Once Upon a Time

Rochell & the Candles, Swingin’ 623, 1961, #26 Pop and #20 R&B

A true head-spinner is Rochell & the Candles’ “Once Upon a Time,” from 1961. When I discovered it last year, I couldn’t recall ever having heard it before. But the sound of the 45 was electrifying, and I play it often. It’s among my very favorite doo-wop recordings, despite its melody and structure being pedestrian and repetitive. What catapults the song into the top tier? The lead vocal.

The smooth falsetto voice that glides clearly and sweetly throughout the song, along with the name Rochell, may cause a listener to think that this was among the rare doo-wop groups fronted by a woman. (In fact, it’s similar to the great 1958 hit “Maybe” by The Chantels, led by Arlene Smith.) But group-leader Rochell (Henderson) was male, as was the entire group. Rochell did not sing lead on this number; that duty fell to first-tenor Johnny Wyatt, whose falsetto is a doo-wop-era diamond.

There’s a cliché sound to the doo-wop ballads of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of them, like “Once Upon a Time,” feature “ice cream changes”—the 1 / 6 minor / 4 / 5 chord pattern of “Heart and Soul”—and piano triplets. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are, like those of “Once Upon a Time,” usually sappy and unoriginal.

There are a couple of options that can help a doo-wop ballad transcend the genre. One is to doo-wopicize a song from the American Songbook era—remaking it with all of the rhythmic and vocal trappings. Fine examples of this include The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (written by Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach in 1933), The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” (written by Harry Warren & Al Dubin in 1934), and Dion and the Belmonts’ “Where Or When” (written by Rodgers & Hart in 1937).

Another pretty surefire way to rise “out of the commonplace, into the rare” was to inject a sharp, clear falsetto vocal into the mix. There are many fine falsetto turns in doo-wop, of course, that are better-known than Rochell & the Candles’ “Once Upon a Time”: Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” (one of my first 45s), “Gloria,” by The Cadillacs. And The Marcels, with “Blue Moon,” pulled off the hat trick to hit #1: they took another Rodgers and Hart American Songbook favorite, written in ’34, and added a bright falsetto.

As much as I love the Rochell & the Candles record, there’s another falsetto feature that wins my Most Dramatic Effect Award.

I snagged a copy of The Fiestas’ debut single “So Fine,” which hit #11 on Billboard in 1959, because I wanted to learn it for a group I was in. It was several years before I thought to listen to its flipside, “Last Night I Dreamed.” (Apparently, quite a few people never thought to listen to the B-side when the record came out.) Through the first two lines of its verse, “Last Night I Dreamed” seems like the cliché ice cream-changes doo-wop number. And then, on the fourth word of line three, the divine happens: an out-of-nowhere two-octave leap by singer Tommy Bullock that thrills and chills. I don’t think I’ve played “So Fine” since I discovered its flip.

The doo-wop falsetto is often parodied and derided, and it’s pigeon-holed into a brief, long-gone period in American pop music. But the best songs of Rochell & the Candles, The Fiestas, The Diablos, and others are among the greatest creations in pop music, and deserve to be heard as timeless classics—not as out-of-date curiosities.

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