, you see my face —aaaaaaaaaaaaa! Don’t try to hide, I’m every place!) Who could ask for more?
The Chantels notched three national hits before The Shirelles got their first. The biggest, of course, was the group’s signature song, “Maybe, ” which became one of doo-wop’s signature songs, as well. The song has been covered since, but even Janis Joplin couldn’t match the vocal of soprano high-schooler Arlene Smith.