Music of the people: Doo Wop

Mitch Mitchell introduces a new series of playlists of ‘music of the people’. He starts this week with Doo Wop.

The Orioles helped establish the Doo Wop style.

There have been many styles of music that could lay claim to the title ‘music of the people’. For me, to validate that claim, the music has genuinely to have come from the streets.

One such was style of close harmony vocal music which became called ‘Doo-Wop’ after the mid-1960s. The style can be traced back to the pre-war outfit, The Inkspots, who retained their popularity until the early 1950s.

Most of their recordings were fairly slow ballads, although during the 1940s, they did adopt the jump style popularised by people like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris.

After the war, young black Americans began trying to emulate the Inkspots and several outfits started to make records. Usually, these groups were named after birds and so there were people naming themselves The Ravens, The Orioles, The Crows, among many others.

In the early 1950s, when rhythm and blues was evolving into rock and roll, young guys could be seen on street corners of the big cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburg. They would be practising their techniques and, although many were moved on by unsympathetic cops, some were picked up by the burgeoning record industry.

One such was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. For a short while, they were a massive act and their ‘Why do fools fall in love’ was a huge worldwide smash. Sadly, it all unravelled for them. Frankie left to go solo with little success and this led to serious depression for him. He was addicted to heroin and died, aged 25, from an overdose of the stuff.

However, Lymon’s success spurred others on to try. The record industry at the time was dominated by small independent labels, several of whom sold masters of tracks that looked like nationwide hit material on to the major players like RCA or Columbia (CBS). What this meant was there was the thinking of ‘throw enough mud against a wall and some will stick’. Later in the 1960s, when the accountants took over running record labels, this attitude dropped.

The success of these groups (now frequently named after cars: The Cadillacs, The Impalas, The Sting Rays) encouraged people from another discriminated against minority, Italian Americans to have a go. The most successful of these outfits were Dion (DiMucci) and the Belmonts.

They had been friends who hung around the pool halls and cafes of South Belmont Street in New York. For several years, Dion was a ‘teenage idol’, even after going solo and ditching The Belmonts.

This clip taken from one of DJ Dick Clark’s TV shows features them with one of their biggest hits:

The style lasted in popularity into the early 1960s, but after that only the big names seemed to continue to succeed. It diminished even further with the advent of The Beatles and the ‘British Invasion’ of 1964 onwards.

It was revived in the late 1960s by Sha Na Na who shook a few hippies with their appearance at Woodstock.

Like everything else, tastes change over time, but this music was born in the tenements and public housing parts of the industrialised cities and therefore, I think it has a right to be labelled ‘People’s Music’.


  1. Thanks for the link to the Orioles “Crying in the Chapel”, This song was never one of my favourite Elvis tracks, but it has to be said that the Orioles’ version is far superior.


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