Doo-wop was based on a cappella singing (harmonics in a single pitch) and although the style was used in biblical times it became popular in inner city areas of New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles during the 30s and 40s. Evolved from vocal blending of rhythm and blues, gospel, and popular music young people would practiced in high schools, street corners, and subway entrances until their vocal harmonies were perfect. Teenage boys usually trying to impress the girls with rude lyrics with nonsense syllables formed vocal harmony groups consisting of 4-6 individuals with a range of vocal parts from bass to high tenor or child castrato, as in Frankie Lymon.
Songs had a simple beat, and were usually unaccompanied. The lead singer was usually a tenor and the second tenor and baritone blended together as one sound, with the high tenor (or falsetto) running over the lead and the bass reverberating on the bottom end. Occasionally the bass would take the lead for at least part of a song. As the style became more popular, innocent lyrics were substituted as the songs became more romantic. Several vocal tricks were used including the gospel technique of “melisma,” where syllables are elongated to fit the meter of the song. The best example is "O-o-only You" in the Platters' "Only You".
The term Do Wop was probably used first in California to describe the sounds but credit was given to Gus Gusset, a New York DJ, for bringing the music to a wider audience. Like Alan Freed had given the name to Rock’n’Roll, Gossert and Doo Wop were similarly associated. By the mid fifties the ‘doo wop’ refrain could be plainly heard in the quintessential doo-wop recording by The Five Satins, “In the Still of the Night (I Remember)” (1956).
The sequence of events was, first came the group, but as the lead singer (usually a pretty boy) took more of the limelight and billing, then management got double billing and were paid twice. Blow harmonies became popular in the early 50s and sounds like "ha-oo" (made by abruptly forcing air out of the mouth) replaced previous background support such as humming, finger clicking, hand clapping, whistling and even yodelling. Both Danny and the Juniors' and Dion and the Belmonts' used blow harmonies to good effect.
As with all Doo wop instruments such as the piano, guitars, saxes, and drums were often used to accompany vocalist but remained very much in the background. At some point vocal groups realised that one good way to release the hard "doo" was to add a soft "wah." Later bass singers were given a more prominent role and more frequently they provided the introduction and/or punctuated the song between choruses. All-female groups substituted a contrasting lower voice for the bass part. Nonsense syllables had been derived from bop and jazz styles, and traditional West African chants before that. Nonsense syllables were often used in the bass and harmony parts but more restrained, simple, and sombre when employed in ballads. Falsetto was also used often at the end of a song, in conjunction with the lead's dramatic fade-out. In ballads, the falsetto part echoed the lead voice and was part of the background harmony, or ran above the vocal blend. The lead singer could move in and out of falsetto. (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons Walk like a man 1963).
In the late fifties humorous, up-tempo doo wop found a strong following among rock’n’ roll teenagers. So much concern was expressed by parents and teachers at the incorrect grammar and innuendo that groups like the Coasters were viewed with disdain by the Establishment for corrupting public morals.
By the early sixties young songwriters like Gerry Goffin/Carole King, Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich and producers such as Phil Spector began to create their own doo wop pop. Using the conventions of tight harmony, pronounced bass, and nonsense syllables, they cleverly combined this with new melodies, augmented instrumentation, and better sound production to give a new lease of life to doo wop style. Until now women had not played a major role in Doo Wop but times were a changing. Spectre’s Wall of Sound (multi-tracked mono recordings) saw groups like The Chiffons and The Crystals rocket up the charts.
Meantime in California, Brian Wilson took vocal harmony into another dimension with the spectacular sounds of the Beach boys.
As the decade progressed a renewed interest in Doo wop arose principally through the Mothers of Invention concept album. Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, other retro- groups like Sha-na-na (US), Daddy Cool (Australia) and Showaddywaddy (UK) all had a loyal following.
More recently Billy Joel enjoyed a doop wop styled hit with "The Longest Time" in 1983 and the fad for boy bands to the end of the decade also saw more emphasis upon close harmony vocalisation.
Worth a listen
Only You (1955)
The Five Satins
In the Still of the Night (I Remember) (1956)
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
Why do fools fall in love (1956)
Danny and the Juniors
At the Hop (1957)
Dion and the Belmonts
A teenager in love (1959)
Blue moon (1961)
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
Walk like a man (1963)
Yakety Yak (1958)
He's So Fine (1963)
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention
Under the moon of love (1976)
Daddy Cool (1971)
Longest day (1983)