All Hopped Up Music and Maps: Chapter 6
This playlist and map accompanies Chapter 6 of my book All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77. (Click on the triangle in the box below to start the playlist. You can click through to buy each track or album.) “The Teenagers Sing Rock ’n’ Roll” follows on from Chapter 3, “The Harlem Hit Parade,” and covers the transition of the New York vocal groups from the gospel and rhythm and blues style of singing, as profiled in that chapter, into something that much more vibrant, more raw, more youthful… ultimately, more teenage.
You’ll see from the titles of albums in the accompanying MP3 playlist that this music is often now referred to as Doo Wop, but in the 1950s, such a term did not exist. In the first half of that decade, the vocal groups considered themselves purveyors of rhythm and blues. But once Alan Freed came to town to broadcast on WINS Radio in September 1954 and, forced to change his moniker from “Moondog” after a successful legal challenge by the New York City street musician of the same name, opted for Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Party, it was only a matter of months before that term caught on with the local vocal groups, as it did for teenage musicians and vocalists of all colors all across America.
Though it’s almost impossible to overstate Freed’s importance and influence on popular music, especially in New York City, the changes in vocal style began taking place before he moved from Cleveland. You can hear, in the hit for Bobby Robinson’s Red Robin label, “Where are You (Now That I Need You)” by the Mello-Moods, a group of schoolboys from the Harlem River Houses, that in 1952 ballads were still very much the name of the vocal group game. Similarly, when George Goldner signed the Crows, from the 141st Street section of Harlem, to his new label Rama, in 1953, he initially promoted the ballad “I Love You So” over the B-side, “Gee.” It was the rhythm and blues radio DJs who began flipping the single and focusing instead on the “jump” side, “Gee,” which, as I write in the book, was “a mess – but it was a gloriously cheerful mess, encasing the thrill of juvenile passion in the fervor of rhythm and blues, in a way that had rarely been captured before inside a recording studio.”
In March 1954, “Gee” entered the pop chart – before it made the R&B chart, indicating that it was perhaps even more popular with white kids than black. That same month, Atlantic released the debut single by the Bronx’s the Chords, a cover of Patti Page’s “Cross Over The Bridge” backed by their own “jump” song, “Sh-Boom.” The same thing happened to the Chords single as to the Crows’, and soon enough not only did Atlantic have a major hit on its hands, but “Sh-Boom” had been covered by a white Canadian group, the Crew Cuts, who took it to a nine-week run at number one in the summer of 1954. I include their version for comparison.
The floodgates soon opened for the newly upbeat sound of “rock ‘n’ roll,” but before offering some of the better New York examples, it’s important to include a couple of ballads from the Harptones, one of which, “A Sunday Kind of Love,” dates from 1953; the other, “Life Is But A Dream” (its title lifted from “Sh-Boom”) was released on Hy Weiss’ Paradise label in 1955. The Harptones, whose musical arranger, composer and pianist Raoul Cita lived (and still lives) in the heart of Harlem, were revered by adults and youth alike for the angelic quality of their singing, as well as the vitality of their live shows; they were among the most frequent performers on Alan Freed’s various revues. “Life Is But A Dream” ended up with a second life thanks to the movie Goodfellas; the Harptones still occasionally perform with as near to their original line-up as any vocal group from the 1950s.
I refer to the following three songs from 1955 in the same paragraph on page 113 of All Hopped Up, as they exemplified the exuberance of that golden year. (And, as I note of the necessary musical cliché, “yes, all three had a honking sax solo.”) The Wrens hailed from Morris High School in the Bronx, a hotbed of vocal activity; the Cadillacs from Harlem; the Valentines were formed in Harlem by Philadelphian expat Richard Barrett, who moved to the area after winning the Apollo’s Amateur night twice. I’ve also included “Church Bells May Ring” by the Willows, from the fertile 115th Street area of Harlem; a great cut in its own right, the recording is also notable for the presence of a teenage Neil Sedaka on chimes. (His own group, the Tokens, were signed to the same label, Morty Craft’s Melba. That story picks up in Chapter 7.)
Richard Barrett went on to have a considerable career on the other side of the microphone. (In the 1970s, he discovered and managed the Three Degrees.) His first, and arguably most significant move, was to bring to his label boss George Goldner a multi-racial group called the Premiers, whom he discovered, most likely, rehearsing at Edward W. Stitt Junior High School in Harlem. By the time Goldner released their debut single, in late 1955, the song’s title had been changed from “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay” to “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” the group had been re-named the Teenagers, and 12-year old Frankie Lymon, recruited after playing mambo bongos at a school talent contest, had been shifted to the lead vocal position.
The Teenagers had a couple more hits – “I Want You To Be My Girl” and, in the U.K. if not the U.S., “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” – before Lymon was errantly taken solo by his new handler, Morris Levy, at Roulette Records. As a group, the Teenagers’ career lasted barely 18 months; Lymon died of a heroin overdose at age 25. And yet, though “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” topped out at number 6 in the charts, its influence was considerably greater. Lymon’s youth allowed any number of other schoolboys to envision themselves as pop stars – including Frankie’s younger brother Lewis Lymon, whose “I’m So Happy” was composed by Bobby Robinson and released on a new label, Fury, especially established for the occasion. Of equal importance, his falsetto voice – of indeterminate gender – encouraged schoolgirls to get in on the action, too.
The first to hit the charts, in 1957, were the Bobettes, from East Harlem, whose “Mr. Lee” (named for a 5th Grade teacher) has a more aggressive instrumental backing than many other hits of the era – a result, no doubt, of label Atlantic Records’ love for raw R&B and the quality of its session musicians. The first female group to establish themselves as an ongoing entity were the Chantels, convent girls from the Bronx, who cornered Richard Barrett after a Valentines show one night and sang “The Plea,” a capella, on the street. Barrett immediately brought them to Goldner, who featured that song as the B-side to “He’s Gone,” their debut hit for his new label, End. That single was quickly followed by the beautiful ballad “Maybe,” on which lead singer Arlene Smith, all of 15 at the time, delivers one of the greatest vocal performances of the era: there was something to be said for a training singing Gregorian chants in a Convent school choir. Years later, the irrepressible Goldner would get the Shangri-Las to cover “Maybe.” In 1958, he had the Chantels cover the Crows’ initial ballad, “I Love Her So.” (The similarities between that song and “The Plea” do not go un-noticed.)
While the primarily black vocal groups from Harlem, the Bronx and elsewhere in New York were thriving on a street corner level, with the occasional indie label single hitting the charts, the Drifters were the only New York vocal group that appeared to have some commercial consistency. As fronted by Harlem’s Clyde McPhatter, they continued their initial run of major R&B hits (detailed in Chapter 3) with “Lucille,” “Such A Night,” “Bip Bam,” “Honey Love,” “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” and what I observe in the book was “a nearly note-for-note copy of the Ravens’ own interpretation of “White Christmas.” But in the middle of 1954, just as “Gee” and “Sh-Boom” took off and changed the nature of rhythm and blues, Clyde McPhatter was called up to the Army; upon his return, he was taken solo, where he continued to score hits for Atlantic, with “Treasure of Love” and “A Lover’s Question,” both of which crossed over to the pop charts. The Drifters floundered without McPhatter; it’s relevant that when the great Leiber and Stoller were brought in to stop the rot, they decided on an answer record to that by the Teenagers, entitled “Fools Fall In Love.” It was not a big hit.
In the spring of 1958, the Drifters were fired by their manager after a disastrous run at the Apollo; he replaced them, wholesale, with lower-billed act the Crowns, a highly revered Harlem vocal group whose failure to score any kind of hit had confounded their many fans. Among the Crowns’ vocalists was a newly signed baritone, who had spent his own teenage years singing on the streets of Harlem in friendly “battles” with other vocal groups: his name was Benjamin Nelson, soon to be known as Ben E. King, and so the story would continue.
View 6) The Teenagers Sing Rock ‘n’ Roll in a larger map
The map above (click on this link to expand it into its own page) shows the concentration of vocal group talent in Harlem and the Bronx, including a number of record labels (and venues) on 125th Street, and the importance of certain High and Junior High Schools. It also reaches out across the East RIver to include the former Brooklyn Paramount, scene of so many of Alan Freed’s triumphs. (A photograph of the Marquee for the 1955 Rock ‘n’ Roll Easter Jubilee appears at the front of the book.) In All Hopped Up and Ready To Go, I stated that Freed’s debut New York City promotion, his Rock and Roll Jubilee Ball of January 14 and 15, 1955, took place at “the St. Nicholas Arena in Harlem.” Trying to establish the exact location of that arena for this Google Map suggests that, despite copious historical references to a Harlem location (perhaps confused by the existence of a St. Nicholas Avenue), the Arena in question was most likely the boxing venue on West 66th Street, just off Central Park. I am trying to establish the location for once and for good; in the meantime, I would note that this kind of situation comes up constantly during research, whereby “conventional wisdom” turns out to be a case of a falsehood repeated often enough that it becomes a perceived fact. In excusing myself, I should note that I mis-spelled “Lily Maebelle” in the book – but that I’m also the first person to have noticed!
I trust that these MP3 playlists and maps are proving to be a useful and enjoyable accompaniment to the book. The number of hits on the Google Maps suggests that they are indeed being appreciated. They’re fun to put together and I hope these pages will exist as a separate resource to the book itself.