The bass sounds of doo-wop
I’ve already revealed myself as a non-expert lover of early rock and roll who has no qualms about foisting his impressions off on you. Here I go again. At the height of the roll n roll of the late fifties and early to mid-sixties there were three components that I loved. One was the beat. Even today, I ignore the arthritic pain in my fingers joints as I listen to my music and uncontrollably tap with the beat on the steering wheel. I don’t do it; it just happens. My fingers take on a life of their own.
Then there is that soaring falsetto. It just took you places. The higher the notes went, the higher one’s spirits went. When the singers went up the scale, they took my soul with them.
Finally, there’s the bass. I don’t mean the guitar, I mean the voice. To set the idea in your mind, think Tennessee Ernie Ford in 16 Tons or The Oak Ridge Boys’ Richard Sterban in Elvira. Want a more classical representation? Try Paul Robeson singing Ole Man River. Now, can we leave out Geoffrey Holder just talking or James Earl Jones voice on the CNN commercials? Nope. None represent classic rock and roll or in the latter two examples any music at all. But they represent what a bass voice sounds like. If we want to get academic about it, “the bass singing voice has a vocal range that lies around the second E below middle C to the E above it. It is also denoted by its timbre. It is darker than that of a baritone. The bass is the rarest of male voices.” I don’t much care, but I thought for you music aficionados I’d throw that in. (Thanks Wiki!).
When I’m not driving up the need for Tylenol from my steering wheel tapping, I do something that no one should ever do. I’m writing notes on stupidly small scraps of paper I search for at red lights when I hear a song that fits into something I’m going to write about. For instance, I will be referring for this piece to a 2” x 3” piece of paper on which I’ve written the names of nine groups and their songs! I have a fairly good memory because much of it I can’t read having written the notes atop the horn or my lap or the dashboard with a pen that’s been in the car so long it has to be primed for the ink to flow.
Sing along, won’t you, as I mention some of them. A good place to start is with Odessa, Texas’ The Velvets. Their song, “Tonight” (Could Be the Night) almost had it all. Of all the goofy background sounds in Doo Wop, in this song the words Doo-wop, doo-wop-wop were sung. I’m sure there were other song in which the words “doo-wop” were sung, but I can’t remember hearing any of them. Help me if you can. Meanwhile. That song’s lyrics name the genre in song, although the actual invention of the term is fought out in Doo-Wop history. The beat is wonderful. In this 1961, the bass is tucked in here and there and at the end they almost make falsetto.
The Coaster’s in “Charlie Brown” (“Why is everyone lookin at me…” and Along Came Jones have great bass as does Frankie Lyman’s rendition of The ABC’s of Love. Can you do better than the Earl’s singing “Pretty Little Angel Eyes?” Bass voice Jack Wray. Yes, you can. Take a listen to “Sea of Heart Break” by Don Gibson. “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” was sung by Curtiss Lee but his back up group was The Halos (a long story). The great bass was Arthur Crier.
In those days there were hit groups from each borough and “the Island.” But do we really care about who came from the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, or Staten Island? Not really. Brooklyn had a bunch of’em. We mentioned in the last column Lincoln High’s the groups that became The Tokens, an early member of which was Neil Sedaka. The Jive Five was a unique transition group that left doo-wop for a wider, more avant guard kinds of sounds. There were the Sinceres, The Classics, and the Passions all Brooklyn street corner groups. (Beware…teaser. There’s more to come down the line.)
My youngest son is proof that Rock and Roll, particularly Doo-Wop, is here to stay. When he was in his late pre-teens he heard the songs I was listening to on the car radio, and he became entranced with the bass sounds.
I was soon to have knee surgery and there wasn’t much I could do—period. I decided to put together my own recording studio. I had two large, like two and half feet tall, speakers and a tape deck with a turntable. I also had a tape recorder. My studio cost maybe $250 as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I decided I was going to take out all my rock and roll records, cassettes, and discs that had great bass sounds. I would play them on the tape deck. In would go the music, out it would come from the speakers, and in it would go to the recorder. I had several tapes of primo songs with primo bass sounds. He still has them.
Interspersed with my other writings I will offer you a few columns on what Brooklyn added to the Doo-Wop scene. The paths of the singers and some of the groups could be described as serpentine. Some sang for more than one group at a time, some switched groups more than a light switch turns on lights, some just sang. They were local or regional stars, booked for every kind of event you can think of, but they never recorded. It’s a wild and wacky story.
Yes, rock and roll is here to stay—probably longer than we are.