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Doo-wop is a genre of rhythm and blues music that originated among African-American youth in the 1940s,[1] mainly in the large cities of the United States, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Detroit, and Washington, DC.[2][3] It features vocal group harmony that carries an engaging melodic line to a simple beat with little or no instrumentation. Lyrics are simple, usually about love, sung by a lead vocal over background vocals of repeated nonsense syllables,[4] and often featuring, in the bridge, a melodramatically heartfelt recitative addressed to the beloved. Gaining popularity in the 1950s, doo-wop enjoyed its peak successes in the early 1960s, but continued to influence performers in other genres.[5]


Doo-wop has complex musical, social, and commercial origins.

Musical precedents[edit]

Doo-wop's style is a mixture of precedents in composition, orchestration, and vocals that figured in American popular music created by song writers and vocal groups, both black and white, from the 1930s to the 1940s.

\relative c' {
   \clef treble 
   \time 4/4
   \key c \major
   <c e g>1_\markup { \concat { \translate #'(-3.5 . 0) { "C:   I" \hspace #7 "vi" \hspace #6 "IV" \hspace #6 "V" \hspace #7 "I" } } }
   <a c e a> <f c' f a> <g b d g> <c e g> \bar "||"
} }
A typical doo-wop chord progression in C major[6]

Such composers as Rodgers and Hart (in their 1934 song "Blue Moon"), and Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser (in their 1938 "Heart and Soul") used a I-vi-ii-V-loop chord progression in those hit songs; composers of doo-wop songs varied this slightly but significantly to the chord progression I–vi–IV–V, so influential that it is sometimes referred to as the 50s progression. This characteristic harmonic layout was combined with the AABA chorus form typical for Tin Pan Alley songs.[7][8]

Hit songs by black groups such as the Ink Spots[9] ("If I Didn't Care", one of the best selling singles worldwide of all time,[10] and "Address Unknown") and the Mills Brothers ("Paper Doll", "You Always Hurt The One You Love" and "Glow Worm")[11] were generally slow songs in swing time with simple instrumentation. Doo-wop street singers generally performed without instrumentation, but made their musical style distinctive, whether using fast or slow tempos, by keeping time with a swing-like off-beat,[12] while using the "doo-wop" syllables as a substitute for drums and a bass vocalist as a substitute for a bass instrument.[6]

Doo-wop's characteristic vocal style was influenced by groups such as the Mills Brothers,[13] whose close four-part harmony derived from the vocal harmonies of the earlier barbershop quartet.[14]

The Cats and the Fiddle, with their song "I Miss You So" (1939),[15] and the Triangle Quartette's earlier record "Doodlin' Back" (1929) prefigured doo-wop's rhythm and blues sound long before doo-wop became popular.

Elements of doo-wop vocal style[edit]

Gribin and Schiff identify 5 features of doo-wop music: 1) it is vocal music made by groups; 2) it features a wide range of vocal parts, "usually from bass to falsetto"; 3) it includes nonsense syllables; 4) there is a simple beat and low key instrumentals; and 5) it has simple words and music.[16] Bill Kenny, lead singer of the Ink Spots, is often credited with introducing the "top and bottom" vocal arrangement featuring a high tenor singing the intro and a bass spoken chorus.[17] The Mills Brothers, who were famous in part because in their vocals they sometimes mimicked instruments,[18] were an additional influence on street vocal harmony groups, who, singing a cappella arrangements, used wordless onomatopoeia to mimic musical instruments.[19][20] For instance, "Count Every Star" by The Ravens (1950) includes vocalizations imitating the "doomph, doomph" plucking of a double bass. The Orioles helped develop the doo-wop sound with their hits "It's Too Soon to Know" (1948) and "Crying in the Chapel" (1953).

Origin of the name[edit]

Although the musical style originated in the late 1940s and was very popular in the 1950s, the term "doo-wop" itself did not appear in print until 1961, in The Chicago Defender,[21] just as the style's vogue was nearing its end. Though the name was attributed to radio disc jockey Gus Gossert, he did not accept credit, stating that "doo-wop" was already in use in California to categorize the music.[22][23]

"Doo-wop" is itself a nonsense expression. In The Delta Rhythm Boys' 1945 recording, "Just A-Sittin' And A-Rockin", it is heard in the backing vocal. It is heard later in The Clovers' 1953 release "Good Lovin'" (Atlantic Records 1000), and in the chorus of Carlyle Dundee & The Dundees' 1954 song "Never" (Space Records 201). The first record to use "doo-wop" in the refrain was The Turbans' 1955 hit, "When You Dance" (Herald Records H-458).[22][24] The Rainbows embellished the phrase as "do wop de wadda" in their 1955 "Mary Lee" (on Red Robin Records; also a Washington, D.C. regional hit on Pilgrim 703); and in their 1956 national hit, "In the Still of the Night," The Five Satins[25] sang across the bridge with a plaintive "doo-wop, doo-wah."[26]


The vocal harmony group tradition that developed in the United States post-World War II was the most popular form of rhythm and blues music among black teenagers, especially those living in the large urban centers of the eastern coast, in Chicago, and in Detroit. Among the first groups to perform songs in the vocal harmony group tradition were The Orioles, The Five Keys, and The Spaniels; they specialized in romantic ballads that appealed to the sexual fantasies of teenagers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The nonsense string of syllables, "doo doo doo doo-wop", from which the name of the genre was later derived, is used repeatedly in the song "Just A Sittin' And A Rockin", recorded by the Delta Rhythm Boys in December 1945.[27] By the mid-1950s, vocal harmony groups had transformed the smooth delivery of ballads into a performance style incorporating the nonsense phrase[28][21] as vocalized by the bass singers, who provided rhythmic movement for a cappella songs.[29]

Teenagers who could not afford musical instruments formed groups that sang songs a cappella, performing at high school dances and other social occasions. They rehearsed on street corners and apartment stoops,[29] as well as under bridges, in high school washrooms, and in hallways and other places with echoes:[12] these were the only spaces with suitable acoustics available to them. Thus they developed a form of group harmony based in the harmonies and emotive phrasing of black spirituals and gospel music. Doo-wop music allowed these youths not only a means of entertaining themselves and others, but also a way of expressing their values and worldviews in a repressive white-dominated society, often through the use of innuendo and hidden messages in the lyrics.[30]

Particularly productive doo-wop groups were formed by young Italian-American men who, like their black counterparts, lived in rough neighborhoods (e.g., the Bronx and Brooklyn), learned their basic musical craft singing in church, and would gain experience in the new style by singing on street corners. New York was the capital of Italian doo-wop, and all its boroughs were home to groups that made successful records.[31]

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, many Italian-American groups had national hits: Dion and the Belmonts scored with "I Wonder Why," "Teenager in Love," and "Where or When";[32] The Capris made their name in 1960 with "There's a Moon Out Tonight"; Randy & the Rainbows, who charted with their Top #10 1963 single "Denise"; The Four Seasons had pop hits with "Rag Doll", "Come on Marianne" and many others. They and the Beach Boys were among only a very few American bands who enjoyed success both before, during, and after the British invasion.[33] Other Italian-American doo-wop groups were The Earls, The Chimes, The Elegants, The Mystics, The Duprees, Johnny Maestro & The Crests, and The Regents.

Herman Santiago, original lead singer of The Teenagers

Some doo-wop groups were racially mixed.[34] Puerto Rican Herman Santiago, originally slated to be the lead singer of the Teenagers, wrote the lyrics and the music for a song to be called "Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?", but whether because he was ill or because producer George Goldner thought that newcomer Frankie Lymon's voice would be better in the lead,[35] Santiago's original version was not recorded. To suit his tenor voice Lymon made a few alterations to the melody, and consequently the Teenagers recorded the song known as "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?". Chico Torres was a member of The Crests, whose lead singer, Johhny Mastrangelo, would later gain fame under the name Johnny Maestro.[36] Racially integrated groups with both black and white performers included The Del-Vikings, who had major hits in 1957 with "Come Go With Me" and "Whispering Bells", The Crests, whose "16 Candles" appeared in 1958, and The Impalas, whose "Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)" was a hit in 1959.[37]

Female doo-wop singers were unusual in the early days. Lillian Leach, lead singer of the Mellows from 1953 to 1958, helped pave the way for other women in doo-wop, soul and R&B.[38] Margo Sylvia was the lead singer for The Tune Weavers.[39] Female doo wop groups included The Chantels, the Royalettes, and the Chordettes.

Doo-wop and racial relations[edit]

The synthesis of music styles that evolved into what is now called rhythm and blues, previously labeled "race music" by the record companies, found a broad youth audience in the postwar years and helped to catalyze changes in racial relations in American society. By 1948, RCA Victor was marketing black music under the name "Blues and Rhythm". In 1949, Jerry Wexler, a reporter for Billboard magazine, reversed the words and coined the name “Rhythm and Blues” to replace the term “Race Music" for the magazine’s black music chart.[40]

One style of rhythm and blues was mostly vocal, with instrumental backing that ranged from a full orchestra to none. It was most often performed by a group, frequently a quartet, as in the black gospel tradition; utilizing close harmonies, this style was nearly always performed in a slow to medium tempo. The lead voice, usually one in the upper register, often sang over the driving, wordless chords of the other singers or interacted with them in a call-and-response exchange. Vocal harmony groups such as the Ink Spots embodied this style, the direct antecedent of doo-wop, which rose from inner city street corners in the mid-1950s and ranked high on the popular music charts between 1955 and 1959.[7]

White artists such as Elvis Presley performed and recorded covers of rhythm and blues songs (created by African American artists) that were marketed to a white audience.[41] One consequence of this cultural appropriation was to bring together audiences and artists who shared an interest in the music.[42][43]

Black and white young people both wanted to see popular doo-wop acts perform, and racially mixed groups of youths would stand on inner city street corners and sing doo-wop songs a capella. This angered white supremacists, who considered rhythm and blues and rock and roll a danger to America's youth.[44][45][41]

The development of rhythm and blues coincided with the issue of racial segregation becoming more socially contentious in American society, while the black leadership increasingly challenged the old social order. The white power structure in American society and some executives in the corporately controlled entertainment industry saw rhythm and blues, rooted in black culture, as obscene,[46] and considered it a threat to white youth in the United States and even England.[47]


The Cleftones during their participation in the doo-wop festival celebrated in May 2010 at the Benedum Center.

Doo-wop groups achieved 1951 R&B chart hits with songs such as "Sixty Minute Man" by Billy Ward and His Dominoes, "Where Are You?" by The Mello-Moods, "The Glory of Love" by The Five Keys, and "Shouldn't I Know" by The Cardinals.

Doo-wop groups played a significant role in ushering in the rock and roll era when two big rhythm and blues hits by vocal harmony groups, "Gee" by The Crows, and "Sh-Boom" by The Chords, crossed over onto the pop music charts in 1954. "Sh-Boom" is considered to have been the first rhythm-and-blues record to break into the top ten on the Billboard charts, reaching #5; a few months later, a white group from Canada, the Crew Cuts, released their cover of the song, which reached #1 and remained there for nine weeks.[48] Soon, other R&B vocal groups entered the pop charts, particularly in 1955, which saw such cross-over doo-wop hits as "Sincerely" by The Moonglows,[49] "Earth Angel" by The Penguins, The Cadillacs "Gloria", The Heartbeats "A Thousand Miles Away", Shep & the Limelites "Daddy's Home", The Flamingos "I Only Have Eyes for You", The Jive Five "My True Story".[50]

"Only You" was released in June 1955 by pop group The Platters.[51] That same year the Platters had a number one pop chart hit with "The Great Pretender", released on November 3.[52] In 1956, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers appeared on the Frankie Laine show in New York, which was televised nationally, performing their hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?". Frankie Laine referred to it as "rock and roll"; Lymon's extreme youth appealed to a young and enthusiastic audience. His string of hits included: "I Promise to Remember", "The ABC's of Love" and "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent".

Up tempo doo-wop groups such as The Monotones",[53] The Silhouettes, and The Marcels had hits that charted on Billboard. All-white doo-wop groups would appear and also produce hits: The Mello-Kings in 1956 with "Tonight, Tonight," The Diamonds in 1957 with the chart-topping cover song "Little Darlin'(original song by AfroAmerican group)", The Skyliners in 1959 with "Since I Don't Have You", " The Tokens in 1961 with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

The peak of doo-wop might have been in the late 1950s; in the early 1960s the most notable hits were Dion's "Runaround Sue", "The Wanderer", "Lovers Who Wander" and "Ruby Baby"[54] and The Marcels' "Blue Moon".[55] There was a revival of the nonsense-syllable form of doo-wop in the early 1960s, with popular records by The Marcels, The Rivingtons, and Vito & the Salutations. The genre reached the self-referential stage, with songs about the singers ("Mr. Bass Man" by Johnny Cymbal) and the songwriters ("Who Put the Bomp?" by Barry Mann), in 1961.

Doo-wop's influence[edit]

Other pop R&B groups, including The Coasters, The Drifters, The Midnighters, and The Platters, helped link the doo-wop style to the mainstream, and to the future sound of soul music. The style is heard in the music of The Miracles, particularly in their early hits such as "Got A Job" (an answer song to "Get a Job"),[56] "Bad Girl", "Who's Loving You", "(You Can) Depend on Me", and "Ooo Baby Baby". The style is also heard in the early days of The Famous Flames, led by James Brown; the group recorded several doo-wop hits, including "Please, Please, Please", "Oh Baby Don't You Weep", "Bewildered", "I Don't Mind", and their hit cover of The "5" Royales' "Think" all entering the Top 10, as well as R&B Number #1 Try Me.

Doo-wop's influence continued in soul, pop, and rock groups of the 1960s. Doo-wop was a precursor to many of the African-American musical styles seen today. Having evolved from pop, jazz and blues, doo-wop influenced many of the major rock and roll groups that defined the latter decades of the 20th century, and laid the foundation for many later musical innovations.

Doo-wop's influence continued in soul, pop, and rock groups of the 1960s, including The Four Seasons, girl groups, and vocal surf music performers such as the Beach Boys. In the Beach Boys' case, the doo-wop influence is evident in their early hit "Surfer Girl", and in albums recorded during their psychedelic era, in which the group experimented and innovated with the human voice as an instrument[57] in a self-described effort to "expand modern vocal harmony".[58]


Kathy Young with The Earth Angels performing Kathy's hit A Thousand Stars during the festival of this genre celebrated at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in May 2010

Although the ultimate longevity of doo-wop has been disputed.[59][60], at various times in the 1970s–1990s the genre saw revivals, with artists being concentrated in urban areas, mainly in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, and Los Angeles. Revival television shows and boxed CD sets such as the "Doo Wop Box" set 1–3 have rekindled interest in the music, the artists, and their stories. In December 1968, Frank Zappa's band The Mothers of Invention released a doo-wop parody/tribute album called Cruising with Ruben & the Jets.[49] An early notable revival of "pure" doo-wop occurred when Sha Na Na appeared at the Woodstock Festival. Soul group The Trammps recorded "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" in 1972.

Over the years other groups have had doo-wop or doo-wop-influenced hits, such as Robert John's 1972 version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", Darts successful revival of the doo-wop standards "Daddy Cool" and "Come Back My Love" in the late 1970s, Toby Beau's 1978 hit "My Angel Baby", and Billy Joel's 1984 hit "The Longest Time". Soul and funk bands such as Zapp released the single ("Doo Wa Ditty (Blow That Thing)/A Touch of Jazz (Playin' Kinda Ruff Part II)"). The last doo-wop record to reach the top ten on the U.S. pop charts was "It's Alright" by Huey Lewis and the News, a cover of The Impressions' 1963 Top 5 smash hit. It reached number 7 on the U.S. Billboard Adult contemporary chart in June 1993. Much of the album had a doo-wop flavor. Another song from the By The Way sessions to feature a doo-wop influence was a cover of "Teenager In Love", originally recorded by Dion and The Belmonts.

Doo-wop is popular among barbershoppers and collegiate a cappella groups due to its easy adaptation to an all-vocal form. Doo-wop experienced a resurgence in popularity at the turn of the 20th century with the airing of PBS's doo-wop concert programs: Doo Wop 50, Doo Wop 51, and Rock, Rhythm, and Doo Wop. These programs brought back, live on stage, some of the better known doo-wop groups of the past. In addition to The Earth Angels, doo-wop acts in vogue in the second decade of the 2000s range from The Four Quarters[61] to Street Corner Renaissance.[62] Bruno Mars and Meghan Trainor are two examples of current artists who incorporate doo-wop music into their records and live performances. Mars says he has "a special place in [his] heart for old-school music".[63]

The formation of the hip-hop scene beginning in the late 1970s strongly parallels the rise of the doo-wop scene of the 1950s, particularly mirroring it in the emergence of the urban street culture of the 1990s. According to Bobby Robinson, a well-known producer of the period:

Doo-wop originally started out as the black teenage expression of the '50s and rap emerged as the black teenage ghetto expression of the '70s. Same identical thing that started it – the doowop groups down the street, in hallways, in alleys and on the corner. They'd gather anywhere and, you know, doo-wop doowah da dadada. You'd hear it everywhere. So the same thing started with rap groups around '76 or so. All of a sudden, everywhere you turned you'd hear kids rapping. In the summertime, they'd have these little parties in the park. They used to go out and play at night and kids would be out there dancing. All of a sudden, all you could hear was, hip hop hit the top don't stop. It's kids - to a great extent mixed-up and confused - reaching out to express themselves. They were forcefully trying to express themselves and they made up in fantasy what they missed in reality.[64]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Baptista, Todd R (1996). Group Harmony: Behind the Rhythm and Blues. New Bedford, Massachusetts: TRB Enterprises. ISBN 0-9631722-5-5.
  • Baptista, Todd R (2000). Group Harmony: Echoes of the Rhythm and Blues Era. New Bedford, Massachusetts: TRB Enterprises. ISBN 0-9706852-0-3.
  • Cummings, Tony (1975). The Sound of Philadelphia. London: Eyre Methuen.
  • Engel, Ed (1977). White and Still All Right. Scarsdale, New York: Crackerjack Press.
  • Goosman, Stuart L (2005). Group Harmony: The Black Urban Roots of Rhythm and Blues. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-8122-3886-9.
  • Gribin, Anthony J., and Matthew M. Shiff (1992). Doo-Wop: The Forgotten Third of Rock 'n. Roll. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications.
  • Gribin, Anthony J., and Matthew M. Shiff (2000). The Complete Book of Doo-Wop. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications.
  • Groia, Phil (1983). They All Sang on the Corner. West Hempstead, New York: Phillie Dee Enterprises.
  • Keyes, Johnny (1987). Du-Wop. Chicago: Vesti Press.
  • Lepri, Paul (1977). The New Haven Sound 1946–1976. New Haven, Connecticut: [self published].
  • McCutcheon, Lynn Ellis (1971). Rhythm and Blues. Arlington, Virginia.
  • Pruter, Robert (1996). Doowop: the Chicago Scene. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02208-4.
  • Rosalsky, Mitch (2000). Encyclopedia of Rhythm & Blues and Doo Wop Vocal Groups. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow.
  • Warner, Jay (1992). The Da Capo Book of American Singing Groups. New York: Da Capo Press.