Despite the intensity of its rabid cult following and the countless hits it produced in the Fifties and Sixties, doo-wop remains the most overlooked and critically maligned facet of early rock and roll. The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of the Moonglows (only the second doo-wop ensemble to enter this supposedly hallowed shrine) incensed Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn to the point that he committed his irritation to print a few weeks back via a half-baked berating of the Chicago group responsible for the hits "Sincerely" and "The Ten Commandments of Love." (Interestingly Hilburn didn't seem to mind the induction of cream puff James Taylor.)
Those songs represent the very essence of doo-wop as well as dramatize the reason the music still receives such little respect among highbrow critics who prefer Sgt. Pepper's to A Hard Day's Night, or Pet Sounds over The Beach Boys Today! To wit, doo-wop is inherently romantic, unabashedly sentimental, and infatuated with the notion of love as something both idyllic and ideal. For the pinheads who think of rock and roll simply as the music of youthful rebellion, or something in need of tricked-up Euro-art experimentation, doo-wop is hopelessly corny, at times even silly, a mere soundtrack for soda-shop romance, something you outgrow once high school is over and the real world beckons.
Nonsense. The very reason doo-wop continues to work is somewhere in its most enduring theme: As the Flamingos sang in their 1956 classic "The Vow," "true love never dies." That message is at the core of the music's greatest hits, from Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners' yearning "Since I Don't Have You" to the Five Satins' "To the Aisle," a loving ode to the wonders of wedded bliss; from the Hollywood Flames' rollickingly horny "Buzz Buzz Buzz" to the Sheppards' shimmering "Island of Love." The genre also includes some riotous novelty songs (the Cadillacs' "Speedo," the Chips' "Rubber Biscuit," and the Eternals' "Babalu's Wedding Day" among them), but it's the testimonials to undying love that have kept the music fresh more than 30 years after doo-wop faded from the charts.
The surviving artists from the genre continue to work the oldies circuit, playing casinos, fairs, and package shows, sometimes with original members but just as often with a cast of imposters. Some can still conjure the majestic magic of yore, while others merely pander to audiences simply interested in hearing the old songs one more time. For anyone who has endured an oldies package at its worst, the two concerts documented on Rhino Home Video's Doo Wop 50 (filmed last year at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center for the Performing Arts) are nothing less than heart-stopping revelations, loaded with surprise, genius, and the warmest kind of passion. Hosted by Chicago soul legend Jerry Butler, the silk-voiced balladeer who graced the Impressions' 1958 smash "For Your Precious Love," the concerts are celebrations of the past, yet they also stand as tributes to the music's continued vitality and its lingering influence on a host of contemporary vocal groups.
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Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows are here, turning in scintillating versions of "Sincerely" and "The Ten Commandments of Love" that make Hilburn's lacerating comments all the more baffling. The Jive Five, led by the commanding vocalist Eugene Pitts, proves it's lost nothing in the decades following its brief heyday in the early Sixties, nailing both of its vintage hits "My True Story" and "What Time Is It," songs that respectively define the confusion and anticipation of young love. And with "Maybe," Arlene Smith and the Chantels combine them both in one song that could be the finest girl-group record not produced by Phil Spector or Berry Gordy. A hit for the group in 1958, the Chantels return to the song not just for the sake of old times, but to dive further into the lyric, reminding anyone with a heart and a pair of ears that love is never easy, and self-doubt, angst, and the often irrational pull of sexual desire can sometimes be impossible to shake.
But mostly what Doo Wop 50 documents is the communal spirit of the music, where voices intertwine with almost mathematical precision, where lead vocals soar atop the harmonies, fusing gospel fire with R&B passion. The performers -- well-known acts such as the Platters, but also less-acclaimed groups including the Harptones, the Channels, and the Cleftones -- are radiant, intoxicated by the joy of singing, basking in the audience's incessant roar of approval, an affirmation that their music still means something after so many decades. Fittingly almost everyone here rises to the occasion, with performances that are equally redemptive and cathartic.
Two groups, however, manage to walk away with the concerts in the hip pockets of their shit-slick suits. The Capris, one-hit wonders known to the faithful for their 1958 swooner "There's a Moon Out Tonight," seize the energy from the crowd and work it into their interpretation of this most smoochy and creamy of doo-wop ballads. When Nick Santo sails into the falsetto that brings the song to its dramatic close, the effect is positively chilling, and worth every moment of a "real" piece of art à la the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." Even better is the Brooklyn Bridge, led by ex-Crests vocalist Johnny Maestro. Always one of doo-wop's greatest vocalists (that's Maestro singing lead on "Sixteen Candles" and "Step by Step"), his work on Doo Wop 50 is breathtaking, with that swooping bel canto wrenching every ounce of pathos and tragedy from both "Sixteen Candles" and "Worst That Could Happen," the Brooklyn Bridge's hit from 1969. Watching him dig deeply into the lyrics, lost in his art but in full command of the moment, you have to wonder just how damn big the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to be to accommodate the likes Maestro and his brilliant brethren feted so masterfully throughout both volumes of Doo Wop 50.
Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge perform at 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 25 at Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 NW 95th Ave, Sunrise. Also appearing are the Cadillacs, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, The Diamonds' David Somerville, and the Spaniels' Pookie Hudson. Tickets to each show cost $27.75 and $40. For more information call 954-741-7300.