UPDATED: 7-14-2002

We know that thanks to deejay Alan Freed, the old blues term "rock and roll" became the official euphemism for marketing R&B to white kids in late 1954. We know that the term rockabilly, or rock-a-billy, a hybrid of rock and hillbilly, was coined by the music industry in 1956. But where did the term doo-wop come from, and how early was it used?

As far as we can tell (thanks to doo-wop fan Tim Lucy), the nonsense syllables "doo-wop" first appeared on wax in 1954 on a song called "Never" by a Los Angeles group called Carlyle Dundee & The Dundees (Space 201). The background group sings "doo-wop" in the the song's chorus. Members of The Dundees later became The Calvanes.

The first hit record showcasing "doo-wop" came in 1955 with The Turbans' Top 40 recording of "When You Dance" (Herald 458). The group chanted "doo-wop" several times, very plainly.

When You Dance label

(Peter Bachelder reminds us that, though it wasn't released until 1960, Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters' 1953 recording of "Let The Boogie Woogie Roll" featured the group behind Clyde clearly repeating "doo-wop" again and again through the course of the song.)

In 1958 a group called The De Villes on Aladdin Records (3423) recorded a song called "Kiss Me Again and Again." The flipside was called "Do-Wop."

In 1961 The Velvets chanted "doo-wop" behind lead singer Virgil Johnson on their hit recording of "Tonight (Could Be the Night)" (Monument 441).

Several writers have credited the late New York deejay Gus Gossert for attaching the term to group harmony music in the late 1960s, but Gossert himself said more than once that "doo-wop(p)" was already being used to categorize the music in California, according to his friend Lou Rallo.

Early on, what we called doo-wop music embraced the grand tradition of nonsense lyrics. Taking their cue from Dizzy Gillespie's 1947 be-bop hit, "Oop Boop Sh'Bam," vocal groups sang "Sh-Boom," "Oop Shoop" and "Bip Bam," all using meaningless sounds to fill the beats and create background chants.

But perhaps the most common nonsense syllable was "doo," which has always been useful in popular songs. Nearly 150 years ago Stephen Foster used "doo-dah, doo-dah" to fill out the verses of his "De Camptown Races" (1850). A hundred years later a black vocal group called The Striders crooned "doo-doo-da-doo-doo" behind Savannah Churchill on her "When You Come Back to Me."

(According to veteran aficionado George Moonoogian, there was a black jive vocal/instrumental group, billed as The Song Fellows, who around 1930 recorded a version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," on the Perfect label, that featured "a very strong 'boo-wop' as its background harmony [and] a full section has them just singing 'boo-wop, boo-wop, boo-wop'. It was most likely their simulation of the sound the horn section would have made in the instrumental of that song.")

At some point a vocal group realized that one good way to release the hard "doo" was to add a soft "wah." For example, there's the opening vocal chorus of "ooh-wah, ooh-wah, ooh wah" on Johnnie Ray's 1952 million-seller, "Cry." In 1955 The Spaniels recorded a song called "Do-Wah," named for its incessant background vocal chant, even though the title should've been called "Oh Baby Gee."

But by then the term "doo-wop" was already cast in wax, thanks to The Turbans.

The Turbans
The Turbans

Nowadays the term is generalizing into a catch-all word for '50s nostalgia and has been attached to what was formerly called "googie" architecture used for diners and coffee shops. Even the spelling--"Doo-Wop"--is beginning to become standardized.

So there you have it. If you know of an earlier record that has "doo-wop" in the lyrics, please let us know.

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