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Forever Doo-Wop

Race, Nostalgia, and Vocal Group Harmony

John Michael Runowicz

Publication Year: 2010

Music can be a storehouse for emotional, social, and cultural experiences that deepen and acquire greater value over time. This is a book about a particular genre of vocal harmony music called doo-wop that has accrued deep meaning and affective power among Americans since its inception in the aftermath of World War II. Although the first doo-wop singers were primarily young black males in major American cities, it wasn’t long before white working-class teenagers began emulating their rhythm-and-blues harmonies. The racial exchange of this distinctive genre and the social bonding it engendered have had a significant and lasting impact on American musical culture. In Forever Doo-Wop, John Runowicz traces the history of this music from its origins in nineteenth-century barbershop quartets through its emergence in the postwar era to its nostalgic adulthood from the mid-1960s to today. The book is based on interviews he has conducted and observations he has made over the last twenty-two years working as guitarist, musical director, and second tenor with one of the legendary doo-wop groups, the Cadillacs, on what is popularly known as the “oldies circuit.” As a graduate student, he broadened his research to include the wider doo-wop community. Forever Doo-Wop invites readers to gaze through a window on our society and culture where certain truths are revealed about how white and black Americans coexist and interact, about how popular music functions as a vehicle for nostalgia, and about the role of music making over a long lifetime.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v

CONTENTS

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pp. vii-

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PREFACE

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pp. ix-xv

We have a special connection to the music of our youth. The words, melodies, and rhythms that fill our relatively uncluttered and still developing teenage brains leave imprints that last throughout our lives. The makers of this music also leave lasting impressions. They are avatars of the optimism and innocence, unbridled energy and impulsive rage, unalloyed joy and intense sadness of our youth, emotions that seem so much more...

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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pp. xvii-xviii

This book would not have been possible without the help of a constellation of teachers, advisers, colleagues, musicians, family, and friends, many of whom are listed below. My gratitude begins with heartfelt thanks to the faculty and staff of the New York University Department of Music who gave me the necessary institutional support to commence this endeavor and provided me with a community of empathic fellow academic travelers as I worked. For insight and...

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INTRODUCTION

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pp. 1-22

My association with the doo-wop world as a musician has afforded me an unusual vantage point for studying the roots and meaning of this music. I began to get to know the people of this community more than twenty years ago, but the community itself had developed almost two decades earlier, with the advent of the oldies circuit. The circuit provided new performance opportunities...

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CHAPTER 1. THE ROOTS OF VOCAL HARMONY

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pp. 23-39

Doo-wop is a musical culture that has a long history. As Greg Woods, a member of Shirley Alston Reeves’s band, put it, “Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Doo-wop did not just spring up over night. It has a legacy. Slave owners didn’t like us singing. They were afraid we were passing along information, which we did.”1 There are written examples and accounts of colonial-era Europe an American music making, but traces of pre-nineteenth-century African American musical life are scant.2 Recognizing and exploring the...

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CHAPTER 2. THE BIRTH OF DOO-WOP

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pp. 40-62

In the 1950s, no one was yet calling the music doo-wop, but it was in these years that the nostalgic, racial, social, and economic semantic weight behind the word began to accumulate. One of the most famous New York doo-wop groups is the Cadillacs. Their story is doo-wop’s story. “Well, basically, I’m with a group, as you know, Speedo and the Cadillacs, which is a New York group, born...

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CHAPTER 3. SHORTCUT TO NOSTALGIA (includes illustrations)

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pp. 63-84

By the end of 1950s the vocal groups who had started recording and performing a half decade earlier were finding it increasingly difficult to put songs on the charts. The Cadillacs, having broken up and regrouped, attempted to mimic the style of one of the most popular groups of the time, the Coasters, who were known...

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CHAPTER 4. THE DOO-WOP COMMUNITY

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pp. 85-108

The doo-wop community today is a social network that comprises four subgroups, who are affected differently by certain endemic issues. For the singers recognition and reconciliation, which encompass both financial recompense and artistic and historical appreciation, are extremely important—in a word, they want respect. The mediators, (the intermediaries—from promoters to record collectors—between the...

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CHAPTER 5. THE OLDIES CIRCUIT

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pp. 109-140

I began playing on the oldies circuit in 1987 with Speedo and the Cadillacs, and then twelve years later I started working with Shirley Alston Reeves, the former lead singer of the Shirelles. My relationship with both groups, on both the professional and the personal level, has grown steadily deeper ever since. Being on the stage and making music has always been the first order of business, but certain experiences compelled...

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AFTERWORD. THE PERSISTENCE OF HARMONY

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pp. 141-147

The reason these groups have this longevity is because the songs were great. These songs will live forever. The Marshak groups are a case in point. None of those groups have original members and people don’t care. That’s what interests me most about that era. The sentiment...

NOTES

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pp. 149-173

INDEX

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pp. 175-190


E-ISBN-13: 9781613760390
E-ISBN-10: 1613760396
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498235
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498230

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 9 photographs
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: American Popular Music
Series Editor Byline: Jeffrey Melnick, Rachel Rubin