Street Corner Symphonies.
Fountain flows of secular prayers unceasingly ascending to very Heaven.
Yearning, yearning, yearning.
A feeling in the heart igniting the spine.
Somewhere out there beyond the block there must, must, be someone waiting, yearning, believing, just like you.
The air is charged, vibrant.
Through the Ether you can hear the harmonies.
Through the Ether you can hear the echoes.
Listen to The Harptones, The Orioles and The Five Satins.
Listen to The Cadillacs, The Charms and The Capris.
Listen to The Danleers, The Dubs and The Duprees.
Can’t you hear them singing just for you?
Listen to The Penguins.Embed from Getty Images
Oh, oh, the vision of your loveliness.
I hope and I pray.
Oh, someday, someday, I’ll be the vision of your happiness.
Happiness. Happiness. Happiness.
Please be mine.
A street corner symphony indeed.
A subway psalm for sure.
Oh to be just such a Fool.
A Fool in Love.
Today, another ordinary/extraordinary Jukebox story surrounding a Doo Wop classic from 1954.
An ordinary/extraordinary story featuring:-
- Two sets of high school friends recording a demo in a Los Angeles garage that goes on to sell at least 10 Million copies and feature in a succession of Hollywood movies.
- A court case, with singing from the witness box, to determine who wrote the song and hence who gets the royalties (for it is a music business truth that where there’s a Hit it won’t be long before there’s a writ).
- The near bankruptcy of the first independent record label to achieve a national smash hit.
- One definite murder and one highly suspicious death.
- A guest appearances by Frank Zappa.
So, let’s begin with The Penguins.
They took their name from ‘Willie’ the iconic mascot for the Kool Cigarette brand.
The members who recorded, ‘Earth Angel’ were Cleve Duncan (lead vocal), Curtis Williams (bass), Dexter Tisby (tenor) and Bruce Tate (baritone).
Curtis and Bruce were alumni of Jefferson High while Cleve and Dexter met at Fremont High.
The piano on the recording was played by Gaynel Hodge (who had previously been in The Hollywood Flames with Curtis Williams and who would go on to be a founder member of The Platters).
No one is sure who played the drums though some speculate that Bongo King Preston Epps was in the garage on that fateful October day.
It seems that Earth Angel emerged out of the collective consciousness and unconscious of Curtis Williams, Gaynel Hodge and Jesse Belvin (a prolific songwriter and melting vocalist who had been their mentor in The Hollywood Flames).Embed from Getty Images
Jesse’s song from 1952, ‘Dream Girl’ is an obvious influence on ‘Angel’ as is The Swallows’, ‘Will You be Mine’.
Close listening to Patti Page’s, ‘I Went to Your Wedding’ (which The Hollywood Flames had demoed) and The Flames own, ‘I Know’ will reveal pre echoes of Earth Angel.
And. there’s a definite sonic signature traceable back to Rodgers and Hart’s, ‘Blue Moon’ which occupied some part of everybody’s musical memory.
When the royalties battle came to court Jesse Belvin’s virtuoso vocals convinced the Judge that he deserved his share of the greenback bonanza along with Curtis and Gaynel.
The Penguins were in the 2190 West 30th Street Garage because that was where Dootone Label owner, Dootsie Williams, liked to record.
The Garage Studio was owned by Ted Brinson, a relative of Dootsie’s, who had been a Bass player for the Jimmy Lunceford and Andy Kirk swing bands.
Dootsie is the beaming bespectacled gent below next to Johnny Otis a legendary black music mover and shaker who wearing his Disc Jockey hat (Johnny wore a lot of hats) gave, ‘Earth Angel’ many a spin to push it to the top of the LA Charts.
Dootsie heard something winning in The Penguins sound and, as a music publisher, thought that their songs might set the cash registers chiming.Embed from Getty Images
Thinking of those cash registers and Juke Box Nickels it wasn’t, ‘Earth Angel’ that Dootsie heard as the Hit.
No, he preferred, ‘Hey Senorita’ and that was the official ‘A’ side when the record was issued (the choice perhaps not unconnected with Dootie’s name having a writing credit on Senorita!).
Now, I like the Latin feel of Senorita and the heart racing bongos (hello Preston!) but even in 1954 I could have told you that the treasure was on the ‘B’ side.
And, if you want to know how a record will sell ask a man who sells records and then ask a man who spins records on the radio.
Dootise took an acetate of the two sides to John Dolphin of Dolphin’s of Hollywood an all night record shop and a network centre for the black community.Embed from Getty Images
Broadcasting out of Dolphin’s front window was White Disc Jockey Dick, ‘Huggy Boy’ Hugg who attracted a loyal audience across the Black and Latino communities.
That’s Huggy on the right below.Embed from Getty Images
John Dolphin and Huggy Boy told Dootise that there was there was absolutely no need for any instrumental overdubs as the ravishing beauty of, ‘Earth Angel’ lay in the impassioned foregrounded vocals.
Still, it was Senorita which went out as the A side but radio DJs and the public were in no doubt – flip that platter and give us more of, ‘Earth Angel’!
And, that’s exactly what happened.
Earth Angel tore up the charts in every territory and raced to the top of the R&B list and steadily climbed the Billboard Pop ladder.
Dootsie pressed as many sides as he could though the strain on his cash flow pushed him close to bankruptcy as the distributors took their time reimbursing him for the sales.
Eventually Dootsie made sweet dollars from Earth Angel as did Jesse, Curtis and Gaynel.
As for the rest of The Penguins the story was not so happy.
Through the smarts of Buck Ram (pictured below) they got out of their contract with Dootone and landed with major label Mercury.
Buck’s interest in The Penguins was not perhaps as fervid as his interest in the group he insisted be part of the ‘transfer deal’ – a group called The Platters for whom he would write a series of immortal hits including, ‘The Great Pretender’!
So, while The Platters were launched into the showbiz stratosphere The Penguins languished and never really troubled the charts again.
Yet, they carried with them forever more memories of high times at the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas and their name in lights at the gala reopening of Harlem’s Small’s Paradise.
They played Alan Freed’s Labor Day show at the Brooklyn Paramount with legends such as Fats Domino, the Teenagers, the Cleftones, the Harptones and the Moonglows.
And, deep in their hearts they knew that on an October day in 1954 they had made a record that would never die.
Cleve Duncan led a version of The Penguins for decades before his death in November 2012. It was the power of the plea in his tenor lead along with Dexter Tisby’s tender stewardship of the bridge section that made, ‘Earth Angel’ so distinctive and unforgettable.
In one of those, ‘you couldn’t make it up’ happenstances a deeply knowledgeable fan of The Penguins and all the greater and lesser Doo Wop groups was none other than Frank Zappa and when he wrote a song, ‘Memories of El Monte’ in 1963 he turned to Cleve Duncan’s Penguins to bring it to charming life.
El Monte is based on the chords of Earth Angel and celebrates rock ‘n ‘roll dances at El Monte Legion Stadium where the young Frank and like minded teenagers – Black, White and Latino mixed to listen to and dance to music they all loved.
The song and Cleve’s lovely vocal hymns The Heartbeats, Marvin & Johnny and The Medallions among others.
A wonderful homage that sends you right back to the original because through The Jukebox we can travel back to the past and find a sound and a love that will always last.
Earth Angel … Earth Angel .. will you be mine?
My darling dear .. love you all the time
I’m just a fool .. a fool in love with you
Earth Angel the one I adore
Love you forever and ever more.
And, that’s how long, ‘Earth Angel’ will be listened to and swooned over.
Forever and ever more.
In memory of Cleve Duncan 1935 – 2012, Curtis Williams 1934 – 1979 and Bruce Tate 1937 – 1973. Wishing long life and good health to the surviving Dexter Tisby.
Sadly John Dolphin was sadly shot to death in 1958 in his own store. A murder that was witnessed by Bruce Johnston ( later in the Beach Boys) and sandy Nelson (of Let There Be Drums fame).
Dolphin’s death was a profound loss to his community where he had been prominent as a business man, music promoter and producer and networker.
Jesse Belvin died in a car crash with mysterious circumstances on a tour of The South at the age of 27.
Jesse’s signature song was the exquisite, ‘Goodnight My Love’ which pioneer Rock ‘n ‘ Roll DJ Alan Freed used as his show ending song.
His 2 LPs, ‘ Just Jesse Belvin’ and, ‘Mr Easy’ are wonderful records ideal for late night reverie listening.
Dick ‘Huggy Boy’ Hugg 1932 – 1960 was a Rhythm & Blues and Latino music Evangelist.
The DJ persona in Dave Alvin’s great song ‘Border Radio’ (previously featured here on The Jukebox) is believed to be Huggy Boy.
Love this! An AOC favorite!
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What a great piece Thom. Loved it. I knew FZ was a fan of this music (you hear it ll over his output). This music just moves me into a good place. Plug in the Jukebox, CB is feeling it.