My True Story

The Jive Five, Beltone 1006, 1961, #3 Pop and #1 R&B

If I could pin down any doo-wop song as my favorite, it would be The Jive Five’s “My True Story.” Its verse is nothing special; it follows the usual “ice-cream changes” that 90+% of doo-wop songs do (you know: C down to A-minor, to F and then G, like “Heart and Soul”). But each chorus’s repeated falsetto up-swoop is rapturous, and I get lightheaded every time I hear it. I always find myself whistling it long after listening to it, much to the chagrin of those around me.

The Jive Five had three more singles that made the Billboard charts, but much farther down, and they produce no chills when listened to. One-hit-wonderful songs like “My True Story” are little miracles, marvels of the collaborative process that very occasionally creates one gem, never to be equaled.

The “true story” involves a love triangle that includes a guy named Earl, which not only conveniently rhymes with “girl” but also happens to be the first name of quite a few doo-wop singers (though not any of the Jive Five). The sad story that makes the singer “cry, cry, cry” is a sensitive one for him. Taking off on the Dragnet intro, he sings, “The names have been changed, dear, to protect you and I.” (As a grammar nerd, I can’t help but sing “me” to myself every time I hear the line. But as a doo-wop fan, I un-correct my correction, quickly enough not to screw up the meter.)

The song is credited to Eugene Pitt, The Jive Five’s lead singer, and a fellow named Oscar Waltzer. I’m guessing Oscar got co-credit for doing some of the business of getting the song published and/or broadcast. Oscar Waltzer—I’m sorry—is just not the name of a doo-wop/R&B songwriter. (Was it a name made up as a little joke? After all, “My True Story” is in waltz time.)

A side note about Eugene Pitt: Prior to forming The Jive Five, he had a group named The Genies. Two of the Genies went on to have a ’62 top-ten hit, “What’s Your Name?,” as Don and Juan. Another late-doo-wop-era goodie. I recall a long-ago sing-along party, during which we singing partiers had had way too much of something or another to drink. We sang “What’s Your Name” and milked the song’s big finish (What’s your na-a-ame? What’s your na-a-a-a-ame? Shooby-do-wah-wa-ahhh”) for all we could get out of it. Then one of us tagged the next song we sang with that ending, and after that it was every song for the rest of the evening, from “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” to “In My Life.” It happened spontaneously and delighted us. When I tried doing that at another sing-along party years later, I just got annoyed looks. You can’t go home again.

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.

The Things I Love

The Fidelity’s, Baton 252, 1958, #60 Pop

Once I had had discovered my musical kinship with The Ink Spots, it was only a matter of time before I revisited The Platters. “Only You,” a favorite of mine, was the first collaboration between The Platters and their manager, the song’s writer, Buck Ram. It was the first of their many hits (although their follow-up “The Great Pretender” was the first to hit number one). Tony Williams was to The Platters what Bill Kenny was to The Ink Spots: a strong, melodramatic tenor to lead them to pop glory. And his vocal gymnastics turn “Only You,” a mediocre love song, into a love-drenched classic. (And from the sublime to the ridiculous: The B-side was a ditty called “Bark, Battle, and Ball,” a take-off on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Obviously, the group hadn’t yet figured out their path.)

Can one do this type of song nowadays without it automatically being labeled kitsch?

The other Platters tune I perform is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” at least partly because it’s the only pop song I know that contains the word “chaff.”

Once I’d added some Platters into my repertoire, I sought similar songs from their contemporaries. The most similar—and the best—is The Fidelity’s “The Things I Love.”
This sentimental big-band favorite, written by Harold Barlow and Lewis Harris and introduced by Jimmy Dorsey in 1941, is a love song couched in observations of the natural things the singer loves: sunset’s glow, fireflies at play, nodding tulips—and, of course, a lady’s “sweet voice” and “lovely eyes.” The version by The Fidelity’s (their apostrophe, not mine) was released in 1958. It is a soaring, gorgeous melody. The repetitive nature of most songs of the doo-wop era made songs revived from earlier eras, with their less predictable chord patterns, stand out. (Although, at a peak of only #60 on the Billboard pop chart, you couldn’t really say that this one stood out very much.)

The group is augmented on this recording by the Teacho Wiltshire Orchestra. “Teacho Wiltshire” is my second-favorite showbiz name, even above Hermes Pan, Blossom Dearie, and Harry Reasoner. My favorite showbiz name is Minto Cato. Ms. Cato was a singer/dancer who introduced “Memories of You” in the Broadway show Blackbirds of 1930. The song was written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. That’s another couple of great showbiz names. (And Minto, who went with Razaf for a while, could have become Minto Cato Razaf—wow!) The Fidelity’s Platters platter stayed at the lower reaches of the Billboard charts, and further attempts at hits fizzled, but lead vocalist Emmitt Smith makes “The Things I Love” a record that The Platters would’ve been proud to have in their repertoire, right alongside “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Only You.” Emmitt is right up there with Tony and Bill.

Can one do this type of song nowadays without it automatically being labeled kitsch? Has anyone in the past sixty years pulled off anything in this vein outside of an oldies show on public television? Who were the successors to The Ink Spots and The Platters, hugely popular groups who seem to have influenced nobody at all? And why are The Fidelity’s and their wonderful cover of “The Things I Love” all but forgotten?