Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“Forever Doo-Wop: Race, Nostalgia, and Vocal Harmony” by John Michael Runowicz (University of Massachusetts Press)

The amount of verbiage which has built up around the 1950’s/early-‘60’s style of rhythm-and-blues vocal-group singing known as “doo-wop” has been quite extensive, not only in book form, but also in specialist magazines and on the Internet as well. Most of the writing on this musical genre has been factual/biographical/historical/discographical, concerned primarily with who did what when, who sang on which record by which group, how/when/where individual groups formed and who their influences were, whatever happened to the singers in these groups, and so on. This material is generally carefully researched, and has great value for fans and future researchers alike, to be sure.

But as the subtitle of John Michael Runowicz’ book and the fact that it published by a University Press both indicate, “Forever Doo-Wop” is hardly your typical work on the subject. It is indeed, one of the few academically-oriented books in the field, and the first to my knowledge that approaches the subject through the lens of ethnomusicology. Rest assured, though, that despite the copious footnotes and the seriousness with which Mr. Runowicz approaches his subject, the book is written in a reader-friendly style, without the over-reliance on academic jargon which mars so many otherwise insightful academic books on popular culture.

John Michael Runowicz is perhaps uniquely qualified to write an ethnomusicological examination which retains an authentic feel for and love of the music. On one hand, he is an “independent scholar” with a PhD in ethnomusicology; on the other, he has worked extensively as guitarist and Musical Director for both the classic 50’s vocal group Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs (known for “Speedoo” and the version of the song “Gloria” which served as a template for dozens of cover versions) and Shirley Alston Reeves (former lead singer of the Shirelles, and a busy solo artist in her own right).

Don’t let that seven-syllable word, “ethnomusicology”, scare you away. It simply refers to the serious study of music within a culture or community. ”Community” in this sense does not necessarily refer to a geographical location, but may be extended to a group of people with a shared interest. Bluegrass fans, to cite but one well-known example, tend to comprise a tight-knit “community”. And, as Runowicz is careful to point out, the entire field of doo-wop - including singers, backup musicians, what he calls “mediators” (record producers, promoters), and fans - can be considered to constitute one large and, to a considerable extent, tightly-knit community as well, albeit one in which the various subgroups often have varying interests. One common misconception is that ethnomusicology always studies what the music industry refers to as “world music”, which some people translate as “foreign music” (as if the United States were not a part of the world). But in recent years, ethnomusicologists have studied a variety of musical genres which are far from being specific to a single country or ethnic grouping (such as the “riot grrrl” phenomenon).

When I first became interested in ethnomusicology in the 1960’s, the major emphasis tended to be on technical musical analysis, breaking the music of a particular group of people into its component pieces, seeing how these pieces fit together, thus seeing not only how these types of music “work”, but also to uncover what makes these musical expressions differ from other musical expressions. Yes, Runowicz does offer some musical analysis in terms of what sorts of chord progressions are common to much doo-wop, how the vocal harmonies are arranged, what time signatures are often heard, and so on. But these analyses are kept to a bare minimum of technicality. Even when he describes how singers and backup bands learn their parts, his descriptions are easy to follow and highly instructive. There is enough meat here to please the scholars (though I suspect that the definitive technical analysis of doo-wop has yet to be written), but it is approached in ways that should be accessible to the average reader.

The emphasis, then, is on the people of doo-wop and the way the music impacts their lives. Most notably, he offers an extended look into the career of Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs, the vocal group with which the author has spent the bulk of his performing career, a group which has been around for over a half-century, more than long enough to witness and to form opinions about the many changes and trends in doo-wop through the years. Runowicz is quick to point out that, while the audience may listen to this music in order to satisfy a craving for a nostalgic experience, the performers themselves are not trapped inside a museum, but are living, breathing professional entertainers who are serious about their art and its craft, who work hard even into old age to maintain a high level of quality in their music and stage show.

The author also includes a short overview of doo-wop history, pointing out its roots in the German/Austrian style of close harmony, but in an Americanized style which began to develop in the 19th-century in black barbershops. (There has been quite a bit of scholarly detective work in recent years which has demonstrated beyond a doubt that barbershop-quartet singing as we know it began as an African-American phenomenon). He looks at harmony singing in an African-American religious context, at its entrance into mainstream musical circles thanks to such groups as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, and at the immediate precursors of doo-wop, such as the Delta Rhythm Boys and Ravens.

He extends his historical view into the later period of doo-wop, when Italian- and Jewish-American harmony vocal groups became prominent. He looks at the dark days of the British Invasion, when doo-wop seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, when groups had to adjust or die, and most of them died. He also studies the revival of doo-wop in the 1970’s, a somewhat limited revival which found aging groups singing to mostly aging audiences, consisting primarily of the same people who listened to their records in the “old days”, who wanted to hear groups sing their hits, and only their hits, and rejected anything new. And while it was a welcome revival of interest, it was limited in that it did not cause the music to come rushing back to the mainstream popularity it had from the mid-1950’s to the early 1960’s. And he does this all very effectively, in a very short space - the book consists of less than 150 pages of text, a page count which does not include the detailed notes and a thoughtfully-complete index.

One aspect of the book which might cause some controversy within the doo-wop community, but which Runowicz approaches delicately yet openly (meaning, he names names) is the subject of racism. As a white man who performs with black singers and musicians in a genre originated by African-Americans, but which in many ways became co-opted by white audiences, white managers, white-owned record companies, and white concert promoters, Runowicz reveals the often seedy manipulations to which this particular group of African-Americans and their music have been subjected, with largely negative impact to their financial and social well-being. Sadly, the stories he relates are common to many African-American musical genres, yet it’s an area too many authors writing for the mass market do not feel comfortable discussing. Once again, this is a University Press book, which one hopes allows for a greater degree of openness when discussing sensitive matters.

In all, I find this to be the most fascinating and unique book on the subject of doo-wop I’ve ever come across, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in American popular music history, whether a doo-wop fan or not. I’m sure Mr. Runowicz has more to tell us on the subject, and I hope there will be more books to come.

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