"Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)" by The Penguins, recorded in September 1954, has sold in the millions over the last 45 years and is still one of the most popular records of all time. It is consistently near the top of New York radio station KCBS's annual poll of favorite oldies.

The composer of the song, as indicated on the first pressing of "Earth Angel," was Penguin baritone Curtis Williams, but it actually evolved through several Los Angeles groups and artists before The Penguins finally committed it to tape in Ted Brinson's garage studio in the back of his house at 2190 W. 30th Street in South Los Angeles. "Curtis said it was his song," Dootsie Williams said many years later. "We thought it was his song, and we didn't know until we went into court. We were served with papers saying that we were infringing on the owners of the song. We had to dig up the source of the song and we found out that Curtis didn't write the song." Or at least not most of it.

"Earth Angel"--like so many '50s doo-wop ballads--was structured on the chord changes of Rodgers & Hart's "Blue Moon," beginning with what musicians call the 1-chord, then moving to the 6-minor, the 4-chord, the 5-chord, then back to the 1. This progression is commonly known as "ice cream changes" or "Blue Moon changes," and its basis for so many '50s ballads is why oldies groups can now sing seamless medleys of doo-wop classics.

More directly, a song that heavily influenced "Earth Angel" was Jesse Belvin and Marvin Phillips' 1952 hit, "Dream Girl" (Specialty 447), which begins "Why-oh, why-oh...dream girl, dream girl...." The Penguins would later sing, on their song's second verse, "Why-o, why-o, earth angel, earth angel"--and carry the "why-o" chant through the rest of the song. The chord changes on "Dream Girl" and "Earth Angel" are very similar, and need we add that both titles express the same image of an idealized young woman. Also, Gaynel Hodge, who is listed as one of the three composers of "Earth Angel" (along with Jesse Belvin and Curtis Williams), has said that it was Belvin who came up with the original title before going off to the army.

JoAnne and Jesse Belvin
JoAnne and Jesse Belvin in 1955

The song's parenthesized subtitle, ("Will You Be Mine"), which is usually dropped whenever the title "Earth Angel" is listed, is also the song's second line in the first verse: "Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine?" This lyric and its melody were obviously picked up from The Swallows' 1951 R&B hit, "Will You Be Mine" (King 4458).

In 1953, during their time with The Hollywood Flames, Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams (with Gaynel singing lead) recorded "I Know" (Lucky 009/Decca 48331), which is not only a chord-for-chord blueprint for "Earth Angel," but also includes Curtis's piano introduction (which he duplicated on "Earth Angel") and Gaynel's hand-off of the lead vocal to Bobby Day on the bridge (as Cleve Duncan would later do to Dexter Tisby on "Earth Angel").

Also in 1953, a black Los Angeles composer named Jessie Mae Robinson wrote "I Went to Your Wedding," which was recorded by Steve Gibson's Red Caps with Damita Jo on lead (RCA 4835), then covered as a million seller by Patti Page (Mercury 5899). The bridge of the song spoke of "a vision of loveliness." The line and its melody later showed up in the bridge of "Earth Angel."

Likewise, the coda of "Earth Angel"--the four Penguins harmonizing ""--was taken directly from another popular R&B hit, The Dominoes' "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You" (Federal 12129), from 1952.

The line "I'm just a fool, a fool in love with you," is classic Belvin. Think of his "I'm Only a Fool" (Money 208) from early 1954, for example.

Clearly "Earth Angel" was a pastiche of everything that was floating around Los Angeles. Gaynel Hodge and Dootsie Williams have also said that Cornel Gunter, a high tenor in The Flairs and later The Coasters, helped pull the vocal arrangement of "Earth Angel" together. Many of the doo-wop singers who came out of Jefferson High--where Belvin, Hodge and Curtis Williams went to school--relied on Gunter's formal vocal training.

Finally, when Curtis Williams brought the song into his new group, The Penguins, Cleve Duncan made his own finishing touches to bend it to his own distinctive singing style.

So there you have it, some of the influences behind "Earth Angel."



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