New York has been the epicenter of many a musical genre, from salsa to Broadway. One that’s still synonymous with the city – and indeed, with America’s east coast – is doo-wop. Its golden age was a relatively short one; some might say 1955-1963, or maybe even 1957-1959, or that it started earlier in the fifties. The sweet vocal group sound of doo-wop’s street-corner symphonies was simultaneously innocent and sophisticated, with nonsense syllables married to pretty, tight harmonies and intricate arrangements. The melodies were usually (but not exclusively) sung by young Italian-American or African-American men in groups with names derived from cars or birds. The form was groundbreaking, emerging out of the fusion of pop, rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz forms and existing parallel to (and crossing over with) the rise of rock-and-roll. Doo-wop wasn’t just a New York phenomenon, either. Some of the genre’s earliest songs rose to popularity on the West Coast, and its sounds were heard all over America. Doo-wop was also aspirational; it seemed as if every neighborhood could produce a group of kids with a deep bass, a pretty falsetto, and another two or three fellas adding their voices in harmony.
While its years of chart success were few, doo-wop lived on thanks to the efforts of DJs like Gus Gossert and Don K. Reed, both of WCBS-FM’s “Doo-Wop Shop” (which survived into the new millennium), and the efforts of music preservationists everywhere. Between 1993 and 2000, Rhino issued three essential volumes of The Doo-Wop Box; in 2015, RockBeat Records picked up the series with another entry. But despite some notable exceptions from classic-minded labels like the U.K.’s Ace, reissues of doo-wop material have become far scarcer of late among catalog labels. Happily, Omnivore Records has picked up the slack with five titles from the vaults of New York’s Coed Records, two of which are out now. (The remaining three arrive this Friday, September 11.) On these two volumes of The Coed Singles from The Rivieras and The Duprees, the sounds are just as romantic, transporting, and yes, innocent as you likely remember.
The Rivieras (not to be confused with the “California Sun” group out of South Bend, Indiana) were among the doo-wop groups that celebrated the sounds of yesteryear with modernized versions of songs that had already become standards. Their volume of The Coed Singles encompasses their entirety of their output on Coed, with every one of their A- and B-sides originally released between 1958 and 1961 as well as two bonus tracks to comprise their complete Coed recordings. Lead tenor Homer Dunn, baritone Andrew Jones, bass Charles Allen, and tenor Ronald Cook of Englewood, New Jersey had previously performed as The Five Bob-O-Links, the Four Arts, and El Rivieras before dropping the “El” and officially becoming The Rivieras.
Under their new name, they paid tribute to ’40s bandleaders such as Glenn Miller and Ray Anthony with their choice of material; their cover of Anthony’s 1950 top ten hit “Count Every Star” opens this collection, and their biggest hit was the swooning revival of Miller’s perennial “Moonlight Serenade” that was the A-side of their second 45. It reached No. 47 on the Billboard pop survey. They revisited the Miller repertoire for the suitably sparkling “Moonlight Cocktails” and reached even further back for a lush treatment of the classically-inspired “Our Love,” said to be the first song Frank Sinatra ever recorded, on which they were backed by Coed co-founder George Paxton’s orchestra. The group returned to the catalog of songwriter Sammy Gallop (co-writer of “Count Every Star”) with the pretty “Blessing of Love.” Before taking his own life in 1971, Gallop wrote with such familiar names as Burt Bacharach, Doc Severinsen, and Milton DeLugg. Another well-known tunesmith, Ervin Drake (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “I Believe,” What Makes Sammy Run?), penned the earnest and uplifting ode to “My Friend.”
While The Rivieras epitomized the romantic rather than rock-and-roll side of the doo-wop spectrum, they brought their vocal blend to uptempo material here, too, including “True Love Is Hard to Find” (the flip of “Count Every Star”) with its honking saxophone and swinging rhythm, and the R&B-inflected “Midnight Flyer,” “Since I Made You Cry,” and “Great Big Eyes.” The swaggering latter tune inspired by The Three Little Pigs offered the chance for Cook and Jones to share the lead. One year before The Marcel took their doo-wop reinvention of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” to the top of the charts, The Rivieras took a stab at the duo’s “It’s Easy to Remember” in a lush and considerably less zany style. The oddest single on The Coed Singles is the loping, Latin-flecked, and vaguely western “El Dorado” b/w the goofy novelty “Refrigerator.” All 18 sides on this collection have been previously brought together on a 1992 Collectables compilation, but this disc greatly improves upon the sound and presentation.
By the time The Duprees debuted on Coed, The Rivieras’ final single had already been released. The five Italian-American teens from Jersey City, New Jersey – first tenor Joe Santollo, second tenor Michael Arnone, bass-baritone John Salvato, falsetto Tom Bialoglow, and lead singer Joey Canzano (a.k.a. Joey Vann) – were signed in 1962 to Coed, making them one of the final doo-wop groups to hit it big before The Beatles changed everything. Like The Rivieras, they relied heavily upon reinventing classic songs in their tight-harmony style. Their volume of The Coed Singles preserves their most cherished recordings. It features every one of The Duprees’ A- and B-sides for the label (they later went to Columbia and eked out a few more singles) plus both sides of Joey Vann’s lone solo 45, for a total of 26 tracks.
They first reached the top ten with an enduring rendition of the standard “You Belong to Me” (famously recorded by Jo Stafford as well as Dean Martin, Patti Page, Joni James, and others) and followed it up with the almost-as-successful “My Own True Love,” a vocal version of Max Steiner’s soaring Gone with the Wind theme with the same swaying feel as “You Belong to Me.” (They would return to the milieu with the song called “Gone with the Wind” – introduced in 1937, two years before the film.)
Omnivore’s anthology reveals their versatility, too. “I Wish I Could Believe You,” co-written by George Paxton, is a nifty little upbeat doo-wop number with a catchy organ riff. “I Gotta Tell Her Now” is a classy uptown soul production with a surprisingly modern edge for the time and another prominent organ part. “The Things I Love” was, like The Rivieras’ “Our Love,” based on a classical theme: Tchaikovsky in this case. Songstress Joni James also inspired a couple more Duprees sides: revivals of “Why Don’t You Believe Me” and the top 20 success “Have You Heard.” Today, The Duprees’ version of the latter may be better known than James’.
Tom Bialoglow left the group in November 1963, following the release of “Have You Heard.” Highlights from the post-Bialoglow era include the soft and sweet “So Many Have Told Me” and a lovely reading of Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson’s 1937 chestnut “Where Are You.” But released as it was in 1964, the recording must have already seemed hopelessly out-of-date to teenaged buyers starting to exert their power as consumers. It did manage to “bubble under” the Hot 100, and the group persevered, appealingly nudging their sound in a contemporary direction with the more urgent “So Little Time.” Joey Vann left the group in 1965 for a solo career, releasing one single on Coed that also turned out to be the label’s final release. The flipside was a rock-and-roll spin on Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “Try to Remember,” the standout ballad from their musical The Fantasticks and a top 20 AC hit that year for actor-singer Ed Ames.
The Duprees continued to record in the post-Beatles landscape, carving out a niche in the same corner of the musical world as Jay and the Americans. Unlike the singles-only Rivieras, they released a pair of long-playing albums on Coed, You Belong to Me and Have You Heard. Those will be addressed on Omnivore’s release this Friday of The Coed Albums.
While the material on both of these Coed Singles volumes has been available on CD before from labels including Collectables and Ace, it’s never been presented in such stellar sound courtesy of Michael Graves. The packaging, designed by Greg Allen and boasting informative liner notes by Bill Dahl, is likewise top-notch. Whether you’re nostalgic for those seemingly simpler days or just a fan of great songs and equally great vocal harmonies, these Coed collections should bring a smile.