Doo Wop


Black and white photograph of four young African American men dressing dark suit jackets, ties, and light pants. Three men are standing while one kneels in front, all are looking off to their left, at least two appear to be singing.
The Silhouettes’ 1957 record “Get a Job” reached number one on the pop and R & B charts. (Publicity Photo)

Philadelphia was one of several key cities where, in the 1950s and early 1960s, singers created the small-group vocal harmony style of rhythm and blues known as doo wop. Doo wop was an urban style, sung on city street corners and in school hallways. Its name, derived from a type of sound singers made in their vocalizations, has been disparaged by many historians of the music, who prefer to call it “classic urban harmony” or “street-corner harmony.” Although primarily African American in origin, white groups adopted the doo wop style early on and achieved popularity with it as well.

Several streams of African American music fed into the creation of doo wop, which began to emerge as a distinct style in urban neighborhoods of the United States in the late 1940s: the smooth singing style of popular Black vocal groups of the 1930s and 1940s such as the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots, a cappella gospel groups and barbershop quartets, and jazz and blues vocalists. Borrowing elements from these various types of music, young Black singers in Philadelphia and other cities (they were almost exclusively male; there were very few female doo wop groups) fused them into a distinctive vocal style that began to achieve popularity in the early 1950s with both white and Black audiences. Doo wop was a sub-genre of rhythm and blues, the broader body of African American popular music that grew out of jazz, blues, and gospel music in this period.

There were two major types of doo wop songs: ballads and up-tempo tunes. The former were slow romantic songs, usually featuring a high tenor singing lead, backed by close harmony vocal accompaniment and a bass singer interjecting spoken words and vocalizations. The latter were livelier dance tunes, generally with blues-inflected harmonies and melodies. Some groups specialized in a particular type, but many became adept at both. While doo wop groups often performed a cappella, the recorded versions of their songs frequently featured instrumental accompaniment.

Philadelphia Hits

In Philadelphia, early doo wop groups included the Castelles, Capris, Silhouettes, Turbans, and Lee Andrews (real name Arthur Lee Andrew Thompson, 1936–2016) and the Hearts. They recorded for various small independent rhythm and blues record labels based in Philadelphia in the 1950s or, in some cases, for larger New York–based labels. Most of these groups were one- or two-hit wonders, enjoying some success but unable to sustain it over the long term. Their personnel changed frequently and they often bounced from label to label in search of the next big hit. In several notable cases they achieved it: the Silhouettes’ 1957 record “Get a Job” reached number one on the pop and R&B charts, while Lee Andrews and the Hearts had big hits in 1957 and 1958 with “Teardrops,” “Long Lonely Nights,” and “Try the Impossible.”

Black and white photograph of four young men in white dress shirts, ties, and dark pants with suit jackets draped over their left shoulders.
In 1958 Danny and the Juniors had a number-one hit with “At the Hop” and a top twenty hit with “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.” (Publicity Photo)

A number of white Philadelphia doo wop groups also found success. In 1958 Danny & the Juniors had a number-one hit with “At the Hop” and a top twenty hit with “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay.” The Dovells reached number two in 1961 with “The Bristol Stomp” (inspired by a dance teenagers were doing in nearby Bristol, Bucks County) and had hits with a series of follow-up dance tunes in 1962. As these groups incorporated doo wop vocal arrangements into early rock and roll, they joined the many successful local artists who made Philadelphia a national leader in youth pop music in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

By the early 1960s doo wop had begun to fall out of favor as a new and different African American vocal style, soul, gained in popularity. Then in early 1964 the British Invasion, the wave of English rock groups initiated by the Beatles’ February 9, 1964, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, took the United States by storm and knocked doo wop groups off the charts.

While its heyday was over by the early 1960s, doo wop retained a small but devoted fan base and enjoyed several revivals. One was spurred by the appearance of the group Sha Na Na at Woodstock in 1969, where, among other songs, they performed two enduring Philadelphia doo wop hits, “Get a Job” and “At the Hop.” During another revival in the 1980s, Lee Andrews revived his group Lee Andrews and the Hearts with his wife and children as band members. On drums was his son Ahmir (b. 1971), later known as Questlove, leader of the well-known Philadelphia band The Roots. In the early twenty-first century, doo wop continued to be played on oldies radio programs—indeed, it was the first popular music to be designated “oldies”—and heard in movies and TV shows to evoke the 1950s. Philadelphia played an important role in developing and popularizing this uniquely American musical style.

Jack McCarthy is a music historian who regularly writes, lectures, and gives walking tours on Philadelphia music history. A certified archivist, he directs a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical repositories. He has served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the 2014 radio documentary Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio and gave several presentations and helped produce the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 2016 Philadelphia music series “Memories & Melodies.” (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


The Turbans

Publicity Photo

The original members of The Turbans, shown in this 1955 publicity photo, were (seated from left) baritone Charlie Williams, second tenor Matthew Platt, bass Andrew “Chet” Jones, and (standing) lead tenor Al Banks. The group formed in 1953 and signed with Herald Records in New York two years later. Their first single, “Let Me Show You (Around My Heart)” was a hit regionally, but it was not until disc jockeys started playing the B-side, a more upbeat tune titled “When You Dance,” that The Turbans broke the national charts.

Written by Chet Jones, “When You Dance” reached number three on the R & B chart and number thirty-three on the pop chart. Between 1956 and 1962, The Turbans released twelve more records, including a remake of their hit “When You Dance,” but they never again charted nationally. Throughout this period, the group split up and reunited several times, often with a new record label and a new lineup. By the early 1970s, Al Banks had joined the Drifters. Later in that decade, Banks and Earl Worsham (who had replaced Charlie Williams in 1958) began planning another Turbans comeback, but Banks’ untimely death in 1977 dashed those plans.

The Silhouettes

Publicity Photo

The Silhouettes began as a gospel quartet named the Gospel Tornadoes. However, when Richard Lewis replaced James Jenkins—Jenkins had been drafted—in 1956, he convinced founding members Earl Beal, Raymond Edwards, and Billy Horton that they should add some secular songs to their repertoire. For the next year, they continued to perform gospel as the Gospel Tornadoes, but they also performed rock and roll as The Thunderbirds and The Silhouettes. In 1957, local DJ and music promoter Kae Williams signed on as the group’s manager and they settled on the name The Silhouettes. This early publicity photo depicts the 1957 lineup of (clockwise from left) baritone Earl Beal, bass Raymond Edwards, tenor Richard Lewis, and lead singer Bill Horton.

The Silhouettes were best known for their hit single “Get A Job.” Like the 1955 hit “When You Dance” by The Turbans, “Get A Job” was originally recorded as the B-side to a ballad called “I Am Lonely.” However, with its catchy hook, upbeat tempo, and powerful sax solo, “Get A Job” was an instant success (and it probably did not hurt that the group’s manager was also a popular disc jockey at WHAT radio). By early 1958, the song had sold more than a million copies and reached number one on both the R & B and pop charts. In addition to numerous television appearances, the group toured with some of the era’s biggest stars including former Drifter Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke.

Although The Silhouettes had some success with their fourth single, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” the group never again charted nationally. In 1960, John Wilson replaced Bill Horton on lead and Cornelius Brown replaced Raymond Edwards on bass. The group also signed with a new record label and management. In 1966, they updated their sound and recorded a single titled “Climb Every Mountain” the following year as The New Silhouettes. In 1968, the group released its first and only full-length album, which combined some new material with several earlier recordings including, of course, “Get a Job.” Later that year, The New Silhouettes called it quits. In the 1980s, a doo-wop revival prompted a reunion of the original four members of The Silhouettes. In addition to live shows, the group appeared in the 1986 film Joey. The Silhouettes performed for the last time together in November 1993.

Lee Andrews and the Hearts

Publicity Photo

Unlike The Turbans and The Silhouettes, Lee Andrews and the Hearts managed to break the national charts more than once. Best known for their ballads, the group formed in the early 1950s when five teenage friends— Arthur “Lee Andrews” Thompson, Roy Calhoun (first tenor), Thomas "Butch" Curry (second tenor), James "Jimmy" McCalister (baritone), and John Young (bass)—began singing together after school and on the weekends as The Dreamers. In 1954, The Dreamers auditioned for local music promoter and WHAT disc jockey Kae Williams, who was so impressed by what he heard that he immediately offered to manage the group. Later that year the group signed with a small New York label called Rainbow Records and changed its name to Lee Andrews and the Hearts. However, the first three singles the Hearts released were flops and by 1955, Williams decided Rainbow Records was not the right label for the group.

Now that they were high school graduates, the five friends were forced to think seriously about their futures. Jimmy McCalister decided to leave the Hearts to join the Navy and both Roy Calhoun and Lee Andrews took jobs at the Gotham Records’ processing and distribution plant in Philadelphia. Sometime that same year, the group was given an opportunity for a fresh start when it came to light that, since they were minors when they signed it, their contract with Kae Williams was invalid. Late in 1955, Andrews and Calhoun convinced Ivin Ballen–owner of Gotham Records–to let the group audition for him. Ballen signed them immediately and over the course of a year, the Hearts released three singles with Gotham Records. Once again, however, not one of their singles charted. Feeling dejected, the group decided to change record labels again, signing with Mainline Records in 1957. Before they began recording with the new label, another founding member, John Young, decided to leave the group.

At about the same time, “Long Lonely Nights,” a song the Hearts had originally recorded with Gotham Records, was beginning to get some attention. Mainline promptly released a new recording of the song, which eventually climbed to number forty-five on the pop and number eleven on the R & B charts. Their follow-up single, “Teardrops,” was even more successful, reaching number twenty on the pop and number four on the R & B charts. In the spring of 1958, the Hearts released their third and final hit, “Try the Impossible,” which peaked at number thirty-three on the pop chart. After touring for a few months, Lee Andrews and the Hearts disbanded.

This publicity photo depicts the 1956 lineup. From left to right are John Young, Butch Curry, Lee Andrews, Ted Weems (who had replaced Jimmy McCalister in 1955), and Roy Calhoun. Roy’s brother Wendell replaced John Young when he left the group in 1957. From 1959 through 1963, various lineups resurfaced periodically. In the 1970s, Andrews formed a soul group called Congress Alley with wife Jackie, Karen Brisco, and Richard Booker. Although Congress Alley did not achieve commercial success, several popular hip-hop artists including Dr. Dre and Jay Z have sampled their music. In the 1980s, Lee Andrews revived Lee Andrews and the Hearts with his wife and children as band members. On drums was his son Ahmir (b. 1971), later known as Questlove, leader of the well-known Philadelphia band The Roots.

Danny and the Juniors

Publicity Photo

Local businessman and singer/songwriter John Madara discovered Danny and the Juniors, four high school friends who had been singing together on street corners and at school dances since 1955. In 1957, Madara and founding member Dave White wrote the group’s first hit, which was originally titled “Do the Bop.” It was American Bandstand host Dick Clark who suggested the group change the title and lyrics of the song. At the time, the “bop” was a popular dance, but Clark warned that it would not be long before the bop was replaced by some new dance craze. Clark predicted, however, that the gatherings known as “record hops” or “sock hops,” where teens could show off their dance moves, would remain popular for a very long time. So, White, Madara, and record producer Artie Singer reworked the lyrics and renamed the song “At the Hop,” which was recorded and released on Singer’s label, Singular Records, in June 1957.

For the first six months, “At the Hop” received little attention. Then, on December 2, an act scheduled to appear on American Bandstand canceled at the last minute, prompting Dick Clark to call his friend Artie Singer for a replacement. Singer promptly sent Danny and the Juniors. Within minutes, the switchboard was flooded with calls. ABC soon bought the rights and reissued “At the Hop” on its Paramount label.

A week after Danny and the Juniors appeared on American Bandstand, “At the Hop” entered the pop chart and by January 1958, it had reached number one. By March, the group had a second top twenty hit with “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” also written by Dave White. Although the group released a few more minor hits in the early 1960s, they would never duplicate the success they enjoyed in 1958. This promotional photograph taken for ABC-Paramount depicts the original line-up of (from left to right) Danny Rapp (lead tenor), Dave White (tenor), Joe Terranova (baritone and bass), and Frank Maffei (tenor).

Sha Na Na

Photo by “General Bob” Felderman

While its heyday was over by the early 1960s, doo wop retained a small but devoted fan base and enjoyed several revivals. One was spurred by the 1969 appearance of the group Sha Na Na at Woodstock, where, among other songs, they performed two enduring Philadelphia doo-wop hits, “Get a Job” and “At the Hop.” The original members of Sha Na Na began singing together as college students at Columbia University. The group’s name was taken from the famous hook of “Get a Job.”

Following their Woodstock performance, Sha Na Na continued to gain popularity. From 1977 through 1981, the group hosted its own nationally syndicated television series featuring comedy sketches, musical performances, and special guest stars. In 1978, the group appeared in the film version of the hit Broadway musical Grease. They also contributed six songs to the film’s soundtrack. Although there have been several personnel lineups over the years, Sha Na Na continued to tour in the early twenty-first century. On June 3, 2016, eleven of the original members returned to Columbia University to perform a concert as part of the class of 1971’s reunion celebration. This recent concert photo features founding member John “Jocko” Marcellino singing lead and Screamin’ Scott Simon – who joined the group in 1970 – singing back up.

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Related Reading

Blavat, Jerry. You Only Rock Once: My Life in Music. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2011.

Cummings, Tony. The Sound of Philadelphia. London: Methuen, 1975.

Gillette, Charlie. Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1996

Guralnick, Peter. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Jackson, John A. A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jackson, John A. American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ’n’ Roll Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Runowicz, John Michael. Forever Doo-Wop: Race, Nostalgia, and Vocal Harmony. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.

Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop. 12 volume CD set. Bear Family Records, 2012.

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