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Hitsburgh: The golden age of doo-wop

Sunday, February 11, 2001

Story by Scott Mervis and Ed Masley

It could be argued that, for sheer pop artistry, no Pittsburgh group has ever topped the very first rock 'n' roll/R&B hit to break out of the city.

DJs decided what they would play back when rock 'n' roll was young, which made Porky Chedwick on of the most influential spinners in Pittsburgh. (Post-Gazette)

The Del-Vikings' "Come Go with Me," which hit No. 4 on the charts in February 1957, was the essence of '50s teen pop: brimming with youthful energy and a perfect set of doo-wop harmonies.

It was two years after Bill Haley had rocked around the clock, and there was a whole lotta shakin' on the pop charts. Suddenly, big band culture was out and teens were rockin' to the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. But the charts were as diverse as they are now, with the rockers and shouters sharing radio time with street-corner doo-wop groups like the Platters and Cadillacs and the vanilla sounds of Perry Como, Andy Williams and wannabe rocker Pat Boone.

When it came to color, though, things were divided. White musicians were taking their cue from black artists, and, because so few stations played black artists, were often recutting their records. Certainly, it was a rare sight to see them performing together in one group.

That's why the very nature of the Del-Vikings, the first racially integrated group ever to score a Top 10 hit, was as powerful as the song. Technically, the Del-Vikings were only marginally a Pittsburgh act, as they were formed by enlisted men at the 101st Airborne in Moon with members from Brooklyn, Philadelphia and beyond. They won the All Air Force talent show in New York in 1956, singing "Come Go with Me," written by bass singer Clarence Quick. Shortly after, local disc jockey Barry Kaye and producer Joe Averbach signed them to the Pittsburgh label Fee Bee.

The song, which lives on in films like "American Graffiti" and "Diner," was recorded in Averbach's tiny basement with some of the members actually singing in a closet.

"We threw it together the night before," recalls singer Norman Wright. "The A side was 'How Can I Find True Love,' and 'Come Go with Me' was the B side. The A side was played in Pittsburgh for a couple of months, then got flipped over and it took off."

Keeping the Del-Vikings intact would be a tall order, with servicemen being shipped around the world and record companies knocking on the door. By the summer of '57, there would be considerable confusion at record stores and radio stations as two different Del-Vikings surfaced, both with hits. Kripp Johnson's Dell-Vikings (with an added L) hit with "Whispering Bells" on Fee Bee, and another Del-Vikings, with the rest of the original members, charted with "Cool Shake" on Mercury.

As that flipping of "Come Go with Me" attests, what separates the '50s from later decades is the cult of the DJ. Back then, no consultants were telling them what to play. They could break whatever records they wanted, which is why the top jocks --Porky Chedwick and Mary Dee at WAMO, Sir Walter (John Christian), Three-D Lee D (Lee Doris) and Bill Powell at WILY, Jay Michael at WCAE and Kaye at WJAS/WAMP -- were hit makers.

Chedwick took to the airwaves in 1948 at WHOD (later WAMO), a 250-watt black-oriented station housed in the back of a Homestead candy store, and soon made his reputation spinning "race" records -- R&B songs by black artists that mainstream radio wouldn't touch.

"We had a tremendous impact nationally," says Travis Klein of the label Itzy Records, home of the "Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits" collections. "We were a breakout market 'cause they understood that if you could sell it in Pittsburgh, you could sell it anywhere. In New York, you could sell 25,000 copies of anything. But in Pittsburgh if you sold 5,000 copies, it would be a monster everywhere."

In addition to flipping records and breaking the B-side, the Daddio of the Raddio also pioneered the oldies-but-goodies format by playing R&B records that were a few years old.

"I more or less blew the dust off them and put them on the turntables," Chedwick says. "I called it the Porky sound."

"It's been said a zillion times -- Porky was instrumental in what the taste was here," Klein says. "Not only did he start trends and become wildly popular, he started alternative radio here. WAMO had such a big cult following, it almost became mainstream. He played Bo Diddley, Little Richard and uptempo stuff. He also played a lot of group harmony stuff."

It's no wonder that Porky, who on one exciting day closed down the streets with a live broadcast at the Stanley Theatre, Downtown, would be an inspiration for young groups to form and get their records onto the radio.

"That era was groups singing in the halls at school, forming groups to sing on corners, in front of drugstores," recalls Jimmy Beaumont of the Skyliners. "That's pretty much how I started. I sang in the choir. Whenever the teacher would leave the room, we'd practice the hits on the radio."

In late 1958, he'd be hearing his own group on the dial. The song: "Since I Don't Have You." The Skyliners' manager, South Side native Joe Rock, was 21 and recently heartbroken when he wrote the words, at a stoplight, on the way to rehearsal. Beaumont, then just 17, wrote the melody the next day and original top tenor Janet Vogel added the vocal finale. After being rejected by 13 major labels, the group, then known as the Crescents, were signed to the local Calico Records. The song was recorded Dec. 3, 1958, at Capital Studios in New York, where, according to the Billboard Book of Singing Groups, it was the "first time a full orchestra had been used with a rock group."

Breaking the No. 12 hit on "American Bandstand" in February 1959, Dick Clark obviously thought it was a winner because he mistakenly introduced it as a standard. The appearance also landed the Skyliners a spot on the first tour of Dick Clark's Cavalcade of Stars, which stopped home at the Syria Mosque in the fall with the Drifters, Paul Anka, Lloyd Price and Duane Eddy, among others. The Skyliners followed with two other charted hits: "This I Swear" in 1959 and a cover of "Pennies from Heaven" in 1960.

Rock, who died last April, told the Post-Gazette that the Skyliners' early success was based on Beaumont's ability to capture the black sound. "Phil Spector calls 'Since I Don't Have You' the record that fused them, the record that proved that black could meet white." In fact, the Skyliners were one of the first white groups ever to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem -- and that's because bookers thought they were black.

"When the Skyliners walked on stage there, the crowd did everything from laugh to wolf-call to hoot, until the song began," Rock said. "Then it was the power of the song. We were invited back eight times."

They disbanded for a few years in the early '60s, but a version of the Skyliners lives on thanks to the oldies circuit, and "Since I Don't Have You" -- since covered by the likes of Don McLean, Guns N' Roses, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Johnny Mathis, Art Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand -- has actually become that standard.

Putting the Skyliners in context of what was happening in local radio back then, Klein says, "Most every city in the country had white songs for white people and black songs for black people. But because of Mary Dee and Porky, the white kids listened to black music in Pittsburgh, so to have a Skyliners wasn't that amazing."

What they didn't have much of back then were nightclubs to perform in. Instead, the groups would turn up to sing or lip-synch their songs at record hops hosted by local DJs.

"You have to remember that rock 'n' roll wasn't really accepted. Jazz was accepted at clubs," says local music historian Dave Goodrich. "So they had these hops at school gymnasiums, at fire halls, at the Linden Grove."

"It was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work for no pay," says Leon Daniels, who in 1955 formed the El Venos, the first Pittsburgh rock-era group signed to a national label (RCA Victor). "We sang at all the record hops. The recordings that the local groups made were just as good as the [national ones]. None of us had the right exposure and, unless you were a big star, you didn't have anybody writing for you."

That didn't stop Pittsburgh's next great success, who would knock Elvis Presley out of the No. 1 spot on the Pop and R&B charts in March 1961. In an era when writing a gimmicky doo-wop vocal riff was half the battle, Marcels bass singer Fred Johnson came up with a doozy: "Bomp baba bomp, ba bomp ba bomp bomp, baba bomp baba bomp, da dang da dang dang, da ding a dong ding ... ." Johnson applied that mouthful to the Rodgers and Hart classic "Blue Moon," and the North Side's magnificent Marcels were heard round the world.

The day he heard it, New York's legendary DJ Murray the K played "Blue Moon" 26 times in a four-hour show. The Marcels, yet another interracial group from Pittsburgh, were rewarded with an appearance in the summer movie "Twist Around the Clock" with Chubby Checker and Dion.

Such as it was in the day, most of the Marcels' chart success occurred within the span of a year. The follow-up, which found Walt Maddox in the group, was a similarly rocking version of Guy Lombardo's 1931 hit, "Heartaches," taking the Marcels to No. 7 in October 1961. By the end of the year, though, three of its founding members were gone, and the Marcels were destined for the oldies circuit.

"Their whole life was a split-up. It was a joke around here," says Paul Mawhinney, owner of Record Rama. "Half the people in Pittsburgh claim to be a Marcel."

The Del-Vikings, Skyliners and Marcels are just the big success stories out of dozens of local doo-wop groups. You can't forget the Tempos, one-hit wonders with the dreamy "See You in September" in 1959. Some of the other names: the Cameos, the Smoothtones, the El Capris, the Three Dots and the Altiers, featuring none other than Hill District native George Benson, who released his first single in 1954.

What seems to be missing from Pittsburgh in the late '50s was a response to what was happening with country rock 'n' rollers in the South. It's not as though Pittsburghers weren't exposed to it. In fact, on one amazing night in March 1957, Kaye raised the roof of Carnegie Music Hall with a Rockabilly Spectacular featuring no less than Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.

Folks like Klein and Goodrich chalk it up to Pittsburgh just having more of an R&B vibe. Says Klein, "This was not a hillbilly redneck town."

Goodrich adds that while the city was a trendsetter when it came to doo-wop, "Pittsburgh became so locked into record hops and doo-wop and R&B, there was very little growth potential for self-contained units [who played their own music], and Pittsburgh would virtually commit suicide by its own hand when the British Invasion came."

Says Wright of the Del-Vikings, "Most of the groups that we were associated with -- Cadillacs, Moonglows -- just faded off into the background."


Scott Mervis is the Post-Gazette Weekend Magazine editor. Ed Masley is the PG pop music critic.

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