Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon Swanee River)

One of my all-time favorite boogie-woogie piano songs is Swanee River Boogie performed by Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings. Ammons plays a steady and repeating boogie baseline with the left hand, accompanied by the adaptation of the melody from Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanee River) with the right hand.

Swanee River Boogie – Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings

Old Folks at Home was written by the American composer Stephen Collins Foster in 1851. The first publications of the work would credit Edwin P. Christy, who commissioned the work, but this was later corrected and Foster received full credit for his song.

Stephen Collins Foster, who was uneducated in music, learned to write music as a young boy using the singing of his sisters as the main source of creativity. The phrase ‘Swanee River‘ was added to the song out of a lack of inspiration. Foster wanted to name a river in his lyrics, and it was his brother who suggested the Suwannee River, a river that runs through south Georgia into Florida. To fit in the melody and dialect of the song, he used Swanee River instead. It’s interesting to know that Stephen Foster was born in Pennsylvania and he never set foot in Georgia or Florida, hence he never saw the Suwannee River.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink – Old Folks at Home recording from 1918

In 1935, the composition would become the official state song of Florida. However, the original lyrics were altered. The lyrics were written in an African American dialect and would contain references to slavery and plantations. The dialect was modified into “dictionary-English” and the song was renamed after the river’s official name, Suwannee river. Also, words such as “plantations” were removed to eliminate any reference to plantation work.

Part of the original lyrics versus the 2008 revision

Over time, many great versions of the song were recorded. The song survived all decades and was re-shaped each time a new genre emerged. The title would often be adjusted to have a better fit into the new genre it’s being played in (Swanee River boogie, Swanee River Hop, Swanee River Rock, etc.).

In the early years of the 20th century, the song was incorporated into the foxtrot, ragtime, and Dixieland scene of the south. Pianist Fletcher Henderson recorded his version called Swanee River Blues. The song is not played like a classic blues song but more in a march-like Dixieland rhythm.

The song gained a lot of popularity during the 1930s thanks to the swing era. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra recorded a popular big band version. Remarkable was the Swanee river-melody is no longer exclusively played on the piano but different instruments were used. Also, Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (although he is a Belgian musician) recorded his version on the guitar, he’s supported on the violin by Stéphane Grappelli.

Belgian jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt and le Quintette du Hot Club de France

Albert Ammons recorded his boogie-woogie piano version in 1946 together with His Rhythm Kings. He named the song Swanee River Boogie. The song was released at the peak of the genre. The success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. A concert that brought together the many forms of African American music that were developed over time, including boogie-woogie.

Boogie-woogie and blues music further evolved into jump-blues, rock-and-roll, and rhythm-and-blues and these genres would keep on covering Swanee River. Fats Domino released his version called Swanee River Hop, this version sounds a lot like Ammons’ boogie-woogie version. Even the legendary Ray Charles played the song and named it Swanee River Rock.

Even today musicians play their own interpretation of the song. Hugh Laurie released a very interesting modern version of the song in 2011. You can find it on the album Let Them Talk. Although the piano and vocal intro by Hugh Laurie gives you a boogie-woogie feel, the band is bringing an extra layer to the performance, the song now also has aspects of folk music and gypsy jazz.

Hugh Laurie’s performance of Swanee River in New Orleans

The Real Nitty Gritty – A Tribute to Shirley Ellis

This article is written in memory and honor of Shirley Elliston († October 5, 2005, New York City)

Shirley Ellis is one of the most exciting performers in the world of popular music today. This excitement, which has consistently captivated audience in the nation’s leading night clubs and concert appearances is immediately apparent as you listen to her recordings which have swept into the best-selling lists time after time.

As written in 1965 on the back of her album ‘The Name Game’ (Congress CGL-3003)

Shirley Ellis, born Shirley Marie O’Garra in 1929, was an American soul singer and songwriter who gained international fame during the 1960s. Although her active recording span was short, Shirley Ellis left us with many great songs before she retired from the music business in 1968. Songs such as ‘The Name Game’ and ‘The Nitty Gritty’ are an innovation for rhythm-and-blues and soul, while her hit ‘Soul Time’ became a true Northern Soul classic and filled the dance floor at many UK clubs during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Portrait of Shirley Ellis

Initially, Shirley Ellis aspired to become a songwriter. She started her career by writing several songs for the doo-wop group The Chords. A milestone in her singing career was her participation in The Amateur Night At The Harlem Apollo Theatre in 1954. She won first prize and so, her name would be listed amongst other winners such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (who was only 15 years old when she won). Five years later, in 1959, Shirley Ellis met Lincoln Chase. Lincoln Chase was a songwriter, producer, and manager who shared the same West Indian heritage as Shirley Ellis. He was already working closely together with Lavern Baker (Jim Dandy) during the 1960s and would use his experience to elevate the solo career of Shirley Ellis.

Shirley Ellis recorded and released her solo debut single on the label Shell in 1961. For this release, she used her official married name, Shirley Elliston. The single (Shell 45-307-V) includes the songs ‘Love Can Make You Know’ on the A-side, and ‘A Beautiful Love’ on the B-side. Both tracks have a more 1950s and 1960s pop-feel and are less compared with the rhythm-and-blues and soul sound she would record in the following years.

Two years after her debut, Shirley Ellis would make a second solo debut on the label Congress (part of the Kapp Records-family). She would record the novelty classic ‘The (Real) Nitty Gritty’ with the track ‘Give Me a List’ on the B-side of the 7-inch 45rmp recording. For the first batch of singles that were released, Shirley Ellis would still use her married name Shirley Elliston, and the songs’ title was ‘The (Real) Nitty Gritty’. For commercial reasons, Congress changed the name to Shirley Ellis and would shorten the title to ‘The Nitty Gritty’. For the release of this song, she would work closely together with Lincoln chase who wrote the songs, and Robert Bunyan (Hutch) Davie who produced the release.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, nitty-gritty means the basic facts of a situation. And this is also the message Shirley Ellis (and songwriter Lincoln Chase) sent us in their song. She motivates us to get to the essentials, to be yourself, to be real, not to pretend but instead dance from the heart! You don’t need to be a performer when you’re getting’ on the dance floor. You dance for yourself and not for others. There is no competition in who has the better moves because everybody feels the music differently and moves to the rhythm in their own unique way. And even when you have perfection and your dance is advanced, there will always be a time you need to get back to the essentials. In her lyrics, she highlights that not everybody is aware of this and that even the most talented at some point need to learn how to get down to the fundamental elements. In the first part of the lyrics, she says that sooner or later there will be a short and simple song (a ditty) and that you’re going to have the get right down to the real nitty-gritty.

Some folks know about it, some don’t (some don’t)
Some will learn to shout it, some won’t (some won’t)
But sooner or later baby, here’s a ditty
Say you’re gonna have to get, right down (to the real nitty gritty)

Lyrics to ‘The Nitty Gritty’

And if that message wasn’t clear, she released a sequel song the following year called ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is’. The record was first released as a promo in 1964 (KEV 13006) and was officially released in 1965 (CG-208). In this second version, Shirley Ellis would answer the question everybody was asking “What is the nitty-gritty?” and she replies with the simple answer that the nitty-gritty is anything you want it to be. She no longer limits her motivation to dance but explains it reflects also in the way you talk and sound. All your actions will at some point require you to revisit the essentials if you want to act from the heart.

Everybody’s asking what the nitty gritty
The nitty gritty’s anything you want it to be
Just stir it up from the soul
And when it starts to fizz
That’s what the nitty gritty is

Lyrics to ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is
The Nitty Gritty by Shirley Ellis – 45rpm Original Second US Release (Congress CG-202, 1963) From My Collection

There is no doubt that the release of ‘The Nitty Gritty’ added a more rhythm-and-blues sound to her music and this would continue in the following years. In 1964, she would release the hits ‘Taking Care Of Business’ and ‘The Name Game’. Both songs were originally released on single and shortly after on the albums In Action (1964) and The Name Game (1965).

What became a true signature for her music was her ability to step outside the boundaries of standard pop music by provoking humor and commentary. Shirley Ellis often performed songs for the comic effect. Lyrics and rhythms could be compared with what children would rhyme and sing to each other while playing hand-clapping games on the playground. A good example of this are the lyrics and rhythm from her hit song ‘The Clapping Song’: “Three six nine, the goose drank wine. The monkey chew tobacco on the streetcar line. The line broke, the monkey got choked. And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat.” Performing songs in this rhythm allows a great emphasis on syncopation and Juba dance or hambone, an African American style of dance that contains stomping your legs and clapping the hands, arms, chest, and cheeks.

In Action (Congress CGL-3002, 1964) & The Name Game (Congress CGL-3003, 1965)
by Shirley Ellis – LP Studio Album Original US Release Mono

In 1966, Shirley Ellis released the Northern Soul classic ‘Soul Time’. The record was originally printed by Columbia Records in the US as a promo (Columbia ‎– 4-44021, white label) and was officially released shortly after (Columbia ‎– 4-44021, red label). This change in record company also came with a small drift in style.

In 1967, Shirley Ellis released her third and final studio album called Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling / Soul Time with Shirley Ellis featuring many great soul tracks including the hit ‘Soul Time’. This album is in my opinion in contrast with her previous two studio albums. The song selection is more focused on the progressive soul and funk music that was surfacing in Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. At the same time, her sound cannot be compared to Motown because Shirley Ellis sounds and sings differently. Shirley Ellis has a unique way of bringing music that was innovative and her own.

Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling (Columbia CL 2679) LP Studio Album Original US Release Mono & 45rpm Promo of ‘Soul Time’ (CBS 7463) UK, 1971, by Shirley Ellis

Shirley Ellis retired from the music business in 1968 and although her active years as a singer where short, she had a major impact on the music of the 1960s. She appeared in several television shows, her songs were featured in movies, and many artists covered her work after her retirement (e.g. Gladys Knight and The Pipps’ 1969 version of The Nitty Gritty).

Performance of The Nitty Gritty dance routine by Chandrae & Stephen

Boogie-woogie: An Invitation to Dance

Boogie-woogie is, without doubt, one of the most complex piano styles developed in America. The pianist needs to demonstrate exceptional hand-independence skills and an excessive sense for rhythm and timing to play syncopated right-hand licks and riffs on the left-handed base patterns.

Boogie-woogie piano music was often played at barrelhouses and later, at so-called “House-Rent Parties“. At a house-rent party, communities would gather at one’s house and, pianists got hired to play. African-American communities were depending on each other for support during the high unemployment rate of the thirties and forties. Therefore, a small entrance fee was charged to cover the rent.

In this article, I’d like to invite you for a brief but thorough overview of the music’s origin, development, and influence. We will have a look at the music’s characteristics, its structure, and its purpose.

Barrelhouse Pianists

Music Characteristics and Purpose

There is no doubt that boogie-woogie music has strong connections to the blues. In early blues music, African-American communities combined plantation songs with religious spirituals and African rhythms. In this early form, the music was slow and emotional. It got characterized by sad melodies and simple harmonies. As the blues evolved, it gained popularity. By 1920 it reached its peak thanks to the contributions of Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson.

Boogie-woogie piano music is following the many traditions of the blues. The music is using blues scales, is adding syncopation to emphasize weak beats, is usually played in a 12-bar blues, and the performer improvises over the chord progressions. The most important characteristic of boogie-woogie piano music is that musicians would emphasize rhythm over melody. To establish this, both hands need to play something dissimilar but at the same time, keep a musical connection. The left hand plays steady and repeating base patterns that will keep the rhythm during the songs. The right hand has the freedom to improvise by playing counter-rhythms, ostinato, riffs, licks, or short melodies. The harmony created by both hands is an invitation to move and dance.

In boogie-woogie, the syncopation of the weaker beats is essential. Syncopation is a small interruption in the rhythmical flow by making some accents fall off-beat. In short, syncopation gets created by the beats between the beats, and they are fundamental for the musical structure of boogie-woogie.

In a 4/4-time signature, which is common for blues and boogie-woogie, we have four quarter notes in each bar. Each quarter note represents one beat or down-beat. If we want syncopation in the rhythm, we need to add off-beats before each down-beat. We create a swing shuffle rhythm containing eight beats in one bar, four down-beats, and four off-beats (eight to the bar). Imagine counting one bar as followed: “and1-and2-and3-and4“. The numbers are down-beats and are twice as long, the word “and” represents the off-beats. They are played shorter and are responsible for the syncopation in the rhythm.

Parallel with the origin of boogie-woogie, a different yet similar form of piano music got formed along the Mississippi River. The style of playing was named ragtime. As in boogie-woogie, ragtime music also emphasizes rhythm over melody by playing different patterns with each hand. The musician’s left hand creates non-stop march-like base patterns by rapidly altering between base notes and chords. Base notes were used to mimic base instruments used by marching bands, and the chords represent drum patterns that bring harmony to the song. While boogie-woogie derived from the blues, ragtime originated from both European classical music and African syncopated music. Ragtime’s rhythm is created by playing syncopated melodies in a ragged fashion.

It is already mentioned that in both genres the left hand plays a significant role and is often referred to it as “the left hand of God”. It is said that left hand boogie-woogie and ragtime patterns were developed to keep the piano and rhythm going. Musicians developed this skill so, that they can use their right hand to eat, drink, and smoke without ending the songs. Most early boogie-woogie and ragtime compositions do not have a defined start or end.

Boogie-woogie music was all about telling a story with on-the-spot improvisation. The music was intended to make people dance what in a way separates the genre from the blues. The first published boogie-woogie hit that cemented “boogie-woogie” as the name of its entire genre was ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith. Clarence Smith would characterize the genre as intended to dance when he included dance instructions into the lyrics, and rhythmic breaks into his composition.

“I want everybody to dance ’em just like I tell you. And when I say “Hold yourself” everybody gets ready to stop. And when I’ve said “Stop”, don’t move a peg. And when I say, “Get it”, everybody, do a boogie-woogie”

lyrics to ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith
Clarence “Pinetop” Smith – Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie

Origin and Development

According to music historians and their research, the story of boogie-woogie music starts in the 1870s with the African-American communities from Texas. In the archives from the Library of Congress, you can find sheet music and literature published before the start of the 20th century that would list the term “boogie”. A good example is the sheet music of ‘The Boogie Man’ published in 1880 (Shaw W. F.). The first recording of the term “boogie” happened more than three decades later. In 1913, The American Quartet recorded the song ‘That Syncopated Boogie-Boo’. Although the term “boogie” was used, the music was not yet identified as boogie-woogie. It would take a couple of years more before the left-handed base patterns that shaped the genre got introduced.

“Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

– Alan Lomax 

Boogie-woogie music was first known as fast western or fast blues. Although, in this early form, the repeating boogie-woogie base patterns played with the left hand were not yet used. How the music developed is a big question for music historians but, there is one thing we can be sure of, the development was strongly influenced by the construction of the railroad and the arrival of steam locomotives.

The American train network caused a cultural change as more people traveled between the American cities of the south. The railroad would also connect the many logging camps so workers could travel between the camps via freight trains. They would jump off and on empty wagons, also called blinds, and traveled between states to find work. This practice would become common and train conductors became used to travelers climbing aboard the train and share their stories, play music, and dance. During the day, these travelers would work in logging camps, and during the night, they would dance and play music at cheap or disreputable bars called barrelhouses. For that reason, early boogie-woogie music is sometimes referred to as barrelhouse-music.

Steam Locomotive in Texas

Boogie-woogie music and trains share a connection. It were these traveling workers and musicians who are responsible for the spread and later development of the music. Different techniques of playing got mixed as different musicians encountered each other on the train.

The music would first spread within Texas and later, it would conquer its neighboring states. Many musicians praised the train rides in their songs. Think about Meade “Lux” Lewis’ best-known instrumental work named ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, or Mabel Scott’s ‘Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train’.

Meade “Lux” Lewis – Honky Tonk Train Blues

Boogie-woogie piano music would always remain a Texas tradition, but its music hub would become Chicago. In 1921, George Washington Jr. Thomas and Hersal Thomas moved to Chicago and, they introduced the north to the boogie-woogie piano. The two brothers were both acknowledged pianists and composers with a strong influence on other musicians. Their composition ‘The Fives‘ was an inspiration for many musicians who would further shape the genre.

George Washington Jr. Thomas moved from Texas to New Orleans in 1914. There he continued his musical career by playing at different parties, where he gained the nickname Gut Bucket George. Two years after arriving in New Orleans, he composed ‘The New Orleans Hop Scop Blues’. This 12-bar blues song got coupled with a left hand playing grace notes for the lower tone, and so, he created his first early boogie-woogie piece.

Following the death of his father, George Thomas became the head of the Tomas family and, he decided to move to Chicago. He was joined by his sister Beulah Belle Thomas (who would later record under the name Sippie Wallace) and his younger brother Hersal Thomas. When George Thomas arrived in Chicago, he recorded his earlier compositions together with his sister, brother, and some local musicians.

In 1922 he published his most influential work called ‘The Five’s’ (now-a-days written as ‘The Fives‘). The copyright was registered in 1921 and both George and Hersal Thomas are credited as the composers. The song was officially published by George Thomas’ own publishing company.

The lyrics, written by George, are about a train ride between Chicago and San Francisco. According to Peter Silvester’s research for his book ‘A Study Of Boogie-Woogie‘, the number refers to the arrival time in San Francisco. Although, it could also refer to the walking baseline for which the first and fifth fingers are used predominantly.

Publication of The Fives (1922)

The cover, upon publication, features a picture of the blues singer Lizzie Miles assuming she would feature on the recording. However, no recordings with her were discovered. A possible explanation could be that these recordings were never released and got lost. The photo was kept solely for marketing and sales purposes. In those days, pianists were rarely displayed on the cover.

Hersal Thomas (piano roll) – The Fives

The song is considered the first published representation of boogie-woogie piano music. Although it was written as a ragtime dance rhythm, it contains pronounced boogie-woogie interactions. It features various boogie-woogie base patterns, including walking baselines or walking octave chords. Also, the quivers used in the composition are typical for boogie-woogie.

The Fives‘ established the genre thanks to the effect it had on many Chicago-based musicians. Boogie-woogie pioneers Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis both credit the songs as their source of inspiration while learning to play piano and further shaping the genre. Still today, musicians are using the many boogie-woogie base patterns from this song.

Hersal Thomas (left) & George Thomas (right)

Another milestone in the development of boogie-woogie was the recording of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith in 1928 (released March 1929 on Vocalion Records). It was the first published boogie-woogie hit and had a great deal of influence.

Clarence Smith was born in Troy, Alabama. During his childhood, he enjoined climbing trees, and so, his friends gave him the nickname “Pinetop” (often written as “Pine Top”), which he used during his future music career.

In 1920, Clarence Smith moved to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he worked as an entertainer. He sang and played the piano and became known thanks to his comedy performance. Eight years later, he moved to Chicago and recorded ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’. He was credited by many other boogie-woogie pioneers to be one of the main influencers of the genre. His lyrics would also include the phrases as “the girls with the red dress on”, “shake that thing”, “don’t move a peg”, and “mess around” that were used in the lyrics of ‘What I’d say’ and ‘Mess Around’ by Ray Charles.

Clarence “Pinetop” Smith

To conclude, the two biggest milestones in the development of Boogie-woogie were the arrival of the railroad and, the introduction of the music in Chicago by the Thomas brothers. The North, with Chicago as the midpoint, would bring a different emphasis to the music. Boogie-woogie figures would not only be used as a party-tool but, the music would start to support blues singers. It would keep gaining popularity after the music became part of the blues and jazz scene. Even movies starring boogie-woogie pianists got filmed. In the independently short film ‘The Boogie Woogie Dream’ (Hanus Burger), Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson are starring alongside Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and actress Lena Horne.

Short film ‘The Boogie Woogie Dream’ featuring Albert Ammons , Pete Johnson, Teddy Wilson, and Lena Horne.

The Pioneers of Boogie-woogie

When looking back at the development of boogie-woogie piano music, three pianists stand out. Their names are Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. They are responsible for getting the attention of the public and consequently increasing the music’s popularity.

The first one on the list, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, was born in 1905. His birthplace is not confirmed, and some sources claim he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. However, most literature about his life states Chicago, Illinois, to be his birthplace. His father played the guitar and originally introduced Lewis to the violin. At the age of 16, Lewis traded the violin for the piano. His piano work got strongly influenced by the Thomas brothers – whose composition The Five’s established boogie-woogie as a genre – and pianist Jimmy Yancey. Lewis already had a close friendship with Albert Ammons during his childhood and, they would practice the piano together. 

Lewis had the habit to imitate characters from the comic strip Alphonse and Gaston, a duo of Frenchmen with a tendency of good manners and etiquette. For that reason, his friends, among them Albert Ammons, would start calling him The Duke of Luxembourg. And so, the nickname “Lux” was born. 

During his adolescent years, Lewis would combine performances at bars with different jobs such as driving a cab and washing cars. In 1929, he published his debut ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, one of the most exciting boogie-woogie piano compositions ever recorded. The work was recorded in 1927 and would only become known in mid-1935. As a result, many other artists would play the song during the second half of the 1930s. In 1938, Lewis got invited to play at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ festival at Carnegie Hall where he was joined by Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Joe Turner, and many more. The festival was a real game-changer for him personally and for the craze of boogie-woogie.

Most of Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis’ work and recordings got unfortunately destroyed in The 2008 Universal Studio Disaster. An event described by The New York Times as “The day the Music burned”. It was one of the biggest disasters in music history as many original recordings, from which all subsequent copies are obtained, got destroyed.

Meade “Lux” Lewis – Honky Tonk Train Blues

Albert Ammons was also born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). Both Ammons’ parents were pianists and, he learned to play at the age of ten. He became interested in boogie-woogie piano thanks to his friendship with Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. It doesn’t come as a surprise that also Ammons was influenced by the same group of people. Like Lewis, Ammons would combine his performances in bars with regular day jobs such as driving a cab. 

Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis would often perform together during the early days. At the start of 1936, Ammons would record with a supporting band under the name, Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings. Their songs, Swanee River Boogie and ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ had success and got played by many other jazz bands during the late-1930s. Following this success, Ammons moved to New York City, where he teamed up with Pete Johnson. They performed and got often joined by Benny Goodman and his clarinet. Just as Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Ammons was selected to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. What set his success because weeks after the concert, he got approached by Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records. He got signed for a couple of recordings where he got the support of Lewis.

Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings – Swanee River Boogie

Finally, we have Pete Johnson (born in 1904 as Kermit H. Johnson). Johnson was born in Missouri, Kansas City. He came from a poor background. His father deserted him at a very young age. Because of financial issues, his mother placed him in an orphanage when he was only three. He, however, ran away and started living back home. To contribute financially, he sought out work at a very young age. 

Johnson started his musical career as a drummer in 1922. He simultaneously learned to play the piano and, from 1926, he became a full-time pianist. His known work is mostly in cooperation with Big Joe Turner. His most-celebrated contribution is ‘Roll ‘em Pete’ (1938), with Johnson on the piano and Turner on the vocals. The song is credited to be one of the first rock-and-roll recordings made. Pete Johnson got also invited to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. Also for him, this was a game-changer.

Pete Johnson & Big Joe Turner – Roll ‘em Pete

Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson would often perform boogie-woogie together. They are referred to as the six-handed boogie-woogie trio. The setup would be three pianos, six hands – three right and three left. They caused the upswing of boogie-woogie during the swing era and elevated the genre.

The Upswing of Boogie-woogie and Influence of The Swing Era

The wider public discovered boogie-woogie in 1938 during a concert at Carnegie Hall – a venue in Midtown Manhattan – called ‘From Spirituals to Swing’. The show got presented by talent scout and record producer John Hammond. 

Hammond had the idea for a concert that brings together the many forms of African-American music that developed over time. The show started with spiritual music and ended with swing and big bands. During the evening, the audience got exposed to the rich music history via gospel, blues, boogie-woogie, Dixieland, ragtime, and swing. The lineup included among others: Count Basie, Benny Goodman, James P. Johnson, and of course, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Joe Turner to represent boogie-woogie. The concert had a big success in the following year a second edition was taking place on New Year’s Eve.

It was the peak of the swing era and the success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts. Big bands started using boogie-woogie patterns in swing music. They would no longer limit the music to a piano as they start playing the patterns on the different instruments used in swing music. By the 1940s, every swing band would use boogie-woogie in their music. Original boogie-woogie compositions were covered and became more popular than ever. Tommy Dorsey’s version of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie‘ was an instant success, and Will Bradley’s ‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’, a song written in 1940 by Don Raye, Hughie Prince, and Ray McKinley, truly follows the boogie-woogie traditions.

“From Spirituals to Swing” event poster

The Living Dance Community and The Swing Revival

The boogie-woogie trend lasted until the early 1950s and, I’d like to think that its popularity never declined. The music inspired many other genres, and so, boogie-woogie contributed to the development of jump-blues, rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, and many more.

During the eighties, a group of original swing dancers, amongst them Frankie Manning, would reintroduce swing dance to the world. They started teaching and performing, and this led to what is known as the Swing Revival. By the end of the millennium, they brought the dance back to life. They didn’t limit themselves to swing and big band music as they also included boogie-woogie and other blues genres.

What was known as barrelhouse dancing in America is now called boogie-woogie dancing in Europe. The dance styles, however, cannot be compared to each other. Boogie-woogie dance is a form of swing dance and is danced socially across the world with its hub in Europe. The dance got inspired by rock-and-roll and lindy hop.

 It’s a playful dance filled with music interpretations and improvisation. It is danced commonly in couples and has fast and advanced footwork. The music supporting the dance finds inspiration in the rhythm of boogie-woogie. The rhythmical breaks allow for improvisation. Apart from boogie-woogie tunes, you will encounter rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-rolldoo-wop, and jump-blues on the dance floor.

Boogie-woogie Dance Nowadays

Be invited to listen and discover the many great compositions out there. There are many original recordings available to the audience. You can listen to them digitally or attend live concerts and dance events for a better selection. Still today, you have many great pianists who are playing older compositions and even composing their own.

In my Spotify playlists, you can find a compilation of great songs I discovered during the years.

Johan Blohm from The Refreshments performing Jb’s Boogie/Blohms Boogie (Live)

Jim Dandy To The Rescue

With a recognizable drum intro from David Albert ‘Panama’ Francis, and with guidance on the tenor sax by Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor, LaVern Baker hit the charts in 1956 with the song ‘Jim Dandy’. The song would later take number 325 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

LaVern Baker recorded many great rhythm-and-blues songs during the 1950s and 1960s. Her single debut for Atlantic Records was in 1953 with the song ‘Soul On Fire‘ and the following year, she would record the major rhythm-and-blues hits ‘Tweedle Dee‘ and ‘Bop-Ting-A-Ling‘. Baker, born Delores Williams, recorded already before signing with Atlantic Records. This was under different pseudonyms. In 1951, she recorded on RCA Records under the stage-name Little Miss Sharecropper, and in 1952, she signed with Okeh Records and started using the name Bea Baker. Her big breakthrough as a singer was with Atlantic Records so the name, LaVern Baker, was kept.

We can hear the soul, the spirit, and the sense of humor in her art.”

Chaka Khan
LaVern Baker

In the 1950s, it was usual for white musicians to copy or imitate the creative work of black artists. Those copies would sell often better with the white audience and many record companies used this as a sale strategy. Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, said: “when Radio stations had the choice between the black original and the white copy, they would always play the copy”. Baker’s hit ‘Tweedle Dee‘ was covered by Georgia Gibbs, the cover became more popular and sold much better. Apart from quality and musicality, it succeeded Baker’s original. LaVern Baker was not a big fan of this practice, it made her upset and she considered it stealing. As a sarcastic joke, Baker named Gibbs beneficiary on her flight life insurance. When she would go on a big tour, and not record any new songs, she mailed the insurance documents to Gibbs with the message: “Since I’ll be away and you won’t have anything new to copy, you might as well take this.”

Baker took satisfaction in knowing that when Gibbs covered her song ‘Tra, La, La“, she didn’t pay attention to the song on the record’s other side, ‘Jim Dandy‘. This song would become and major hit and remained untouched by Georgia Gibbs.

Songwriter Lincoln Chase, who wrote ‘The Nitty Gritty‘ for soul legend Shirley Ellis, was the creative figure behind the song ‘Jim Dandy (To The Rescue)‘. He wrote the lyrics to the song that was recorded by LaVern Baker in 1956.

I was sitting on a mountain top. 30,000 feet to drop. Tied me on a runaway horse Uh huh, that’s right, of course. Jim Dandy to the rescue! Go, Jim Dandy!” describes one of the multiple situations where Jim Dandy would save a woman in distress. In the song, Jim Dandy refers to a man who rescues women from difficult, unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous situations. A real hero you can say. The dictionary defines ‘Jim-Dandy‘ as something very pleasant or something of excellent quality (e.g. that new album you bought is a real Jim-Dandy). Now as in many great rhythm-and-blues songs, the lyrics contain a great deal of humor and sarcasm.

Thanks to its success a sequel came out in 1957. Again written by Lincoln Chase, recorded by LaVern Baker, and released by Atlantic Records. The song describes a humorous cliche of a hero falling in love with the girl he just saved; “Jim Dandy rescued May, Fell in love with her the very same day, Got engaged that afternoon. Left that night on his honeymoon“.

‘Jim Dandy’ by LaVern Baker (Atlantic reissue from my collection)

Work with Me, Annie

Don’t be ‘shamed“, “Call my name“, “Oh, our hot lips kissing, Girl, I’ll beg mercy, Oh, hugging and more teasing, Don’t want no freezing” are fragments of the original song lyrics. Although the title ‘Work With Me, Annie’ is a double entendre, the lyrics don’t lie.

Work With Me, Annie‘ came from the creative hand of Hank Ballard, and together with The Midnighters, he recorded the song for Federal Records in 1954. The content of the song was considered too sexual in its time and as a result, there was a ban on playing it at the radio stations. Because of its great rhythm, influenced by the mid-era doo-wop sound, the song became an instant rhythm-and-blues hit. Although it was banned from broadcasting, it spread like wildfire.

In rhythm-and-blues, it was common for artists to record so-called ‘answer songs’. What it means is that another artist, and most commonly from the opposite gender, would record a response to the song. This response could be a sarcastic comment to acclaim the original. This is what Etta James did a year after the song ‘Work With Me, Annie‘ hit the charts. She recorded ‘The Wallflower‘ and replaced “Work With Me Annie” with “Roll With Me, Henry“. The song was written by Etta James with the help of her friend Johnny Otis, and Hank Ballard. To avoid censorship upon its release, they titled the song ‘The Wallflower‘ instead of ‘Roll with Me, Henry‘. Do me a favor and listen to both songs while comparing the lyrics.

In the 1950s, it was usual for big record labels, such as Mercury, to copy the original rhythm-and-blues songs from black artists, with white musicians. This was done because of commercial politics. Those records would sell often better with the white audience. They would keep the original rhythm and music but clean-up the lyrics. In 1955 Georgia Gibbs recorded a cleaned-up version of the song called ‘Dance With Me, Henry‘. Her version became the most played one in jukeboxes and radio stations. This is not to be considered a response song but, a commercial adaptation.

Shortly after the release of the original song by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, an LA-based deejay joked about the aftermath of Annie’s unprotected adventures. Federal Records followed-up on this and a couple of months after the release of ‘Work With Me, Annie‘, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters recorded the sequel ‘Annie Had A Baby‘. The writing credits go to Henry Glover. The lyrics are short and simple but they contain a great amount of humor when placing them next to the lyrics of ‘Work With Me, Annie‘.

As in movies and a lot of other things, 3 is better. That same year, 1954, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters recorded ‘Annie’s Aunt Fannie‘. I didn’t come by upon much information regarding the history of the recording but, after analyzing the lyrics, I can conclude that also this song follows the same path. “I sent her to the store for candy. But she came right back so dandy. Before I could cuddle with my Annie.” are just a part of the full lyrics which are filled with humor and sexual content.

The ‘Annie’-recordings by Hank Ballard & The Midnighters (1954, Federal Records)

I’ve got all copies of the songs mentioned in my collection, with the exception of Georgia Gibbs, as I consider them masterpieces in its genre. Influenced by mid-era doo-wop and being rhythm-and-blues classics, they were a great deal of inspiration for the music that would erect in the following decades.

Shake, Rattle, & Roll

It was the co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, who approached Jesse Stone with the question to write an up-tempo 12-bar blues song for Big Joe Turner. Little did he know that the song to be produced would be listed at number 127 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

American rhythm-and-blues songwriter, Jesse Albert Stone, started his music career in 1926 when he formed The Blue Serenades. In the late 1930s, Stone would become a bandleader in the Apollo Theatre. There, he gained his credits as a songwriter while working with musicians such as Chick Webb, Louis Jordan, and Jimmie Lunceford. In 1947 he was officially employed by Atlantic Records as a producer and songwriter. Stone would push the direction of the new record label into a more ‘rhythmical’ rhythm-and-blues sound.

The most famous song from his hand is ‘Shake, Rattle, & Roll‘. The original recording of the song was by the American rhythm-and-blues legend, Big Joe Turner, on February 15, 1954. For work relating to Atlantic Records, Stone would use the pseudonym Charles E. Calhoun (as shown on the label below) to avoid copyright conflicts. The song recorded by Joe Turner is referred to as one of the earliest rock-and-roll recordings made. Although the original lyrics of the song would say one thing, their true meaning was different. Certain parts of the song were considered to be sexual, even too vulgar for jukeboxes in cafes. The song had to be cleaned up before recording and radio broadcasting. The original lyrics, as intended by Jesse Stone, were never published or recorded in the studio.

Original 45 rpm release of ‘Shake, Rattle, And Roll’ by Joe Turner And His Blues Kings

The song was covered by many artists, including Elvis Presley, during the 1950s and 1960s. In the same year of Turner’s recording (1954), Bill Haley And His Comets made their version of the song. Their adaptation was released on Decca Records and the lyrics were even cleaner. For example, the first line of the song “Get outta that bed, wash your face and hands” would be revised to “Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans“. Although Haley would use the more original lyrics during live performances to acknowledge Turner, Big Joe Turner would use Haley’s version for live TV broadcasts.

One of the versions from my collection is by soul singer Arthur Lee Conley. His version was recorded more than a decade later and the musical development of soul music is clearly present in his recording of the song. The background music and vocals are clearly indicating the late 1960s and the song has a less rock-and-roll feeling. Another great version is the one by Sam Cooke, who brought a more gospel feeling into the song.

Shake, Rattle, And Roll by Arthur Conley – 45 rpm from my personal collection

Introduction To 45 rpm Record Collecting

As a deejay and music collector, I purchase as many 45’s as I buy LP’s. Columbia Records copyrighted the term LP (Long Playing) so, let’s use the word ‘album’ going forward. You can say that there is more sense in buying albums instead of a 45 rpm (revolutions per minute). You receive the completed studio work in the order the artist intends you to listen, you have more tracks on the medium, and you don’t have to change or turn the record after one song. However, I do not always agree that an album is always the better choice. 45’s have many advantages compared to albums.

45 rpm record from my collection

The first advantage of a 45 is the higher sound quality. Of course, this is my point of view what is open for discussion. The sound quality of a 45 can be explained by looking into the record surface, playing speed, and track times. On an album, played at 33 1/3 rpm, and with a surface dimension of 12 inches, you will have about 30 minutes of music. A 45 (when talking about a 7-inch single) has a surface dimension of 7 inches, is being played at 45 rpm, and contains about 3 minutes of music. When manufacturing an album, the grooves are very narrow and tightly curved because there should be room for 30 minutes of great music. For a 45, where you only need 3 minutes of music on one side, the grooves are spread out more widely what allows them to be pressed deeper. Like this, more information can be stored. And with more information stored, the audio level of a 45 doesn’t need to be toned down (this is done with some albums to avoid audio cross-over) what makes the sounds quality of a 45 superior.

It’s no surprise that audiophile companies are reissuing classic Jazz records at 45 rpm. Because of the tiny curves on the album’s surface, it is hard for the cartridge to track everything. Fine details, which are so important in Jazz music, can get blur. You can lose the feeling of the bass player sitting next to you because you no longer can hear the fingers sliding over the strings.

A good example of this is the famous Jazz Record label Blue Note. By using the original master tapes, Blue Note records are, in cooperation with Music Matters Jazz and Analogue Productions, reissuing albums on a 45 rpm double-12-inch vinyl. The so-called ‘Blue Note Sound’ was the creation of Rudy Van Gelder, a sound engineer who started to record Jazz musicians in the early 1950s. Van Gelder’s goal was to recreate live Jazz into his recordings. It was much later, in 1994, when the idea came to reissue Blue Note albums at 45 rpm. Mike Hobson and Michael Cuscuna started cutting 45 rpm test pressings and as expected, they sounded much better.

Rudy Van Gelder in the control room of his studio

Playing at 45 rpm is faster than playing at 33 1/3 and therefore, one original album of one disc (33 1/3 rpm) needs to be converted into 2 discs at 45 rpm. It went even further, Blue Note never stopped innovating and improving the sound experience. In some tests, they had better sound quality on a single-sided record. Meaning that grooves were pressed on one side, and the other side stayed blank. The result of this is that 1 original double-sided album was repressed on 4 single-sided 45 rpm discs of 12 inches. Although audiophiles agree that the sound is better, these albums were expensive to buy and it is not so common to find them in your local record store.

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue ‎(2xLP, Album, Ltd, RE, 45 rpm) released on Blue Note and Analogue Productions

Another great advantage of 45’s is that there is much more great music available on 45 rpm. For the genres I play during sets, mainly soul and rhythm-and-blues from the 1950s through the 1960s, there is more music out there on 45 rpm. The main reason for this is that the smaller independent labels were contracting artists to record one track. A 45 was pressed and released and depending on the success, artists were offered a contract to record an album. For many of them, the success was too low to record and release on a full album (songs may have been released on later compilation albums). Just one example is the artist under the name Little Mummy. Little Mummy only recorded two tracks for Federal Records in New Orleans, Louisiana. The titles ‘Where You At Jack‘ and ‘Oh Baby Please’ were distributed in 1960 and repressed decades later because of the growing success. If his music would have been acknowledged during his life span, this artist may have recorded several albums that would find its place next to rhythm-and-blues greats such as The Drifters, The Coasters, and Jackie Wilson.

Little Mummy’s only release – white original label on the left, later repress on the right.

It is also more convenient for deejays to use 45 rpm singles during sets. You don’t have to carefully place the needle in between the grooves of an album as you only have one track on each side of a 45. The records are smaller in size what makes handling and transportation easier.

To conclude, as a deejay I prefer playing 45’s because of its superior quality, music assortment, and easy handling during sets. But don’t misunderstand me, I love albums equally! Full 12-inch albums offer better record sleeves with impressive cover art, you can listen from start to finish in the order the artists intends you to, and originals are often in better condition because they were handled with more care (45 were often used in radio stations and jukeboxes). For me, the choice of format is really subject to the purpose and music genre.

Some record collectors are more attracted to the original or first pressing of the 45. There is more to it than just the music it contains. A record can represent part of history. Owning part of this history can give more meaning to the music and its origin. As a listener it offers more value knowing its past. The reasons why we collect can be better explained in an anthropology study and I believe that each collector has its own motive. I collect vinyl records to better understand the music. By researching and educating myself, I came to understand its history, its development, its origin, and the influence it has on modern-day music. Listening to music became more valuable since the day I started to collect. Let’s say that, as an example, you watch the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, a portrait of the life of Nina Simone by Liz Garbus. After understanding the life of Nina Simone, I listen to her songs in a completely different way. I’m now able to understand her reasons for making music what adds its value.

In some situations, owning the original or first pressing is a must. This is the case for collectors of Northern Soul records. To better understand this, we need to have a deeper look at the history and meaning of Northern Soul.

Northern Soul is a subculture that originated in North England during the late 1960s and through the 1970s. It is powered by uptempo American soul music from the mid-1960s. Many young modernists were not convinced of the development of soul music into disco and funk. They kept a preference for the uptempo American soul music. Today it’s common to stream any song you’d like to hear, but back in the days, you had to go to your local club to listen to the songs played by deejays. The success of a deejay had a lot to do with their collection of 45’s and their ability to locate and find them. The scene was based on non-commercial lost and forgotten soul records. Many songs that were popular in the Northern Soul scene, were recorded by smaller independent labels and because of that, there are not too many in circulation. A deejay owning a song that was loved by the crowd would make him unique. Northern Soul fans, mainly the young working middle-class, would go to clubs to dance to these unique soul records. There was also a lot of competition between deejays and clubs. Deejays would often scratch off the label to keep the title secret. The Northern Soul scene is also characterized by its own unique dance. People would fill the room individually and perform light and smooth footwork with the occasional turn, drop, or karate-kick.

The Northern Soul scene still exists today and one would say it is even bigger than before. Around the world people are organizing All-Nighters where Northern Soul deejays and collectors can share their rare music collection. It was already unique to own certain 45’s back in the 1970s and this has not changed. These days, rare Northern Soul 45’s are worth a couple of hundred dollars and in some cases, a couple of thousand.

The rarest original Northern Soul 45 rpm record is ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson (1965). It is said that only 6 copies of the record were printed and their purpose was to promote the song at radio stations. Out of those 6 copies, only 2 are still in existence and only 1, is in playable condition. this record was sold in auction for over $30,000.

The story behind this is not fully confirmed but many believe that it was Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown records label, who ordered the copies to be destroyed and who blocked the official release of the song. Frank Wilson was hired as a producer by Motown but in return, he had to renounce his musical career. However, he moved forward with the pressing of his promo single for ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’. This was not appreciated by Berry Gordy and, he ordered the destruction of the pressed records. However, two records survived and in 1977 the song reappeared in the Northern Soul dance scene. The record’s rarity and its original soul sound is what made it one of the most popular songs in Northern Soul and in 1979, the record was officially released to the public by Tamla Motown.

On the left, you can see the promo records. It was signed by Frank Wilson himself with the words “to Kenny” referring to the previous owner. On the right, you can see the official release by Tamla Motown

‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson – promo on the left (1965), official release on the right (1979)

Comparing the Sound – Mono vs. Stereo

The mono (monaural) vs. stereo (stereophonic or binaural) sound is an important aspect to take into consideration when purchasing a record. But what does it mean and what influence will it have on the music experience?

Let’s start with an example. We’re looking at 2 album covers from the album ‘Help!’ by The Beatles. The one on the left has the indication ‘mono’ and the one on the right says ‘stereo’ (right top corners). You can say that apart from this, the albums are identical. They have a similar cover, and contain the same track-list. So what is the difference?

Help! by The Beatles – mono version on the left, stereo on the right

In short, as a listener, you will notice one main difference while playing both records. Imagine you have your turntable in front of you and you use two speakers for the output. The mono records will output the same audio signals from both speakers. You will not experience a difference in sound from the left or right speaker. Stereo records will split the sound and will output different audio signals from each speaker. For mono, we are using only one channel or signal while stereo, is using two channels. When playing stereo, you can control the balance of each channel and adjust the position of the sound.

Mono versus stereo channel outputs

Imagine a live concert where each band member is producing its own sound. We will receive the sound from many different angles. Stereo recordings are innovative because they create a similar effect. When playing a stereo recording, you can have a more clear idea of the position of the trumpet player and the sound will be more isolated from the other instruments. you can have, for example, the trumpet coming from the left channel while the drums are coming from the right channel.

Now let’s say you are listening to a live recording or bootleg in stereo. the recording microphones will be placed at different locations. One at the bell of the trumpet, one at the drums, one at the guitar, and one pointed to the audience. At the end of the song, you can clearly hear that the applause is different from the music. The audience will be more surrounding, distant, and blur.

Understanding the music history and the recording technology developments is important to analyse the differences between mono and stereo, it will also help you with your choice of purchase.

It was in the year 1948 when the first albums were up for sale. All these albums were mono and it took another decade before the world was introduced to the sound of stereo. Stereo records offered many new audio benefits but they would not yet exceed mono in terms of popularity and sale. One reason for this is that for playing a stereo record, you need to have certain equipment. Remember, it may seem common now to play stereo but this was in the late 1950s.

In the pictures below you can see the comparison of a studio mono recording (left) with a stereo recording (right). For the mono recording, the audio comes from one single source while with stereo, the audio comes from each individual instrument.

Early studio recordings

After a recording session is finished, the audio mixing process kicks off. During this process, the individual multi-track recordings are mixed into a final mono or stereo sound. This means that even when the recording happens from individual sources, a mono sound can be created. It is up to the artist and record company to decide on the album release. Many albums were released both mono and stereo.

50/50 system by audio mastering engineer Kevin Gray 

What is better and how will you decide between mono or stereo albums?

It’s a personal preference that may require some research.

We no longer need to be concerned about our installation because most commercially available installations can play both mono and stereo. Artists still release both versions today and this can cause a dilemma for collectors. It is my opinion that you have to research each album before making your choice. There are many forums out there that review the album you want to purchase. Many experts will share their view on what is the better version. Another recommendation is looking at the creative intentions of the artists.

For albums that were originally released before 1958, meaning before the stereo albums were publicly released, it is recommended to purchase the mono version because of its authenticity. These albums will be in there more pure and original form. Many experts may argue this because the original master tapes can be used for stereo reissues.

Albums released after March 1958, when the first stereo album was commercially available (Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang Volume 1), will require more comprehensive research.

I can also recommend that albums released in the 1980s and onward are probably better in stereo as studio technology advanced.

When you really can’t make up your mind, there is nothing wrong with buying both versions. Mono and stereo versions are not released as a commercial sale trick, their main purpose is the music experience. When you buy both copies, please make sure to share your personal experience with the rest of the vinyl community!

The Origin And Influence Of Doo-wop music

The sound of doo-wop music was born out of the creativity of the African American youth who dealt with the impact of segregation during its peak in the late 1940s and 1950s. The development of the music had a great deal of influence on other music genres such as soul, rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, pop, and surf-rock.

Doo-wop music originated in America in the late 1940s. It was in the bigger cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York, where young African American teenagers would gather to sing in public places.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, American segregation was at its highest point. Young African American musicians were often too poor and could not afford musical instruments. Because of that, they had to be creative. They would meet together, mostly as a group of 4, and start producing sounds by only using a wide range of vocal parts. They would sing a capella and simultaneously generate meaningless onomatopoeiae to imitate musical instruments (e.g. “doo doo-wop” or “do wop de wadda”).

Jazz dominated in America and, most radio stations would broadcast popular swing music. This music was an inspiration for the early form of doo-wop music. In the early stages of doo-wop, no instruments got used. It was in its purest form and, the only sounds were produced by the voice, usually from bass to falsetto.

The Mills Brothers was a band who brought the genre to life. They had a major influence, especially when it came to the use of onomatopoeia, rhythmic punctuation, and multi-layered harmonies. The songs were slow and jazzy, and they had a spiritual influence. The lyrics were quite ordinary, usually about love and addressed to a beloved.

Another doo-wop group with an important influence on the genre was Sonny Til And The Orioles. They were the first to gain nationwide fame. Bandleader, Sonny Til, was even considered a rock star and, he was loved and adored by the audience. The group named themselves after the Baltimore Oriole, the official state bird of Maryland. Using a bird in the naming became a trend among doo-wop groups. Examples of this are The Ravens, The Penguins, The Flamingos, The Crows, and The O’Jays.

Sonny Til And The Orioles

The term “doo-wop” was not used until the early 1960s. In 1961, an article appeared in The Chicago Defender calling the music style doo-wop. The author may have gotten his inspiration from previous hits in the genre. “Doo-wop” itself is a meaningless expression that was initially recorded in 1945 by The Delta Rhythm Boys. In their song ‘Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’, you can hear it in the backing vocals. Almost a decade later, in 1954, it was recorded again by The Rainbows. They used the phrase “do wop de wadda” in their successful hit ‘Mary Lee‘.

Although, many music experts agree that the first group to intentionally use the wording “doo-wop” were The Turbans. In their recording of ‘When You Dance‘ (1955) the wording “doo-wop” is more clearly present as it was used in the refrain. I do, however, also need to mention that there are indications that “doo-wop” was already used to archive music in the late 1950s but, there is no information available to support this.

In the mid-1950s, early doo-wop music would evolve in the so-called “mid-era doo-wop”. In early doo-wop, the vocals would sometimes get support from a guitar or a single drum. In mid-era doo-wop, instruments start playing a bigger role. We’re starting to hear the double bass, saxophone, piano, and even the electric guitar. In some cases, a full orchestra would be present. Many bands recorded songs before and after 1955. If you compare both recordings, you can hear the difference in the number of musical instruments used.

The doo-wop sound spread nationwide and soon it would also reach white American teenagers. Because the sound of doo-wop music became popular with the white audience in America, mixed-race groups were formed and black and white vocalists would sing harmonically together as equals. The most famous example is The Dell-Vikings. Soon even all-white doo-wop bands, such as The Crew Cuts or Danny & the Juniors, were formed.

It was not only the male vocal groups that came into existence. Starting in 1952, groups as The Platters became widely known. They consist of both male and female singers and so, they brought another vocal dimension to the sound of early-doo-wop music. Strictly female doo-wop groups were unusual in the early 1950s but, halfway through the decade, they started to gain popularity and got recorded. Famous examples are The Hearts, Pattie Labelle & The BluebellsThe Bobbettes, and The Chantels.

A big name that needs mentioning when talking about the history of doo-wop music is Bill Kenny, often referred to as “the Godfather of doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues“. What made him so unique was his high-tenor singing capabilities that had a range spanning over four octaves. He was the lead tenor of The Ink Spots and had a very successful full solo career after leaving the band in 1954. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Kenny would record and perform worldwide. In 1966, he hosted his TV show on CBC called ‘The Bill Kenny Show’. 

The Ink Spots with Bill Kenny on the left

Maybe the most famous and influential band in doo-wop music history is The Teenagers, led by singer Frankie Lymon. The band is most celebrated for its contribution to the early success of rock-and-roll music. They introduced the world to a new brand of doo-wop music by speeding up the tempo.

Frankie Lymon (left) – The Teenagers (right)

The Teenagers got formed at a high school in Manhattan under the name The Coup De Villes. The group changed their name a couple of times (The Ermines and later The Premiers) before they officially changed it to The Teenagers. In 1954 a 12-year-old boy, Frankie Lymon, joined the group. Together they wrote and composed the song ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love‘. The song became an instant success.

Thanks to Frankie’s success, the group got renamed Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers in 1957. This name change was not well received by some band members what caused Frankie to leave and start recording solo. The Teenagers continued under their original name but with a new lead singer what they came to regret. The band had to hire female singers to replicate the unique high “boy” voice of Frankie Lymon.

Frankie Lymon’s life was short. He passed away when he was 25 from an overdose of heroin.

‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ live on The Frankie Laine Show in 1956

Doo-wop music evolved into various genres, among them rhythm-and-blues and rock-an-roll. Although, doo-wop music is better categorized as a less instrumental and more vocal version of the genres. It has its unique history and origin. One main difference is the band formation. In doo-wop music, this is most often a quartet, like in a barbershop quartet. And like in gospel music, doo-wop music would use harmonies in a slow and medium tempo. The lead voice would sing higher than the other band members and interacts with them by leveling out the vocals.

Doo-wop music peaked in 1962 and became dominated by rock-and-roll music and a phenomenon that is known in music history as ‘The British Invasion’. Bands as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals became very popular with the American youth but, there is no doubt that doo-wop music had a great deal of influence on their music style and way of performing.