The Deep River Boys were popular in the US in the 1940s though they never had the success of the Ink Spots or the Mills Brothers. They came to the UK in 1949 and decided to stay, appearing at the London Palladium and selling well in Europe. In 1958 they recorded ‘Not Too Old to Rock And Roll’, which rather suggested that they were. Their versions of ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Love Me Tender’ on 6.5 Special were end of the pier stuff but they did record a poignant, gospel version of ‘There’s A Goldmine In The Sky’. In the 1980s I was at Wally Ridley’s house. He had been their producer at EMI and he had a stack of Christmas cards from lead singer, Harry Douglass, which suggested that the Deep River Boys hadn’t objected to working with British musicians.
In 1957 Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers toured the UK and recorded at Abbey Road. ‘Beguine The Beguine’ featured their bass boy Sherman Garnes on lead. On the other hand, ‘Goody Goody’ was cut as a Frankie Lymon solo but British session vocalists were added for single release. ‘Goody Goody’ became a key track on Frankie Lymon At The London Palladium, which was really Frankie Lymon at Abbey Road. He was using the same studio in which Alma Cogan cut her ham-fisted cover of ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’. Frankie Lymon At The London Palladium is a much-maligned LP, produced by Norrie Paramor and designed to give the 14-year-old a new image, though his voice hasn’t broken. It’s a long way from the Teenagers but Lymon is performing jazz standards very competently including singing scat on’ Somebody Loves Me’ and ‘My Girl’. Overall, it sounds like a Jimmy Scott album, especially on the heavily-orchestrated ‘Too Young’.
Although Frankie Lymon was too young for the songs, he sang like he meant business so he was far more than a novelty act and had the potential to be a Michael Jackson. However, like Jackson, he possessed a self-destruct button which made him wildly unpredictable.
Lymon’s initial success prompted the British record industry to find some young rock’n’rollers in their early teens. Laurie London recorded with vocal choruses but there is nothing suitable for this feature. Jackie Dennis did manage a chirpy cover of Billie and Lillie’s ‘La Dee Dah’ and it had something going for it as it made the Top 10. He found few takers for another Billie and Lillie original, ‘Lady Ladybug’, and he foolishly milked his kilted schoolboy look with a disastrous ‘Lindon Addie’. He gave it up and became a bus driver.
Helen Shapiro sounded much older than her years and made respectable versions of ‘It’s In His Kiss’ and ‘Please Mr Postman’, and you could put ‘Walkin’ Back To Happiness’ in the doo-wop mould. Considering her exceptional and highly distinctive voice, it is surprising that she didn’t try some real doo-wop. Susan Maughan is only known for one hit record, ‘Bobby’s Girl’, but it is a surprisingly good cover of Marcie Blaine’s original. (Some doo-wop fans say that by definition, females can’t make doo-wop as there is not the same range of voices but I am including girls when I think they are relevant. In any event, the Oxford Dictionary does not say it is a male domain.)
The British rock’n’roll star who embraced doo-wop best was Billy Fury. His 1961 hit single, ‘A Thousand Stars’, was a cover of a US single by Kathy Young and the Innocents, but is far superior. Fury’s production has something of the early Phil Spector about it and his narration works well. ‘In Summer’, an original but lightweight song from the Avons, has a good interchange of vocal and female chorus. Then there is the dramatic ‘Don’t Jump’ with its call and response vocals. To my ears, Fury’s entry into the doo-wop hall of fame came in the early 80s, shortly before his death when he cut a perfect revival of the Blackwells’ ‘Devil Or Angel’ with some lovely harmonies in the background. If only he had made a whole album like this…
Cliff Richard is capable of doing what anyone required of him and although he had the Shadows singing nonsensical phrases on ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’ and ‘Mumblin’ Mosie’, they don’t constitute doo-wop. Perhaps the closest he got was an excellent version of Gene Vincent’s ‘The Night Is So Lonely’ in 1961. Like Billy Fury, he got closer to the form in later years when he had hits with Shep and the Limelites’ Daddy’s Home’ (1981) and the Rays’ ‘Silhouettes’ (1990).
Marty Wilde did well by covering Ritchie Valens’ ‘Donna’, Dion and the Belmonts’ ‘A Teenager In Love’ and Phil Phillips’ ‘Sea Of Love’ and he, Cliff and Dickie Pride sang ‘Three Cool Cats’ to the Vernons Girls on Oh Boy! Again though, his best entry in the doo-wop stakes is his fine version of ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’ in 1994. Adam Faith misses out completely although there are good vocal harmonies with the Roulettes on his Faith Alive! album. Tommy Steele is a no-go area except possibly for the playful interchanges on ‘Butter Wouldn’t Melt In Your Mouth’ (1963), which has something of early 60s New York about it. Vince Eager and the Vagabonds gave ‘Yea Yea’ their best shot in 1958.
The Mudlarks took two doo-wop songs ‘Lollipop’ (Chordettes) and ‘Book Of Love’ (Monotones) into the charts but they sound like records to wake up the campers at Butlin’s. Similarly, Frankie Vaughan and the Kaye Sisters didn’t add anything except Frankie’s personality to the Fleetwoods’ ‘Come Softly To Me’.
The Crescents started as skifflers in Liverpool in the mid-1950s but soon realised they would rather be a harmony group. They secured a TV booking on The Jack Jackson Show. “We sang ‘Little Darlin’’ on that show,” says Bobby Kaye, “and the girls in NEMS told us that people were asking for our version.” When they signed with Columbia in 1958, they recorded their own songs, “Wrong” and “Baby Baby Baby”. “Fancy making a record and calling it ‘Wrong’” says Bobby, “I remember asking Denis Preston if he made hit records and he said, ‘I always make hit records’, but he didn’t this time.” They didn’t make hit records but they were a popular club act and Bobby Kaye became a nationally known comedian.
In 1958 five black American servicemen stationed in Germany came to London and recorded an EP for Decca as the Pharoahs. The lead track was ‘Shirley’ and they included ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. The EP didn’t sell but is worth around £50 today.
Morton Fraser’s Harmonica Gang was an antediluvian comedy act in variety shows and in 1959 three of the younger members left to form the Viscounts. Putting their harmonica in their pockets they became the vocal group, the Viscounts, and after contacting Larry Parnes, found work on radio and TV.
Don Paul says, “We loved Dion and the Belmonts and all that stuff and we practised and practised to get that American doo-wop sound. We wanted ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’ to sound just like an American record. For the other side, we did ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ and we were surprised that Pye thought this was the stronger side. We thought it would be a flop. We went out on the Rock’n’Trad Spectacular tour backing other artists and then all of a sudden we were in the charts and we had our own spot. I remember Billy Fury saying to me, ‘This is where your troubles start.’” Well maybe but the Viscounts had the good sense not to sign with Larry Parnes. ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’ was released in the US with ‘Everybody’s Got A Ya Ya’, a ya ya being a girlfriend, on the B-side and they were renamed the Three Viscounts.
In 1961 the Viscounts had a second hit with ‘Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp, Bomp Bomp)’, a US success for its songwriter Barry Mann. “I liked it immediately,” says Don Paul, “The Marcels had had a big hit with ‘Blue Moon’ and this was like a follow-up. It was a very clever song and I didn’t think we should do it as a gimmick. We did it as though the song was sincere. The guy wanted to know who the bass singer was because it had made his girl fall in love with him and he wanted to thank him. Great idea. It took a long session with Tony Hatch to get it right. We finished at 2am which was very unusual in those days but we were very pleased with the results.” The hit single prompted an answer version from Morecambe and Wise, ‘We’re The Guys (Who Drive Your Baby Wild)’.
There are plenty of good examples of British doo-wop from the Viscounts with ‘Banned In Boston’, ‘One Of The Guys’ and Gordon Mills’ own song, ‘I’ll Never Get Over You’. Gordon went on to manage Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck and Don encouraged Paddy, Klaus and Gibson to work out some doo-wop harmonies. He wrote ‘I Wanna Know’ for them with some strange classical flourishes and they sang ‘Hey Teresa’, originally recorded by Eddie Cochran.
It is well known that when the Quarrymen appeared at the Woolton Garden Fete in 1957, they sang the Dell-Vikings’ ‘Come Go With Me’. We don’t know how they sounded but we do know that John Lennon amended the lyric to “Come go with me down to the penitentiary.” In recent years another version of ‘Come Go With Me’ has emerged from the pupils at Birkenhead School and led by Christopher Morris, who became Lance Fortune. The Beatles often visited doo-wop territory with ‘Chains’ (Cookies), ‘Baby It’s You’ (Shirelles), ‘Please Mr Postman’ (Marvelettes) and ‘Devil In His Heart’ (Donays).
When the Beatles performed the Coasters’ ‘Besame Mucho’ on stage, they would sometimes change the backing vocals to ‘Besammy Leacho’, a nod to local promoter, Sam Leach. Lennon and McCartney’s own attempts at writing doo-wop include ‘Girl’ (in which George and Paul like naughty schoolboys singing ‘tit-tit-tit-tit-tit’ in the background) and Paul McCartney’s impassioned ‘Oh Darling’ from Abbey Road. Some years later Eric Stewart of 10cc was writing with Paul McCartney and he told me, “I had a tongue in cheek conversation with Paul. He kept asked me for his share of the royalties from ‘Donna’ and I would say, ‘You can’t have them. You can afford it.’ I can see the similarity of course but we didn’t take ‘Donna’ from ‘Oh Darling’ – we got the idea from some screaming song from the 50s but I can’t remember what it was. It might have been by Jackie Wilson. Anyway, the idea came from that and we wrote a new song.”
Try as I may, I have never been able to locate that song – does anybody know the song that links ‘Oh Darling’ and ‘Donna’?
When the Beatles’ recorded John Lennon’s agit prop song, ‘Revolution’, in 1968, they recorded two versions. The one on the back of ‘Hey Jude’ is ferocious and angry but the one in The White Album is a slow doo-wopper with some good high-pitched harmonies.
Everybody knows what George Harrison did with the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’. George had a love for doo-wop and on his 1982 album, Gone Troppo, he Harrison recorded a very good version of the Stereos’ ‘I Really Love You’, which just sounds like a doo-wop record with George singing lead. Ringo Starr sang ‘Boys’, really a girls’ song, and the Shirelles song was also performed by Cilla Black and Jeannie and the Big Guys from Chester.
Although the Liverpool bands took so much from black R&B artists, there were surprisingly few black Liverpool groups, but one was the Chants. They were a vocal group, often performing a cappella and opening their set by clicking their fingers and singing ‘Duke Of Earl’. They didn’t record that but they did a fine ‘Come Go With Me’. Their producer, Tony Hatch, liked the way the US doo-wop groups revived standards and so the Chants gave ‘I Could Write A Book’ a breezy workout with plenty of ‘danga danga doo wahs’. They also sang ‘A Thousand Stars’ and one of the group, Eddie Amoo wrote ‘I Don’t Care’ and ‘Then I’ll Be Home’. Eddie went on to chart-topping success with the Real Thing and even today he looks the coolest man in Liverpool. The Chants were a very good group and it is a shame that Pye didn’t make an album with them.
Other examples of British doo-wop from this period include ‘Runaround Sue’ (Doug Sheldon), ‘Cherry Pie’ (Jess Conrad), ‘(Ain’t That) Just Like Me’ (Hollies) and ‘Duke Of Earl’ (Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders). Beryl Marsden did a good job on Jackie deShannon’s ‘Break-A-Way’ and Beryl could be singing it this Christmas as she is in pantomime in Liverpool.
The Vernons Girls started out as a staid, formal choir but Jack Good changed their image to feature them as “a rock’n’roll Greek chorus’” in Oh Boy! Their own records lacked credibility but there were spinoffs like Lyn Cornell’s ‘I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’ and the De Laine Sisters’ cover of ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’. Reduced to a trio by 1962, the Vernons Girls did some American covers – ‘Lover Please’, ‘The Locomotion’, ‘Do The Bird’ – but most of the time they recorded original songs by Trevor Peacock and Charles Blackwell. The originals that are most in the doo-wop idiom are ‘See For Yourself’ and ‘Stay At Home’.