Another spinoff from the Vernons neatly called the Breakaways became known for session work but they made many singles in their own right for Pye, produced and sometimes written by Tony Hatch. ‘That Boy Of Mine’ and ‘That’s How It Goes’ are as good as any New York girl group records. Don’t take my word for it: George Harrison commended them for ‘That Boy Of Mine’ when they appeared alongside the Beatles on Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Over in Holloway Road, Joe Meek was furiously recording one group after another and although none of his hits touched on doo-wop, there are a few recordings to note. In 1964 he made a fine single ‘Dumb Head’ and ‘Boy Trouble’ by the Sharades, who were the Ladybirds, another offshoot from the Vernons Girls. ‘Dumb Head’, originally recorded by Ginny Arnell, was voted a Miss on Juke Box Jury and that was the end of it. Diane and the Javelins revived ‘Heart And Soul’ in 1966 but for some reason, Meek thought a tambourine should be a lead instrument. Meek recorded Emile Ford’s group, the Checkmates, in 1963 but while ‘You’ve Got To Have A Gimmick’ has doo-wop harmonies, it is a silly song commending Frankie Vaughan, the Shadows and Pat Boone.
Among the good UK doo-wop records are ‘Bye Bye Baby’ by Tony Jackson and the Vibrations and ‘Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya’ by Simone Jackson, both with excellent help from the Breakaways. They had a great look too – black sweaters, tight black pants and high-heeled black boots – and all before The Avengers and the Shangri-las. Oh dear, don’t get me going, let’s move on to something else.
The folk-rock band Steeleye Span were having fun in their van one day in 1974 and started harmonising on ‘Rave On’. Their a cappella arrangement was issued in two forms. The single on Mooncrest has a deliberate fault as though it is an old 78rpm that is sticking, but the LP version on the Rave On sampler has no such error but fades out the track before the “Me, me, me” ending.
Steevleye Span’s ‘Rave On’ prompted Les Gray to do something similar with Mud, only their version of ‘Oh Boy!’; climbed to No.1 in 1975. A couple of weeks later, the top spot was taken over by two actors from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Don Estelle (Lofty) and Windsor Davies (BSM Williams) with ‘Whispering Grass’. It was a daft but loving send-up of the Ink Spots, the prototype for many doo-wop groups.
Also in 1975, the session pianist Pete Wingfield joined them in the charts with ‘Eighteen With A Bullet’, a clever song with an arrangement which gives a nod to many doo-wop classics, notably the Spaniels’ ‘Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight’. “That was a hit in America,” says Pete, “but I am little suspicious of the American charts as it was 18 with a bullet on Cash Box, Record World and Billboard so I suspect foul play. It was also an R&B hit in America and they didn’t like my picture on the sleeve. They wanted a black guy instead. Of course the beginning was inspired by the Spaniels. I was lucky enough to work with them on one of those multi-artist extravaganzas in London in the early 90s. I was hesitant to say who I was because I thought they might resent the fact that I had ripped off their song. I did tell them later over a beer and I said that the song was a tribute to their music. They said that when they heard ‘Eighteen With A Bullet’, they put it in their set, and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.”
One of the attractive features of doo-wop is how busy the records are; everybody has something distinctive to do and the way they are coordinated can be very special. By rights, I should love Roy Wood but there is too much going on in his records, especially when he remixes his hits for CD. He regularly draws on rock’n’roll for inspiration but his vocal harmonies are more influenced by the Beach Boys than doo-wop. However, there are doo-wop elements in ‘Oh What A Shame’ and ‘Forever’.
In 1974 Lou Reed toured the UK and was supported by the US a cappella band, the Persuasions. The band had their own agenda and decided to help underprivileged black youths as they toured the country. In Liverpool they gave daytime music instruction at the Blackie and these classes were attended by the Christian brothers who wanted to perform. They became the Christians and many of their harmonies on songs like ‘Greenbank Drive’ and ‘Born Again’ were inspired by doo-wop bands. They also revived Clyde McPhatter’s ‘A Lover’s Question’. A far lesser light were four young lads from Liverpool known as Our Kid: in 1976 they won the TV talent show New Faces and went into the Top 10 with ‘You Just Might See Me Cry’.
Following on from Mud whose dress sense came from the crepes and drapes of the 50s, a number of bands had chart successes with revivals of American hits which had often made no impact in the UK and were like new songs. There was an element of parody and pastiche about these second generation bands. Nearly all the hit singles were high energy and the performers even more so.
Two bands came together in Leicester to form Showaddywaddy. Their frontman Dave Bartram couldn’t recall which record, if any, contained the phrase “sho waddy waddy” but it is very close to what is sung by the Diamonds in ‘Little Darlin’’. It has to be coincidence as both Showaddywaddy and the Rubettes made their chart debuts in May 1974, but the Rubettes’ first two hits, ‘Sugar Baby Love’ and ‘Tonight’, contain the phrase, “doo wop, sho waddy waddy”.
Showaddywaddy’s success began with an original ‘Hey Rock And Roll’ and their revivals included ‘Under The Moon Of Love’ (No.1), ‘When’, ‘You’ve Got What It Takes’ and ‘Pretty Little Angel Eyes’. Musically they were good but they ruined their stage shows by having kids get up and dance with them.
When I asked Dave Bartram if Showaddywaddy’s success was more prompted by Sha Na Na at Woodstock than the original performers, he said, “Possibly in an animated sense, but Sha Na Na never made any records of note. I felt that Showaddywaddy was very British with its Teddy boy look. We managed to create a sound of our own and our hits came out of that sound. We had a 50s base if you like but it was very 70s in terms of production. In my opinion, our version of ‘Under the Moon Of Love’ was far superior to the original and I would rate our version of ‘I Wonder Why’ higher than Dion and the Belmonts, but I didn’t think we improved on ‘Three Steps to Heaven’ as the original is fairly sacred.”
With similarly comic showmanship, Rocky Sharpe and the Replays found success with the Edsels’ ‘Rama Lama Ding Dong’ in 1978 and later with Ernie Maresca’s ‘Shout Shout (Knock Yourself Out)’. To my way of thinking, they missed out on their biggest hit by not releasing their version of Don and Juan’s ‘What’s Your Name’ as a single: no gimmicks in this performance, just straight singing and it is magical.
Featuring the glorious eccentric Den Hegarty, Darts began in 1977 by merging ‘Daddy Cool’ with ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. Their hits included ‘Come Back My Love’, ‘The Boy From New York City’ and the incomprehensible ‘Duke Of Earl’, produced by Roy Wood and at long, long last making an appearance on the UK charts. Behind their showmanship, Darts possessed an integrity and wrote some excellent songs including ‘Bells In My Heart’, which could have been a doo-wop hit in the 50s. Many of their tracks were produced by the American Tommy Boyce, who know a thing or two about pastiche as he had produced the Monkees.
Around the same time, the session singer and member of Gidea Park, Alan Carvell, formed the Telegrams who recorded an original song, ‘Oh Baby Please’ for the Creole label. Well, not too original, this is a fine recreation of 1950s Italian doo-wop with some excellent harmonies.
Considering the vast unemployment in the UK, which gave rise to punk, it is surprising that none of these bands revived the Silhouettes’ ‘Get A Job’ for a single. Indeed, it seemed likely that these bands would seem old hat once punk came along but they managed to hang around and were joined in the charts by the excellent Jets in 1981 who made ‘Yes Tonight Josephine’ and ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’. Their most doo-wop sound was their revival of the Genies’ ‘Who’s That Knockin’’. The Jets are currently involved with a theatre show Kings Of Harmony which pays tribute to the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys and Dion and the Belmonts.
By far the most interesting of these groups was the Flying Pickets who went to No.l with their almost a cappella version of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’. They had come out a left wing theatre company 7:84, so-called because 7% of the country owned 84% of the wealth. Their political message was part of their stage show and they worked with both Ken Livingstone and Billy Bragg. The Pickets chose the most unlikely songs for a cappella performances. Their version of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ was mesmerising, a brilliant piece of theatre. Their attempts at humour were less satisfactory but did include a reference to Reach For The Sky in ‘Summertime’.
Although only on TV, the very hit-and-miss Freddie Starr did a very funny a cappella workout of ‘The Young Ones’ with the Shadows and he showed he could be serious when he sang ‘Don’t’ with the Jordanaires.
The Liverpool R&B band from the 70s, Supercharge is still going with its leader, saxophonist Albie Donnelly, and they recently released a 40-track compilation, Jump! A pleasant surprise is the a cappella ‘Goodnight, My Love’, with doo-wop harmonies. I’ve never heard the normally boisterous Albie so mellow and it’s a lovely track, heavily indebted to the Spaniels.
A love for the 60s girl groups came through in the work of Kirsty MacColl. She was very fond of the Shangri-las and her song, ‘They Don’t Know’, would have suited them. Kirsty did the backing vocals on Tracey Ullman’s hit version, and Tracey also had a Top 10 single with ‘Break-A-Way’. Among Kirsty’s own records is a fine version of ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Baby’.
Den Hegarty became a founder member of the Metrotones who have never had chart success but are a fine club act recreating doo-wop classics as accurately as possible and with comic timing. The Roomates are a fine revival band releasing an album which was memorably called Lost On Belmont Avenue in 2008. They backed Dion on a rare British appearance.
From time to time doo-wop acts appear on The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and as many contenders have realised, a good a cappella sound can be the best way to present yourself in these fraught and hectic auditions. All you need are mics that work – and some talent. Although they did not go far in The X Factor, the boy band, the Overtones, has made hit albums and played UK arenas, opening for Cliff Richard and Peter Andre.
Doo-wop is sometimes referred to as the forgotten third of rock’n’roll but over the last 60 years, it has played a bigger part in British popular music than most people imagine. It is good that we have had our own practitioners.