Doo-wop in the SoCal sun
What skiffle was to British kids in the 1950s, doo-wop music was to their US equivalents, from New York to Los Angeles: the entry point to a new world, for teenagers only. Unlike skiffle, however, to these ears doo-wop still sounds fabulous more than 60 years later, its vibrant innocence undimmed. And there are unheard gems to be discovered by the idiom’s devoted archaeologists, as we find in This Love Was Real, a new collection of two dozen tracks by LA vocal groups from 1959 to 1964.
Unlike their counterparts in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the kids of Watts, South Central and El Monte didn’t have subway tunnels in which to practise their harmonies. But they had long warm evenings and street corners and sock hops in school gyms, and budding music-business operatives like Dootsie Williams, Johnny Otis, John Dolphin, Gary Paxton and George Motola to herd them into a studio and capture their naive hopes and dreams on tape. Among the greatest hits of Southern California doo-wop were the Penguins’ genre-defining “Earth Angel”, Marvin and Johnny’s “Cherry Pie”, the Cuff Links’ “Guided Missiles” and the Paradons’ “Diamonds and Pearls”, but you won’t find any of those here. This Love Was Real is devoted to the ones who didn’t make it, often for no good reason.
For example, I can’t tell you how happy I am to make the acquaintance of the Cezannes, who — “featuring Cerressa” — recorded “Pardon Me” at Motola’s studio in 1963. Composed by Kent Harris, who wrote the original “Shoppin’ for Clothes” (later adapted for the Coasters by Jerry Leiber) and released on the obscure Markay label, the record has the perfect proportions: a gentle 12/8 rhythm, a four-bar chord sequence that falls perfectly into place every time, a high lead vocal cruising above rudimentary harmonies, and even a goofy spoken section.
Nobody remembers much about the Cezannes, beyond the fact that they were a sister (Cerressa) and her brother and cousin, all students at Jefferson High School in South Central LA. The record wasn’t a hit, and as far as anyone knows they went back to resuming normal lives. But thanks to Ady Croasdell, the compiler of this collection, and the set’s expert annotators, Steve Propes and Alec Palao, they live again.
As do all the other tracks, some of which are seeing the light of day for the first time — such as “The Letter”, apparently a product of a session recorded in Philadelphia in 1959 by Adolph Jacobs, the 20-year-old guitarist with LA-based Coasters, with whom he was on tour at the time, having left another popular local group, the Medallions, to join them. Like the previously unreleased “This Wilted Rosebud” by Bobby Sheen (soon to become Phil Spector’s Bob B. Soxx) and the Pharoahs’ “Here Comes the Rain”, it’s a beauty.
Among complete unknowns like the Valaquans, the Cordials, the Precisions and the Five Superiors, we find a sprinkling of familiar figures: the 18-year-old Danny (Sly) Stewart, for example, later known as Sly Stone, then a member of the Viscaynes, singing his heart out on “A Long Time Alone”, released in 1961 on the Luke label after being recorded during what the singer apparently believed was nothing more than a demo session. And Dorothy Berry, wife of Richard Berry, the composer of “Louie Louie”, who leads the Swans through “Hold Me” and would later become one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes.
And then there’s Arthur Lee Maye, a star baseball player at Jefferson High when he recorded for a couple of labels. He hung out with the likes of Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry, and is said to have sung the bass part on Berry’s original version of “Louie Louie” in 1957. Cutting his name down to Lee Maye, he went on to spend 13 years with major-league clubs, six of them with the Milwaukee Braves and the rest with the Houston Astros, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators and the Chicago White Sox. Baseball, he felt, got in the way of his singing career, which he resumed briefly in the 1980s before dying of cancer in Riverside, California in 2002, aged 67.
Maye and his group, the Crowns, are represented on this anthology by “Last Night”, a cheerful, up-beat song of unknown original recorded for John Dolphin’s Cash label in 1959. Arranged by the guitarist Arthur Wright to a busy Latin beat, it was left unreleased and unheard until an acetate in Wright’s possession came to light. “I am the best singing athlete that ever lived,” Arthur Lee Maye once said, and I’m still trying to think of an example with which to contradict him.
* This Love Was Real: L.A. Vocal Groups 1959-1964 is on the Ace label. For those wanting a helping of what happened next in the street music of Los Angeles, I can recommend another new 24-track compilation, Lowrider Soul Vol 2, just out on Ace’s Kent subsidiary, featuring the Larks, the Hesitations, the Manhattans, Darrow Fletcher, Barbara Mason and others.