Doo-wop The Genre

Doo-wop represents a subcategory of vocal group harmony that stress group harmony, a wide range of vocal parts, nonsense syllables, a simple beat, light instrumentation, and simple music and lyrics. Above all, the focus is on ensemble singing. Single artists fit only when backed by a group (the possibility that the group may not be mentioned on the record label is immaterial). Typically solo billing simply means that this individual is more prominently placed in the musical arrangement (e.g., Dion, Bobby Day, Thurston Harris) as opposed to typical group productions.

Group Harmony

In doo-wop vocal harmonies echo--or, more commonly--run underneath the lead vocalist. Generally, the second tenor and baritone blend together as one sound, with the high tenor (or falsetto) running over the lead and the bass reverberating on the bottom end. The group harmony does not usually lead throughout; however, it may occasionally alternate with a tenor in this capacity (e.g., the Channels--"The Closer You Are").

In the early 1950s, groups like the Ravens and Five Keys pushed vocal blending techniques from the r & b realm to doo-wop with the use of "blow harmonies." This practice, wherein sounds like "ha-oo" resulted by abruptly forcing air out of the mouth, replaced humming as the predominant form of background support.

The genre sometimes utilized the device of progressive entrances by different voices. In most cases, the bass would begin, with others entering one at a time, until full harmony was achieved. Two notable 1958 releases, Dion and the Belmonts' "Tell Me Why" and Danny and the Juniors' "At the Hop," employed this technique as a primary hook.

In short, doo-wop harmonies evolved to a more complicated level than that reflected in the call-and-response format found in gospel. However, the genre lacked the musical depth obtained through use of the minor keys--typifying the mature work of the Beach Boys.

Wide Range Of Vocal Parts

The lead singer was usually a tenor, although sometimes a high tenor (or child castrato, the archtype being Frankie Lymon). Occasionally the bass will take the lead for at least part of a song, typically uptempo numbers (e.g., El Dorados--"Bim Bam Boom"). The lead in early doo-wop ballads frequently employed melisma, a gospel-derived vocal technique in which syllables are elongated to fit the meter of the song (e.g., "O-o-only You" in the Platters' "Only You").

Most song arrangements had a distinctive bass part, frequently it provided the introduction and/or punctuated the song between choruses. In some cases, the bass contributed a talking bridge in the middle of a song (e.g., the Diamonds' "Little Darling") or a percussive beat. All-female groups would substitute a contrasting lower voice for the bass part.

Falsetto parts were often used, typically at the end of a song, in conjunction with the lead's dramatic fade-out (e.g., "Tell Me Why," by Norman Fox and the Rob Roys; "Since I Don't Have You," by the Skyliners). In ballads, the falsetto part echos the lead voice, is part of the background harmony, or runs above the vocal blend. The lead singer may move in and out of falsetto (e.g., the Channels' "The Closer You Are") or use it throughout (e.g., the Paragons' "Florence").

Nonsense Syllables

Nonsense syllables were derived from bop and jazz styles, traditional West African chants, a cappella street corner singing (in place of the instrumental bass line), and doo-wop-styled r & b songs during the 1950-1951 period (e.g., the Dominoes' "Harbor Lights"). They were commonly used in the bass and harmony parts; their use tends to be more restrained, simple, and somber when employed in ballads ("doh-doh-doh," "doo-wah," etc.). The Chips' "Rubber Biscuit" (1956) represented a virtuostic application of this technique.

During the doo-wop revival (1960-1963), nonsense lyrics became more complicated, almost baroque in style. These lyrical contortions sometimes became the main focus; e.g., the Edsels' "Rama Lama Ding Dong" (1961), the Marcels' "Blue Moon" (1961).

Simple Beat/Light Instrumentation

Since doo-wop rhythms were originally provided by the snapping of fingers and clapping of hands, background beats are usually simple and heavy (with an emphasis on the second and fourth beats). Instruments such as the piano, guitars, saxes, and drums were often used to accompany vocalist but remained very much in the background. An instrumental break usually appeared after two verses. Those rare songs without a break included the Charts' "Deserie" (1958) and the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You" (1959); in both cases, the chorus is repeated throughout the song.

Simple Chorus and Lyrics

Doo-wop music is often comprised of four-chord progressions. Even uptempo renditions of old standards generally flatten out the melody line; i.e., rendering it in a more simplified form (e.g., "A Sunday Kind of Love," "Stormy Weather"). The lyrics tend to be repetitive, simple, dialectical, and awkwardly-phrased. Some are even grammatically incorrect. Nevertheless, many transcend these limitations to convincingly express such complex feelings as disillusionment, desire, and love.

Excerpted from: Survey of American Popular Music

by Frank Hoffmann

modified for the web by Robert Birkline

Read the complete article to learn more about the history of Doo-wap.