February 2nd, 2007

pearls.jpgTitle: The Pearls vs. The Velours
Artists: Pearls, Velours
Label: Empire Musicwerks (Collectors Gold Series)
Catalog No.: 545 450 837-2
Date: 2006

dells.jpgTitle: It’s Not Unusual: The Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years, 1955-1965
Artist: Dells
Label: Charly
Catalog No.: SNAP 266
Date: 2006

Most people knowledgeable about music agree that genres are elusive labels. Actual music does not always fit into clear-cut categories, and it is difficult to define most genres’ essential attributes, as characteristics of any one genre inevitably transude into others. Genres are not static; musicians continually form new ones as they modify their styles. In the twentieth century, this process has been especially apparent in the development of African-American musical genres: blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop, rap; many of these in turn comprise their own subgenres. Music in which generic identity is unclear, or in flux, may reveal some fascinating characteristics. The Pearls vs. The Velours presents two vocal harmony groups of the mid- to late 1950s whose sounds blend r&b and doo wop (this was originally released as The Pearls vs. The Velours: The Complete Recordings by Hot Productions, 2000). It’s Not Unusual showcases the Dells, who began their career singing doo wop but later migrated to soul. These three groups’ outputs are not equally well known today. The Pearls were never very popular, although lead tenor Howie Guyton had the opportunity to tour with the successful Platters. The Velours had a couple of minor hits in the 1950s – sometimes reissued on doo wop compilations – and they continued to record sporadically through the 1990s. And although the Dells are still active and popular as soul musicians, not so many people know their doo wop recordings.

Small independent labels recorded some of the finest r&b and doo wop of the 1950s, from hits such as the Penguins’ Earth Angel (1954) to relative obscurities. Many of these labels floundered and went bankrupt after only one or two years, but there were some noteworthy exceptions: Chicago’s Chess Records, for instance, was a lucrative operation, which contributed immeasurably to America’s musical panorama (see Pruter, 1996: 55-83). Less successfully, Jerry Winston, a record salesman from New York City, started Onyx Records in 1956 and stayed afloat for under two years (Fileti, 2006). Onyx produced ten sides each by the Pearls and the Velours, which form the contents of The Pearls vs. The Velours. The Dells recorded for the prominent African American-owned and run Vee-Jay Records in Chicago.

Although the Pearls’, Velours’, and early Dells’ music is frequently classified as doo wop (Gribin and Schiff, 2000: 330-31, 425, 480), it differs markedly from the doo wop that was popular from the mid-1950s onward – the Del Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” (1956) and The Elegants’ “Little Star” (1959), for example. Doo wop began around 1950 as part of the emergent r&b genre. Its first exponents derived their styles from popular vocal groups of the 1940s, such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, and, more importantly, from the gospel-influenced r&b of the Orioles and Billy Ward & the Dominoes. Reflecting these influences, lead vocalists in doo wop would fluctuate their timbres and syncopate their melodies, and background vocalists would differentiate the timbres of each of their parts rather than blend them into one homogenous sound.1 They would construct textures out of “nonsense syllables” (for which doo wop was named) and “blow harmonies” (wordless chords on “aah-ooh” or similar syllables). Instrumental arrangements were thick and jazzy.

Following a string of doo wop hits in 1954 and 1955, doo wop groups began to compose and sing simpler songs. Melodies contained fewer notes and variations, and syncopation was less prominent. Nonsense syllables outnumbered blow harmonies, and timbres became increasingly homogenous. Doo wop has always been associated with the so-called “doo wop progression” (I-vi-ii-V) – the basis for innumerable slow ballads and some faster numbers as well. The first doo wop songs to use this progression were often in 32-bar AABA song form, so that the four bars of “B” would provide contrasting harmonic material. Eventually, AABA song form was all but discarded, and when the doo wop progression was used, harmonic variety was scarcer. These changes probably were responses to record labels’ efforts to meet the tastes of a whiter, younger demographic: white audiences would have preferred a smoother vocal style, while teenagers would have understood simplicity.

But not all groups embraced these changes. Some remained close to “classic” r&b, and catered to an African-American audience for whom the gap between adults’ and teenagers’ music was less significant (George 1988: 68-69). This is true of the Brooklyn-based Velours. “Can I Come Over Tonight?” (1957) exemplifies their sound – its interest depends on the distinct timbres of the lead tenor (Jerome “Romeo” Ramos) and the bass (probably Charles Moffett). Both voices stand out; this allows their rhythmic interplay to be heard clearly. For the most part, their rhythms contrast yet complement each other. The bass sings shorter notes that convey a sense of motion, while the tenor sings a rhythmically free line of longer notes. At the ends of some of the lines, the bass’s rhythm contradicts the song’s 12/8 meter and provides a brief halting feeling that contributes to the song’s subtlety. “Can I Come Over Tonight?” is built on the doo wop progression, but within the framework of AABA song form; it incorporates harmonic variety atypical of mid-1950s doo wop. Throughout their half of The Pearls vs. The Velours, even in songs that iterate the doo wop progression exclusively, the Velours create interest through timbre and rhythm, despite the ostensible simplicity.

The Pearls, from Detroit, are more eclectic than the Velours; their sound is an amalgam of r&b, jump blues, doo wop, and rock ‘n’ roll. Their Onyx output contains one doo wop progression-based ballad, “Wheel of Love” (1957), but they mostly recorded jump tunes with blues-based harmonies. “I Sure Need You” (1957) begins with the thick texture of two saxophones, percussion, and the background singers’ blow harmonies. For the first line, “Everybody needs somebody,” Guyton punctuates “needs” with falsetto. This effect gives the song a frantic, unbuttoned quality, which is further intensified by Guyton’s practice of adding extra vowels to the beginnings and ends of words (“That’s why I’m-a in-a love-a with you-a!”). This is unusual in doo wop but follows a long tradition of African-American singing that can be heard on spirituals and blues recordings; it animates a number of the Pearls’ songs.

The Dells began singing in Chicago as the El Rays in the early 1950s. In 1955 they changed their name and made several recordings for Vee-Jay Records (Anderson, 2006). Like the Pearls and the Velours, they recorded not in the style of doo wop popular in the mid-1950s, but in a style of appeal to smaller African-American audiences. “Restless Days (Sleepless Nights),” for example, is constructed in a fashion similar to the doo wop hits of the 1950s, but lead tenor Johnny Funches’s tone, which suggest Percy Sledge at times, is far removed. His voice – richer than either Guyton or Ramos – gives the ballads and jump tunes on It’s Not Unusual a fuller, heartier sound than those on The Pearls vs. The Velours. He also incorporates a noticeable degree of melisma, as can be heard in the openings of “Tell the World” and the blues-based “I Wanna Go Home.” A car accident in 1958 put the Dells’ career on hiatus. They reformed in 1961, recruiting Johnny Carter to replace Funches, who had no desire to continue with the Dells. They worked with Dinah Washington on her Tears and Laughter album, recorded briefly for Chess, and returned to Vee-Jay in 1964. Their 1960s sound anticipates soul. Complex chromatic harmonies and string arrangements permeate “Poor Little Boy,” “It Looks Like It’s Over,” and “It’s Not Unusual” (made famous by Tom Jones). In a way this new sound was nascent in the melismatic earlier recordings – “I Wanna Go Home,” in particular, offers a foretaste.

Unfortunately, neither The Pearls vs. The Velours nor It’s Not Unusual provides adequate liner notes. Those for the former are sadly brief, and those for the latter, although lengthier, emphasize the people involved at the expense of their music. Still, it is better that these CDs’ deficiencies are in their packaging, rather than their contents. Both are fascinating retrospectives of vocal harmony groups that sometimes resist generic identification. Moreover, they both exemplify the dynamic, chiasmic truth of musical styles.

References:

Anderson, Clive. Liner notes, The Dells, It’s Not Unusual: The Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years, 1955. Charly, 2006.

Fileti, Donn. Liner notes, The Pearls vs. The Velours. Empire Musicwerks 545 450 837-2, 2006.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988.

Gribin, Anthony J. and Matthew M. Schiff. The Complete Book of Doo-Wop. Iola, WI: Krause, 2000.

Pruter, Robert. Doowop: The Chicago Scene. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
1996.

Wilson, Olly. “The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal in African-American Music.” In On Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern, ed. Josephine Wright with Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., 327-38 (Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 1992).

Posted by John Reef

Review Genre(s): Doo-wop and Vocal Quartets


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